power élite

power élite

the inner circle of powerholders in modern US society, according to C. Wright MILLS (1956). As portrayed by Mills, this élite group was composed of three loosely interlocking groups who had come to occupy the pivotal positions of power in modern American society: the heads of industry military leaders, and leading politicians. Mills insisted that these three groups constituted a ‘power élite’ rather than a RULING CLASS (in the Marxian sense), in that the basis of their power is not simply economic. Instead, the relative unity possessed by the power élite is seen as arising from their shared cultural and psychological orientations, and often also their shared social origins. See also MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX.

The further main theory of modern political élites is PLURAL ÉLITISM, in which multiple élites are held to exist but not regarded as acting in a unified way

  1. the ‘transformational capacity’ possessed by human beings, i.e. ‘the capacity to intervene in a given set of events so as in some way to alter them’ (GIDDENS,1985).
  2. ‘the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance’ (WEBER, 1922).
  3. the reproductive or the transformational capacity possessed by social structures, which may be seen as existing independently of the wills of individual actors, e.g. the power of market forces under capitalism.
  4. (disciplinary, knowledge/power – see FOUCAULT, SURVEILLANCE, DISCOURSE AND DISCOURSE FORMATIONS).

Although power, especially in senses 2 to 4 , is often seen in negative terms, as involving coercion and conflicts of interest, all four senses of ‘power’ can also be seen in more positive terms, as ‘enabling’. Power relationships may involve both interdependence and conflict. For PARSONS (1963), for example, power is the capacity to achieve social and societal objectives, and as such can be seen as analogous to MONEY, i.e. is the basis of a generalized capacity to attain goals.

As Giddens expresses it, power must be recognized as a primary concept in sociological analysis. It is potentially an aspect of all relationships, but one which he suggests has to be broken down into its various components before it can be used effectively in sociological analysis. A major distinction made by Giddens is between two types of resources involved in power (neither of which has primacy):

  1. control over material resources, i.e. economic or allocative resources;
  2. authoritative resources, including LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY but also numerous other expressions of authoritative power, e.g. ‘surveillance’.

A further important distinction made by students of power (e.g. Bachrach and Baratz, 1962, and Lukes, 1974), is between the power visible in overt decisions and that involved in nondecisions, i.e. situations in which power is the outcome of a mobilization of bias within communities, the passive acceptance of established institutionalized power in which potential issues simply never reach the political arena.

Within structures or organizations we may also talk of the scope or intensity of the power or control which superordinates exert over subordinates. But control is never total. A DIALECTIC OF CONTROL can be said always to exist in that no agent (even a slave or child, or the inmates of a prison or an asylum) is ever totally powerless in a relationship, given that the active compliance of the subordinates is usually essential if a power relationship is not to become onerous for both parties to the relationship. Even when the balance of power between participants is unequal, there usually will be some reciprocities in power relationships (see also TOTAL INSTITUTION, VIOLENCE).

While power is an aspect of all areas of society and all institutions (e.g. in families, churches, groups and in organizations of all types), in modern societies the major concentrations are the power of:

  2. CAPITALISM. The first rests on the maintenance of LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY, but is ultimately grounded in physical violence. The second, in contrast to political power, is in its pure form quintessentially ‘nonpolitical’, and the major modern manifestation of’allocative resources’ in modern society. However, in modern Western societies, capitalism too plays a central role in the maintenance of’political legitimacy’, in view of its effectiveness and widespread acceptability compared with other economic systems, although some commentators regard this as involving ideological and CULTURAL INCORPORATION, contrary to long-term interests (compare LEGITIMATION CRISIS).

Studies of the distribution as well as the implications of power in modern society have occupied a central place in POLITICAL SOCIOLOGY, with its focus on ÉLITES and RULING CLASSES, on PARTIES and PRESSURE GROUPS, and on political and economic powerholders of all kinds. For Harold Laswell, for example, political sociology is about ‘Who gets what, when and how’.

While some theorists such as C. Wright MILLS have suggested that modern societies are dominated by a narrow POWER ÉLITE, others including Robert Dahl or Seymour LIPSET strongly contest this view, seeing the situation as one involving PLURAL ÉLITES grounded in participant political cultures (see also STABLE DEMOCRACY). In an important study, followed by a seminal debate, Dahl sought to ground his viewpoint in empirical studies of community politics. However, his conclusions remain contested, being opposed particularly by those who point to his failure to take into account ‘non-decisions’ in reaching his conclusion that no one person or group is in a position to dominate (see also COMMUNITY POWER). A third main viewpoint is provided by Marxist theorists, who argue either that an overt capitalist ruling class exists or, more usually, a more diffused structural power, seen as arising from CAPITALISM's general allocative power, backed by control over what ALTHUSSER refers to as the IDEOLOGICAL STATE APPARATUS or else by a more diffuse HEGEMONY.

FEMINISM, in both its radical and materialist forms, has utilized the four definitions of power very effectively. The ‘transformational capacity’ of humans is regarded not as a neutral process, but one that is clearly gendered. Analyses of both social relationships and social structures have revealed persistent patterns of inequality based upon the subordination of women to men. Radical feminists have it that PATRIARCHY is a more fruitful paradigm for the analysis of power within social structures than class, status or purely political formations, whereas materialist feminists insist upon, minimally, the inclusion of the particular position of women within analyses of class in capitalist societies.

One thing evident from all such debates is that issues arise in the conceptualization and study of power which are not readily resolved. So much so that doubts have been raised (e.g. by Lukes, 1974) as to whether ‘power’ is not an ESSENTIALLY CONTESTED CONCEPT, by which Lukes means that the value issues surrounding it can never be resolved in empirical terms, or indeed ever satisfactorily resolved. There are similarities between Lukes’ position and Max WEBER's (see VALUE RELEVANCE).

It can be argued, however, that both views are needlessly restrictive. The complexities and the contested character of the concept of’power’ can be acknowledged. But rather than singling out notoriously difficult concepts such as ‘power’ as having a special status, sociological inquiry might be better served simply by a recognition of the way in which many concepts in sociology tend to carry value loadings, leaving open the question of whether this makes them irresolvably contested. This would be closer to the viewpoint of Gallie (1955), the originator of the notion of ‘contested concepts’.

Lukes is also cautious in the support he gives to any concept of structural power. This raises a final point about ‘power’ that must be mentioned: its overlap with both the concept of agency and the concept of structure, suggesting that Lukes’ dismissal of'structural power’ is too sweeping. Although there are problems in the use of either of these concepts in isolation, recently their use as a paired-set has been held to offer greater prospect of a resolution of the problems that have attended the use of either alone (see STRUCTURE AND AGENCY).

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
Full browser ?