community power

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community power Max Weber defined power as ‘the chance of … men to realise their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action’. This definition is disputed and a major contribution to competing theories of power comes from the community power debate—arguments about how and by whom power is exerted in local democratic polities.

One view is that local power is exercised by an élite—such as local officials, politicians, and leading business interests—and is manifest in its public and private decision-making on public policies (see F. Hunter 's classic Community Power Structure, 1953
). However, some political scientists reject this ‘stratification theory’ of power, and deny that an upper-class élite rules, in its own interests, through subordinate officially recognized political and civic leaders. Robert Dahl's study of New Haven (Who Governs), 1961) concludes that the advent of representative democracy shifted power from an élite to various organized interest groups—from oligarchy to pluralism. Differently constituted groups rule depending on the issue in question.

Common to both these approaches is the Weberian action-oriented definition of power: A's power over B amounts to A's ability to compel B to take certain actions. Therefore, in studying community power, we examine decision-making and who influences its outcome. In a much-cited discussion (Power: A Radical View, 1974), Steven Lukes describes this as a one-dimensional view, an approach which Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz (Power and Poverty: Theory and Practice, 1970) deem inadequate. A second dimension to power—so-called ‘non-decisionmaking’—involves the ‘mobilization of bias’, or manipulation of the political agenda by powerful groups, taking decisions which prevent issues from emerging and becoming subject to formal political decision-making.

Lukes also proposes a third dimension to power, ignored by all of the above-mentioned approaches because they are narrowly behavioural, assuming that power must involve decision-making. However, power can also be exercised by preventing people from having grievances in the first place, or as Lukes puts it ‘by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things’. Thus, certain issues never arise, so neither do decisions to include or exclude them from the political agenda. Lukes also argues that competing concepts of power reflect differing moral and political values concerning the conception of interests. Power is therefore an ‘essentially contested concept’—subject to irresolvable dispute between theorists with differing values. His radical view denies that interests are simply consciously expressed wants, for these may be shaped by a social system which serves the powerful by suppressing people's recognition of their real interests. (Note the parallel here with the Marxist notion of false consciousness.)

But how can social scientists identify putatively real interests which are unrecognized by those to whom they are attributed? Lukes reanalyses a ‘two-dimensional’ study of community responses to air pollution which, he argues, indicates that real interests can sometimes be identified empirically where counterfactual instances arise, that is, where the processes and structures that deny the expression of real interests are (for whatever reason) temporarily rendered ineffective (a phenomenon illustrated in J. Gaventa's Power and Powerlessness, 1980). His analysis, which has been extensively criticized, transcends the initial confines of the community power debate and addresses the nature of social power generally.

For a summary of the substantive findings of the major studies of community power, together with a report of a sophisticated case-study of local political struggles in a London Borough, see Peter Saunders , Urban Politics (1979)

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