Book Review: Power: A Radical View

By Steven Lukes, (Second Edition Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 192 pp. 

 $US 18.71 paperback (0-333-42092-6), $ US 64.00 hardcover (0-333-42091-8)

By Ali Onur Ozcelik | 11 October 2010


Writing a short book in 1974, Steven Lukes outlined a ‘conceptual analysis of power, benefiting from the debate between pluralist and their critiques. In that book, Lukes was trying to identify “power” which is one of the most challenging topics in the social sciences literature. Since the date of its launch, the first edition of the book has become one of the most scholarly quoted studies, giving it a credit to be seen as an academic best-seller. Thirty years after the first edition, Lukes revised the previous version by supplementing two other chapters into it. Having broadened the previous work with two additional chapters, the second version of ‘power: a radical view’ provides both recent literature and original insights on power which social science scholars as well as students can benefit from. By acknowledging that there were some limitations and inadequacies for the first version, the second version expands and elucidates his view of power.

The second edition is too a contribution to a debate over ‘American Politics’ which has been dominated by a ruling elite or an example of pluralist democracy. Steven Lukes addresses the questions of how do one think about power theoretically; and how does one study it empirically? In seeking a comprehensive answer to these questions, Lukes explains powerless and domination and connection between them by taking power at the centre. Lukes targets the behavioralism and argues its methodological limitation which is that the roles of values in explanation and methodological individualism (p.14). On the other hand, Lukes criticizes theoretically the limits or bias of pluralism about false consciousness and about real interests. By considering a view of power, Lukes hopes to illustrate the distinguishing features of three distinct views of power; the views of pluralist; the view of their critiques; and three dimensional view. Lukes provides various examples for the third dimensional power so as to give a deeper and more satisfactorily analysis of power relations than either of the other two. The one dimensional view, pluralist tradition, has been developed by Dahl and his followers is associated with ‘observable behavior’ (p.17). The focus on observable behavior in identifying power involves the pluralist in studying as their control task (ibid.).


The second dimension of power was launched by Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz as a critique of Dahl’s pluralism. Bachrach and Baratz put forward that power has two faces, and their control point is that ‘to extent that a person or group—consciously or unconsciously—creates or reinforce barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person and group has (p.20). Bachrach and Baratz use the term power in two distinct senses; all forms of successful control by A over B (A’s securing B’s compliance) and the securing of compliance through the threat of sanctions. In this sense, their typology of power embraces coercion, influence, authority, force, manipulation (p.21).  Bachrach and Baratz’s argues that pluralist excessively emphasizes the importance of initiating, deciding, and vetoing but it takes no account of the fact that power may be exercised by confining the scope of the decision-making to relatively safe issues (p.22.). It is also worth noting that two dimensional view involves examining both decision-making and non-decision making. Although Lukes accept that two dimensional power is broader than that of one dimensional, he argues that it is not adequate on three account. First, it is critique of behaviourism is too qualified, what he is termed as ‘a qualified critique of the behavioural focus’ of the one dimensional (pp. 23-27, emphasis is original). Second, it is inadequate in its association of power with actual, observable conflict (pluralist also agree with it). Lastly, Lukes argues that two dimensional is not satisfactorily explaining that non-decision power only exist where there are grievances which are denied into the political process in the form of issues (p.28).


Lukes offers his own three-dimensional power—the power to avert the formation of grievances by shaping perceptions, cognitions, and preferences in a way that the acceptance of a certain role in the existing order is ensured (p.28). From this consideration, Lukes accepts that power has a third dimension which is ideological in nature. Lukes summarizes the distinctive features of these three views of power as follows;


           1 . One-dimensional view of power (Pluralist—Dahl and his followers)

Focus on:

–          Behavior;

–          Decision making;

–          (key) issues;

–          Observable (overt conflict);

–          (Subjective) interests, seen as policy preferences revealed by political participation.


          2. Two-dimensional view of power ( “qualified” critique of behavioral focus by Bacrach and Baratz)

Focus on:

–          Decision-making and control over the political agenda (not necessarily through decisions);

–          Issues and potential issues;

–          Observable (overt and covert) conflict;

–          (Subjective) interests, seen as policy preferences or grievances.


           3. Three-dimensional view of power

Focus on:

–          Decision-making and control over the political agenda (not necessarily through decisions);

–          Issues and potential issues;

–          Observable (overt and covert) and latent conflict;

–          Subjective and real interests. (p.29)


Lukes suggests that one-dimensional view of power presupposes a liberal conception of interests, the two dimensional view a reformist conception, and the three-dimensional view a radical conception (p.38). For him, the three-dimensional views of power are more comprehensive and sufficient for the gauge of power relations in comparison to the first two views of power. There are three distinctive features of the three dimensional view which one must take into account: 1) inaction (rather than observable); 2) unconsciousness; 3) power may be exercised by collectivities. However, one also must be aware of difficulties which are also accepted by Lukes himself. These are, justifying the relevant counterfactual is not always easy and clear-cut, and Identifying the process or mechanism of an alleged of power (p. 48-52). Lukes shortly concludes the first chapter by stating that a deeper analysis of power relations is possible as long as analysis is at once value-laden, theoretical, and empirical.


Other two chapters (supplementary chapters to the first edition) presents a more developed and concrete discussion of power. Second chapters start with discussing how power is to be conceived and asking whether there is a need for the concept, if so, what for. The chapter provides many definitions of power and its usage in different purposes. Against the Bruno Latour’s suggestion which is that ‘the notion of power should be abandoned’ (Latour, 1986; 265,266,278), Lukes borrows from Spinoza and suggests that there are two types of power; power over and power to. One of the interesting parts in the second chapter is that Lukes provides a more detailed conceptual map which summarizes the wider notion of power. In chapter two, special focus is on Michel Foucault which Lukes believes that Foucault’s view point provides useful scholarly information on the vision of domination. Yet, Lukes then argues that Foucaltian account is both extreme and misleading. Chapter three concerns the specificity of power as domination within the wider conceptual field of power in general defend focusing on power in this sense and it gives strong cases to justify the robustness of ideologically-based third dimension of power. Lukes also draws some account from feminism which was neglected in the previous edition, and utilize some new explanations of power has been argued by James Scott, Ian Shapiro, Amaryta Sen and Martha Nussbaum.


All in all, Lukes considers the nature of power with giving some empirical evidences throughout the book by utilizing or criticizing many leading figures’ work in the social science literature such as Bertrand Russel, Max Weber, Robert Dahl, Hannah Arendt, Jurgen Habermas, Talcott Parsons, J.K. Galbraith, Michel Foucalt, Gerhard Lenski, Raymond Aron, Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz. In so doing, this book sketching the three dimensions of power— as force, persuasion, and manipulation—is and will be a seminal work, offering all the most essential readings in a key area of political theory to all students of politics and sociology.

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