Functionalist TheoryParsons – the ‘variable sum of power’Parson’s view of power was developed from his general theory of the nature ofsociety. Value consensus is essential for the survival of social systems. Fromshared values come the collective goals of members of society, e.g ifmaterialism is a major value of Western industrial society, collective goals suchas economic expansion and higher living standards can be seen to stem from thisvalue. Western societies are able to realise these goals which indicatedincreasing power in society.Parsons view of differentials within society derives from his general theory. Asgoals are shared by all members, power will generally be used to furthercollective goals. Both sides of the power relationship will benefit, e.g politiciansin Western societies promote policies for economic growth which will raise theliving standards as a whole. The exercise of power usually means that everyonewins, forming the basis for the cooperation and reciprocity that Parsonsconsidered essential for society.Parsons regarded power differentials as necessary for effective pursuit ofcollective goals. If members of society put their efforts and resourcestogether, they are more likely to realise their shared goals than beingindividualistic. This cooperation requires organisation and direction whichrequires positions of rule. Some therefore grant power directly to others. Thispower is authoritative. It is regarded as legitimate, since it is seen to furthercollective goals. This means some are granted authority for the benefit of all.Parsons analysis of political power provides a typical illustration of his views onthe nature of power. Money is deposited into a bank = Power is deposited inpolitical leaders; the electorate can withdraw its grant of power at the nextelection. Power resides ultimately with members of society as a whole. Grantingof power generates benefit for electorate as they are used to furthercollective goals. With this, power in society can increase.CriticismsMany argue Parsons’ view of the nature and application of power in society arenaive, suggesting he has done little more than translate into sociological jargonand rationalisations promoted by the power-holders to justify their use ofpower. Parsons fails to appreciate that power is frequently used to furthersectional interests rather than benefiting society as a whole.
The Pluralist theory of power1. Classical pluralismThe classical pluralist position argues: Power is diffuse rather than concentrated. In society a large number of groups represent all the significant and different interests of the population. Groups compete with each other for influence over government. Competition follows the rules of the game. All groups accept the legitimacy of the decision making process and of its outcome. Competition between groups ensures that no one group dominates. The government is a neutral arbiter between interests.The logic of this model leads to a decision-taking methodology - Lukes firstdimension of power. It means that: Inputs into the decision making process and the outputs are studied. Decisions are seen as being rationally taken. Governments consider alternatives and adopt policies that meet national interests.Dahls approach clearly illustrates the pluralist approach. In his study of NewHaven in Connecticut, Who Governs (1961), he studied three major issues, andconcluded that no group dominated New Haven politics. The study reflected thepluralists preference for the study of specific issues and concrete decisions.This conclusion is echoed by Polsby (1963), who argued that sociologists shouldstudy specific issues in order to determine who gets their own way.This classical pluralist position is no longer regarded as an accurate descriptionof the distribution of power in contemporary liberal democracies. Increasingly,theorists are adopting what is called the elite pluralist’ position.2. Elite pluralismPluralism has changed partly as a response to theoretical criticism, and partlybecause it is clear that liberal democracies dont correspond very well with thepluralists rather idealistic view of their operation.
The development of the elite pluralist position has emerged in Dahls, Dilemmasof Pluralist Democracy (1982). The emphasis remains upon the existence of anumber of interest groups, which compete with each other for scarceresources. However, it differs from classical pluralism in two main ways:1. There is recognition that not all individuals are necessarily represented bythe interest group system. Among the under-represented are black people, theworking class, consumers, women, the unemployed and the old. (Note that theyare all groups with little economic power.)In this view, under-representation occurs because people do not wish to berepresented. Additionally, the government protects the interests of the under-represented, because although they might not have any economic or politicalresources, they do have a vote. So the representative electoral system acts as acheck on the unrepresentative aspects of the interest group system.2. It is acknowledged that groups are less open and responsive to theirmembers than classical pluralists assumed, because all organisations tend to behierarchical. As a result, it is accepted that some groups (and individuals) havemore access to decision-making than others. Generally, it is argued thateconomic interest groups have more access than ideological (cause) groups.The elite pluralist response to this situation is to contend that the policy-making process is made up of a large number of policy communities. In eachpolicy area there will be a distinct set of interests to be represented. Theinterest groups, quangos and civil servants involved in the policy area will forman actual or potential policy community. The very existence of such diversity,within a policy community, with no segment of it with a claim to a privilegedposition, preserves pluralism and prevents the domination of government by anyparticular interest.This version of pluralism presents us with innovation without change - theessential elements remain the same. Groups are still seen as competing witheach other for scarce resources, with no one group dominant, and with thegovernment retaining an independent and neutral stance. The main divergencewith classical pluralism is over the process by which power is exercised anddecisions taken. For the elite pluralist, fewer groups are involved in the processof consultation and indeed this process may have certain elitist or corporatistelements.
CriticismsA clear problem with the Pluralist approach is that it is only examining thepublic face of decision-making.A group may also exercise power through its ability to prevent a policy optionbeing considered - a process often called agenda setting. This preventativeoption is the second dimension of power and is frequently called non-decision-making.Additionally, a group may exercise ideological hegemony with the dominantideology serving the groups interest, although such interests will be presentedand often widely understood as being the national interest. This process is thethird dimension of power (see Lukes).