Based on functionalism with emphasis on equilibrium, stability and gradual change, conservative perspective.

Key Pluralists:  Arnold Rose, Peter Bentley, Talcott Parsons, Neil Smelser


Key features: 

societal power is decentralized, widely shared, diffuse and fragmented, deriving from many sources, i.e. power pie divided into many pieces

society consists of many diverse groups and associations (e.g. business, labour, professional, religious, etc…) and constitutes a conglomeration of dissimilar and often conflicting interests, no none of which plays a singularly dominant role, through a process of democratic competition the nature and direction of society are determined

society is made up of a multitude of conflicting interest groups balanced by the state, groups are equally influential in their impact on government policy and major institutions

assumption of a natural balance of power among various groups which is preserved through bargaining and compromise, win some and lose some, give and take, and thus equilibrium is reached in group struggle

existence of shared acceptance of basic political framework, i.e. consensus of values, democratic traditions, procedures & principles

economic and governmental institutions are separate not overlapping power sources

tension between necessity for strong, modernizing, central coordinator on one hand and a relatively equal distribution of social powers on other reflects cross-pulls of two allegedly functional pre-requisites – need of autonomy and need of integration

Role of the state

Society is a struggle of competing groups within an arena refereed by the state

State represents institutionalized power and authority

State is supreme guardian of representative democracy in modern society, from tension paves way for political competition and pluralist democracy

State serves neither its own interests nor those of any single group or class

State can act as bargaining agent or mediator

Primary task of state is to balance interests of a multitude of competing groups, represents interests of society as a whole, coordinating the other major institutions OR

Primary function is to promote harmony within system to secure equilibrium and order OR

Or to police conflicts of interest

From these roles, state is able to institutionalize its rule and maintain order in society

Separation of governmental power:  plurality of competing governmental agencies, divisions and branches, existence of political parties, thus individuals/groups can have various points of access to decision-makers

Role/nature of the individual and of groups

Individuals with common interests exert influence on decision-makers by collective action thus average citizens can have meaningful input into decision-making

Political power is distributed over as many citizens working through their associations as want to take responsibility for power, through the voluntary association the ordinary citizen can acquire as much as power in the community or nation as their free time, ability and inclinations permit them (Arnold Rose)

Political process is made up of social groups and policy outcomes are result of group process, each group being autonomous and democratic

Potential groups:  people who have shared attitudes, unorganized could organize

Cross cutting group membership:  overlapping membership of groups, one individual may have many memberships and each group may have conflicting views on one issue, thus never have one all powerful group agreeing on all issues


In US, pluralism is popular;  consider slogans of “government of, by and for the people”, “equality before the law” and “separation of power”



Seymour Martin Lipset, Robert Dalh’s polyarchy, or democratic Elitism or strategic Elites

Fuses reality of Elite rule and democratic principles

Meaning of democracy is changed from one of direct popular rule to that of competition between and within Elites to control the state

Elites are not single integrated group, multiple centers of political power

Assumption of balance

Assumption that minority will have influence on Elite

Distrusts of mass participation in politics



Pertains to voluntary associations, class bias of interest group activity, inequality of power resources, role of the state, consensus of political values, and democracy

Rationale for status quo, defense of current US political system, parochial focus, not widely applicable – just to US

Actual versus perceived role of voluntary associations, simply another level of bureaucracy

US society is not one of joiners, few are members of voluntary associations, usually the better educated, wealthier and higher social status

Those who are members of voluntary associations, the groups are social, cultural, youth, church or other whose primary interests are not political, and many of these groups lack any democratic control by ran an file and are bureaucratically structured which prevents direct individual participation in decision-making

Voluntary associations are asymmetrical in the amount of power they wield per member, e.g. union versus business association

Assumption that there is a balance of power among various groups, from religious groups to business groups, and pervasiveness of economic institutions ignored, balance of power as it is favors some and not others

State is not neutral mediator, rules change, agenda setting occurs

Assumption of widespread agreement on rules of the game, whose rules and who agrees, what of those who oppose

Modern version of democracy or perversion of democracy in complex, modern industrialized societies

No concern for minimal participation of masses

Focus is governmental, public and not including private sector politics, what of Elites in educational sector, corporate sector, communication sector, labour sector, thus picture of societal power is limited

Pluralists are preoccupied with analyzing formal political institutions, confuses how politics is supposed to work and how it actually works under capitalism



Societal power is concentrated in elite groups who control resources of key social institutions and are not accountable to the masses, origins of societal power lie in control of social organizations, regardless of how (un)democratic a society maybe, Elites hold the bulk of power; use all and any means to retain power, power becomes end in itself.  


