Modern society today

Assess the view that most power in modern western societies is held by people who have not been democratically elected. It is believed that people who have not been democratically elected hold most power in western societys, however how true is this? Throughout history people have been born into positions of power, if your father was a lord, you would most likely also be a lord. Marxists believe that this division of power still exist in modern society today.

Unlike Functionalists who believe in a fair merocratic society, Marxists believe that the social class you are born in is where you'll most likely end up staying. However this theory is critised for being far to deterministic as many people from the working classes are able to make there way up the social ladder. Marxists believe that everything designed in society is there to favour the bourgeois, from the State to the legal system. Althusser believes that economic determinism needs to be rejected.

According to Althusser, societies comprise of 3 levels: The economic, the political and the ideological. Although the economy is 'determinant' in the last instance', the political and ideological levels are not mere reflections of the economy but have 'relative autonomy' and don't have effects on the economy. Stephen Lukes identified three ways in which sociologists have approached the study of power. Each involves studying a different dimension or 'face' of power. He argues that an understanding of power requires an awareness of all three faces.

The first face of power is success in decision-making (this has been adopted by pluralists). The second face of power is managing the agenda and the third is manipulation the views of others. Weber is usually considered the starting point in the study of power. Unlike Marx he believed that power was not automatically linked to ownership of wealth. Ordinary people with little or no money could exercise power by joining parties, not only political parties but pressure groups.

He defined power as 'the chance of a man or a number of men to realise their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others'. Weber defined 3 types of authority: Charismatic Authority (The type of authority based on charisma), Traditional Authority (The type of power based on established customs) and Rational-legal authority (The type of authority devised from impersonal rules). Weber saw rational-legal authority as the dominant form of authority in modern societies, not only armies but also political, religious and educational organisations.

He believed that they were organised on bureaucratic lines with structures of authority and rational rules designed to ensure that power is used to achieve the goals of organisations. Weber's work has been critised as the types of authority he described are ideal types. Ideal is a model of the purest type and in reality ideal types do not exists. Political scientist Robert Dahl developed Weber's ideas into what has become classical pluralism.

Classical pluralism represents the way in which many people believe liberal democrats such as the UK and USA operate. It suggests that such political systems are truly democratic and that power is distributed throughout society. Classical pluralists except that they have very little direct involvement in political decision-making however this doesn't mean that these societies are undemocratic. They are seen as representative democracies where citizens elect political leaders who are charged with carrying out the wishes of those who elected them.

Pluralists see political parties and pressure groups as crucial for the democratic process, as through political parties we seek to gain power by putting up candidates into elections with the aim of forming a government and through pressure groups seek to influence those in government to follow policies which individual groups favour. Robert Dahl conducted a study of local government in New Haven and found that no-one group is seen to actually dominate the decision-making; power is therefore shared among a range of groups.

The idea is rejected by pluralists that democracy is possible in a one-party state, since there must be opposition parties and a range of pressure groups to represent the views of those who disagree with the governing party. Pluralists claim to have solid evidence for their view of the distribution of power from case studies of decision-making on a local level (Dahl) and at a national level (Hewitt) There have been many criticisms of pluralism, first of all it is believed that measuring power by examining decisions ignores non-decision making.

It also ignores the fact that that people may accept and even welcome decisions which are against their interests and its is shown that some groups exercise more power than others and so is an unequal representation of interests and many interests may not be represented at all. Marxists also argue that the pluralists' focus on the decisions taken by local and national governments ignores the possibility that the real centre of power is elsewhere. As a result of the criticisms of pluralism many classical pluralism supporters modified or changed their positions.

Robert Dahl has accepted that the unequal distribution of wealth and income in the USA makes equal political influence impossible. David Marsh describes this position as elite pluralism. Elite Pluralists accept that many political interests are under represented. However, since they constitute a significant number of voters the government will eventually be forced to take note of their interests. It is accepted that some groups have greater access to the government than others, however they point out that governments must minimise conflict by consulting with a range of interest groups.

Elite Pluralism answers some of the criticisms of classical pluralism. It acknowledges the existence of under-represented interests and accepts that power is to some degree concentrated in the hands of a few elites. However there are also criticisms of this theory. It's said to undermine the pluralist position that power is widely dispersed in capitalist societies. Also the assumption that elites or leaders act in the interests of their members is also open to question. Finally Elite pluralism like Classical pluralism fails to take into account the third face of power the ability to shape and manipulate the desires of others.