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Parson: "On the Concept of Political Power"

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“On the Concept of Political Power”
Talcott Parsons
After admitting that there are many different definitions of power, Talcott Parsons’ “On the Concept of Political Power” settles on a basic consensus view of power as having to do with the ability of people or of social groups (“collectivities”) “to get things done” – especially when there is some type of resistance present. The article tries to look at power within the context of societies – with special attention paid to the role that coercive measures play in relation to “the voluntary and consensual aspects of power systems.”
To clarify his ideas, Parsons juxtaposes the use of money in an economic system to the use of power in a political system throughout the article, showing similarities in the use of both – but significant differences as well. Parsons studies the different roles that power can play in what he calls “collectivities.” Society, the primary focus of his work, is a collectivity, but there are many smaller collectivities found within larger collectivities. For example, a country, a state, city, school, or classroom, would all be examples of various types of collectivities.
Parsons outlines three specific areas where he feels that the concept of power, as theorized in past literature, has been somewhat problematic. First, he rejects the view that power is simply the “generalized capacity to attain ends or goals in social relations, independently of the media employed or of the status of ‘authorization’ to make decisions or impose obligations.” Instead, Parsons argues that power needs to be understood as a “specific mechanism operating to bring about changes in the action of other units, individual or collective, in the process of social interaction.” (232) It is this social interaction – this social relationship between groups of people – that is important for power to operate. Much of Parsons’ article focuses on various commitments and obligations that exist in societies – social contracts of some sort, where, for a variety of reasons, people respond to power.
The second area of intrigue, for Parsons, is the intellectual debate about the coercive and consensual nature of power. There is a tendency with many theorists to attach an “either-or” tag to the terms, insisting that one aspect is more prominent than the other or that they are indeed different, separate forms of power. Parsons argues that both attributes are “essential” to the concept of political power and that we shouldn’t view them as separate entities. “It (power) is both,” he says, “precisely because it is a phenomenon which integrates a plurality of factors and outputs of political effectiveness and is not to be identified with any one of them.” (258) He identifies both positive and negative reasons that people might respond to the exercise of power and shows how the influence of power can be both coercive and consensual, often in the same context. In the article, he gives examples of instances where people respond to power voluntarily, rather than through coercion (though a threat of coercion can certainly loom in the background). We accept, for example, that laws are necessary – we want a society that will impose its power on people who violate laws that we have collectively determined should be followed. We also understand that someone may exercise power by getting us to change our mind about something, in a positive way, where we drop resistance because we want to do so.
Finally, he refutes the argument that the imposing of power results in a zero-sum outcome – where any increase in power of subject A must necessarily mean a decrease in the power of subject B (or C, D, etc.) (again, the money example is used as a foil: if I give you my money, it has increased your income while decreasing mine). Parsons claims that a zero-sum outcome is possible and often occurs, but is not always the case.
Lukes' Framework:
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
1. What is the relationship of individuals’ behavior to the exercise of power? What role does behavior play?
In Parsons' view, social contracts create a type of bindingness among collectivities. A hierarchical order is created in power systems, where priority is assigned to certain actions. Individuals (and groups) respond to that order for a variety of different reasons – some negative and some positive. People often respond to the exercise of power because they recognize the very real negative impact on their person should they choose to not respond. They also may respond to the exercise of power in a positive, consensual way because they agree with the action being taken. For the most part, within political systems, people go along with the program because they have been bound, through a social contract, to those who are making the power decisions. Behavior can still impact change, however. The key is to somehow alter priorities so that new priorities become binding to the collectivity. For example, interest groups, a collectivity in their own right, try to exercise influence over those in power – those who make the binding decisions – hoping to change the priorities in the hierarchical order. Of course, in extreme examples, people can simply choose to not respond to power – a situation that happens more often than we would like. People go to jail and nations go to war precisely because they choose to reject the exercise of power by those in authority.
2. Decision making and control:
Authority is the aspect of some status of a social organization where the person in authority has the power to make decisions that are binding. In a school, the principal is viewed as the person of authority who has the ability to make the final decision in that aspect of the community. The principal in this case is the person in power. In the global scheme of the organization the principal isn’t the final decision maker or the person who creates policy. He is the person who has the power to create procedures based on the policy that have been created by people in the organization, who in the public school system, are the board of education. The BOE is the governing body elected by the people who create the policies that are enforced at the building level by the principal. The principal has a degree of local control over one aspect of the organization. In defining who has control in an organization, we must ask the question of what part of the organization are we talking about? In comparing schools, businesses, or government we see many similarities in how decision making and control are governed. In all circumstances there is usually some governing board of control that has power and influence over the organization. There are both internal and external powers that have a degree of influence in decision making and control over the organization. The binding ness of a decision in reference to a school in a school district is only binding to the school in which that principal works. This decision making ability over this aspect of the organization is also subject to others with in the organization who oversee the larger aspects of the organization.
3. Conflict:
An example of conflict in an organization could be when a person accepts a position of leadership in exchange for support from an organization to gain the position of power and status. The conflict comes when the organization that gave its support to the person seeking the leadership position exercises its influence over the leader as an exchange for the support it gave to put the person of leadership in the position they are in. Agendas of those who gave the support may be in conflict with what the leader believes or the power they have gained in the organization.
4. Interests:
The advancement of individuals’ interests in an organization is an interesting question. In a school the leader’s interest should be represented by the collective interests of all stakeholders with the primary focus on distributing goods and services in equitable way. One problem is that outside forces can sometimes influence how services are distributed. This brings up the conversation of equity versus equality. Is it equal to fund all programs the same? Should the interests or needs of the least advantaged outweigh those who have or who are achieving? Individual interests are sometimes served due to the influence those individuals with personal agendas may have either in the organization or from their status of the position they hold. Interests of individuals can be protected by the hierarchical divisions of power in the organization as a whole as well. I believe this is one reason how the democratic system in our society works to protect the interests of the people with in the system. In the democratic system those who hold the power, to a certain degree, kept in check because of the system. This can work both for and against the different classes where the interests of the majority of those who have will many times over shadow those who don’t. It’s not a perfect system, but it is one with checks and balances that is designed with the intent to protect the interests of the collectivity.
5. Moral orientation:
According to Parsons' the concept of moral orientation as it relates to the normative goals that the exercise of power aims to achieve, is reflective in the notion that the concept of power is rooted in the generaized capacity to attain ends or goals in social relations, as well as creating the status of authorization to make decisions or impose obligations. Furthermore, issues of coercion, influence, and dominion become byproducts of the organization's moral compass. Parsons' describes the notion of "Zero Sum" with moral implications in the sense that power within organizations are designed to eliminate or over rule any competing factions within the organization. In addition, the concept of Authority becomes the essential normative goal and phenomenom that breeds power in most organizations. For example, resources like land, money, and property rights become bargaining chips for people with power and authority. Idealistically, the public trusts that these individuals who have access to resources and various goods, would act and preside wihtin an ethical and moral framework. Parsons' proclaims that there should be a governing body that oversee's processes and interactions among government and non-govermental factions to ensure that moral and ethical components are intact. As a result, hierarchial frameworks are limited and controlled.
I believe Bacharach and Baratz would agree that a social relationship among people is important for power to operate. In their example of the professor who chooses not to bring an issue forth for consideration there are relationships at play. The professor realizes that he would stand alone on the issues, which was a position he didn't embrace (Bacharach and Baratz, 1962, p. 949). I also believe, however, that they would argue that the leader in conflict with an organization trying to exercise influce is exercising power. By electing to not decide on issues against the interest of the organization, that leader is exerting power (as is the organization - represented by some other leader "higher" on the ladder). ( Heather)



