Sociological Theories of Power | UPSC Notes

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Sociological Theories of Power | UPSC Notes

Even though power is a part of everything that people do and how they interact with each other, there is no one way to think about it. Power means that a person or group has the ability to change or affect the behaviour of other people or groups. Weber says that power is the chance for a man or a group of men to get their own way in a group action, even if other people in the action try to stop them. Power is a part of how people interact with each other. One person or group does not have power on its own. They see it in terms of how it affects others. If you say that power is social, you are also saying that it is about how people act. For if power comes from the way two people work together. Then, this connection between actors can only be understood in terms of how the behaviour of one actor affects the behaviour of other actors. Situations also affect who has more power. To understand power, you have to connect it to a specific situation or role, and an actor’s power in one situation or role may be different from their power in another.

Power and right

1. In general, having power means having the right to give orders. It’s not the same as reasoning or having power over someone. Common phrases like “parental authority,” “authority of tradition,” “authoritative opinion,” “political authority,” “legal authority,” and “constitutional authority” show that authority is usually used within a network of clearly defined roles. It is done in the way that has been set and is well known. Political authority says who has the power to rule and how that power should be used. It decides how the government and the people it rules over will interact. The concept of legitimacy says that power should be used in a way that is known and accepted by everyone.

2. The authority is legitimate because things happen in a way that makes sense based on usage, custom, or set procedure. The relationship between command and obedience is based on the idea that power is legitimate. Force and pressure are not legal, but they are sometimes used to show that something is legal or by legal authorities for legal reasons. If the legal authority doesn’t reach its goal, it could be called into question, and a revolutionary authority could take over. If the new government doesn’t work out, there could be a counter-revolution. The power that may come into being must finally prove that it has the right to rule. Because of this, it is the basis of all government power. The government can only do its job when it is clear that it has the power to do so. At a certain time, the authority that has just come into being might not have legitimacy, but it will have to get legitimacy that society will recognise and that can get it world recognition.

Marxian Theory of Power (Karl Marx):

Marx doesn’t give a clear meaning of power. To him, power means forcing someone to do something. Marx thinks that power is held by one group in society at the cost of everyone else. He says that the source of power in society is the economic structures and the people who own the means of production. This means that the group with the most power uses that power to further its own goals and takes advantage of those who are not in power.

1. Marx says that even though dominant classes sometimes have to use naked force to keep their power and supremacy, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t exploiting other people. He also says that the lack of naked oppression doesn’t mean there isn’t any oppression or any need to use force. Even if there isn’t any obvious abuse, that doesn’t mean that someone isn’t in charge. The only difference is that the people who are being controlled don’t realise it because the ideas they have been taught work so well.

2. How does a dominant idea that praises the power of the dominant class over the subordinate class and the abuse of the subordinate class become so popular? Marxists say that certain ideas become popular through a number of important socialising forces. For example, institutions like the family, the school system, and the media all play a big part in spreading beliefs and values that most people share. Marxists think that these institutions of socialisation justify the real nature of a class society. They also make sure that social inequality and dominance continue and that people accept the way power is distributed in society. This is the most important part of the Marxist method to a society’s non-economic institutions and the ideas and beliefs they spread, which are called the “superstructure.” The idea is that they exist to keep a class-based way of making things work. So, the uneven distribution of power in the economic infrastructure shows up in the superstructure.

3. Marxist theorists say that institutions like education, the government, and the media support the stereotypes of being better or worse based on your class. So, according to Marxist theory, “the relationship of dominance and subordination in the infrastructure is justified and made legal by the super structure.” For example, in a capitalist society, the unequal relationship between workers and employers will be reflected and accepted by the legal system. Different legal statuses protect the rights of property owners, especially their right to a bigger share of the money made by their workers. Marxists say that looking at the link between the infrastructure and the super structure shows a lot about who has power in a class society. That means, for example, that the infrastructure of a capitalist society leads to a certain kind of government, school system, family structure, etc. All institutions of superstructure that represent the dominance of class structure give the ruling class more power and privileges in society.

