Evolution of academic debates

In 1961 Robert Dahl famously asked about New Haven, Connecticut, ‘Who Governs’? His book was one of the best known in a genre of work on community power in the United States at the time, launching a large debate on who had power, and indeed how one understood power in American democracy, especially at the local level. Earlier Dahl (1957: 202) had written, ‘my intuitive idea of power, then, is something like this: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.’ Power in this approach could be found very simply by examining ‘who participates, who gains and who loses, and who prevails in decision-making’ (Polsby 1963: 55), especially at the community level, where power might be most observable.

This view of power was challenged in 1974 by Steven Lukes, in his perhaps even more well-known book, Power: A Radical View (and in his expanded version in 2004). Critiquing the argument that power could be studied by observing who prevailed in decision making arenas, Lukes argued that power must be understood not only in terms of who participates, but also in terms of who does not. Power he argued, had three faces – the public face which Dahl, Polsby and others had studied, a hidden face, which served to keep issues off of the agenda of decision making arenas (Bachrach and Baratz 1962), and an even more ‘insidious’ third face, through which the relatively powerless came to internalise and accept their own condition, and thus might not be aware of nor act upon their interests in any observable way. Lukes’ analysis of what he called the three ‘dimensions of power’ has spawned a series of debates and studies about how power affects not only who participates in decision making processes, but also who does not, and why. Read more on Lukes and invisible power.

This text was adapted from ‘Levels, Spaces and Forms of Power: Analysing opportunities for change’  by John Gaventa in Power in World Politics, published by Routledge in 2007.

References in this section for further reading

Bachrach, Peter and Baratz, Morton (1962) ‘Two faces of power’, American Political Science Review 56: 947-52.

Dahl, Robert (1957) ‘Decision-making in a democracy: The supreme court as a national policy-maker’, Journal of Public Law 6: 279-295.

Dahl, Robert (1961) Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Lukes (1974) Power: A Radical View, London, Mcmillan (reprinted 2005, Basingstoke, Palgrave Mcmillan)

Polsby (1963) Community Power and Political Theory, New Haven, Yale University Press.


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