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Sociological theories

Asked by Alexzandra | Feb 3, 2008 | A Level > Sociology > Homework
Alexzandra asks:

'Describe ans assess sociological theories of how power is distributed in modern industrial society'

etutor answers:

The starting point is pluralist theory, which has its origins in the work of Max Weber, who argued that multi-party representative (rather than direct) democracy provided the best way of representing a range of interests. His theories were developed by Dahl into what has become known as classical pluralism. Pluralists see society as made up of many different groups pursuing different political interests. Such groups may combine into formal political organisations such as parties and pressure groups to promote their aims. No one group is seen to dominate the decision-making process. The role of the state is to arbitrate between the various interest groups. All groups have some success in influencing outcomes, which are ultimately a product of bargaining and compromise. Competition between parties is also essential in a pluralist democracy, allowing citizens to choose between broad thematic programmes; different parties will be influenced by different interest groups and (perhaps) represent different sections of the community, but the need to win elections means they are focused upon appealing to as many interests and groups as possible.

There has been considerable criticism of the pluralist approach:

1. It says little about how the agenda is created and managed (the criticism by Lukes).
2. Marxists argue that the focus on decisions taken by government ignores the likelihood that the real centre of power lies elsewhere - Westergaard points to the failure of Labour governments to eradicate poverty and to reduce wealth and income inequalities. Marxists claim that these inequalities are created by the existence of private property and a capitalist economic system and cannot be reformed, even by ostensibly left wing political parties in government.
3. In reality some groups exercise far more power and influence than others - in particular, economically powerful groups and groups containing a large proportion of middle class activists. Some interests may not be represented at all - until fairly recently, for example, these would include women who are victims of sexual violence, children abused by their parents, and pupils bullied at school. There are countless other examples - again, until recently, these might include environmentalists, peace campaigners and spokesmen for the gay community - even now, they often find it hard to be heard, and are sometimes marginalised as subversive, eccentric or extremist.

In response to such criticisms, modern 'elite pluralism' accept that significant numbers of groups are under-represented, but argue that if they constitute a significant number of voters then eventually governments will be obliged to take account of their views, and even to take action. Nevertheless, access to decision-makers is clearly unevenly distributed.

Elite theorists argue that power is in reality concentrated in the hands of a small elite minority. Pareto and Mosca. classical elite theorists, argued that in all societies an elite minority of individual personal qualities would inevitably monopolise power. Pareto claimed that all elites were eventually replaced by other elites; Mosca maintained that the nature of elite rule differed from society to society. Hence in modern capitalist society wealth and business connections would be fa more significant than military prowess. Wright Mills (1956) saw elite rule (in the USA) as a result of the structure of society which allowed a disproportionate amount of power to be held by 'command post' individuals. Hence three key institutions were identified - the federal government (which had increasingly taken power from individual state governments), the major corporations and the military.The three elites are closely connected because of similar social origins, education, kinship and other social ties, and because their interests are intertwined. Hence the three elites together form a power elite. Decisions are taken with little reference to the majority of citizens, while even elections fail to provide real choice since there is little difference between the major parties.

Critics argue that:

1. if elite theory applies at all, it is largely to the USA only.
2. Mills and elitists show only that elites have the potential for control, not that they have actual control.
3. There are many other elites, such as pressure group leaders, union leaders, church leaders, etc. who provide a counterbalance to any power elite.
4. Marxists argue that real power derives not from positions in institutions, but rather from ownership and control of the means of production (including the media)

In the UK much of the research into elites and power has focused on the recruitment of elite members, and on the social connections and relationships between them. While the position is clearly weaker today, it has been the case that many elites are effectively self-perpetuating, with new members drawn from the same social groups as existing members. A high proportion of politicians, civil servants, judges, military leaders and company directors have been educated at private shools and at Oxbridge; most have traditionally also been male and white. Giddens notes that there is also considerable movement between these elites.

It is, however, one thing to identify these connections but quite another to prove that they result in a united, self-interested power elite. It is possible, for example, that despite common social origins these groups do not work together but rather compete for power.

Marxist theorists maintain that the operation of the political system is dependent upon the capitalist economic structure, so the political system is part of the superstructure and is shaped to meet the requirements of the economic system. The institutions, beliefs and values that make up the superstructure all serve to maintain and reproduce the relations of production. Hence the state plays an ideological role, as does the legal system. So the state identifies the 'national interest' with the need for businesses (both domestic and international) to make profits; in so doing it upholds the interests of the dominant class. Gramsci adopts a more subtle approach, arguing that the significance of the superstructure is that it shapes ideas and provides the means, under democratic figleaf, by which the ruling class could exercise power. This achieved by a combination of force and consent. The bourgeoisie exercises 'hegemony' (intellectual and moral leadership) through which they are able to persuade other groups to consent to their rule. The ruling class can only maintain its hegemony by creating alliances or 'power blocs' between different groups. Occasionally the 'subject class' can force concessions from the ruling class since it is dominant, rather than all-powerful. Indeed, they make suh occasional concessions in order to maintain consent to rule.

Not all Marxist's accept the Gramsci analysis. Some see him as placing too much stress on the role of hegemony and too little on economic structure as a source of power. Miliband, for example, argues that the state is run by a number of elites (with a common social background), including the business elite. It exists therefore simply to defend private property and to preserve capitalism, and thus operates only in the
interests of the wider capitalist class. Poulantxas goes further, arguing that the state operates in the interests of capital regardless of the personnel who run it. The ideological dominance of the capitalist class constrains the choices available to those running the state. So even ostensibly left wing governments have no option but to compromise with business and financial interests in order to ensure stability. Northern Rock??!!

The main criticism of all Marxist theories is that the existence of a ruling class is very doubtful. Ownership of wealth is now far more widespread, especially through home ownership; more and more citizens own shares and have a stake in capitalism.

In passing, it should be noted that the very idea of the nation state is threatened by the forces of globalisation, and that economic power has been dispersed around the globe, and especially to newly emerging economies, and to international institions and transnational corporations too. The Marxist analysis can thus be applied on an international scale. Moreover, women and ethnic minorities continue to be excluded from power in many areas of social life, despite legislation outlawing disrimination and widening opportunity.

I hope this is helpful.

1 student responses

Thank you very much.
responded Mar 14, 2008 8:54:46 AM GMT
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