4. Marx thinks that power in society belongs to one group (the ruling class) at the expense of everyone else (the subordinate class). This idea of power is called “constant sum,” because a net gain in power for the most powerful group in society means a net loss in power for the next most powerful group. The group with the most power uses it to further its own goals, which are often at odds with the goals of the group that is being ruled over.

5. So, for Marx, the source of power in society is the way it works economically. Forces of creation are the key to being in charge or having power. In every society, the people who own the means of production (the ruling class) use their power to take advantage of and hurt the people in the subject class. Marx says that force is the use of power to take advantage of other people. It is seen as an unfair use of power because it makes the subject class agree to something that is not in their best interests.

6. The only way to give power back to the people is for them to own the things that make things. Everyone will now have the same relationship to the forces of creation, so all members of society will have the same amount of power. Marx’s ideas about false awareness and class-consciousness are important in this situation. When the exploited class realises that they are being exploited and starts to see that they are all in the same class, this is called “class consciousness.” In the end, what they think about themselves and their situation matches what is true.

7. The key to the revolution that overthrows the current power structure of the society and replaces it with one that fits the new economic arrangements is for a lower class to develop a true class consciousness.

The Theory of Power by Max Weber:

Max Weber talks about power mostly in terms of society and the state. Weber describes power as the likelihood that a person will be able to achieve his or her own goals despite opposition from other people with whom he or she interacts. This is a broad way of putting it.

1. His meaning of dominance (Authority) is more specific. It only applies to situations where one person obeys a specific order given by another person. Weber suggested two ways to solve the problem of order by making a difference between power and domination (authority). Power is the ability to do things that are likely to work, even if the people to whom it is given don’t want to or can’t. This kind of answer is common in war and between classes, but it can’t be used as a long-term source of order because it isn’t stable. Legitimate dominance, on the other hand, is based on people’s willingness to follow the rules, so it includes the question of what actions are important. Legitimising dominance can be done by appealing to different principles, such as custom, national legality as shown in laws that have already been passed, and charisma (Turner 1996).

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2. Weber’s idea of power is based on his ideas about class, standing, and party, as well as on his analysis of the state and bureaucracy. Each group is centred on or aimed at power as a separate source of strife. Each shows a part of power and how it works.

3. Weber’s discussion of “class,” “status,” and “party” are three ways that people are separated in society. Each is a separate idea from the others, but Weber says that each can have a casual effect on the others. Weber did not ignore the economic sources of power and class, which he thought were some of the most important, especially in capitalism. But, unlike Marx, he said that power didn’t just come from the economy, and he doesn’t limit power ties to who owns or doesn’t own the means of production. Power can also come from Status or a political party, which are groups that want to get more power, or it can be followed just for its own sake. There are connections and affects between these different kinds of power, so getting power in one area can give you power or change the way things are in another area.

4. For Weber, class is a reflection of the way the economy works. To be more specific, a person’s class is based on how the market works for them. In this case, a class is a group of people who all have the same Market position. So, if you compare class situation to market situation, there could be as many different types of class as there are small changes in market place. But, like Marx, Weber says that the most important way to divide people into classes in a competitive market is by whether or not they own property. Weber says that there are two kinds of classes: the positively privileged class, which is made up of people who own land, and the non-owners or commercial class. He also talks about the middle class, which is a group that falls between these two. For him, having property or not having property is made up of a number of different class positions that people can easily switch between on an individual basis or over the course of a generation. For Weber, power is linked to the property class because people with more money have more standing and rights in society. The acquiring classes are not in a good position, and they are mostly workers of the different main types. They don’t have as much power in the world. It is possible to move between different groups or classes in society. But Weber says that this kind of movement is only possible to a certain amount. He says that the difference in power between different classes makes it hard to move into a bigger range of positions (Crib).

5. Weber thinks that social power comes from being a part of both a class group and a status group. But in modern society, the formation of a political party has a bigger effect on who has power. For Weber, a party is any group of people who get together on their own to try to gain control of an outfit so that they can put certain policies into place. Parties are more like organisations than groups or communities, and they work towards a goal in a planned way.