Debated issues among Elite theorists

Initially are all societies stratified?

Is power used for society’s benefit and welfare or for personal gain?

Necessary for society or not?

Elites closed and cohesive units or open and diverse?

One or more ruling Elites?

What are the characteristics and patterns of Elites?

Are Elites and powerful persons the same?


CLASSIC ELITE THEORY (aristocratic version) 

Based on two ideas:  

1)  Fundamental psychological difference sets Elites apart from masses, natural process, having personal resources such as intelligence, cunning or skill, and masses are apathetic, incompetent and unable to govern themselves OR

2)  Unavoidable product of modern social organization such that organizational complexity necessitates a leader, i.e. functionally necessary, power lies in positions of authority in key political and economic institutions


Stressed the psychological and irrational aspects of Elites, i.e. psychological and intellectual superiority

Elites are the highest achievers essentially in any and all areas of intelligence, character, skill, capacity, etc…

Have two types of Elites - governing Elites and non-governing Elites who govern by means of coercion or cunning

Developed fundamental idea of circulation of Elites comprised of two processes – process in which individuals circulate between elite and nonelite, and process in which a whole elite is replaced by a new one



Stressed the sociological, organizational and personal characteristics

Elites are an organized minority

The ruling/political class includes the ruling Elite and sub-Elite (technocrats, managers, civil servants)

Masses are not organized

Personal characteristics include the intellectual, material and moral superiority which is highly esteemed and very influential in the society in which they live

Dominant interests of society which are the social and political forces, i.e. prevailing ideas and institutions of the time, become reflected in the ruling class and thus they dominate the structures and values

Believed that all societies are divided into two groups, the ruling class and the class that is ruled and thus argued for the universal necessity and inevitability of class rule.  


Michels:  Iron law of oligarchy 

Tendency for most social and political organizations to be run by a few individuals who make most of the decisions

Oligarchy arises out of complexity and size of organization – the organizational form - where there is a delegation of power in terms of specialized expertise initially for efficiency and stability but transformed into self-serving conservative Elite

Social organization and division of labour are key variables

Have combination of apathy, insufficient time, lack of expertise and need for guidance of the masses and the natural greed for power of the Elites

Elites have resources of information and control its flow, credibility and prestige and cohesive organization

Three basic principles of Elite formulation that take place within bureaucratic structure of political organization – the need for specialized staff, facilities, and above all leaders; the utilization of such specialized facilities by leaders within these organizations; and,  the psychological attributes of the leaders (e.g. charisma)

Believed all organizations to be elitist, the organizational form is basis for conservatism and this conservatism is inevitable outcome of power attained through political organization


WEBER'S THEORY OF BUREAUCRACY (not per say a theory of power or political sociology but relevancy is clear)

Having arrived at the conclusion that economic relations, i.e. class relations based on wealth and income, lie at the source of power and politics, Weber focused on manifestation of class power exercized through the state

Assigns a quasi-autonomous role to the state in which state bureaucrats appear to be serving their own interests and the bureaucracy appears to be a power unto itself

Bureaucracies are skilled bodies of specialists and experts, a rational form of organization organized on the basis of specific functions, not on basis of authority of personalities and traditions, a social machine with individuals as depersonalized objects

With modernization of society and greater legal-rational authority, there is increasing professionalization of leadership, power becomes concentrated in bureaucracies which maintain control over vast human, material and intellectual resources – they have monopoly of expertise and have capacity to carry out or not policies of political leaders (policy administration)

Bureaucracies are stable but intransigent with a remote and unanswerable bureaucratic elite, thus with citizens removed from control of and input into political decision-making

Question is determining who controls and directs the complex bureaucratic machine

Does not believe bureaucracy to be an autonomous power unto itself (as Michels does) but rather it is a tool or instrument of power, argues bureaucracy and power are the manifestations of the real material forces that dominate social-economic structure of modern society, to give primacy to analytic strength of these concepts is to study surface phenomena



Power Elite theory aka Radical Power Elite theoty - C.W. Mills

Societal power rests in control of key societal institutions - corporation, executive branch of government and Pentagon in US, i.e. the economy, the state and the military

Elites not inevitable or natural, nor that masses are incompetent, apathetic or untrustworthy, masses are manipulated and exploited and kept in a state of ignorance and thus powerless by Elites who rule in own interest, this accounts for non-participation

Elites are from upper class and perpetuate themselves through selective recruitment and socialization to Elite values


Governing Class model - W. Domhoff 

Class hegemony framework combining Power Elite theory and Class theory, reconceptualizes the power Elite in class terms

