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Two Faces of Power1

  • Peter Bachrach (a1) and Morton S. Baratz (a1)


The concept of power remains elusive despite the recent and prolific outpourings of case studies on community power. Its elusiveness is dramatically demonstrated by the regularity of disagreement as to the locus of community power between the sociologists and the political scientists. Sociologically oriented researchers have consistently found that power is highly centralized, while scholars trained in political science have just as regularly concluded that in “their” communities power is widely diffused. Presumably, this explains why the latter group styles itself “pluralist,” its counterpart “elitist.”

There seems no room for doubt that the sharply divergent findings of the two groups are the product, not of sheer coincidence, but of fundamental differences in both their underlying assumptions and research methodology. The political scientists have contended that these differences in findings can be explained by the faulty approach and presuppositions of the sociologists. We contend in this paper that the pluralists themselves have not grasped the whole truth of the matter; that while their criticisms of the elitists are sound, they, like the elitists, utilize an approach and assumptions which predetermine their conclusions. Our argument is cast within the frame of our central thesis: that there are two faces of power, neither of which the sociologists see and only one of which the political scientists see.



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This paper is an outgrowth of a seminar in Problems of Power in Contemporary Society, conducted jointly by the authors for graduate students and undergraduate majors in political science and economics.



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2 Compare, for example, the sociological studies of Hunter, Floyd, Community Power Structure (Chapel Hill, 1953); Pellegrini, Roland and Coates, Charles H., “Absentee-Owned Corporations and Community Power Structure,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 61 (March 1956), pp. 413–19; and Schulze, Robert O., “Economic Dominants and Community Power Structure,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 23 (February 1958), pp. 39; with political science studies of Sayre, Wallace S. and Kaufman, Herbert, Governing New York City (New York, 1960); Dahl, Robert A., Who Governs? (New Haven, 1961); and Long, Norton E. and Belknap, George, “A Research Program on Leadership and Decision-Making in Metropolitan Areas“ (New York, Governmental Affairs Institute, 1956). See also Polsby, Nelson W., “How to Study Community Power: The Pluralist Alternative,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 22 (August, 1960), pp. 474–84.

3 See especially N. W. Polsby, op. cit., p. 475f.

4 Ibid., pp. 476.

5 Ibid., pp. 478–79.

6 Ibid., pp. 480–81.

7 See especially Dahl, Robert A., “A Critique of the Ruling-Elite Model,” this Review, Vol. 52 (June 1958), pp. 463–69; and Herson, Lawrence J. R., “In the Footsteps of Community Power,” this Review, Vol. 55 (December 1961), pp. 817–31.

8 This definition originated with Lasswell, Harold D. and Kaplan, Abraham, Power and Society (New Haven, 1950), p. 75.

9 Robert A. Dahl, “A Critique of the Ruling-Elite Model,” loc. cit., p. 466.

10 Bentley, Arthur, The Process of Government (Chicago, 1908), p. 202, quoted in Polsby, op. cit., p. 481n.

11 As is perhaps self-evident, there are similarities in both faces of power. In each, A participates in decisions and thereby adversely affects B. But there is an important difference between the two: in the one case, A openly participates; in the other, he participates only in the sense that he works to sustain those values and rules of procedure that help him keep certain issues out of the public domain. True enough, participation of the second kind may at times be overt; that is the case, for instance, in cloture fights in the Congress. But the point is that it need not be. In fact, when the maneuver is most successfully executed, it neither involves nor can be identified with decisions arrived at on specific issues.

12 Schattschneider, E. E., The Semi-Sovereign People (New York, 1960), p. 71.

13 Dahl partially concedes this point when he observes (“A Critique of the Ruling-Elite Model,” pp. 468–69) that “one could argue that even in society like ours a ruling elite might be so influential over ideas, attitudes, and opinions that a kind of false consensus will exist—not the phony consensus of a terroristic totalitarian dictatorship but the manipulated and superficially self-imposed adherence to the norms and goals of the elite by broad sections of a community. … This objection points to the need to be circumspect in interpreting the evidence.” But that he largely misses our point is clear from the succeeding sentence: “Yet here, too, it seems to me that the hypothesis cannot be satisfactorily confirmed without something equivalent to the test I have proposed,” and that is “by an examination of a series of concrete cases where key decisons are made. …”

14 Op. cit., p. 466.

15 Op. cit., p. 478.

16 As he points out, the expectations of the pluralist researchers “have seldom been disappointed.” (Ibid., p. 477).

17 Op. cit., p. 467.

18 Kaufman, Herbert and Jones, Victor, “The Mystery of Power,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 14 (Summer 1954), p. 207.

19 Dahl, Robert A., Who Governs? (New Haven, 1961).

20 Ibid., p. 64.

21 Ibid., p. 70.

22 Ibid., p. 71.

23 Op. cit., p. 467.

24 Who Governs?, p. 82. Dahl points out that “the main policy thrust of the Economic Notables is to oppose tax increases; this leads them to oppose expenditures for anything more than minimal traditional city services. In this effort their two most effective weapons ordinarily are the mayor and the Board of Finance. The policies of the Notables are most easily achieved under a strong mayor if his policies coincide with theirs or under a weak mayor if they have the support of the Board of Finance. … New Haven mayors have continued to find it expedient to create confidence in their financial policies among businessmen by appointing them to the Board.” (pp. 81–2)

25 Dahl does discuss in general terms (pp. 79–84) changes in the level of tax rates and assessments in past years, but not actual decisions of the Board of Finance or their effects on the public school system.

26 Ibid., p. 124.

27 Ibid. “A rough test of a person's overt or covert influence,” Dahl states in the first section of the book, “is the frequency with which he successfully initiates an important policy over the opposition of others, or vetoes policies initiated by others, or initiates a policy where no opposition appears.” (Ibid., p. 66)

28 Ibid., p. 131.

29 Dahl is, of course, aware of the “law of anticipated reactions.” In the case of the mayor's relationship with the CAC, Dahl notes that Lee was “particularly skillful in estimating what the CAC could be expected to support or reject.” (p. 137). However, Dahl was not interested in analyzing or appraising to what extent the CAC limited Lee's freedom of action. Because of his restricted concept of power, Dahl did not consider that the CAC might in this respect have exercised power. That the CAC did not initiate or veto actual proposals by the mayor was to Dahl evidence enough that the CAC was virtually powerless; it might as plausibly be evidence that the CAC was (in itself or in what it represented) so powerful that Lee ventured nothing it would find worth quarreling with.

30 The fact that the initiator of decisions also refrains—because he anticipates adverse reactions—from initiating other proposals does not obviously lessen the power of the agent who limited his initiative powers. Dahl missed this point: “It is,” he writes, “all the more improbable, then, that a secret cabal of Notables dominates the public life of New Haven through means so clandestine that not one of the fifty prominent citizens interviewed in the course of this study—citizens who had participated extensively in various decisions—hinted at the existence of such a cabal…” (p. 185).

In conceiving of elite domination exclusively in the form of a conscious cabal exercising the power of decision-making and vetoing, he overlooks a more subtle form of domination; one in which those who actually dominate are not conscious of it themselves, simply because their position of dominance has never seriously been challenged.

31 Sayre and Kaufman, op. cit., p. 640. For perceptive study of the “mobilization of bias” in a rural American community, see Vidich, Arthur and Bensman, Joseph, Small Town in Mass Society (Princeton, 1958).

1 This paper is an outgrowth of a seminar in Problems of Power in Contemporary Society, conducted jointly by the authors for graduate students and undergraduate majors in political science and economics.

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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