Community Power Studies

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Community Power Studies






Power is a contested concept, with little agreement about what exactly to study or how to go about it. It is also a concept that belongs to many disciplinespolitical science, sociology, and psychology all accord it special importance. Furthermore, disciplinary differences overlap ideological ones.

One of the most intensely debated applications of power is in the study of local communities. Although concerned most directly with local politics, community power is linked to issues about the basic nature of democracy in modern society. The work that drew attention to power was Floyd Hunters 1953 book on Atlanta, Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers. Earlier community studies dealt with power only incidentally. Hunter made it central. Coming from a background in sociology and social work, Hunter nonetheless focused on politics and on how the system of representative government worked in practice. In response a pluralist school of thought headed by Robert Dahl (2005) challenged Hunters finding that the business sector with its rich supply of economic and organizational resources could determine a localitys policy agenda. Instead, this school argued that governing is autonomous and that popular elections are the guiding force that keeps policy choices in line with citizen sentiments.

In its formative stage the community power debate set forth sharp alternatives. Are local communities dominated by the local business class like the preWorld War II Middletown studied by Robert S. Lynd and Helen M. Lynd (1929, 1937), or are they governed by shifting coalitions, with public officials often in the key role, like Dahls postwar New Haven, Connecticut? With different cities at different times yielding different findings, grounds for amicable coexistence among researchers proved hard to establish. Hunters Community Power Structure thus triggered a cross-disciplinary, ideologically infused controversy that lasted for a quarter of a century or longer. Each side elaborated a case for its argument and against the opposing argument, largely neglecting alternative possibilities. With the research task framed narrowly, pluralists could demonstrate that, as in New Haven, a small elite is not in control. However, their critics could also show that less-privileged segments of the population are left out and have little voice in governance. Contending sides consistently talked past one another, a pattern that has much to do with the nature of power and an initial focus on power as control.

Besides power as the ability of one actor to dominate another, some scholars see power as a shared activity in which people come together to do something that individually they could not do. The two forms can be thought of as power over and power to. The first refers to conflict where the preferences of one clash directly with the preferences of another. The second refers to circumstances in which the capacity to act comes through a combined effort, preferences are not firmly fixed, and conflicts are largely indirect and inferred. While the two forms of power may seem to have little to do with each other, in a community setting there are ample instances of both, and oftentimes they overlap. In conflict scenarios efforts to dominate often generate resistance, thus running up the cost of control. Attempted domination may give way to tacit bargaining over the degree of control and can even evolve into a form of exchange in which each party decides to give up something to receive something. This form of bargaining can shade into instances of power to.

As bodies of people with shared concerns, whether it be to maintain public safety or provide a medical facility, communities have a need to act collectively. To the extent that they have this capacity, they can be self-governing; but that capacity does not come free of complications involving both forms of power. In complex societies the governing function takes a distinct form, seemingly differentiated from other functions, and thereby becomes somewhat separated from the people as a whole. Under such a separation some elements may come together in support of their particular version of how to meet community needs. In this way they give strength to a capacity to act, that is, give shape to a form of power to. However, if others find themselves left out, then those left out may experience power as a form of being dominated. A capacity by one set of actors to shape a priority agenda potentially leaves others in a marginal position in the governance of the community.

In principle representative government is a check against one element of society ignoring the concerns of others. Essentially, then, the community power debate is over how the representative process functions in practice, with wide disagreement about the degree to which formally democratic systems operate in line with the ideals of representative government. In a classic form set forth by Dahl, the pluralist school of thought sees politics as basically open and inclusive. No group is consigned to a marginal political standing. Pluralism, however, has been subject to a variety of critiques, including the charge that it is a legitimating ideology rather than an evidence-based explanation of how democratic politics actually works (Merelman 2003; see also Kariel 1966). Some antipluralists maintain that the central facts of local political life are about how some segments of society are well positioned to act on their concerns and to protect their interests while others suffer an unending disadvantage.


Pluralists and their critics (the latter variously called stratificationists, elitists, neo-elitists, or, the term used here, antipluralists) differ sharply in the assumptions they make about the political world to be studied. Although scholars do not divide into two highly unified camps, there are distinctly different schools of thought. Contrasting their assumptions is illuminating.


  1. The authority of government is an important base of action, and in representative government competitive elections have a potential to make officials responsive to the citizenry. Although social and economic inequalities are consequential, universal suffrage can serve as a check against the accumulation of power in the hands of a few.
  2. Society shapes politics in the following way: Over time deference to persons of high family status and wealth yields to instrumental understandings of authority. With increasingly differentiated roles and associated calculations of self-interest, conflicts are issue-specific and changeable. In this setting the exercise of control is costly and power inherently centrifugal.
  3. Power is manifest in conflicting preferences and is evident in the observable actions of individuals.


