Review of a political debate


The debate on power is a big problem particularly with scholars; therefore, there is need to develop culturally sensitive approaches to the question of the responsibility of scholars in the realm of power. This is in terms of cultural, historical, intellectual, and social contexts. The role that is played by intellectuals and how they approach the question of power and authority has attracted some considerably heated debates on the matter (Zhang, 2011). In his 1993 Reith Lecture, Edward Said argued that every intellectual has the responsibility and obligation to speak the truth to power (Zhang 2011). He further states that scholars and intellectuals should be moral agents’ but not mere servants of power.

There is however a wary between the visible relationship between the scholarly world and the world of power; this puts academics and researchers in the corridors of power. There are numerous lines of conflict especially in shifting power; this is because power transfer is a continuous bargaining process between different parties that are involved (Lukes, 1974 pg 44). Various scholars have therefore, come up with different views and arguments that have made them disagree intensely on the issue of power.


In his argument, Dahl a prominent political scientist first ascribed to political power the trait of decision making as the main source and indicator of power. Bachrach and Baratz, both decided that simply ascribing decision making as the basis of power was too simplistic so they included what they termed a second dimension of power. This was agenda setting by elites who worked in the backrooms and away from public scrutiny in order to exert power upon the society. The british academic Lukes came up with a third dimension of power, and a form of preference-shaping, that became another important aspect of normative power in politics which entails theoretical views similar to notions of cultural hegemony. The three dimensions of power are today often considered defining aspects of political power by political researchers. Power is likely to be the most universal and fundamental concept of political analysis by scholars (Hay, 1997 pg.47)

The contribution of Bachrach, Baratz and Lukes in the debate is crucial and needs to be examined more critically. Although the former two dimensional approaches to power is ultimately comprised by the residuals of behavior that it inherits from classic pluralism, the latter three dimensional views suggests a potential route out of this pluralist impasse. The scholars attempt to differentiate clearly between analytical questions concerning the identification of power within political and social settings, and questions about the critique of the distribution and exercise of power thus identified. Power is politics and politics is power; power is arguably the single most important organizing concept in social and potential theory (Hay, 1997 pg.52).

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For Dahl, one time doyen of classic pluralism, A has more advantage in terms of power over B to a level that s/he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise and crucially have done; in this case there is a direct conflict of interest between the actors involved (Lukes 1974 pg 48). In the practice of power, when one person benefits, the other party involved in most cases has to lose. There is concentration on the actions of individuals within the decision making process as distinct from the context within which such decision-making takes place (Hay, 1995 pg 57). This approach to power had an obvious appeal; this is because the power is visible and can be catalogued, classified and tabulated in terms of the realization of preferences in the heat of the decision making process. Bachrach and Baratz, critically argue and seek to demolish the edifice of classic pluralism; Power is just janus- faced, it has a considerable complex nature that is merely obscured by a narrow concentration of the decision making process (Bachrach and Baratz, 1970 pg 950). They argue that decision making is essentially and obviously a power relation affair because the actions of A affect B, this is not the end of the story; this is because is not only a decision making process.

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Hay criticizes Dahl’s rendition of classic pluralism because he provides no basis (objective or otherwise) for ascribing importance to specific issues and decisions. It is evident that some decisions are more crucial than others and an approach merely concentrates on the frequency with which their different groups and actors go their way is likely to distort systematically the power relations involved (Benton 1981)

Bachrach and Baratz suggest the need to locate decision making within the immediate context of setting agendas. The Two-dimensional conception of power represents a significant advance on that of the classic pluralism in its sensitivity to the selectivity of the decision making agenda and the mechanisms by which significant issues may be filtered out and thereby excluded from the decision making process. Bachrach and Baratz, 1962 pg 949 assume that power relation exist only insofar as there is actually observable conflict between those exercising power and those over whom it is exercised. They thus exclude the possibility of power being exercised in situations in which the subordinates do not look at themselves as subjects of subordination. This means that the subordinates do not perceive themselves as having an interest that they cannot get because they are being prevented from exercising it; that is, either in the decision making process or in the process of agenda setting (Clegg, 1989). They criticize the classic pluralism but they retain a residual behaviouralism that they got from the pluralism problematic (Benton 1981)

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Lukes tries to point out the bold attempt of Bachrach and Baratz to overcome parochial pluralism as a limitation; he lays the basis for his distinctive and important intervention in the debate (Lukes 1974 pg 50). Lukes calls for a radical three dimensional conception of power where there was only one face of power; he now aggregates for three. He terms bachrach and Baratz’s, argument as unrealistic; that is the notion to restrict the use of the term power to situations in which actual and observable conflict is present. It is not the most insidious exercise of power to prevent people, to whichever level, from complaining by shaping their cognitions, perceptions, and preferences in such a way that they accept their various roles in existing order of things (Lukes, 1974, pg 44). That is either because they can see or imagine no alternative to the matter, or just because they see it as unchangeable. Lukes achievement is considerable, but his argument is no less problematic for that. In his attempt to expand his notion of power to include shaping preferences, then he is forced to show the difference between subjective or perceived interests on the other hand. It is clear that such a claim is logically unsustainable and politically offensive, and at times Lukes seems only too well to be aware of this (Benton, 1981 pg 82). He does not give any suggestions as to how such an empirical basis can be put and, as stated that identifying interest is essentially a normative task.

Lukes is unable to offer a basis, either normative or empirical basis from which to assess the genuine interest of social subjects in a potential power relationship (Morris 1987). Doyle criticizes Hay by claiming that he fails to keep normative and analytical questions distinct that conflates the identification and critique of power relations (Lukes 1974 pg 47). Hay redefines the concept in terms that eradicate questions from the analysis of power; therefore Doyle notes that Hay does not meet his objective.

The three dimensional conception of power developed by Lukes can be made to work; he argues that Hay draws a problematic distinction between subjective and objective interests that makes the identification of the third dimensional power value laden and unscientific (Hay,1997 pg 52)


From the above discussion, we derive confusion and ethical political dilemmas that punctuate Luke’s discussion of power derived not from his conception of power as preference shaping. Rather they have their origins in his attempt to revise and modify rather than reject and replace the behavioral and agency centered definition of power that he he inherits from Dahl, Bachrach and Baratz. There is a resulting need to differentiate between real and perceived interests. This is associated smuggling of normative criteria into analytical definition.

From the above arguments, there is a failure to differentiate clearly between analytical questions concerning the identification of power within political and social and political settings, and questions that are normative concerning the critique of the distribution and exercise of power (Morriss 1987). Dalh, Bachrach and Baratz simply assume that preferences and interests are identical, thereby dissolving an ethical question (what are A’s interests?) into an empirical question of what does A perceive her/his interests to be (Doyle 2002 pg 49). They therefore, reject the behavioral definition of power and redefine the concept in such a way as to separate out these distinct ethical and analytical questions.

It is therefore, likely that political scientists will remain divided by the concept of power; it is essential that people learn how to differentiate between the analytical questions concerning the critique of the distribution and power thus identified. It is all this, above or else, that is surely the lesson of the faces of power debate.

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