Wolfinger: "Nondecisions and the Study of Local Politics"





Cindy & Kathy Summary and Observations

"Nondecisions and the Study of Local Politics" (1971) - Raymond E. Wolfinger


In this artilce, Raymond E. Wolfinger reviews Barchrach's and Baratz's theory of power discussed in their work Two Faces of Power as well as that of Dahl's study of New Haven's municipal government. Dahl (1957) discussed a concept of power in terms of relationships and ratios, and this power changed depending on the role(s) of the person(s) at a given event. Bacharach and Baratz’s concept of power is from a deficit viewpoint. In “Two Faces of Power” (1962) Bacharach and Baratz feel that it is the “neo-elitists” (the small ruling group) that represent a more “restrictive” use of power by not allowing certain issues to come to the forefront of power discussions. Wolfinger (1971) purpose in this article is to uncover Bacharach and Baratz’s criteria and empirical assumptions in order to make their ideas useful for future research. (Wolfinger, p. 1064)


How does one study power? What aspects of the organization should be studied to understand power distributution?

Wolfinger clarifies three reoccuring nondecision themes in Bacharach & Baratz's work (p. 1066):

1) False class consciousness - "the people don't know what's good for them"

2) "Measurement and assessment of political values, institutions, and procedures, and of people's attitudes toward these rules"

3) Even if we can identify a "nondecision", what conclusions can we extrude?

These are questions that Wolfinger contemplates as he critiques the opinions of others in the field.


Wolfinger takes issue with examining power through the lens of nondecision. There are several problems with an analysis of power by nondecision: false consciousness, measure and assessment of political values, and distribution of political power.


Wolfinger explains three types of nondecision (pp. 1065-66)


1.) Renunciation - a political actor who rejects a decision or fails to bring forward an idea because he/she believes it will be unpopular with some person(s) (Renunciation is one form of nondecision, that is difficult to clearly understand because the nondecision may have taken place due to the perception about the opinion of the people, rather than that of those in power positions.

2.) Abstention - a conscious decision not to be involved (mobilization of bias)

3.) Nonparticipation - people are unaware of their interests and for this reason their interests do not get served



According to Wolfinger, it is more interesting and more productive to study the things that people in power do rather than what they do not do.


(conceptual framework from Steven Lukes (2005))

Behavior: What is the relationship of individuals' behavior to the exercise of power? What role does behavior play?

Wolfinger acknowledges that while nondecisions are important to the study of politics, their role in the research of power is problematic. He uncovers some of the authors' non-articulated assumptions such as who dominates politics and on what basis or what groups are assumed to participate and which are not considered. He also questions some conflicting differences in perspecitves such as how abstaining (Covert grievance, p. 1071) differs from apathy, laziness, pessimism or a lack of interest.


Decision-making and control: Who makes decisions and who has control? How do decision making and control function in the exercise of power?

From a strictly empirical stance, Wolfinger takes issue with the source of power. “there seems to be no way to develop a common currency of units of power from all the nondecisions that research would turn up” (Wolfinger, p. 1079). He also argues that power and control are not necessarily viewed similarly from different vantage points thus skewing any “results” research may discover. Wolfinger asserts that much of the public is not intersted in pursuing politics, causing many of the decisions to be made by specialists. He does believe that elections do disperse power somewhat, but they are not perfect. When understanding power through nondecisions, it is hard to determine who is powerful and who is not, because in reality, anything and everything can be considered an nondecision.


Conflict: What is the status of conflict, and what is its role in the exercise of power?

Wolfinger argues that empirically, it is not clear what the stance is on power and conflict. One theory of neo-elitist behavior is that politicians would make nondecisions when they percieved issue opposition from key groups. Again, one of the problems with understanding power from the perspective of nondecisions is that anything and everything can be considered a nondecision. It is very difficult if not impossible to understand let alone measure all of the factors that contribute to a nondecision. This makes the work of the researcher quite difficult and potentially incomplete.


Interests: How are individuals' interests advanced? Protected?

Wolfinger questions the avenues of power and the resultant choices made by those in power. He points to various studies that investigate who benefits from the power. Since it is difficult to determine people's real interests, understanding nonaction might be irrelevent.

Moral orientation: What are the normative goals that the exercise of power aims to achieve?