  1. Because governing involves more than formal institutions of government, elected public officials have limited autonomy. They often seek support and cooperation from highly useful, even essential nongovernmental sources. Therefore, elections are not the pivot around which actual governance turns. Although there are rituals celebrating democracy and popular participation, they may disguise rather than reveal political reality. In a society in which investment capital is privately owned and various elements of society differ in capacity to mobilize, public officials are easily drawn to those who control abundant and attractive resources.
  2. The functional usefulness of a governing capacity and the strategic advantages of positions within a governing arrangement serve to make resistance to those arrangements difficult. Although Robert Michelss (1959) law of oligarchy is less than ironclad, it is a factor because the leadership function is to varying degrees not subject to popular control. Therefore, even in a complex society, power is not inherently centrifugal.
  3. Highly visible policy actions are insufficient evidence for understanding power. The flow of decisions and nondecisions is potentially more telling than specific controversies. Hence, agenda control is more fundamental than outcomes in particular issues. Asymmetrical dependencies, reputations for power, issue suppression, and manipulated rules and procedures are aspects of power important to study.



  1. In the continuing debate over community power, Dahl and other pluralists favor the term dispersed inequalities. It is contrasted with traditional inequality, in which a small group of notables enjoy the combined advantages of status, wealth, and political office. The claim of dispersion rests on two dynamics. One is that, with electoral popularity differentiated from historical forms of deference, numbers can counterbalance wealth and social standing. If any high-status group aims for an expanded scope of influence, then its members must contend for popular support rather than pursue control on their own terms. The other dispersing force comes from the distribution of immediate interests. Everyone cares intensely about only a few matters of special concern. Because complex society produces highly differentiated concerns, intensities fragment to coincide with highly particular interests. Thus, interest group rather than class is the most useful term of analysis.
  2. Because contenders for electoral office have incentives to be responsive to those most concerned about any given issue, the intensely concerned are influential in their special area of interest. And because the overall pattern is one of fragmentation, those who are influential on one narrow issue carry little weight on many other issues. The narrowness of issues means that over time many different groups can be satisfied to some degree, although few groups get all they want. Politics is fluid, and the central political factor is the electoral connection between vote-seeking politicians and a citizenry capable of mobilizing against any threat to its particular but varied interests. While most citizens are politically passive most of the time, elite competition keeps the system open.


  1. Although antipluralists come in various guises, their shared position is that social and economic inequalities have deep roots with profound consequences for political mobilization. For example, Rodney E. Hero (1992) finds what he labels two-tiered pluralism, which has a surface layer in which lesser issues correspond to pluralism and a deeper layer of issues about race and ethnicity that formal equalities in suffrage and legal standing are ineffective in addressing.
  2. Political arrangements have limited pliability. Conflicts compete with one another and any established arrangement constitutes a mobilization of bias that is not easily overturned. When applied to local governance, one body of issues may crowd others out and elections may be captive to historic or other loyalties, thereby reducing their potential for exacting accountability.


Despite decades of debate and criticism, there remains a tendency for pluralism to be defined operationally as the absence of control by a small, cohesive elite. However, meeting this loose definition is not the same as the claim that politics is open and widely inclusive. For critics of pluralism the puzzle is how, beyond such specific factors as the mobility of capital, to account for the ongoing political weakness of the less privileged. After its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, the pluralist-antipluralist debate receded in salience, in part because both sides cast their argument in terms too narrow to address the full picture of local governance. Still, the community power concept is appealing in part because in principle it addresses the whole of the local political order and not just the actions of officeholders.

The whole of the local political order should not, however, be equated with a self-contained form of rule. European scholars have long cautioned against such an assumption and have called attention to national context (e.g., see Dunleavy 1980). They explain that the structure of intergovernmental relations may impinge greatly, and, depending on the circumstances that vary from country to country and from time period to time period, the business sector may not have a strong incentive to involve itself in local politics.

In the 1980s the aim of addressing the whole of the local political order regained footing through the idea of an urban regime. This concept shifts emphasis from who governs to questions about how governance takes place which concerns have priority and why, what various participants in the process contribute, and how efforts come to be coordinated around some issues but not others. How key actors understand their situation is important, and this includes matters they take as a given. As a concept, urban regime provides a way of acknowledging that governance involves much more than operating the levers of the formal machinery of government. A regime consists of the informal arrangements by which public bodies and private interests function together in order to be able to make and carry out governing decisions (Stone 1989, p. 6). Arrangements, of course, do not just happen. They are created and maintained as a way of pursuing a set of aims, perhaps seeking to loosen some constraints while accommodating others. Because different agendas call for different kinds of arrangements, regimes in some sense indirectly compete. Any established arrangement for governing may hold a preemptive edge. While that edge may be surmountable, it takes a considerable combination of resources and effort to bring a new governing arrangement into being.

However, as with community power itself, it is important to remember that localities have only a constrained freedom to maneuver. Local governing arrangements mediate but do not control external forces. Thus, urban regimes are not autonomous, free-forming entities. Every regime is shaped by context, by the distribution of policy-relevant resources, by the mix of ideas at work, and by the ease with which various policy efforts can yield results. The internal dynamics of regime formation thus do not provide a sufficient basis for understanding how agendas take shape. Local agendas and the political arrangements that support them are, for example, greatly influenced by the position of a locality within a metropolitan region. Economic competition, the extent of revenue equalization through the intergovernmental system, and the ways in which local boundaries divide the metropolitan region socioeconomically all have a bearing on how agendas take shape and on what form political mobilization assumes. As a result, a full analysis of a local political order must pay close attention to context, both what part of the local context key players respond to actively and what part they take as a given.

