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The Three Dimensions of Power

Posted on August 9, 2010 at 1:25 AM

The Three Dimensions of Power

                                       Raju Chaqladar

The three views of Power previously mentioned are discussed by Lukes in hisbook, Power: A Radical View. The idea is that the effectiveness andlevel of power for a given group or individual can be measured by consideringcertain criteria. The focuses of these views are discussed at length in Lukes'work, and he offers the Third Dimension as his own view of the shortcomings ofthe other views previously postulated by others, as well as being a moreappropriate way to assess power.

The One Dimensional View of Power focuses only on behavior in decisionmaking, specifically on key issues and essentially only in blatantly observablesituations. These often take the form of subjective interests: policypreferences demonstrated through political action.

The Two Dimensional View of Power qualifies the First Dimension's critiqueof behavior and focuses on decision-making and nondecision-making. It alsolooks at current and potential issues and expands the focus onobservable conflict to those types that might be observed overtly or covertly.But the Two Dimensional View still focuses on subjective interests, thoughthose seen as policy preferences or even grievances.

The Three Dimensional View of Power, offered by Lukes in his work, is a"thoroughgoing critique" of the behavioral focus.[5] Itconcentrates on the decision-making in a political agenda and the control overthat agenda. As in the Two Dimensional View, both issues and potential issuesare considered. But Lukes expands the critique to include both overt and covertobservable conflicts, and those that might be latent. Also, Lukes illustratesthat a full critique of power should include both subjective interests andthose "real" interests that might be held by those excluded by thepolitical process.

Power: a radical view

Power is one of the most central— and contentious — concepts in the socialsciences. In 1974, Stephen Lukes published a short essay that stimulated debateover the meaning of that concept: Power: A Radical View. Today, Lukes'essay is viewed as a classic reading in political sociology, and continues tobe widely debated. Between January 1975 and June 2006, more than 1200 journalarticles cited it, an impressive figure by any standard (ISI Citation Index,June 30, 2006). Perhaps because this essay remains broadly cited, Palgraveasked Stephen Lukes, now professor at New York University, to prepare a secondedition. Now, more than thirty years after the publication of this"academic bestseller," the new edition is finally available.Fortunately for scholars, this second edition is much more than an attempt bythe publisher to make more money on of this brief essay — money, one can hope,that will help Palgrave publish the work of younger sociologists. Two newchapters supplement the original essay in this 2005 edition, which considerablyenrich the analysis by providing readers with both recent literature andoriginal insights on power. In fact, these two chapters amend the originalarguments of Power, as Lukes is honest enough to recognize some of thelimitations of his original essay. Reading the original essay and the two newchapters back to back is thus a fascinating experience.

Using the post-war debate over "power elite" (Mills) and"pluralism" (Dahl) as a starting point, the 1974 essay — reprintedwithout major modifications — explores the three dimensions of power.Associated with the work of Robert Dahl, the first dimension is related to"the study of concrete, observable behavior" , emphasis inoriginal). From this angle, what matters is the analysis of observable conflictsbetween organized interests over concrete political issues. The seconddimension of power is underlined as the result of political scientists PeterBachrach and Morton Baratz's critique of Dahl's pluralism. This critique pointsto the forces that prevent potentially controversial issues from generating"observable conflicts." Consequently, in order to grasp this seconddimension of power, "it is crucially important to identify potentialissues which nondecision-making prevents from being actual" . Beyondthe analysis of observable conflicts, political analysis is about studyinghidden forces that constrain the agenda. Thus, according to Lukes, power has athird dimension, which is ideological in nature: "Is it not the supremeand most insidious exercise of power to prevent people, to whatever degree,from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferencesin such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things,either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because theysee it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinelyordained and beneficial?" . This quote clearly stresses therelationship between the third dimension of power and what Marxists have called"alienation" and "false consciousness." Although Lukes'soriginal essay is not Marxist in the strict sense of the term, it features theMarxist-inspired — and problematic — opposition between people's "realinterests" and the ideological blindness that prevents many of them fromgrasping these interests, and consequently acting upon them.

The two supplementary chapters offer a more developed discussion on themeaning of the concept of power. Chapter 2 reviews different definitions ofpower present in the contemporary social science literature. Arguing againstBruno Latour's claim that "the notion of power should be abandoned,"Lukes convincingly shows that, in spite of its contested nature, power remainsa useful analytical tool. Borrowing from Spinoza, he distinguishes between twotypes of power: the capacity to impact the surrounding world (A) and thecapacity to dominate other beings (B), which is a sub-category of A.Retrospectively, Lukes argues that the three dimensions of power discussed inhis 1974 essay only dealt with power-as-domination. Following this remark, heembarks on a well-informed discussion about the existing scholarship ondomination, with a focus on the work of Michel Foucault. Lukes argues thatFoucault's writings have generated a great deal of interesting subsequentscholarship. However, he then shows that the vision of domination formulated inFoucault's Discipline and Punish is both extreme and misleading.Unfortunately, too many scholars have embraced this extreme vision ofpower-as-repression-and-production, which Foucault himself rejected toward theend of his life. Chapter 3 offers further discussion of the concept ofdomination that makes a strong case for the enduring relevance of theideologically-based third dimension of power defined in his 1974 essay. Thefinal chapter also provides interesting insight about the work of authors likePierre Bourdieu and James C. Scott.

Concise and well written, this second edition of Power: A Radical Viewis a must read for political sociologists and sociological theorists. The bookcould serve as a stimulating reading in graduate seminars and advancedundergraduate courses alike. Yet, this excellent book is not without flaws.First, Lukes should have written a short conclusion to summarize his claims and,more important, sketch a clearer agenda for future scholarship on dominationand power relations. Second, his claim that one can identify the"objective interests" of dominated actors remains problematic atbest. This is a crucial issue, as his rejuvenated third dimension of power isgrounded in the contrast between such "objective interests" and whatMarxists label "false consciousness." Arguing that what counts as an"objective interest" varies from one theoretical approach to anotheris rather unconvincing. It does not solve the epistemological issues theconcept of "objective interest" raises. Finally, it is surprisingthat an author who underlines the central role of ideas and representations inpower relations fails to engage with the growing scholarship on agenda settingand framing processes (e.g. Cobb and Ross, 1997; Fischer, 2003; Somers andBlock, 2005). This is unfortunate; such scholarship could considerably enrichour understanding of the ideological mechanisms of domination and resistance thatLukes underlines in his second edition of Power: A Radical View.Nevertheless, these shortcomings should not detract potential readers fromengaging with this thought-provoking book, which deserves its classic status.


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1 Comment

Reply Sala Uddin
1:30 PM on March 31, 2012 
dimensions are rational that you described.....valo laglo,,,,,,,,good luck!!

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