6. Weber says that economic order is made up of classes, social order is made up of standing groups, and the sphere of power is made up of parties. In some ways, power is not a different order because it has to do with classes and status groups. The difference between Parties and Status groups and classes is the level of study. Parties are organisations, while Status groups and classes are groups of people. If status groups of classes are well organised, they might start parties, or their parties might become the groups’ organisational wings. Some examples are trade unions, professional associations, ethnic groups, and religious institutions. Parties are the big picture of power. Weber thinks that class, status, and the political party are all forms of power. So, his view of power is broad and includes the business, society, and politics.

7. When it comes to how he sees power on a large scale, his ideas of power and dominance are very similar. He makes a distinction between attractive, traditional, and legal-rational ways of being in charge. In charismatic leadership, a leader’s power is based on how charismatic he or she is. The word “charisma” is used to describe a certain trait of a person’s personality that sets him apart from other people and makes him seem like he has magical or especially special powers and traits. In traditional dominance, power is based on old ways of doing things. Patriarchalism is a good example of how the past rules over the present. In Legal-rational control, law is the source of power.

The Theory of Power by Talcott Parsons

Parsons thinks that power is something that everyone in society has. As a result, power is a society-wide access to resources. It is the ability to bring together the resources of a society to reach goals that the public has agreed to work towards. In this way, the amount of power in society can be judged by how well the group’s goals are met. So, the more effectively a social system helps its people reach their goals, the more power there is in that society. This way of thinking is called the “variable sum concept of power.” It is different from the “constant sum concept of power” of Weber and Marx, because power in society is not seen as set. Instead, it is changeable, which means that it can go up or down.

1. His view of power comes from his general idea about how society works. He thinks that order, security, and cooperation in society come from a value consensus, which is when people agree on what is good and important. He thinks that this value consensus is necessary for the social order to stay alive. From shared values comes the desire for group goals, which are goals that everyone in a society wants to achieve. For instance, if materialism is a big value in the Western Industrial society, then goals like economic growth and better living standards can be seen as collective goals. The closer these goals are to these goals, the more power there is in the social system. Living standards that keep going up and a growing economy are both signs that society as a whole is getting stronger.

2. The way Parson sees differences in power in society comes from his general idea of how social systems work. He says that since everyone in society has the same goals, power will usually be used to help reach those goals. So, for Parsons, power and social stratification are both parts of a social order that help it work. Parsons says that value consensus is an important part of all societies, so it follows that ranking people in terms of society leads to some kind of stratification. He says that values will be ranked highly and given a lot of power and prestige if they represent and personify common values. And Parsons, who is a functionalist, thinks that this different distribution of power and status between the different levels of society is fair, right, and proper because it is based on shared values.

3. Parsons thinks that the relationships between social groups in a society should be based on cooperation and interdependence, not strife and confrontation. Especially in complex industrial societies, different groups are good at different things. As no social group is self-sufficient, it can’t meet all of its members’ wants. Instead, each group interacts with other groups to trade goods and services, making the relationship between them one of reciprocity. In a system of stratification, this connection goes across all of the levels. In societies with highly specialised divisions of labour, some members will be experts at organising and planning (those who govern), while others will do what those who govern tell them to do (those who rule). Parsons says that this will always lead to differences in power and status.

4. In his later work on power, Parsons changed his earlier ideas on purpose (Giddens, 1995). In his later books, which were critical of C.W. Parson thought that the social system created power in the same way that it created wealth in this useful organisation economy. Parsons drew similarities between power and money based on the idea that each played a similar role in two of the four functional subsystems he created for social systems.

5. For Parsons, power comes from being in charge. For him, authority is legitimation that is institutionalised. Legitimation is the basis of power and was described by Parsons (1960) as the institutionalisation of the right of leaders to expect support from the people in the group. By talking about binding obligations, Parsons put legitimacy into the very meaning of power, so for him there was no such thing as illegitimate power (Giddens, 1995).

6. Parsons says that differences in power are based on what people agree on. Power is valid authority because most people in society agree that it is fair and right. Parsons thinks that differences in power and reputation that come with social stratification are both natural and useful for society. It is inevitable because it comes from shared values, which are a necessary part of any social order. It works because it brings together different social groups.