The analysis of urban regimes calls for seeing power in a broader framework than power over. A useful step is to move away from the notion that actors are simply intentional agents pursuing self-defining interests. Such an understanding puts undue emphasis on who prevails in conflicts or who is positioned to suppress potential issues. It neglects the processes of attraction between potential coalition partners and how these processes affect policy aspirations.

If the world is seen as thoroughly relational in the sense that aims take shape in relations among actors who inform one another through deeds and words about opportunities and constraints, then it is understandable why socioeconomic inequalities are not easily overridden politically. Those inequalities are part of the building material out of which governing arrangements are constructed. There is deep tension between the ideal of political equality and the reality of socioeconomic inequality. Still, community power is about politics, and politics is about choosing. Political agency is the means for adjusting the terms on which socioeconomic inequalities and the equality of citizenship are accommodated to one another. Hence, the research task involves identifying creative ways to alter conditions and build new capacities. Some steps can make governing arrangements more open and inclusive, others less so. For that reason the study of community power remains timely even as the debates of the formative period have become less compelling.


Since the publication of Dahls classic work in 1961, debate has often centered on the adequacy of the pluralist conception of politics. For example, Patrick Dunleavy charges that pluralists simply assume that conventional input processes determine political and policy outcomes (1980, p. 13). Historically, this assumption reduced Hunters concern with leadership in a broad community context to Dahls question of who governs. Moreover, by highlighting particular leaders, Hunters work also contributed to a preoccupation with who are the key policy-makers. Subsequent work has only gradually returned to Hunters original insight that power is embedded in relationships, in networks of how people are related to one another in perceiving and responding to a communitys problems. The evolving intellectual challenge is to understand how human agents act within structured relationships, relationships that contain inconsistencies and are often in tension with one another. For example, one person/one vote is at odds with what Charles E. Lindblom terms the privileged position of business (1977). Because structures impinge on one another, they reach accommodations of varying depth and duration. For researchers, charting these accommodations is no easy mater, and the question of how deeply economic relationships affect others continues as a matter of debate.

While human agents have a creative capacity, they are constrained to act collectively, not as asocial individuals, but as actors within an array of economic, social, and political relationships in place. Although change is feasible, working through well-established relationships is easier than bringing about fundamental change in relationships. However, because altering relationships is possible, one must look at varying capacities to reconstruct governing arrangements. This dimension of power is not evident on the surface in much political activity, because it works within and does not challenge most relationships. Standing alone, power over does not capture this deeper level. This deeper level involves the degree of difficulty encountered in reshaping power to. In short, some realignments are easier to bring about than others, but the complexity of that process defies being expressed in any succinct formula.

Consider the two aspects of power to. It has an output sidewhat human agents can produce togetherand an input sidethe factors that bring people together in a form of cooperation. Just as there are features that enable one actor to dominate or resist another, so there are features that make cooperation between actors more attractive or less so. To the extent that alignments for cooperation compete for governing space, competition may be indirect and lack overt expression. For example, some alignments may preemptively displace other possible alignments. Power at this level is hard to observe except through its expression in a long flow of events and their counterfactuals.

If analysts assume that politics is a kind of zero-sum game of openly clashing policy preferences, then they will not engage this underlying dimension of power. Players in the political game compete, but a different understanding of power emerges in realizing that they also have varying degrees of attraction to one another. As they come together, one constellation of attractions may foreclose others. Attraction stems partly from the objectives that players can achieve by combining efforts, but other considerations come into play as well.

The study of community power is ultimately about understanding how competition and attraction toward cooperation interact. Competition is easier to observe through the immediate actions of individuals. In contrast, attraction toward cooperation is embedded in and reinforced through relationships, some of which may simply be taken as a given. Political creativity is partly about altering relationships by developing new channels of awareness and thereby posing new possibilities.

That power has an intentional aspect should not lead to the conclusion that it operates only in an intentional manner. Discovery of the possible is part of the power process, and discovery may precede fully developed intention. However, discovery is constrained by the greater difficulty of altering some relationships over others. That is why power to is a necessary complement to power over. Because constructing some versions of power to is easier than others, a full understanding of community power has to include both power over and power toboth have a bearing on how the politics of democratic representation operates in practice.

The future prospects of a democratic way of life rest on an ongoing exercise of political creativity, but that creativity is itself constrained by the multiple networks of relationships within which it is exercised. Community power is a concept that treats power as relational and relations as structured by the ways in which multiple facets of life intersect. Questions about community power have not disappeared, but instead, since the formative period of debate, have evolved to take into account an expanded appreciation of the complexity of the local setting.

SEE ALSO Dahl, Robert Alan


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Community Power Studies

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