Argues in US there is a corporate upper class that owns major business assets and controls the bulk of wealth, including major banks, corporations;  major newspapers, radio, television and other mass media;  elite universities; foundations;  important advisory groups and organizations e.g. Council of Foreign Relations and Committee for Economic Development;  executive branch of government, cabinet, judiciary, military and the regulatory agencies

This class by virtue of its economic power, also controls and influences important departments and agencies of the state and in this way becomes a governing class – the American business aristocracy

CRITIQUE  Concerns Elite inevitability, cohesiveness and Elite-mass relations

Does there maybe exist an iron law of democracy instead due to persistence off democratic ideals & tendencies

Consider how do organizations inhibit authority not just democracy

Idea of coalitions, power changing moment to moment, issue to issue

Increased specialization and complexity so different Elite groups, and several classes not just two

Accountability functions of electoral politics and public opinion ignored

Altruistic motives do exist

Other groups benefit from Elites’ actions

As social class rises apathy decreases



Society is ruled by those who control the means of production – the economic system

Key features:  


Class basis of politics is the major determinant of political phenomena, must ask which class controls and dominates the state

Reality is world of human effort – WORK, people realize themselves through work and around this productive process history unfolds

Dynamics of society originate in its economic activity which is essentially the production of material life – food, clothing, shelter - and culture arises out of this process of economic activity

Foundation or basis of society is the economy from which the legal, political, religious, cultural and educational institutions derive;  i.e. societies in different stages of developments create different productive systems which are the economic institutions which in turn shape general nature of beliefs and practices in all areas of social life including political organization

A form of economic determinism

Obedience of all classes is found not on coercion but on virtual dependence of working class on capitalist class for subsistence and false consciousness

Power flows from economic relations, who rules, those who control the economic resources, societal power is a product of economic forces, Political power is not centered in the state but in the nature of the class relations, who owns and controls the means of production

Economic dominance is translated into power in all other societal realms, especially the state, thus dominant economic class is ruling political class

Since classes are political groups, political conflict is class conflict



Focused on the ideological apparatuses of the capitalist state

Introduced concept of cultural ideological hegemony – the ruling class controls and shapes the ideas and hence consciousness of the masses, the dominant class uses its political, moral and intellectual leadership to establish its view of the world as all inclusive and universal, and to shape the interests and needs of subordinate groups

The ideological hegemony of the ruling class operates through the state itself


Role/Functions of the state

Perpetuation and legitimation of the social class system: 

-        Maintaining and reproducing the capitalist system and its class relations

-        Protecting system of property relations

-        Propagating dominant values in schools, media and other social institutions, fostering dominant ideology

Accumulation function 

-        Guaranteeing the conditions for capital production and accumulation

-        Intervening directly in this process through tax collection & spending

-        Financing economic growth




Structural Marxist – combines Marxism which relies on social & historical analysis with structuralism which relies on ahistorical and asocial analysis

Does this by distinguishing between ideologies (historical/social) and ideology (structural):  IDEOLOGIES are specific, historical and differing, there are various ideologies i.e. Christian, democratic, feminist, Marxist ideologies;  IDEOLOGY is structural and eternal and has no history since ideology is part of the superstructure, (links structure of ideology to the idea of the unconscious from Freud and Lacan);  because ideology is a structure its contents will vary but its form remains the same;  ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence, ideology doesn’t represent the real world per se but human beings’ relation to that real world or to their perceptions of the real conditions of existence

Expands analysis of the base-superstructure relationship to include such other superstructural institutions as the cultural, religious, educational, legal and family

As hegemony of ruling class in these spheres becomes critical for its control over the dominated classes, and society in general, the class struggle takes on a tri-level character consisting of economic, political and ideological levels

State is a kind of governmental formation that arises with capitalism, i.e. a state is determined by the capitalist mode of production and formed to protect its interests

Identifies two major mechanisms for insuring that people within a state behave according to the rules:  1)  repressive states apparatuses (RSA), e.g. police, armed forces, prisons (criminal justice and prison systems);  2)  ideological state apparatuses (ISA), e.g. schools, religions, family, legal systems, politics, cultural activities such as arts and sports, system of mass communication, which are institutions which generate ideologies (systems of ideas and values) which we as individuals and groups then internalize



Emphasis is on the structural imperatives of the capitalist system as they affect the state and its relative autonomy, emphasized ideological factors

Focus on structural constraints of the capitalist system that set limits to the state’s autonomy and force it to work within the framework of an order that yields results invariably favourable to the dominant capitalist class