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7. Parsons emphasised that using power is just one way to get someone to do what you want them to do. There are many other ways to do this. Parsons says that you can get people to do what you want them to do by using positive (rewards) or negative (force) sanctions. But most of the time when power was being used, there was neither a good nor a negative sanction. Parsons says it was especially important to stress that having power and using it shouldn’t be linked directly to using force.

Other Theories about Power and the State:

Both the state and power are important ideas that are often debated. There are many social theories and models of state and power, and each one tells a different story about how it started, how it changed, and how it affects people. Some of the theories that are briefly discussed here are the liberal theory, the plural theory, the elite theory, the neo-Marxist theory, and the anarchist theory.

1. The liberal view of power goes back to the works of Hobbes and Locke, who wrote about the social contract. These thinkers said that society grew out of a voluntary agreement, or social contract, made by people who knew that only the creation of sovereign power could protect them from the insecurity, chaos, or violence of the “state of nature.” Here, the state is a neutral arbitrator between competing groups and people in society. It can protect each citizen from the intrusion of other citizens. So, the state is a neutral party that looks out for everyone’s best interests, which can be called the “common good” or “public interest.”

2. Modern writers have added to the liberal theory and turned it into a pluralist theory of state. Pluralist theory says that political power is shared among many different social groups instead of being held by a small group of elites. Pluralist theory comes from many different places. Arnold Rose, Peter Bentley, Robert Dahl, Talcott Parsons, and Neil Smelser are some of the most important pluralist thinkers. Robert Dahl, a supporter of this idea, called rule by a few people a “oligarchy.” According to the pluralist point of view, a democratic government needs competition between two or more political parties.

3. Pluralists say that interest groups and pressure groups that represent different groups of people have a big impact on how the government makes decisions. Pluralists think that organised groups and interests are roughly on the same level because each has some access to the government and the government is willing to listen to everyone. They say that competition between political groups for office gives voters a chance to choose their leaders and a way to change how the government works. The origin of a liberal democratic state can be found in pluralist thought. For pluralists, the state is an organised form of power and authority, and it is the most important protector of democratic democracy in today’s society.

4. The main job of the state is to balance the needs of many different groups that compete with each other, to represent the needs of society as a whole, and to coordinate the work of other major organisations. Smith (1995) says that they see the state as a group of institutions that work against each other, not as a single body that rules over the rest of society. They say that power only appears when there is a clear conflict, and that people’s clear preferences just show what their interests are.

5. The elite theory of power says that all societies have two main groups: the people in charge and the people who are in charge. Classical elite theorists like the Italian thinker Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels said that political power is always held by a small elite and that equal ideas like socialism (Marxist theory) and democracy (pluralist theory) are not true.

Pareto is very satisfied with the way Italian society works. Based on this, Pareto made the following outline of how society works. There are two types of people in a social system:

1. The ruling class is the elite class.

2. Mass-ruled class (non-elites)

There are two parts to the governing class:

1. The leftovers of a mix

2. Group Persistence’s Leftovers

People in the first group try to make the most money possible, so they are very selfish. They want to make big changes to the system, which is why it’s easy for them to blend in with the people. The second group puts a lot of weight on the system being stable. They have high ideals, so they are not self-centered and don’t care about what they can get right now. They are more limited than the first group, so they don’t get mixed up with people as easily.

They are easier to understand if you look at them from a political, economic, and moral point of view.

The first group’s political side is represented by the Fox because they are smart, manipulative, and diplomatic. The second group’s political side is represented by the Lion, which stands for security and idealism. Pareto called this “circulation of Elites.” The power goes back and forth between the two.

As the base for elite rule, Pareto puts a lot of weight on psychological traits. When one elite substitutes another, big changes happen in society. This is what Pareto calls the “circulation of elites,” and he thinks history is a never-ending circulation of elites. He thinks that the state is a tool for the people in power. He thought that modern republics were just another way for the elite to rule.

Gaetano Mosca thought that a minority will always be in charge of a group. He says that in every society, there are two kinds of people: those who rule and those who are controlled. The first class, which is always the smaller one, is in charge of politics and has all the power and benefits that come with it. The second class, which has more people, is guided and controlled by the first class. He thought that democracies are very different from other ways of running a country. Unlike systems like caste and feudalism, which are closed, the ruling class in democratic societies are open. So, there is a good chance that the top will come from many different social groups. So, the goals of different social groups may be taken into account when the elites make decisions. So, it’s possible that the majority has some say over how society is run.