Parsons emphasizes the importance of social relationships between groups of people or collectivities for power to operate. His focus seems more in line with Dahl and the visible face of power as he describes hierachical divisions of power and authority. I believe Bacharach and Baratz would level the same criticism as they gave Dahl. That is, there is another side of power at work that is not visible. This "second face" also uses social relationships to operate but the nondecisions are not overt. (-Karen)


As discussed above Dahl's discussion regarding power as a relation among people seems to connect with Parson. Dahl speaks about the positive and negative influence of individuals . Parson's seems to relate to the same concept with the discussion of positive and negative power in the collective group. Additionally, the concept of social interaction again related to Dahl's belief of power is equal to the relations of people. ( Amy)


The authors stated that “A hierarchical order is created in power systems, where priority is assigned to certain actions. Individuals (and groups) respond to that order for a variety of different reasons – some negative and some positive.” Dahl would agree with this in that individuals would respond to some form of action or conflict in a different way based on what was known about the individuals who started the action. Parsons also used numbers to try to justify his theories pertaining to power which is similar to Dahl. They differ in the Dahl focused more on the individual in relation to power where Parsons seems to focus more on group dynamics. (Mike)


Wolfinger also would have viewed relationships as being key to the study of power. Parsons discusses in detail the intricacies of these relationships and their impact on actor’s choices, which results in nondecisions. Parsons acknowledges these factors as varying commitments or obligations, which cause people to respond in different ways to power. It is in these negative or positive responses, which contribute to nondecisions possibly as much as the decisions of those in power. (Cindy)


The aspect in Parson's take on the relationship of individuals to the exercise of power reminded me of Foucault's discussion of how power has developed over time, in the West, to be used to coerce certain behaviors/activities. Foucault would be less likely, I believe, to see power as being deployed only in a heirarchical fashion, at least in this day and age. Such a configuration might fall under the older paradigm of the right of the sovereign to power and rule. (Dan)


Parsons discusses the idea of getting things done, which I found similar to Foucault's discussion of production. Foucault sees the execrise of power by the bourgoisie as a means by which production is maximized. In addition, the interplay between coercion and consent is interesting in comparison to Foucault. Foucault's point of view is that power exists in the relationship between individuals and that power relations have evolved from the sovereign exercising power to a more generalized understanding by individuals that the power system established by the sovereign is the norm. This fist with Parsons' idea that power is not either coercion or consent, it is both. What is perceived as consent is often really consent based on the coercive forces that made the power structure what it is. (Tim)


I think that Bachrach and Baratz would most agree with Parson's rejection of the intellectual dichotomy of consensual versus coersive nature of power.  Although this isn't specifically addressed in the article (I don't think), that what Bachrach and Baratz deem "non-decisions" could be both consensual and coersive.  For example, a group could be consensually not addressing issues that are then coersive to another individual or group. (Sarah)


Wolfinger would again be supportive of Parson's views regarding relationships being an important factor to examine when studying power.  I think that Wolfinger would be less likely to agree that power is hierarchical in nature because he does not believe that the neo-elitist theory is the best way to understand power.  I think Wolfinger would find value in trying to understand the power of collectives, but would want to make sure that understanding was based on decisions and impact, not non-decisions that might take place as a result of the composition of the groups.  (Kathy) 


Parson's view of the coercive and consensual nature of power fits right in with the examples Dahl provide in looking at the concept of power.  Dahl uses equations with variables to show how senators, the president, and members of congress might react based on one another's relation to each other and any decisions that are made.  Dahl places this relation at the height of his views behind understanding where power resides within people and their specific roles. (Louis)

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