Power is the concept which is at the heart of the subject of social stratification . It is therefore not surprising that we have seen so many disputes concerning its meaning (including disputes about what particular sociologists meant when they used the term in the past).
Perhaps the best known of all the definitions is that of Max Weber in his essay ‘The Distribution of Power within the Political Community: Class, Status, Party’ (in Economy and Society, 1922). Weber regarded power as the fundamental concept in stratification, of which class , status , and party were three separate (sometimes related) dimensions. Broadly speaking, classes were the outcome of the distribution of economic power (in Weber's terms, market relationships); status was a kind of normatively defined social power; and parties were groups active in the political sphere in pursuit of various goals. Power was then defined by Weber in general terms as the probability of persons or groups carrying out their will even when opposed by others. Note that power is therefore a social relationship. Hence, for Weber, the differential distribution of power leads to a situation where life-chances are also differentially distributed; that is, the ability to obtain economic, social, and political resources is unequally distributed. In Weber's famous phrase, ‘classes, status groups and parties are all phenomena of the distribution of power in a society’. Weber took this view in a fairly explicit attempt to counter the crude Marxism of his day, which made too easy an elision between economic control and political rule. He wished to make clear his view that power need not depend on the possession of economic resources-hence the importance of the concept of status, and his various observations concerning this in his general sociology.
Weber made further observations concerning the nature of power in his political sociology. Few groups in society base their power purely on force or military might. Instead, ruling groups attempt to legitimate their power, and convert it into what he termed domination (or, as Talcott Parsons translates it, ‘authority’). According to Weber there are three bases of domination: traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic.
Is Weber's conception of power adequate-or are there more satisfactory ways in which the phenomenon can be conceived? Steven Lukes (Power: A Radical View, 1974) argues that power is an essentially contested concept; that is, one whose definition and application will always be a matter for dispute between sociologists. How we define power and how we operationalize it will be dependent on our theoretical position and value-orientation. Accepting that, however, is it still possible to improve on the Weberian conception of power?.
If we examine Weber's definition, it obviously has built into it a notion of conflict and intention. The notion of intention can be seen in the view of someone or some group ‘carrying out their will’. This implies a quality of conscious, rational, and calculated action in pursuit of a specific goal. Now, this may well characterize some power relationships, but does it characterize them all? Can power be exercised unwittingly? Should we perhaps see power as involving the achievement of one's preferences-whether by intention or not-rather than as the pursuit of one's will? The other problem we can see in Weber's definition is the assumption of conflict or antagonism which it incorporates. As various critics have noted, the definition suggests that A has power over B to the extent that he or she overcomes the resistance of B if it is offered, implying that-at least some of the time-the interests of B are being sacrificed to those of A. Weber was certainly interested mainly in power in situations of conflicting interests. Many sociologists since Weber have assumed that power involves-even provokes-subordinate resistance which must be overcome by superordinates. Does this mean power can never be exercised in a consensual context; that is, where subordinates accept it as being used legitimately? This is where we have to be more specific about the nature of the power being used. Where power is used over subordinates who attribute genuine legitimacy to superordinates we could talk of authority of persuasion. These are clearly very different from power which rests on force or manipulation. Yet we have to remember that all four of these terms refer to types of power relationships.
The idea of power used in an apparently consensual context also leads to further problems. For example, where legitimacy is attributed in a power relationship, does this legitimacy flow from subordinate to superordinate, implying authority (which is what Parsons and many political scientists would say); or is legitimacy imposed from above, by ‘swinging’ of social norms, implying manipulation (a view which has firm roots in Marxism, especially the Gramscian notion of ideological hegemony )? As Alvin Gouldner (The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, 1970) noted, ‘power is, among other things [the] ability to enforce one's moral claims. The powerful can thus conventionalize their moral defaults.’ And, of course, this is part of what Weber meant by the term social status.
For all these reasons one should therefore remember David Lockwood's dictum: commenting on the problems of studying power, especially when it is recognized that power is a latent force, he observed that ‘power must not only refer to the capacity to realise one's ends in a conflict situation against the will of others; it must also include the capacity to prevent opposition arising in the first place. We often hear that the study of power should concentrate on the making and taking of important decisions. But in one sense power is most powerful if the actor can, by manipulation, prevent issues from coming to the point of decision at all’ (‘The Distribution of Power in Industrial Society-a Comment’, in , Power in Britain, 1973). So, power involves not only decision-making but also non-decision-making, not only the overt but the covert.
Finally, we should consider power resources. Power is a dispositional concept: it refers to the possibility of a certain action occurring rather than to its actual occurrence. So, power is a potential quality of a social relationship, and as such rests on actors' access to power resources. Quite obviously, in an advanced capitalist society, economic resources such as wealth and control over jobs are vital, but many other power resources exist: for example, organizational capacity, numerical support, competence, expert knowledge, control of information, occupation of certain social positions, control of the instruments of force, and reputation for power itself. The last of these is a unique power resource: it depends not on the actual possession of power but the mere belief by others that it is possessed. Equally, one does not have to own a power resource, but only to control it: senior civil servants and managers provide examples. Between all these potentials for power, and their manifestation, lies one's willingness (and efficiency) to use it. Potential power depends upon certain attributes. Manifest power, however, is revealed not by attributes but through social relationships; and part of the definition of a social relationship is its reciprocal nature. Consequently, the exercise of power involves feedback: A acts, B reacts, A reacts to B's reaction, and so on. Subordinates must have some effect on superordinates for there to be any relationship at all-a point noted long ago by Georg Simmel.
We can begin to see, then, how complex and difficult a concept power is to handle. Once we try to operationalize it we quickly appreciate Lukes's point concerning its essentially contested nature. This, and most of the other issues raised in this entry, are discussed is Dennis Wrong's Power (1979). See also bureaucracy ; community power ; compliance ; Foucault , Michel; gatekeeping ; Michels, Robert; organization theory ; organizational reach ; political parties ; referent power ; state.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.


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