Dahl, Robert Alan

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Dahl, Robert Alan 1915-


Robert Dahl, Sterling Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, Yale University, and past president of the American Political Science Association (1967), is most widely known as the leading theorist of pluralist theory, the dominant theory in the study of U.S. politics for about ten years after the publication of his Who Governs? in 1961. Dahl was the chief originator of this pluralist theory of political power, which needs to be distinguished from other uses of the term pluralism in the social science literature. Three of these are: pluralism as the doctrine opposed to the emphasis of the idea of sovereignty of the state; pluralism as the description of societal ethnic diversity; and pluralism as a value preference for furthering ethnic and gender diversity in state policy. Dahls pluralist theory of political power often has been mistakenly identified with pluralism as group theory, the idea that political groups are the chief explanatory variable in politics, often carrying the connotation that all groups in the United States are equally free to organize. Dahl explicitly denied this use of pluralism (1961, p. 4; 1982, pp. 207-209).

Dahls pluralist theory of political power was developed in distinction to power elite theory, as put forth by C. Wright Mills and by Floyd Hunter. Dahl argued that a sufficient research design for the study of political power should incorporate the following elements: (1) the concept of power as gaining ones way through changing the behavior of others, and that power should not be equated with the resources used to gain power, such as money or prestige; (2) that power should be observed through construction of case studies of political action; (3) that there are different domains of political action, and power in one is not necessarily the same as power in another; (4) that one should define power in terms of the goals of the actors themselves, not in terms of some theoretical construct not understood by the actors.

In Who Governs? Dahl found that political power in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, was plural; that is, power in each of the different sectors of action was held by different people, except for the mayor, who was powerful in more than one area, but who was accountable to the voters through regular competitive elections. This pluralist theory of political power stated a general model for studying and interpreting political power, and as such, was readily applied in numerous studies of power in cities and towns, in legislatures, in federalist interactions, and even within the executive branches of various governments. Normally, pluralist studies of power in the United States found that power was dispersed within the institution studied.

Although it provided the dominant political science theory in the study of U.S. politics during the 1960s, Dahls pluralist theory was soon challenged by a number of arguments. Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz argued that Dahl provided no method for the study of power over the determination of the agenda for political issues. Theodore J. Lowi Jr. argued that the fragmentation of power in pluralist theory often amounted to the finding of islands of power, in which unrepresentative coalitions of interest groups, administrative decision makers, and legislative committees controlled an area of public policy without countervailing power from the legislature as a whole. Mancur Olson Jr. propounded The Logic of Collective Action (1965), which indicated that such dominance of particular public policy areas by unrepresentative coalitions is based on a fundamental logic of group formation. Carole Pateman (1970) and other political philosophers criticized Who Governs? as based on a constricted view of political participation, omitting the classical viewpoint of participation as public discussion of issues affecting the entire community.

Foreshadowing postmodernist theory, Henry Kariel (1969) argued that political participation sometimes involves the creation of new forms of political reality, an idea precluded by Dahls empirical studies of individual action in the policy process. Others criticized Dahl for finding interest group domination of politics, leaving little role for policy initiatives organized by government, but this criticism confused Dahls pluralism with group theory. In addition, Dahl and pluralist theorists were frequently criticized as expressing a favorable view of the political status quo, although in writings after 1970 Dahl clearly indicated he had no such intention. In the final analysis, Dahls pluralist theory of political power made a major and lasting contribution to the study of power, in that many in succeeding generations of political scientists used most of Dahls basic methods in the study of power, although they often interpreted research results differently, as exemplified by Lowis theory of interest-group liberalismthe unaccountable islands of power. After 1980 much political science work in the study of power in public policymaking, in urban politics, and in interest group activity can be described as neopluralist, as much of Dahls outlook has been retained but methodological and interpretive corrections have been made for the problems found in Dahls pluralism (for instance, allowing for concern for the political agenda and recognition that islands of power exist). These neopluralist researchers include John W. Kingdon (1984), Jack L. Walker Jr. (1991), Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones (1993), Jeffrey M. Berry (1999), and Virginia Gray and David Lowery (2004).

In his studies of democracy, after 1970 Dahl turned from the pluralist theory approach to other approaches based upon comparative political studies and his own egalitarian philosophy. Dahl sometimes used the term polyarchy, rule by the many, rather than the controversial democracy. At first he stressed the usefulness of comparative indicators of democracy, emphasizing stable electoral competition among political elites (Polyarchy, 1971). Realizing that democracy is based on more than regular competitive elections, Dahl broadened his approach to include diversity of political communications, economic development level of society, tolerance of political oppositions, and institutional legitimacy as an antidote to military coups. In addition, Dahl explored issues concerning the extent of political participation and the control of the political agenda, advances beyond his initial pluralist theory. Moreover, Dahl exhibited an egalitarian impulse by exploring contradictions between unequal distribution of wealth and democracy, and he examined possibilities for wider participation in business decision making as a means for controlling corporate power. Dahls comparative indices of democracy contributed to the theory of democratic peace, the finding that democracies almost never in the last century engaged in war with one another. Comparative indices of democracy are now widely used as a basis for the evaluation of political regimes by political and economic-development decision makers. The conclusions of Dahls thirty years of writing in the comparative and philosophical vein are summarized in nontechnical language in his On Democracy (1998).

Dahl is also known for exploring the links between the logical bases of U.S. governmental and political institutions and political outcomes. At first, in Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), Dahl argued that the logic of majority voting did not pose a critical threat to civil liberties and democracy, but later, in How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2003), he became concerned about the effects of equal state representation in the Senate and of imbalanced campaign contributions on representative democracy.

SEE ALSO Community Power Studies; Democracy; Pluralism; Political Science


Bachrach, Peter, and Morton Baratz. 1962. Two Faces of Power. American Political Science Review 56 (December): 947-952.

Baumgartner, Frank R., and Bryan D. Jones. 1993. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Berry, Jeffrey M. 1999. The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Dahl, Robert A. 1956. Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1961. Who Governs? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1971. Polyarchy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1982. Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1998. On Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 2003. How Democratic Is the American Constitution? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gray, Virginia, and David Lowery. 2004. A Neopluralist Perspective on Research on Organized Interests. Political Research Quarterly 57: 163-175.

Hunter, Floyd. 1953. Community Power Structure. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Kariel, Henry S. 1969. Open Systems: Arenas for Political Action. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.

Kingdon, John W. 1984. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Boston: Little, Brown.

Lowi, Theodore J., Jr. 1979. The End of Liberalism. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton.

McFarland, Andrew S. 2004. Neopluralism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Olson, Mancur, Jr. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pateman, Carole. 1970. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Walker, Jack L., Jr. 1991. Mobilizing Interest Groups in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Andrew McFarland