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Dahl: "Concept of Power"

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The Concept of Power



The Concept of Power is the title of an article written by Robert Dahl where he

examines the fundamental question; What is power? In the article he

** a****cknowledges the difficulty which lies in how to define the concept of power.His acknowledgement is based on the process in which many social theorists view and label power. Dahl defines power as an instinctive thought. He additionally explores the idea that it can be defined in terms of relations among people and is expressed through mathematical reasoning. (Dahl, p. 203) Using the ****President’s relation to Congress, he illustrates how these two branches of government exert power over one another.The Article explains that the study of power is only recent as individuals have only begun to study it. Power in the article is explained as a " bottomless swamp". (Dahl, p. 201)There is not one theory of power but it changes as the variables and player change. Dahl continues to analyze the concept of power by examining specific properties of the power relation. (Dahl, p.204) Dahl discusses power through ouout history has been demonstrated through the language of people feeling the next to label it. He lists two conditions which ****are paramount for the power relation to exist. The first is there must be a “time lag…..from the actions of the actor who is said to exert power to the responses of the respondent.” The actor he refers to comes from his earlier analogy involving the president and congress where actors are defined as “individuals, groups, roles……” The second condition espouses “there is no action at a distance.” (Dahl, p.204)The author signifies a major predicament stems from an ability to compare power. Dahl gives many examples throughout the article using power relations with Senators, Congress, and the President. He lists five factors that should be used in any****comparison of power and lastly looks at how to apply the notion of power comparability. ****These five factors are based on comparing two individuals who are able to yield power. They are: a) differences in the basis of their power, b) differences in the means of employing the basis, c) differences in the scope of their power, d) differences in the number of comparable respondents, e) differences in the change in probabilities. Dahllastly looks at how to apply the notion of power compatibility. Here he uses



























a series of formula's, using the letter M as a measure of power, to

illustrate the application of this concept. 1. ****Behavior: What is the relationship of individuals' behavior to the exercise of power? What role does behavior play?2. ****Decision making and control: Who makes decisions and who has control? How do decision making and control function in the exercise of power?3. ****Conflict: What is the status of conflict, and what is its role in the exercise of power?4. ****Interests: How are individuals' interests advanced? Protected?5. ****Moral orientation: What are the normative goals that the exercise of power aims to achieve?**



In “The Concept Of Power”, by Robert Dahl, power is viewed as a relation between individuals. “First, let us agree that power is a relation, and that it is a relation among people”. (p.203) Dahl seems intrigued by not by the presence of power or the use of power but to make comparisons as to who has more power than someone else. This power can be demonstrated by the actional tht people take but also in what actions they do not take. He also discusses the fact that individuals have different areas in which they have power that can be used. An example is if I were to go in a busy intersection and begin directing in my normal everyday clothing, I might have a difficult time. A police officer, on the other hand, would have much more power over me in this example. Is this power or is this influence?



Everyone makes decisions, however, according to Dahl, those who have power have control. With this said, people have different bases of power for different aspects of life. School board members have a great deal of power in school related issues. Once they step outside that role on their day to day job, the power they can potentially wield is limited.

Decision making and control are related in that decisions are often made with reflection as to who is holding power on a given situation. Dahl is very intrigued by the amount of power individuals have in comparison with other which would impact the amount of control that can be applied.


It appears that Dahl would say that power can be observed and realized in times of conflict. He would also try to measure the effect to which the individual had power in comparison to the other(s). According to Dahl,” I think, that it fully accords with our intuitive and common-sense notions of the meaning of power to say that the actor with the highest probability of securing the response is the more powerful.”


Interests are advanced or protected by the base of power that one holds. Again, individuals hold power in different areas of life. The more areas that one holds power the greater the scope of the power, the more potentially that individual interests can be advanced. This picture becomes very clear in my mind when reflecting on various historical events in which it was the interest of one or a small group of individuals advanced their own agenda. In the same way, power can protect interests or advance are specific idea.