Theory of Power Elite:

In his book “Theory of Power Elite,” C. Wright Mills talks about elite power in terms of institutions.

Mills says that elite power is more about institutions than about people’s minds. He disagreed with the idea that people in the elite are better than the rest of the community. Instead, he says that the way institutions are set up gives most of the power to those at the top of the institution’s order. Some institutions hold “pivotal positions” in society, and those who hold “command posts” in those institutions are part of the elite. Mills names three important institutions. The people in charge of these institutions come from three top groups. In reality, however, the elites’ goals and actions are similar enough and linked enough to form a single ruling group. Mills says that “American capitalism is now in large part military capitalism.” So, as tanks, guns, and missiles pour out of the factories, both the military and economic leaders’ goals are met. In a similar way, Mills says that business and government “cannot now be thought of as two separate worlds.” He says that the people who have political power are an elite group that runs American society and makes all big national and international decisions.

But it wasn’t always this way. …………..A change in the “institutional landscape” made it possible for the power elite to take over. In the 1800s, there were a lot of small businesses with a lot of economic power. By the 1950s, it was mostly in the hands of a few hundred big companies, “which together hold the keys to economic decisions.” Political power was also spread out and localised, with state legislatures having a lot of freedom because the central government was weak. The federal government took away some of the states’ freedom, and political power became more and more spread out. International wars are becoming more likely, so the size and power of the military have grown a lot. The local, state-run military has been replaced by a military organisation that is run from the centre. Because of these changes, power to make decisions has become more concentrated in a few places. Because of this, power is becoming more and more focused in the hands of those in charge of the key institutions.

The power elite is more united and stays together because its members come from similar social backgrounds and because people move between and work in all three classes. Most of the members come from the top classes. They are mostly protestant, native-born Americans from cities in the eastern United States. They went to the same kinds of schools and hang out in the same high-end places. Because of this, they tend to have similar beliefs and feelings, which makes it easier for them to trust each other and work together. Within the power elite, people move back and forth between the three groups all the time. For instance, a head of a company can become a politician, and vice versa. People can be a part of more than one group at the same time. Mills says, “On the boards of directions, we find that the members of these different elites overlap heavily.” So, a general can be on the board of a big business. The power group is stronger when people from the same social background work together and share jobs.

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1. Mills says that the power elite in American society have “unprecedented power and no accountability.” He says that big decisions like when the U.S. joined World War II and when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima were made by the people in power with little or no input from the people. Even though these decisions affect everyone in society, the power elite doesn’t have to answer for them to the public or to any group that looks out for the public good. “The decline of politics as a real and public debate of different decisions” has been caused by the rise of the power elite.

2. Mills doesn’t think there are any real differences between the Democrats and the Republicans, so the public doesn’t have a choice of different policies. The majority of people are seen as a quiet, passive mass that is managed by a small group of powerful people who use “instruments of psychic management and manipulation” on them. The mass media, which is run by the elite, tells the “man in the mass” what to think, how to feel, what to do, and what to hope for. This is because the “man in the mass” doesn’t have a seat at the table of power. He is too busy with his own world of work to care about the big problems of the day.

3. Family, friends, and the neighbourhood. Power elites don’t have to answer to the people, so they focus on power and self-promotion. Mill says that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked with nuclear bombs and totally destroyed for political reasons. But Cambodia, Iraq, and now Afghanistan are all hurt by the actions and tendencies of the American power elite to be dictatorial. Mills thought that they would be to blame for a third world war based on how they were. Mills also thinks that the power group doesn’t care about the mass when it comes to things that happen inside the country. It means that it’s not a big deal if their programmes help most people. That’s why the American public is always upset with how the government works.

4. Robert Dahl said that Mills’s comments are only hints and don’t prove anything. Dahl says that Mills has only focused on one part of power—the elite—when the other part, that they work hard for the good of the masses, is just as important. It would be wrong to think that the power elite has full control in this situation. Only in this book does Dahl talk about how different groups of people with different interests can change the rules to help the majority.

