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Political Sociology

"All political lives, unless they are cut off in mid-stream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs."

Enoch Powell (1912 - 1998)
British politician.
Joseph Chamberlain

Two distinct but converging intelllectual traditions have defined the field of political sociology: the social stratification tradition pioneered by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels; and the organizational tradition originated by Max Weber and Robert Michels (Lipset 1981). In the first, political sociology is defined broadly as the study of social power in all institutional sectors of society with a primary emphasis on the state and its structural roots in the class system. This tradition takes a holistic view of social structure and change, arguing that the class system determines the organization of the state and political action. The state is conceived as the institutional structure whose central function is maintaining the social order and is thus examined in terms of its functions. The second tradition defines political sociology more narrowly in terms of the organization of political groups and political leadership with primary emphasis on the structure of the state and the groups that compete for control over the state. The state is conceived as the legitimate monopoly on the means of violence. This approach emphasizes the informal and formal organization of political parties, interest groups and social movements, their links to the governmental bureaucracy and formal centers of policy making, the legitimating myths that are used to justify the system of rule, the organization of the legal system, and the sources and impact of public opinion, including the organization of the mass media and electoral politics.

Politics (Fox News)

Figure 1: Politics (Fox News)

As societies modernize and become more complex, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish these two traditions. Institutions become more complex and differentiated, thus developing their own distinctive autonomy while at the same time being shaped by the larger system of power. In response, analysts have blended these approaches together, synthesizing arguments drawn from the competing perspectives. We begin with a brief summary of the classic ideas and their bearing on contemporary work and then examine attempts to integrate these approaches.

Karl Marx and the theory of the State

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels developed two distinct theories of the state: an instrumental theory; and a structuralist argument (Carnoy 1979). In the first, the state is a tool or instrument of the dominant class, used to protect the property system and impose order through force and ideological manipulation. The dominant class is a ruling class, meaning that it simultaneously dominates the economy and the political system. This class is socially cohesive and politically unified, which gives it direct control over the state. The state is the institutionalization of power or, to draw on Max Weber’s conception (1947), the legitimate monopoly on the means for force in society and, as a tool of the upper class, consolidates upper-class power by force and fraud.

In the contemporary period, this argument inspired Mills’s theory of the ‘‘power elite’’ (1956), defined in terms of the cohesive leadership group that unifies the corporate rich, the political directorate, and the military elite, as well as Domhoff’s theory of business dominance (1979, 1990, 1998) and Useems’s inner-circle thesis (1984). In these arguments, the capitalist class is seen as socially cohesive—integrated through exclusive private clubs, prep schools and universities, debutante balls, and interlocking corporate directorships. These networks create an inner-circle leadership group that controls the largest multinational corporations and is central to these various networks. Domhoff (1998) argues that this upper class rules through four processes:

(1) policy planning in which leading inner-circle-controlled policy organizations, such as the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Brookings Institution, develop the major policy proposals that are eventually adopted;

(2) campaign contributions that select the candidates for electoral office (Clawson et al. 1992);

(3) special-interest lobbying for specific firms and industries; and

(4) ideological control through publicity campaigns that control the political agenda and mold public opinion so as to minimize opposition.

Thus the ruling class constitutes an organized leadership group with considerable cohesion and political unity.

Marx and Engels also advanced a structural theory of state, treating it as the autonomous product of class struggles. Thus, in his essay The Eighteeth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ([1852] 1964), Marx argued that the political development of the working-class movement combined with disorganization and internal conflicts within the ruling class led to a military dictatorship. The capitalist class was too divided to rule directly and thus had to be protected by a military dictator. Extending this argument, Neumann (1942) explained the rise of fascist dictatorship in Germany during the 1930s in terms of a combination of working-class mobilization, a disorganized bourgeoisie and strong autocratic political traditions. Drawing on Gramsci’s ideas about the ‘‘modern prince’’ of modern bourgeois civil society (1957), Poulantzas (1973) advanced a structuralist theory of the state, arguing that market competition disorganizes the capitalist class, requiring that the state operate as a ‘‘relatively autonomous’’ institution that organizes the capitalist class into a hegemonic bloc while disorganizing the working class. Critics have pointed out that this functionalist argument lacks a specific mechanism for class rule (Skocpol 1981). In response, Offe (1984) and Block (1987) argued that in capitalism the state is barred from entering profit-making enterprise, which makes state managers structurally dependent on capitalists to make investments and thereby create employment, taxes, and economic growth. State managers are thus structurally pressured to create capital accumulation and act autonomously to promote reforms that rationalize and stabilize the capitalist system.

