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Bacharach and Baratz: "Two Faces of Power"

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Bachrach and Baratz: “Two Faces of Power”
Bachrach and Baratz’s article “Two Faces of Power” (1962) briefly explains how sociologists and political scientists view power in different ways. They note that sociologists find that “power is highly centralized” while political scientists characterize it as “widely diffused” (Bachrach and Baratz, 1962, p. 947). Although political scientists themselves, Bachrach and Baratz contend that neither notion gives the whole picture. They posit “two faces of power, neither of which the sociologists see, and only one of which the political scientists see” (Bachrach and Baratz, 1962, p. 947). The first “face” of power has to do with the exercise of power on critical issues. This side of power (put forth by Robert Dahl) is the side that the authors believe political scientists do recognize. The second “face,” which the authors feel is unrecognized by political scientists, is the “restrictive face of power” (Bachrach and Baratz, 1962, p. 952). It is this form of power that they feel can inform the first. This "restrictive face of power" involves the "dynamics of nondecisionmaking" (Bachrach and Baratz, 1962, p. 952). In other words, influence is used to limit the scope of discussion or to prevent conflicts from ever being brought to the forefront. Bachrach and Baratz are quite critical of the way political scientists determine critical or “key” issues, and suggest that the “restrictive face of power” can be used “as a foundation for analysis and as a standard for distinguishing between ‘key’ and ‘routine’ political decisions” (1962, 952). While they recognize that identifying these restrictive forces is a subjective act, they discredit in advance any suggestion that this is not a useful construct of power.
The following looks more specifically at the theory put forth by Bachrach and Baratz.
  1. Behavior: What is the relationship of individuals' behavior to the exercise of power? What role does behavior play?
    Behavior plays a critical role in understanding power in its restrictive sense. Bachrach and Baratz also support that behavior of individuals is related to power when a person limits the scope of the discussion. The authors say, "Of course power is exercised when A participates in the making of decisions that affect B. But power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A. To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented...from bringing to the fore any issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A's set of preferences" (Bachrach and Baratz, 1962, p. 948). This sounds exactly like a district with which we are familiar, in that you can only participate (aka talk) in administrator meetings if you have been put on the agenda. Agendas consist of routine, logistical items like lawn-mowers and deadlines to submit documents, whereas items of potential discussion like installing video cameras in the hallways are not "discussable" items but are merely placed on the agenda to inform administrators that it will be happening.
  2. Decision making and control: Who makes decisions and who has control? How do decision making and control function in the exercise of power?
    Control is in the hands of those who can manipulate the issues to be considered, not in the hands of those who make the concrete decisions. Bachrach and Baratz contend this because decision-makers could simply be acting on agenda items that reflect “’safe’ issues” funneled to them by others with this restrictive form of power (1962, p. 948). We believe this is how many superintendents exercise control over their school boards. They bring "safe" issues to the table for school board consideration and reserve the right to personally arbitrate other decisions. This can also be seen between principals and teachers. Often committees with teachers are formed to decide relatively inoffensive things while more substanative decisions are made without discussion. These actions give power.
  3. Conflict: What is the status of conflict, and what is its role in the exercise of power?
    It seems that power in its restrictive sense is about avoiding conflict. Bachrach and Baratz note that there is power when one works to “limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous” (1962, p. 948). In addition, Bachrach and Baratz point out that "to the extent that a person or group - consciously or unconsciously - creates or reinforces barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person or groups has power" (1682, p. 949). An important aspect of the previous statement is the "consciously or unconsciously" part because it supposes that power exists even if it is not consciously recognized as power. Is this a dangerous form of power? If an action is not recognized as power it may not be questioned or challenged.
  4. Interests: How are individuals' interests advanced? Protected?
    Individuals with power have their interests either advanced or protected by the ability of the individual to prevent others from even bringing up any issues that might result in decisions that go against their preferences. On the other hand, individuals without power (or with less power) are blocked from advancing their own interests out of self-preservation. Bacharach and Baratz describe a professor who is ready to bring up an issue at a meeting but chooses not to at the last moment because he recognizes that it against his self-interest to raise an issue that may not have wide support and that would be nearly impossible to address given existing structures.
  5. Moral orientation: What are the normative goals that the exercise of power aims to achieve?

