Questions of power

December 25, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

Questions of power are arguably the most important in the field of politics, and as such the concept of power is one of the most frequently discussed topics amongst political scientists. Power is such a wide concept that this essay will not be able to discuss motivation; that is, why an individual may want to exert power over another individual, although this is a crucial question when discussing this topic. Instead, this essay will focus on the ‘faces of power’ debate; the three widely recognised faces, decision-making, agenda-setting and preference-shaping as well as Foucault’s research into a fourth face of power. As well as outlining the arguments put forward by political scholars, this essay will critically analyse each theory and ultimately sum up the essence of political power.

In “The Concept of Power” (1957) Robert Dahl looks at the relationship between preferences and decisions before concluding that power is a one dimensional concept regarding the power of A to affect the decisions of B. Dahl’s view of power is that it is quantifiable by counting the number of decisions that are made and determine that whoever has the most decisions in their favour is the most powerful. While analysing Dahl’s one dimensional view of power, Hay stated that “the powerful are those whose opinions hold sway in the decision making area”i. This pluralist view of society insinuates that power is widely dispersed throughout society, with groups of people competing with each other in order to advance their own interests. The quote in the essay title is referring to the one dimensional view of power, as summarised by Dahl in “The Concept of Power”, thus Dahl would have agreed with the statement that this is the essence of political power. An example of the first face of power is that both A and B are aware that a watch is worth �50, but B buys the watch off of A for �100. Thus it can be said that A has exercised power over B in terms of decision making, since B would not have paid �100 for the watch if A had not influenced him. It should be noted that this example relies upon both political actors having full information; if B was unaware of the true value of the watch then there would be no need for the exercise of power. This is a crucial assumption and one which will be addressed later.

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Dahl’s argument has faced much criticism from political scientists such as Heywood and Clegg for being too narrow. As well as the aforementioned assumption, it must be noted that only key decisions are studied, which raises the problem of to what extent we are able to distinguish issues which are often ignored. Furthermore, potential power is not considered, thus inferring that power which is not exerted cannot be regarded as power. This is clearly a flawed theory as many people who hold power do not wield it regularly. Moreover, as the term ‘one face of power’ suggests, Dahl’s argument ignores other possible circumstances such as non-decision making, giving rise to Bachrach and Baratz’s argument based on a second face of power.

Bachrach and Baratz argue that the second element of power is agenda setting. This argument takes into account the fact that power may be held without necessarily being exerted. They argue that political power is exercised in deciding what should be discussed and what should not be, that is, those who hold power set the agenda before the actual decision process is made, meaning they do not actually need to make a decision action to wield power. Agenda setting power is evident in modern liberal democratic systems such as that of the UK, where parties represent the views of their supporters on different issues, but they are able to block the discussion of specific issues by disregarding it or deciding to ignore the issue. Unlike Dahl, Bachrach and Baratz argue that power is not quantifiable, as “the attempt to limit the concept of non-decision making to observable behaviour is entirely arbitrary”ii; that is, the second face of power is not measureable. They do however agree that the first face is quantifiable; there should be noticeable evidence of power relationship between those who hold power and those who are subject to it. The problem with the two faces of power argument is that it does not take into account the case in which those who are subject to power do not realise that power is being exerted over them. Consequently, this issue gave rise to a three dimensional view as put forward by Lukes.

Lukes believes that decision making and agenda setting fall short of the full definition of political power; the missing element in Lukes’ view is preference shaping. As explained by Heywood, power is “the ability of A to exercise power over B, not by getting B to do what he would not otherwise do, but, but ‘influencing, shaping or determining his very wants'”iii. Put differently, power may not lie in people’s actions but in their consciousness. Karl Marx described this phenomenon as ‘false consciousness’, where those who are subordinated do not have full information about the decision they are making and so follow the orders of A, as this is the best idea they have. Lukes argues that preference shaping is carried out in various ways by governments, such as through education, culture and the media which naturally lead to Marx’s notion of ‘false consciousness’. Again, the third face of power is not quantifiable as people are unaware of their preferences being shaped, thus are unable to recognise that power has been exerted over them. As with the first two faces of power, Lukes’ third face has also been criticised by many political scientists. It may well occur that B will agree with the views of A without any influence over them, but it is impossible to know B’s true, underlying interests thus the power relationship between the two is unobservable. Furthermore, it is very difficult to determine the level of information that B has about the decision they are making, and in some cases they may have perfect information but still agree with A.

More recently, scholars such as Foucault and Digeser have suggested a fourth face of power. Foucault does not make the assumption that political actors A and B are social constructions. The fourth face of power is similar to the third in that it shapes the preferences of the subordinated. However, Foucault argues that this face of power is omnipresent and observable in all societies in the world in the norms and values that we create, thus it is much more long term than the third face of power.

Digeser, in his article “The Fourth Face of Power”, gives the example of promise keeping. If an actor holds a certain pride in keeping his word, others may adopt this view and over time this practice becomes widely adopted as the result of many interactions until “the power of a norm or expectation of promise keeping has been created”iv. Pye looks at a political example in China by considering the norms that must be created to enable the formation of a democratic state. In order to create a democratic state, China needs a strong civil society, which can be built over time by creating norms such as freedom of speech. Although the promotion of freedom of speech may seem alien in China in the present day, over time if it is encouraged it will eventually become a norm in Chinese society. In the history of the UK there is evidence of norms having been changed gradually over time such as the abolition of sexism and racism and the promotion of equality so that today discriminatory behaviour has become unacceptable.

To conclude, the ability of A to get B to do something that he or she would not otherwise do partially defines the essence of political power, but this is dependent upon issues such as the definition of power. The quote in the essay title is a quote from Dahl who is speaking with regard to his view that decision making is the only face of power. Although this is the only quantifiable face of power, the concept is certainly much more complex than this, as shown by Bachrach, Baratz and Lukes. However, both agenda setting and preference shaping may also fit this description, as they aim to block or change the preferences of B in order to achieve what A wants. Thus the essence of political power can be summed up by A getting B to do something that he or she would otherwise not, but it has become clear that power is much more complex than suggested by Dahl when he made this statement.


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