Thus the stratification tradition has gradually incorporated arguments from the organizational tradition, focusing on leadership groups and the autonomy of political institutions. By conceiving political institutions as independent but structurally dependent on the capitalist economy, these analysts have synthesized Marxian arguments with organizational arguments. Still this position has been subjected to several criticisms. First is that social stratification is not primarily a question of class but one of prestige and exclusionary social practices (Weber 1947; Parkin 1979). As Weber (1947) argued, classes are defined by their market position, which rarely provides sufficient cohesion for successful political mobilization. Status groups, in contrast, are based on shared values and a code of honor, thus readily mobilizing for political action. Thus the political struggle over the state is typically not about class but about the lifestyles and prestige of status communities. Second, political institutions have their own autonomous logic and interests, operating independent of the interests and action of classes and other organized groups. Thus Michels ([1911] 1962) argued that formal organization creates oligarchic leadership which is able to divert political organizations from their official goals to promoting the interests of the permanent staff. Similarly, Weber (1947) argued that rational-legal authority and bureaucratic organization tend to replace traditional and charismatic rule, thus creating the ‘‘iron cage’’ of the modern bureaucratic state. Both arguments underscore the independent importance of political
organizations, to which we now turn.

Max Weber, Robert Michels, and the Organizational Approach

The second major approach is rooted in the work of Weber and Michels as well as the classic elite theorists Gaetano Mosca ([1896] 1939) and Vilfredo Pareto ([1935] 1963). Their core argument is that rule by the few (or the elite) is inevitable. This is due to the scarcity of leadership talent, the psychological need of masses for leadership, and the imperatives of complex organization. The central political question, then, is not the elimination of a ruling class or the creation of a classless society but the institutional mechanisms that regulate elite recruitment and the effectiveness of various formulas for legitimating elite rule. Thus Michels’s thesis about the ‘‘iron law of oligarchy’’ ([1911] 1961) took as its primary target the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), contending that, despite its formal goal of promoting working-class democracy and internationalism, the SPD was in fact controlled by the permanent staff who used it to promote their own careers and positions. This proved prescient when, a few years later, the SPD rallied to the autocratic German Kaiser to support World War I against the French working class. Similarly, Weber’s arguments about the ‘‘iron cage’’ of bureacracy (1947) were borne out by the creation of the Soviet Union which created a highly rationalized political economy more oppressive than any in western Europe. It thus came to dominate human conduct independent of its formal goals. In a similar vein, Mosca ([1896] 1939) and Pareto ([1935] 1963) argued that participatory or ‘‘direct’’ democracy is not feasible and that, at its core, modern democracy is a system for institutionalizing elite turnover by requiring that elites peacefully compete for popular support in competitive elections. Thus democracy is really a system for selecting among competing elites and thus reducing the risks of incompetent hereditary leaders and violent struggles for power. It also legitimizes the system by encouraging mass to assume that they have a say in their rulers and thus contributes to political stability.

Schumpter (1942) developed this further into the pluralist theory of democracy, arguing that by forcing candidates to compete for popular votes in elections with multiple political parties, providing adult suffrage, and protecting rights to speech and assembly, modern representative democracy also disperses power and creates a degree of popular accountability. Electoral competition means that elites have to mobilize popular support and thus respond to public concerns. Dahl (1957, 1982) and Rose (1968) argued that this creates a countervailing power system that ensures that all significant groups have a voice and a vehicle for countering more powerful groups. In this vein, Duverger (1962) shows that electoral rules determine the number and type of political parties. Majoritarian systems with single-member districts and ‘‘winnertake- all’’ elections (e.g., the United States and Britain) create two-party systems with nonideological parties because voters are unwilling to throw away their ballots to support third parties. Proportional systems that allocate legislative seats based on their proportion to the popular vote create multiple ideological parties. This, in turn, creates different opportunities for political expression with majoritarian systems experiencing more protest and conflict because they are less responsive while proportional systems have greater governmental instability due to the number and contentiousness of political parties (Powell 1982).