The use of power aims at achieving an intended response. When an individual decides to use his/her power, they are also

knowingly or unknowingly, comparing their base of power to others who might have a difference of opinion to the intended



Bacharach and Baratz would agree that power is about relations among people, but they would disagree that any mathematical reasoning could be used with power. In fact, much of their article is quite critical of the notion that decisions can be categorized as "key" or "routine" (Bacharach and Baratz, 1962, p. 948), which are quantitative measures. Bacharach and Baratz critique Dahl's other works accusing him of seeing only one side of power. The example above of the school board member would be an example of with what Bacharach and Baratz disagree. They would contend that the school board member does not have more limited power when not acting as part of the board. That member may just exert power in other ways via nondecision-making. (- Heather)



Dahl sees power as an observable form of behavior in which one person (the one with power) influences the behavior of another person (the powerless). He discusses power in the context of the most obvious exercises of power in decision-making. Bacharach and Baratz agree that this "face" of power is legitimate. However, their critique of Dahl is that he ignores the other side of power that is hidden from view. This face of power limits the scope of discussion by not allowing certain topics to even be brought up for consideration or deliberation. Bacharach and Baratz would argue that this face of power informs the other. They feel Dahl "unduly emphasizes the importance of initiating, deciding, and vetoing" (Bacharach and Baratz, 1962, p. 952) while ignoring the "dynamics of nondecision-making" (p. 952). (-Karen)


Parsons I think would agree that power to an extent is about relations with people. Parsons talks about the ability of people or social groups as "collectivities" to get things done, especially when there is a resistance present. I believe that Parsons would agree in the above example where the collectivity of the school board has more power to get things done than any one individual. Interesting with a typical seven member school board that if four individuals who have gained their power through support or backing from of an outside influence can influence the position of all through coercive notions of the party who placed them in that power position. Interests are advanced or protected by the base of power that one holds. Again, individuals hold power in different areas of life. The more areas that one holds power the greater the scope of the power, the more potentially that individual interests can be advanced. When members of a school board hold positions of power outside of the school board their position on the board may be of more power. (John)



I think Parsons would agree with much of what Dahl believes about power – but not all. He admits that his description of the subjects ego and alter, where “the actions of one unit in a system can intentionally be oriented to bringing about a change in what the actions of one or more units would otherwise have been” (238) fits into Dahl’s conception of power. However, he disagrees with Dahl that an instance where one simply gets someone to do something by threat or force is an exercise of power. Dahl and Parsons both believe in the importance of the social interaction in the exercise of power. The biggest difference seems to be that while Dahl focuses on the individual, Parsons is more concerned with the social interactions among a collective group of people. (Ty)



Wolfinger also discusses power and control and concluded that these two factors are not only fluid but vary according to the perspective of the person.  However, Dahl seems to be concerned with quantities of power while Wolfinger concludes it is difficult if not impossible to quantify power.  Dahl is interested in the amount of power held by an individual while Wolfinger, in the context of nondecisions, would find it more interesting to explore who benefits from power. (Cindy)


Foucault in his discussion of power definitely discusses it from the point of view of individual subjects (people) and how they use power in their relationships with one another. I found the discussion fascinating in Dahl's article regarding the use of logical or mathematical formulae to compare the relative magnitudes of power between subjects. My impresssion is that Foucault would not have much use for such constructs, especially since he would not see power as a thing possessed, but rather a thing utilized. (Dan)


I find the use of the government and democracy analogy in this article interesting in its relationship with Foucault's theory on power. There is a definite similarity in the scope in which power is described in both articles. The idea that power is a relation among people also appears in Foucault. Foucault might have agreed with some of the five factors for comparing power, such as differences in power bases and in means of employing power. He may not have placed much emphasis on the idea of differences in the change in probabilities, as Dan said in his post. The evolution and transfer of power seems less possible for Foucault, especially in terms of his discussion of coercion and democracy. (Tim)


Whereas Dahl believes that "power can be observed and realized in times of conflict, Bachrach and Baratz support that although explicit conflict is obviously a demonstration of power, so too is power at play in situations where there is no surface conflict.  They suggest that power can manifest itself both consciously and unconsciusly and that power exists when "nondecisions" are made as well. (Sarah)


Wolfinger would agree with Dahl in that power often takes place within the context of relationships.  However, Wolfinger would suggest examining who benefits from the power instead of looking (thorough mathematical measures) at who has the power and how much.  Wolfinger would be likely to assert that people are less intertested in how power is dispursed and exercised, because the impact is not as visibile, however, they would be more interested in how this plays out in relation to them and the lives of others. (Kathy)  

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