The exercise of power aims to maintain the status quo by determining the rules of the game (Bacharach and Baratz, 1962, p. 952) and by not addressing issues that may be deemed "unsafe."


Bachrach and Baratz support that behavior of individuals is related to power when a person limits the scope of the discussion. Parsons would agree to this if the limit of the discussion is due to the coercion that the person in power may feel from those who put them there. Control in this case is in the hands of those who can manipulate the issues to be considered. Parsons also speaks to how people in power will respond to power voluntarily where we want a society to impose its power on people who violate laws that we the people as a collectivity determined should be followed which I feel would goes against the status quo Bacharach and Baratz deem as unsafe. (John)


I think Parsons would agree with some of what Bachrach and Baratz have to say about power, but disagree too. They may agree on the importance of social interaction in the exercise of power, but they seem to have different perspectives on the ideas of influence and conflict. In Bachrach and Baratz, those in power are portrayed as manipulative people, actively working to keep others out of power – actively working at not making decisions, keeping others in their place. Parsons’ view appears shaped with a softer edge, where people lead by a general consensus – a bindingness forged by a social contract agreed to by all. Attempts to change actions emerge from collective groups of people trying to change the beliefs and/or priorities of those in power. Parsons seems more optimistic about the power of the system to reproduce itself in a natural, positive way – through legitimate leaders (authority) and social contracts among collectivities within society. (Ty)


Wolfinger agrees with Dahl and sociologists in the power of relationships. While not disputing the existence of nondecisions, he points out that it is very difficult to measure the lack of power or to what extent input was limited in order to determine the impact of a nondecision. He feels that nondecisions are not merely an outcome of restrictive use of power but are also influenced by various outside factors. Wolfinger takes issue with the study of the concept of nondecisions as a means of power. (Cindy)


Dahl would agree with Bacharach and Baratz in that less obvious forms of power are present and working within an organization. This, however, would be very difficult to measure and develop any type of theory of power around. Dahl was very interested in developing a theory of how one can determine an individual’s power and he tried to use equations to come to a conclusion. He tried to determine the influence of various senators during a specific time period to determine their influence or power over others. The covert ways in which Bachrach and Baratz discuss power would be very difficult to analyze. (Mike)


As I stated on the Wolfinger posting, the idea of power being exhibited through decisions and non-decisions still sounds like the exercise or use of power. If one can achieve a desired end by doing or not doing something...the it would seem that they had done something. In this sense, overt action or intentional inaction sound to me like means of using power that depend on expediency. From Fooucault, the question would have less to do with methods, I believe, and mroe to do with an interest in how those decisions or non-decision affected the subjects, as well as how they helped to 'form' the subjects. I also believe that Foucault would agree more with the political scientists who believe that power is widely diffused, rather than the sociologists who believe that power is highly concentrated. (Dan)


Dahl would agree with Bacharach and Baratz with the personal relationship and power in an organization. However, the unrecognized side would be difficult to quantify in any mathematical format as Dahl was using to measure power in his article. I would question Dahls opinion as it relates to the power less inviduals. ( Amy)



Foucault's description of power can be related to the two faces of power described by Bachrach and Baratz. Again, the ability for those in power to either cause decisions to be made or not made (the "restrictive" face) seems similar to the way in which the bouurgoisie developed its power structure to control and ensure a productive system, which of course benefits them and those above them in social stature. Maintaining a status quo through these two faces is in accord with Foucault, as well. (Tim)


In his article titled Nondecisions and the Study of Local Polotics, Raymond Wolfinger seeks to explains ways in which Bachrach's and Baratz's criteria can be made useful in field research.  Wolfinger is quite supportive of Bachrach and Baratz in their quest to understand power, but feels that the study of nondecisions is difficult, confusing and cannot be empirically studied.  It is hard to identify nondecisions, and according to Wolfinger, almost anything can be perceived as a nondecision.  Because it is hard to discern people's real interests, Wolfinger finds this approach to understanding power less useful. (Kathy)


 Bachrach and Baratz would take Dahl's view of power in what he terms as "actors" and analyze it from more of a socio-political means.  While he would definitely agree with the two authors, the relation between the two actors, identified in both articles as A and B, would not be compared in such a bi-lateral fashion as these authors seem to champion. (Louis)

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