Professor Marshall

LESSON 17: Government and Politics

Lesson 17

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Identify sources of power and authority in politics

Classify different government forms

Characterize main ideas about US Government

Apply major theoretical perspectives to politics and government

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can compare and contrast the terms "power" and "authority"

You can characterize major types of political authority

You can classify common forms of government

You can explain problems with the American political system

You can articulate the importance of representative politics

You can analyze issues related to voting in the United States

You can apply major theoretical perspectives to politics in America

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 17 of your text.

3. COMPLETE the lesson below.

Government and Politics

Today, political sociology is concerned with three components of social relationships: the state, the citizens of the state, and the society in which they live. In early political sociology the questions researchers asked were relatively simplistic:

  • "How many people vote based on racial compositions of societies?"
  • "Do women vote at higher percentages than men?"

Today, political sociologists are asking much more nuanced questions:

  • "What is the concept of democracy and how does a knowledgeable electorate influence a democracy?"
  • "What are some of the reasons that there are differences in voting statistics related to race in society?"

In addition to these traditional areas of research in political sociology, sociologists to study in this arena today are also concerned with interesting areas such as how the body is a site of political and social power, and how emotions play a factor in issues surrounding poverty, sexism, racism, and so forth.

Historically, political sociology can be broken down into four basic subcategories:

Categories of Political Sociology

As you can see, the historical emphases of political sociology were similar to the broad perspective of sociology in general. Concerns about how society arrived where it is, how some people gained and maintained power over others, and how society and the individuals who live in it are influence are all issues that sociologists — not just political sociologists — had been concerned with as sociology hit the map as an academic discipline. In addition, historical sociology worked from three primary theoretical perspectives:

  1. Pluralism — pluralism views politics as a contest among competing interest groups.
  2. Eite theory — also known as managerial elite theory is considered a state centered approach in that it attempts to explain what the state is doing by looking at its organizational structures, its managers or politicians, and the interests that arise as the organization (meaning government) concentrated power.
  3. Class theory – class theory overlaps with conflict theory and a Marxist analysis of society and emphasizes the political power of capitalist elites. There are two ways to use class theory:
  • The power structure (or instrumentalist) approach – this one focuses on the question of who rules a society
  • The structuralist approach — this one focuses on the way capitalist societies function and operate.

Along with these basic theories and ideas, political sociologists today are most concerned with relationships between the state and its society. Political sociology has become very robust in recent years, largely due to the growing complexities of our social relationships and structures, the impacts that social movements and special interest groups are having in our society, and the continued weakening of governments as a result of globalization and as corporations gain more power. And, while historical political sociology was very much focused at the macro level, today's political sociology is focused also on micro level interactions. Political sociologists today want to know how identities are formed in relationship to understandings of power. Postmodern society lends itself to a very different understanding of the interplay between individuals, structures, and politics. For political sociologists there is always an interplay between two major structural components:

  • The Democratic, constitutional, liberal state, which is sometimes referred to disparagingly the as "the welfare state."
  • The capitalist economy which is also sometimes referred to as "the free market."

The idealistic promise of democracy is legal equality for all citizens however in contemporary capitalist society such as ours unequal economic power results in unequal political representation. Using our three theories — pluralism, elite theory, and class theory — we can examine these two structural components.

Pluralist Emphasis

Pluralists tend to see the distribution of political power in terms of social divisions and political agendas as opposed to economic interests. For a pluralist theorist, different groups in society, even when they might have different political philosophies, must learn how to work together in order to create forceful representation which influences politicians who make decisions. When these interest groups band together, economics has very little to do with the decisions that are politicians make. This type of system however does require the existence of opportunity for groups to organize, such as trade organizations and labor unions. With the current political situation the United States, it is doubtful that pluralism is functioning well in our society. Pluralists tend to believe that our political sphere is not dominated by an economic class of elites and instead believe that organized labor plays a major part in the political decision making process.

PLURALIST EMPHASIS: Fair representation

Elite Emphasis

Elite theory opposes pluralism and instead states that "true" democracy is a utopian ideal—it cannot exist in reality and is instead a perfect state which cannot be achieved.