This pluralist thesis has come under several criticisms. First, competitive elections and rules protecting freedom of association and speech do not counteract the institutional bias of politics. Thus Schattschneider (1960) argued that the interest groups and parties in the United States overwhelmingly represent the upper class. Business and the professions are well represented, while workers, consumers, and disadvantaged groups are weakly represented (Schlozman and Tierney 1986; Berry 1997; Form 1995). Second, pluralist institutions provide no guarantee that disadvantaged groups will be able to mobilize and secure access to the system (Gamson 1975; Piven and Cloward 1979). Thus McAdam (1982) and Jenkins (1985) show that movements on behalf of African- Americans and farm workers were politically blocked by their upper-class opponents until the 1960s, when electoral realignments and increased resources for these groups allowed them to successfully mobilize. Thus political opportunities for the excluded and disorganized are historically variable and by no means institutionally guaranteed. Third is the organizational argument that oligarchy undermines the responsiveness of political parties and interest groups to their supporters (Schattschneider 1960; McConnell 1966). Thus, despite a plurality of organizations, these are internally autocratic and largely unresponsive to member interests.

Arguing that pluralists and stratification theorists share a similar ‘‘society-centered’’ approach, ‘‘statecentered’’ analysts have analyzed the role of state managers as autonomous agents of political change (Nordlinger 1981; Evans et al. 1985; Skocpol and Amenta 1986). Thus, instead of being the tools of special-interest groups (pluralism) or of the upper class and class struggles (neo-Marxism), these state managers independently develop policies that promote their ideological visions and politico-administrative interests. This ability is rooted in the growing autonomy and resources of the state, which is becoming more rationalized and more central to contemporary political economies. Bureaucracy and professionalization insulate government agencies from outside control, thus making them more independent. Because many policies are responses to problems that have previously been addressed, policy precedents have a strong positive feedback effect on the development of new policies. Thus the greater the policy development and administrative capacities of governmental bodies, the greater the ability of state managers to initiate rationalizing reforms (Finegold and Skocpol 1995; Amenta 1998).

This perspective (also called ‘‘historical institutionalism’’ [Skocpol and Campbell 1995]) is a useful corrective to society-centered theories. It shares with classic elite theory the idea that policy making can be independent of societal constraint, and it develops the idea of state capacities. It has been criticized, however, for overemphasizing the autonomy of state managers and failing to specify the conditions under which political institutions are autonomous (Domhoff 1996). In response, Amenta (1998) has synthesized state-centered arguments with resource mobilization theory (Tilly 1978; McAdam 1982; Jenkins 1983) to explain how political institutions mediate the impact of social movements on policy change. Likewise, Finegold and Skocpol (1995) show how political leaders during the New Deal mobilized business support for their policies but also became dependent on business leaders. Some contend that this perspective applies better to the more rationalized stronger states in western Europe and Japan, where state managers and coordinated corporatist bargaining have been central to post–World War II economic policy (Schmitter 1981; Katzenstein 1985). The United States is a strong case for capitalist dominance, thus supporting the stratification approach, while other states display stronger state institutions and thus support the organizational approach.

Possibilities for Synthesis

Since both traditions have proved useful, several have attempted to synthesize them. One approach has been treating these theories contextually, arguing that each theory bears in particular settings or with specific aspects of political change. Thus Laumann and Knoke (1987) argue that some policy arenas are organized pluralistically with multiple competing groups and considerable fluidity, while others are more centralized with a smaller number of actors and a more hierarchical relationship among them. Thus they compare the more pluralistic health care arena with the more centralized field of energy policy. Similarly, Dye (1995) argues that pluralism better explains patterns of elite recruitment while a hierarchical ‘‘power elite’’ model better explains decision making. The challenge for such a contextual synthesis is to develop a rationale for the conditions under which neo- Marxist, pluralist, and state-centered arguments are relevant.

A second approach is to integrate these arguments into a more comprehensive theoretical framework. Lukes (1974) and Alford and Friedland (1985) have advanced a multidimensional theory of political power that conceptually integrates these perspectives. The starting point is Weber’s classic conception of power as the ability to secure one’s will against that of others even if against their resistance (1947). Thus power is always relational, involving interactions among at least two or more parties. It is also hierarchical, in the sense that one party or group is stronger or controls the other. It is also a potential or capacity. History shows that power is often based on force—whether physical or psychological coercion—but that such force is inherently unstable. No society can be organized solely on the basis of force because, at the first opportunity, people will break the rules. Terror is not only unstable but also inefficient. Thus power holders attempt to institutionalize their power; that is, they try to make it more stable by being seen by subordinates as legitimate. Authority is power that is widely perceived by subordinates as fair and just, and thus is more likely to be stable. Manipulated authority is power that power holders have attempted to legitimize by controlling information and creating false images among subordinates. Authentic authority is freely accepted by subordinates as fair and just (Habermas 1976).