Wolfinger argues from an empirical standpoint. His conclusion is that, while recognizing their existence, the power of nondecisions is inconclusive. He does not make reference to moral aspects of nondecisions, but rather discusses the subject from a quantative, logistical research perspective. Wolfinger does suggest a better way to understand power is to change how the researcher questions the workings of power. Rather than asking "who governs?," it might make more sense to consider "who benefits?" And, as with Dahl, it might be most helpful to look at power as a relationships. This way of looking at power can be beneficial due to the notion that the consequences of action are not always what those in power intended.


Bacharach and Baratz anticipated critique and at the end of their article "reject in advance as unimpressive the possible criticism that this approach to the study of power is likely to prove fruitless because it goes beyond an investigation of what is objectively measurable" (1962, p. 952). They argue that critiques simply find the “unmeasurable elements unreal,” and accuse the political science critics of using their “assumptions about power to predetermine their findings and conclusions” (Bacharach and Baratz, 1962, p. 952). They do not contend that viewing nondecisions is an easy task, but they do not accept its subjective nature to be a flaw. (-Heather)


Wolfinger acknowledges that there is a substantative role for nondecisions in the study of politics however this is where he departs from his agreement with Bacharach and Baratz. He essentially believes that it will be unproductive to try to study this face of power. Bacharach and Baratz seemed to be aware that this criticism would be voiced as they used the last section of their article to refute anticipated critique. They argue that just because nondecisions may be "unmeasurable elements" (Bacharach and Baratz, 11962, p. 952) that does not make them any less real. (-Karen)


Parsons would agree with Wolfinger when wolfinger speaks to "Renunciation - a political actor who rejects a decision or fails to bring forward an idea because he/she believes it will be unpopular with some person(s) When the person in power bows to the agendas of the political group who influenced their position would be one example of political influence over the person in the elected position. I believe Parsons would also agree with what Karen said when Bacharach and Baratz argue that just because nondecisions may be "unmeasurable elements" (Bacharach and Baratz, 11962, p. 952) that does not make them any less real - and that the social relationships between people and groups is power in itself that may not be measureable elements but will influence decisions. (John)


Dahl I believe would support the power in nondecision as he relates the power of the positve and negative decisions in politics. " The very essence of th eformal concept of power outlined earlier hinges on a comparision of the difference between what the Senate will do when a given position is taken and what it does when he takes no position. ( Dahl, p.211). This power spoken of by Wolfinger relates to this very concept of Dahl. (amy)




It seems to be a bit difficult to compare Wolfinger to Parsons, since most of Wolfinger was a refutation of Bachrach and Baratz, but here goes.... Parsons probably agrees with much of the criticism about non-decision making that Wolfinger cites. Like Wolfinger, Parsons seems to take a much more optimistic look at the exercise of power – rejecting the views of power leadership as manipulative and controlling. Again, like Wolfinger, Parsons would shy away from the restrictive use of power. More likely, he would also find it much more interesting to study what people do instead of what they don’t do. (Ty)


It appears that Dahl would agree with Wolfinger in that less obvious forms of power do come into play into organizations. He would also agree in that it would be very hard to measure these discreet ways in which power is exercised. (Mike)


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. (Dan)


Coercion and the development of power as widely diffused in Foucault's article strike a chord with Wolfinger's argument about false class consciousness. The distribution of power in Foucault, to me, rings true with the notion that "people don't know what's good for them." This makes sense in that the power relations between classes exist much more subtly in a diffused power structure. However, the ideas in the Wolfinger article about coercion , power and control being possibly mistaken for apathy, alziness, etc., are problematic for me. It may be a chicken and egg argument, but I think there is merit to the idea that perceived apathy is really the result of effective coercion over time. (Tim)


I think Bachrach and Baratz would agree with considering the "who benefits?" question as they seem to question a solely elistist viewing of power.  They anticipated criticism of their "two faces" and thus their last paragraph reads, "We reject in advance as unimpressive the possible criticism that this approach to the study of power is likely to prove fruitless because it goes beyond an investigation of what is objectively measureable.  In reacting against the subjective aspects of the socialogical model of power, the pluralists have, we believe, made the mistake of discarding 'unmeasureable elements' as unreal.  It is ironical that, by so doing, they have exposed themselves to the same fundamental criticism they have so forcefully levelled against the elitists: their approach to and assumptions about power predetermine their findings and conclusions" (952).  I think that their point was just to examine power in a different manner and not to be able to objectively measure it. (Sarah)


Dahl would definitely agree with what Wolfinger talks about concerning the source of power.  He acknowledges there are many potential "landmines" when trying to navigate all the different views of power.  Dahl admits early on and even asks for forgiveness in trying to assume certain definitions of power for the sake of looking at power relations.  (Louis)