Why Study the Concept of Power?

A proper theoretical and applicable understanding of power can help in identifying new ways of organising and new political structures that, as far as possible, empower and free up people and their communities.

My key academic research interest at the present time is oriented towards questions about the concept of power, specifically in a political context:  how should it be defined, how can it be analysed and, crucially, how can we make use of it?  The problem with the concept of power, however, is that it is, as Steven Lukes has argued, an ‘essentially contested’ concept on which there is much disagreement as to its nature and character.[1]  Is it a capacity possessed by an individual, as behaviouralists would argue?  Is it rather a collective attribute of societies and groups as theorists like Hannah Arendt and Talcott Parsons have contended?  Is power only a product of conscious agency or can it be attributed to impersonal structures and organisations too?

Controversy and debate about power rages on in a small corner of the academic world, but why bother with such an esoteric pursuit?  Why is it important to spend so much time engaged in such theoretical controversies?  The answer is simply because power is (perhaps self-evidently) an important and fundamental aspect of the analysis of politics:  all politics is in some sense a manifestation of power struggles and as Max Weber long ago argued in Politics as a Vocation the importance of politics is that it strives to share power or influence its distribution within and between states.[2]

There are many reasons, but, here, I want to focus on two reasons for engaging in debates about power.  Firstly, it can provide an important perspective on human society and the political institutions which form a part of it. Seeking to understand them in terms of power brings a particular perspective on social relations, human behaviour and organisation, especially the question of what it is that makes people conform to certain behaviours, what makes them obey consciously or unconsciously certain social conventions and practices, what is it that predisposes some to accept the authority of others and obey them?  And what is that makes others seek to resist these?  Secondly, and perhaps the most important reason for undertaking an analysis of power, is that the empowerment of human beings as effective political actors and citizens is dependent on a clear understanding of power relations and power’s structure, dimensions and modalities in different settings (such as a particular institution or organisation).

If this latter purpose is to be realised, it follows that a key distinction needs to be made between what it is that empowers people and what it is that disempowers them. We need to be able to identify who is empowered and disempowered as a result of these relations and structures.  This requires us to separate analytically two key types of power:  firstly, power over something or someone, sometimes referred to as ‘domination’ and power to do or achieve something or other, or ‘empowerment’.  Thus, power is not just a term that signifies the ability of one person or a group of people to control or command others (although it is part of it), but also one which signifies the capacities individuals or groups have to realise their full potential as human beings.  Having some means of evaluating how, in different ways, groups or individuals are empowered or dominated (and hence disempowered) in certain settings (such as political parties or interest groups), we can identify ways in which their situation can be improved in the direction of greater empowerment and liberty.  In other words, in order to understand how people can best be fulfilled, to be able to reach their full potential as human beings, we have to understand both what it is that prevents them from doing so and what might enable them to do so.

As an example of this, power is often experienced by those subject to it as a form of constraint, but not all ‘constraints’ should be seen as negative or disempowering.  For example, training and education can be understood as constraints on the one hand, but on the other, they might be understood as ways of investing people (through instruction) with the capacities and resources to act effectively in political contexts.  Organisations too, governed by rules, structures and hierarchies, might be understood from one point of view as restraints on the ability of individuals to act freely, but from a different perspective could be seen as providing avenues for using diverse skills and abilities effectively and means of making actors more effective through collective action.

Too often, these kinds of things are seen in black and white terms.  Almost a century ago Robert Michels, in his analysis of the German Social Democratic Party, argued that oligarchy was an inevitable outcome of organisation despite its necessity as a tool of empowering ordinary people.  The organisation therefore subverts its original purpose to liberate by becoming a tool of domination by elites.  This gloomy prognosis has become part of the canon of the study of political parties, but though important it is incomplete because of a failure to take a properly multi-faceted view of power which not only looks at its operation on different levels, but understands it in terms of empowerment as well as disempowerment.  Rather than simply accepting the notion that ‘who says organisation says oligarchy’[3] we need to ask what kind of organisation do we need to ensure that democracy – in terms of empowerment of ordinary members – flourishes and oligarchy or domination by elites is as far as possible resisted.  Rather than giving up on political organisations as Robert Michels did (eventually despairing of democratic politics altogether) we need to identify new ways of organising and new political structures that, as far as possible, empower and free up people and their communities to make their own decisions, take power over their lives where it really matters and keep in check the ability of elites to reform and capture that space.

Political analysts need tools to help in the task of evaluating and making judgements about this.  What is needed, in other words, is a means by which a) organisations with political and social goals can be evaluated in terms of how they empower and disempower those whom they are intended to serve and b) judgements made as to what appropriate changes might need to be made to ensure maximum empowerment.  To support this, a series of questions with which to interrogate these issues need to be developed which are fully applicable to organisations with social and political goals.  This is my task going forward and I hope to report back on my progress via this blog in the near future.

[1] Steven Lukes (1974) Power: A Radical View

[2] In H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds) From Max Weber (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1948), 78.

[3] Robert Michels (1968 [1915]) Political Parties (New York: Free Press), 365