Lukes (1974) distinguishes three dimensions of power: decision-making power, agenda control, and systemic power. Decision-making power exists when subordinants are aware of an underlying conflict of interest with power holders but are induced to act in the power holder’s interest. Resources, such as wealth, charismatic claims, or the threat of violence, allow power holders to control subjects against their will. Even if compliance is not total, claimants with superior resources will typically control the behavior of subordinates. This is the aspect of power on which pluralists and state-centered analysts focus.

In agenda control, power holders prevail because they control what issues will be decided and what potential issues are removed from the political agenda. Such processes constitute ‘‘nondecisions’’ (Bachrach and Baratz 1970) in that power holders decide not to decide. Agenda control is more subtle than decision-making power, and is difficult to study but is nonetheless central to the political system. Thus, in a community power study of Gary, Indiana, Crenson (1971) found that powerful industrialists pressured local government to ignore local pollution problems created by the steel plants. Similarly, Perrucci (1994) found that state and local officials mounted joint publicity campaigns with Japanese auto corporations that convinced local voters that the large tax breaks granted to these foreign auto companies would create jobs and tax revenues despite unequal tax burdens. Because the mass media are central to creating public issues, they are typically key. Domhoff (1998) argues that upper-class control over the mass media, the leading universities, and the major policy organizations prevents issues such as unemployment and redistributive tax reform from becoming topics of decision making. News stories are largely created by press releases and interviews with government officials, which gives government officials considerable say over what issues will be aired in the mass media. Subordinates may be aware that power is being wielded, but they cannot force their own perspectives onto the political agenda. Thus this second dimension strongly controls the decision-making process by determining what issues and views get included or ignored. Elite theorists are the key architects of this type of work.

In systemic power, power holders benefit by structural arrangements, such as the distribution of wealth or superior political organization. Subordinates may not be aware of their conflicting interests with power holders and may, in fact, be ideologically indoctrinated to accept the authority of power holders. This may stem from several processes. One is the inability of subordinates to mobilize and press their interests. Disorganized and resource-poor groups are often unable to mobilize (Gaventa 1985; Jenkins 1985). Second are ideologies that legitimize power. Under slavery, slave owners successfully promoted the idea that they were paternalistic ‘‘father figures’’ who cared for and protected their childlike slaves. Insofar as slaves accepted this ideology, they were reluctant to rebel and resisted in ways that were controllable (Genovese 1974). Neo-Marxists advance this type of analysis.

Alford and Friedland (1985) contend that different theories of power have different objects of explanation and different time scales, with systemic arguments focusing on long-term structural change, agenda setting about moderate-term institutional changes, and decision making about shortterm behavior. These are hierarchically organized with systemic power-setting limits on the agendasetting processs, which in turn sets limits on decision making. Thus studies that focus solely on firstor second-dimensional power without including the systemic context are limited and potentially flawed. Seemingly conflicting theories of political power can be synthesized once we specify their objects of explanation and integrate them into a larger theoretical framework.

Hicks and Misra (1993) advance an alternative synthetic ‘‘political resource’’ theory, arguing that institutional contexts define the infraresources or facilitative conditions that enable specific groups to mobilize and secure their interests (called ‘‘instrumental resources’’). Thus neo-Marxian and pluralist arguments about the political actions of specific groups need to be combined with statecentered and elite arguments about institutional capacities and policy precedents. They show that factors identified by all these theories affect the amount of social welfare spending in Western democracies. Similarly, in a study of the adoption of public venture capital firms by state governments in the United States, Leicht and Jenkins (1998) show that corporatist bargaining between big capital and labor combine with strong administrative capacities of state governments to create new entrepreneurial economic development policies. Thus, instead of specifying a causal hierarchy among theories, this approach identifies interactive combinations of factors identified by these various power theories.

At this point, it is unclear which approach will eventually prevail. The contextual approach has considerable flexibility but needs to explain the conditions under which different power theories hold. The multidimensional power argument has conceptual breadth but lacks clear empirical relevance. Unless competing theories can be tested simultaneously in empirical analyses, it is difficult to evaluate how useful a purely conceptual synthesis is. In effect, Alford and Friedland (1985) have simply demonstrated that structural, institutional, and behavioral explanations refer to different objects. The political resource theory has strong empirical promise but needs greater specification as to the interactive combinations that integrate these power theories. Single-factor theories clearly need to be surpassed so that a broader theory of power and the state can be developed that will account for a variety of contexts as well as different power processes within an inclusive theoretical framework.

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