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Theories of power: pluralist,elitist and Marxist perspectives Dr. John Barry School of Politics, International Studies and...
Key questionsHow do Elitist, Pluralist and Marxists theoriesdefine power?Are such definitions of power adequate formaking ...
Why power?Power is an ‘essentially contested concept’ (like ‘democracy’ ‘justice’ ‘equality’ etc.)Power is an inherently p...
Theories of Power: Pluralist, Elitist                       and MarxistPluralism – how power is distributedElitism – how p...
PluralismAssumes that power is dispersed within society to thevarious interest groups which constitute that society, thatp...
Pluralism Analysed1.   Political power is fragmented and dispersed.2.   The existence of classes, political parties, statu...
INSIDER GROUPS – MORE                POWERFUL  Practically part of theestablishment  Able to work closely withelected and ...
OUTSIDER GROUPS – LESS        POWERFUL                            Outsider Groups:                            Do not have ...
Critique of Pluralism“The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenlychorus sings with a strong upperclass accent”(S...
Limitations of Pluralist theory An overly ‘optimistic’ view of power that underestimates the importance of informal power ...
Elitist theory of powerIn all societies and political organisations there exists a small class ofrulers and decision-maker...
Elitism Analysed  There are many sources of elite power (wealth, traditional or religiousauthority etc.) ‘Democratic eliti...
Elitism and GroupsDistribution of power in society reflect the inequalities of wealth. Somegroups have few resources, othe...
Limitations of Elitist theoryNot all historical societies have been hierarchical with an elite    e.g., acephalous tribes ...
Marxism Analysed    “The simple idea is that the policy process, far from    being a rational weighing up of alternatives,...
Marxism AnalysedThe state’s function is to protect and reproduce capitalism.Public policies, thus, reflect the role of the...
Marxist theory (contd.)    Sources of power:    –     Ownership and control of economic property, wealth, productive asset...
Upper Class1%    Capitalist Class                        Model                          Corporate                         ...
Limitations of Marxist AccountState is not autonomous & elites are not unified.Doesn’t always explain the variation and co...
Limitations of Marxist theory•    Overemphasises the importance of power originating in     economic relations – pays insu...
Summary                   Elitist             Pluralist            MarxistSource of power    elite grouping      societal ...
Conclusion1. pluralist, in which power is diffused widely amongst groupsbetween which there is competition for political o...
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Theories of power 2012 a level conference- john barry

'Theories of Power' presentation given to Politics A Level conference, Queens University Belfast, April 2012

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Theories of power 2012 a level conference- john barry