5. Floyd Hunter’s study of power at the local level, Community Power Structure, mostly agrees with Mills’s conclusions about the nature and distribution of power at the national level. Community Power Structure is a study of a large southern city in the United States called “Regional City,” but most people think it is Atlanta, Georgia. Hunter says that power is in the hands of a small group of people who make decisions, and that this group is controlled by “the businessmen’s class.” This mostly economic elite leads by “persuasion, intimidation, coercion, and if necessary, force.” By giving money to local political parties, it has a direct effect on who gets elected and has a lot of power over local politicians, from the governor of the state down. With the power to regulate finance, the economic elite can control who gets mortgages and how much they pay for them, and use this power to get things done in their direction. Hunter looks at a number of important local policy choices, such as a sales tax and urban renewal. He says that the economic elite came up with policies about these problems, which politicians then turned into laws.

Iron law of oligarchy:

Michels thought that it was a necessary part of complicated organisations for power to be held by a small group of people. His famous “iron law of oligarchy” says that in modern societies, parties need to be very well organised, so they eventually become oligarchic, with party leaders and bureaucracy running things in a way that keeps most members from making decisions.

1. Neo-Marxists: The original Marxists emphasised the power of the state to force people to do things. But neo-Marxists took into account the fact that the bourgeoisie state seemed to be legitimate, especially now that everyone can vote and the welfare state has grown. Antonio Gramsci said that in modern times, the political party is what makes up the state. He believed in what is called the “arbiter theory of state.” He said that the degree to which the ruling class is in charge is not just a matter of force, but also of people agreeing to be in charge. He said that political and moral superstructures are mostly independent of the superstructure. He thought that the bourgeoisie had set up hegemony, or ideological leadership or dominance, over the proletariat, and he argued that the state had a big part to play in this. Gramsci’s key term, “hegemony,” describes how the dominant class gets support for its rule through compromises and alliances with some class fractions and the disorganisation of others. Hegemony also describes how the dominant class makes sure that its rule is a stable social formation. He says that hegemony is first established in civil society, where philosophy is woven into everyday life in such a way that it becomes what people think of as common sense. He thinks that power and battle are part of every relationship in civil society, not just between people of different classes.

2. Louis Althusser, a French Marxist, explains the Marxist view of the state in terms of functionalism. Even though he thought the state was mostly separate from the economy, he thought the state was fully involved in the reasoning of capitalism because it works to keep the mode of production going. He also says that since the capitalist way of making things needs the state to keep going, there is a mutual dependence between the economic and political levels (Althusser, 1971).

3. Neo-Marxist theory is similar to liberalism in that it sees the state as an arbitrator. However, it emphasises the class nature of the modern state by pointing out that it works in the long-term interests of capitalism and so keeps a system of uneven power between classes in place.

4. Anarchists were against the power of the state, and they thought that the state and all other kinds of political authority were bad and not needed. They see the state as a concentrated form of oppression. It is just a way for those in power, who are sometimes called a ruling class, to keep others down for their own gain.

How these Theories Fit Together:

Marx and Parsons have both tried to figure out how power works in certain scenarios. Because of this, they have both taken more extreme positions. Most of the time, people don’t use their power only to benefit themselves or only to help the whole group. But the power is used for both things at the same time. So, neither Marx nor Parsons are totally generally applicable in this way.

Regarding constant and variable sum of power:

Karl Marx and T. S. Eliot give these two ideas, which seem to be opposites. Parsons, in each case. Both of them have their own points of view, so neither of them is unimportant. Marx sees it as a relationship between those who have and those who don’t, and he thinks it will always be the same. Parsons, on the other hand, only sees it in terms of power-holders, so its growth proves the idea of a “variable sum of power.”


1. In the framework of two different ways of thinking

2. In the form of leaders who don’t run the country

3. As a system with more than one party


Mills’s “power-elite” is very relevant on an international level. This is clear not only in the political relationships of other countries, but also in the meetings of the UNO, WTO, World Economic Forum, G-8, and other groups. But it doesn’t seem to be as important on a personal level. Dahl’s idea of a “plural interest group” backs this up. Also, on many topics, most people are very grateful to the Federal government.