Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz (1970) first introduced the concept of nondecision-making, contesting the dominant explanation of the use of power in decision-making by asking how issues are suppressed and the scope of decision-making restricted. This was a challenge to Robert Dahl’s conceptualization of power, which tended to focus on how decisions are made. Bachrach and Baratz suggested that to fully understand power, researchers should also consider decisions that are not made—nondecisions. Nondecision-making involves suppressing challenges to the status quo and suppressing the addition of new issues to an agenda. Issues are excluded from an agenda because they are threatening in some direct way, or because of the competition for the limited space for agenda items.
The concept of nondecision-making is best understood in relation to the concept of decision-making. Nondecision-making differs from decision-making in that direct and even tacit confrontation is avoided. Prior to the introduction of nondecision-making, power often was conceptualized as a conflict relationship—that is, a “power over” relationship. Traditional conceptualization of power, as suggested by Dahl, among others, posits that A gets B to do what B would not otherwise have done. Nondecision-making focuses not on such direct use of power, but on its indirect manifestations. As such, power can be exercised in the absence of a direct and overt threat. For example, assume that A gets B to engage in action X. As a consequence of B ’s engagement in action X, it becomes unlikely that C will get B to engage in action Y ; this is an indirect conflict relationship because A and C are not engaged in direct competition. What this suggests is that power relations can be both direct and indirect, and that they can involve the use of threats or not.
A primary function of nondecision-making is to maintain a mobilization of bias. Mobilization of bias represents a dominant set of beliefs, values, and institutional processes and procedures that work to privilege some groups in relation to others. This is in direct contrast to the pluralist view, which suggests that the marketplace of policy ideas is relatively open and accessible to various groups. Pluralists further argue that due to competition, the various groups possess the opportunity to influence the policy agenda, provided there has been sufficient political mobilization. Thus, groups hoping to influence policy decisions will not necessarily succeed in all of their attempts to influence policy, but neither will they be systematically denied access to influence the decisionmaking process. On the contrary, the theory of nondecision-making suggests that through a mobilization of bias, some groups are systematically denied access to the decision-making process. There are multiple forms by which the privileging of some can be achieved through nondecision-making; the threat of sanctions is one such form. Norms, rules, routines and procedures, values, and myths are often employed in the threat of sanctions. Nondecision-making can also employ the use of force. Another form of nondecision-making involves the use of the “rule of anticipated reactions”: Anticipated reactions result from situations where B, who has relatively less power than A, decides not to make a demand upon A in an effort to avoid confrontation, or out of the fear that such behavior would result in A ’s invoking sanctions against him or her.
The result of nondecision-making is that certain persons, perspectives, issues, or conflicts are excluded or suppressed. Consequently, the scope of the debate is limited and contained to include issues perceived as “safe.” However, it is possible to challenge the mobilization of bias: To do so involves expanding the scope of participation of the decision-making process, and this requires enhancing the knowledge of participants. Community development corporations and progressive coalitions, among other groups, can all play a key role in expanding the scope of the democratic process.
SEE ALSO Game Theory; Power; Power, Political; Schattschneider, E. E.
Frey, Frederick. 1971. Comment: On Issues and Nonissues in the Study of Power. American Political Science Review 65 (4): 1081–1101.
Julia S. Jordan-Zachery