Argues that it is by virtue of the system of production itself in capitalist society that the state becomes a capitalist state even in the absence of direct control of the state apparatus by capitalists

The direct participation of members of the ruling class in the state apparatus is the effect, not the cause

Structure of political and economic institutions in capitalist society constrain the political Elite so that it serves those interests regardless of direct/indirect role of business in state affairs, i.e. mechanisms are built into the modern capitalist political economy

Viability of state dependent on healthy economy, state leaders must promote interests of big business

Belief that capitalist class is internally divided and thus state protects capitalist interests in general, i.e. on behalf of all capitalists and thus state is autonomous



Simplistically and initiallly government serves interests of capitalist class

The idea is that the state is an instrument of the capitalist class as a whole and this class contains fractions thus it has relative autonomy from one fraction

Emphasis is on the direct and indirect control of the state by the dominant capitalist class

Focuses on the special relationship between the state and the capitalist class, and the mechanisms of control of the state by this class that, de facto, transform the state into a capitalist state

Capitalists do not govern, i.e. do not occupy political offices, but they rule by controlling political officials and institutions, directly through manipulation of state policies or indirectly through exercise of pressure on state

Social and strategic ties among corporate and government leaders is key, between individuals occupying positions of power in different institutional spheres


NOTE:  There is a convergence of 2 positions where the state is both controlled by and at the same time relatively autonomous from various fractions of the capitalist class in order to perform its functions in advancing the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, and maintain its legitimacy over society


Offe (comes from Hegelian-Maxist tradition of the Frankfurt School, once a student of Jurgen Habermas, similar to Poulantzas)

Explains state through economic role

Emphasis on state’s necessity for capital accumulation involving extraction of surplus and the reproduction of capitalist relations

Focuses on internal mechanisms of the state in terms of its dependence on capital accumulation which is vital for its survival

Introduced concept of selective mechanisms:  negative selection - selective mechanisms that systematically exclude anti-capitalist interests from state activity;  positive selection - from the range of remaining alternatives, the policy which is in the interests of capital as a whole is selected over policies serving the parochial interests of specific capitalist groups;  disguising selection – the institutions of the state must somehow maintain the appearance of class neutrality while at the same time effectively excluding anti-capitalist alternatives

Mechanism are contradictory in nature and present problems for state in carrying out its dual role of maintaining accumulation and legitimation, results in crisis of legitimation


4)  REALISM - Machiavelli & Hobbes:  “end justifies the means”, “might makes right”

Politics is the way it is

It is autonomous - separate from moral or other nonpolitical struggles

National interests of nation-states are what is key and from which there are struggles with other nation-states vying for power

Belief in absolute power of the state, single minded pursuit of power, national security and interest


Six principles

  1. Politics and society are governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature (determinism & darwinism)

  2. Political realism is defined in terms of interest with interest being defined in terms of power, not concerned with motives and ideological preferences (not psychology or emotions)

  3. Realm of moral principles and ethics is separate from realm of politics

  4. Moral aspirations of nation are not identical to moral laws which govern universe, e.g. foreign policy based on national interest not moral interest

  5. Objectivity


Neorealists focus more on international relations and foreign policy




Separating ethics from politics not possible

Not objective


5)  CORPORATISM (post-Pluralism – reformulation of the pluralist problematic; more sophisticated form of Elite Pluralism;  within capitalism, aka as Keynesian corporatism,  see it in Europe more than US)

Strong central state, state is the supreme organ responsible for organizing and leading society under its own directives

Representing the common good, state is guardian of order and moral authority then can bring about class harmony and national unity

State takes on responsibility of leading the nation by taking an active role in major institutions of society including the economy, i.e.  direct intervention

A partnership/alliance between state/government, business/corporations and union/organized labor creating political stability, reciprocal relationships, i.e. agreement between the state, capitalists (management) and trade unionists (workers) to guarantee high levels of employment, capital investment and accumulation, and citizen consumption

Corporatist state included aims of economic redistribution and extension of citizenship rights, reducing levels of unemployment and inflation in order to bring workers into the mainstream of the capitalist system

Organized interests are legitimate

State interventions are acceptable as long as they fall within capitalist principles


Two types:  

state (top down) corporatism which is closer to elitism

societal (bottom up) corporatism which is closer to pluralism



Designed to protect interests of monopoly capital

Results in consolidation of capitalist class power since state is controlled by capitalist class

Can give rise to authoritarian states in crisis ridden states, and ultimately providing material base for emergence of fascism in response to economic and political crises of advanced capitalism, .e.g Germany & Italy


Sources:  see Political sociology bibliography



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Revised: January 16, 2003 .