  1. 1. Theories of power: pluralist,elitist and Marxist perspectives Dr. John Barry School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy j.barry@qub.ac.uk
  2. 2. Key questionsHow do Elitist, Pluralist and Marxists theoriesdefine power?Are such definitions of power adequate formaking sense of contemporary societies?What understanding of politics or ‘thepolitical’ does each theory give rise to, andshould those views be challenged orendorsed?
  3. 3. Why power?Power is an ‘essentially contested concept’ (like ‘democracy’ ‘justice’ ‘equality’ etc.)Power is an inherently political conceptDefinitions of power and definitions of the political’ are interdependentTheoretical perspectives on power are to a large extent theoretical perspectives on thestuff of politics itselfThat is, definitions of power are constitutive of what we mean by ‘politics’ and ‘thepolitical’
  4. 4. Theories of Power: Pluralist, Elitist and MarxistPluralism – how power is distributedElitism – how power is concentratedMarxism – class conflict and economic power
  5. 5. PluralismAssumes that power is dispersed within society to thevarious interest groups which constitute that society, thatpolitical decisions (including policy decisions) are theoutcome of competition between many different groupsrepresenting many different interests and that the stateacts as a more or less neutral referee.
  6. 6. Pluralism Analysed1. Political power is fragmented and dispersed.2. The existence of classes, political parties, status groups, pressure groups, interest groups, etc. testifies to the distribution of power3. Groups provide a more effective means of representation than election.4. Public policy is the outcome of group forces acting against one another.5. No one group will dominate for every group there will be an equal and opposite.6. The larger the group the more influence it will have.7. Policies are the product of bargaining and compromise, will tend to be moderate , fair to all and conducive to social stability.
  7. 7. INSIDER GROUPS – MORE POWERFUL Practically part of theestablishment Able to work closely withelected and appointed officialsin central or local government. Not always an advantage, sinceit is conferred upon those withlargely compatible views to thegovernment of the day.
  8. 8. OUTSIDER GROUPS – LESS POWERFUL Outsider Groups: Do not have easy access to politicians and civil servants. Outside status a sign of weakness. OR groups can choose to‘Tunnelers’,direct action remain on outside so as notenvironmentalists – be be compromised .Manchester Airport, 1997
  9. 9. Critique of Pluralism“The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenlychorus sings with a strong upperclass accent”(Schattschneider, 1960:p35) Power is not dispersed State is not neutral Society is unequal
  10. 10. Limitations of Pluralist theory An overly ‘optimistic’ view of power that underestimates the importance of informal power outside official decision-making processes e.g., ‘old boys’ networks, often based on class or ethnic, religious etc bases Overestimates the ability of interest groups outside traditional elite spheres to actually influence political processes and outcomes Social, political and economic capital is often key for access to decision makers Overly reliant on the power of competition to mitigate real social and economic inequalities in society Resources available to different interest groups are not necessarily proportionate to their overall levels of support in society
  11. 11. Elitist theory of powerIn all societies and political organisations there exists a small class ofrulers and decision-makers that performs key political functions andmonopolises power, and a larger class that is ruled over and largelypassive and marginalised in political affairs.The ruling elite is drawn from the higher echelons of political office,the corporate sector and the military; an almost‘aristocratic’ nature tothis self-perpetuating elite’s exercise of power.For Pareto elite power is an inevitable outcome of large-scaleorganisations (a division of labour), related to Roberto Michels’concept the ‘iron law of oligarchy’.
  12. 12. Elitism Analysed There are many sources of elite power (wealth, traditional or religiousauthority etc.) ‘Democratic elitism’ – modern democratic elections – opportunities for thenormally passive masses to ‘vote’ in different/same elites to rule over them Competition between different elites for election, participation by pressuregroup elites in between elections, interaction with bureaucratic elites, areregarded as the ways in which democracy operates in a modern liberaldemocratic capitalist state.
  13. 13. Elitism and GroupsDistribution of power in society reflect the inequalities of wealth. Somegroups have few resources, other have many.Some interests are unorganised; some rely on others to protect them;(minority groups, children, the homeless, mentally ill, poor)Groups fight their battles in a system which is systematically loaded infavour of middle and upper class interests, or financial interests.Organisations themselves are inherently oligarchic. A few leaders wieldpower, and are often un-elected and unaccountable to members(Michels’ ‘iron law’).
  14. 14. Limitations of Elitist theoryNot all historical societies have been hierarchical with an elite e.g., acephalous tribes and egalitarian societies (though elitism as a theory is only usually applied to modern societies)_Distinction between elites and masses is oversimplified? Universal education and welfare-based meritocracies in post-WWII EuropeUnable to engage with normative issues of democracy andjustice Simply presents the existence of ruling elites as ‘inevitable’and democracy reduced to competition between elites (or sections of the same elite) to rule
  15. 15. Marxism Analysed “The simple idea is that the policy process, far from being a rational weighing up of alternatives, is driven by powerful socio-economic forces that set the agenda, structure decision-makers choices, constrain implementation and ensure that the interests of the most powerful (or of the system as a whole) determines the outputs and the outcomes of the political system”(Peter John, Analysing Public Policy, 1999. p.92)
  16. 16. Marxism AnalysedThe state’s function is to protect and reproduce capitalism.Public policies, thus, reflect the role of the state in trying toregulate the economy and ensure social and politicalstability.In other words, the state formulates and implements policyto reflect the interests of capitalism and thecapitalist/ruling class.
  17. 17. Marxist theory (contd.) Sources of power: – Ownership and control of economic property, wealth, productive assets of society, including control of finance – Control over ideas, through the media and processes of socialisation more generally, such as education: ideology/hegemony – Control over the state• Role of ideology/hegemony: ‘is not the supreme exercise of power to get another or others to have the desires you want them to have?’ (Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View, 1973) ‘False consciousness’ For Marxists, the source and exercise of power is not always readily apparent and therefore needs to be deciphered; hence the great ability of power to be ‘hidden’ and not immediately obvious.
  18. 18. Upper Class1% Capitalist Class Model Corporate of Class Structure Class14% Upper Middle under capitalism Class Mean Income30% Middle Class Median Income30% Working Class13% Working Poor Poverty Line Underclass12%
  19. 19. Limitations of Marxist AccountState is not autonomous & elites are not unified.Doesn’t always explain the variation and complexity of public policy and otherpolitical decisions made by the state and its agencies.Doesn’t allude to the variety of groups involved in formulating policy.Monocentric view of governments goals doesn’t acknowledge the multiplicity ofsocial and political objectives expressed in the formulation of policy.
  20. 20. Limitations of Marxist theory• Overemphasises the importance of power originating in economic relations – pays insufficient attention to non- economic bases of political power• Exaggerates the potential for class conflict by neglecting the possibilities for non-capitalist classes to harness power and state control/influence in capitalist societies Exaggerates the ability of a capitalist elite to manufacture and perpetuate ‘false consciousness’ among the working class majority Underestimates the capacity for the reform of capitalism by liberal democracy- through welfare state provision and state regulation of the free market for example
  21. 21. Summary Elitist Pluralist MarxistSource of power elite grouping societal interests capitalist mode of productionNature of power concentrated dispersed concentratedAnalysis of neutral positive criticalpowerUltimate verdict accept the system engage with the overthrow the system system
  22. 22. Conclusion1. pluralist, in which power is diffused widely amongst groupsbetween which there is competition for political office throughthe electoral system, which is open to all.2. elitist, in which power is concentrated in leaders who maybe elected or appointed, for whose posts there is little or nocompetition, entry to which is limited.3. Marxist, in which power is distributed according to theaccumulation of capital. Owners of capital operate behind thescene to manipulate the political process, and indoctrinate themass of the working classes into accepting the unequaleconomic structure of society.

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'Theories of Power' presentation given to Politics A Level conference, Queens University Belfast, April 2012

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