Elite theory explains the power relationships in contemporary society by asserting that a small minority (economic elites) have the most power and that this power is independent of a state's democratic elections process. Through their positions in corporations or on corporate boards the power elite have influence over politicians and policy-planning; the power elite accomplish their goals through financial support of foundations or positions with think tanks or policy-discussion groups. Coupled with this political influence, elites have significant power over the policy decisions of corporations and governments.

ELITE THEORY EMPHASIS: Elite representation

Class Emphasis 

Marxist class theory asserts that class struggle is the basis of politics and society is fundamentally divided between classes who clash in the pursuit of their interests. As an example, Marx spoke about the factory and the worker:

The factory is the "nuclear cell" of capitalism and thus, for Marx is the source of friction between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. For Marx, the worker becomes exploited and the owner is the exploiter. Rather than a profitable collaboration between these two groups, capitalism highlights class interests and the confrontations of power between the two groups.

Class theory focuses on how relationships are shaped by their positions relative to the means of production (of course, all this means is that people and groups are focused on their access to—or lack of access to--scarce resources, such as political power). While Marx is careful to note that unequal access to social resources does not always lead to struggles (which explains the lack of movement against our current economic problems), he did feel that the potential for struggle exists in every contemporary society. Class struggle and the interests that shape the struggles are not inherent or obvious to us at all times. These struggles develop as society develops, under specific social conditions and relative to particular social events and circumstances. For Marx, struggles were always determined by relationship to the means of production, and a big part in individual recognizing where they fit in this relationship happens when they develop a class consciousness:

There are certain conditions which need to be satisfied in order for class consciousness to develop:

  • A common fate
  • A network of communication
  • A concentration of masses of people
  • A common enemy
  • A form of organization.

Self-conscious classes can arise only if the above conditions are met and, for Max Weber, when there exists a convergence of  "ideal" and "material" interests, which adds another layer to the class theory equation. When moral and ideological concerns combine with economic and political demands, according to Weber, a class consciousness has emerged.

The same reasoning that led Marx to assert that the proletariat (the working class) would develop a class consciousness once the appropriate conditions were met also led him to contend that the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production) would be incapable of developing an overall consciousness of its collective interests—due to the constant competition of the bourgeoisie for the biggest share of the market they could get, a class consciousness could not (ever) develop.

Marx's view opposes that of the classical economists, who explain the free market economy in terms of singular pursuits: each man, working in his own interest is solely concerned with the maximization of his own gains, while he contributes to the interests and the harmony of the whole. Differing sharply, Marx contended that the bourgeoisie works in his own interest to maximize profit and make money, and that as he does he not only contributes to the system, he also ensures its final destruction (for more on this, see the work of Aronhas, and also Coser).

While some philosophers and theorists see self-interest as a type of regulator of harmonious society, Marx sees individual self-interest among capitalists as destructive--the very fact that each capitalist acts rationally in his own self-interest leads to ever deepening economic crises and hence to the destruction of the interests common to all (eventually, for Marx, this leads to a completely new structure and a new political system).

Thus, because of the very system of capitalism and the conditions that are imposed on workers, the workers will eventually group together in solidarity and will work toward their collective class interests. Owners, on the other hand, being guided by their competitiveness on the free market, cannot achieve common interests or common goals. Individual producers are separated and work toward production as individuals. Further, capitalist bourgeoisie, divided by competition, will justify the very ideology and political system of domination that serves their interests.

According to Lewis Coser, to Marx, the economic sphere is the final place where one victim emerges: the bourgeoisie, who is the victim of competitiveness which is a hallmark of many stratified societies (such as our capitalist economy). The bourgeoisie can evolve a consciousness, but it will always be a "false consciousness--" a consciousness that cannot shake itself free of its own competitiveness. The bourgeois become doomed when economic conditions are ripe and when a working class united by solidarity, aware of its common interests and energized by an appropriate system of ideas, strikes. Once workers became aware that they are alienated from the process of production, the dusk of the capitalist era has set in.

CLASS THEORY EMPHASIS: Unequal representation

For more information on the three classical theories of political sociology, CLICK HERE.

Types of Authority

The work of Max Weber dominates discussions of authority. He described three types of authority that could exist in governments:

Political Sociology via the Major Theories

Political Theory


Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought: Idea sin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977.