C. Wright Mills, Power Structure Research, and the Failures of Mainstream Political Science
by G. William Domhoff
in New Political Science 29 (2007), pp. 97-114

It was a wonderful coincidence that the meetings of the American Political Science Association for 2006 reconsidered the concept of power on the 50th anniversary of C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite (1956), a book that can be seen as a challenge to everything that political science has had to say about the structure and distribution of power in the United States before and since its publication. Along with Floyd Hunter's Community Power Structure (1953), which challenged the discipline at the local level as much as Mill's book did at the national level, The Power Elite created the field of power structure research within sociology and political science. It is the 50 years of research findings from this new field that will be the main focus of this indictment of mainstream American political science for its failure to realize the fact that power is far more concentrated and class-based in the United States than any of its theories acknowledge.

Mills, Hunter, and power structure research are relatively distinctive in that they see power as originally rooted in organizations, not in individuals, voluntary associations, interest groups, and parties, as mainstream political science does, nor in classes, as Marxists do, although they certainly agree that voluntary associations, interest groups, and classes can arise historically in some countries from their organizational base, as has been the case in industrialized capitalist societies. On the other hand, Mills, Hunter, and the field of research they created do not see organizations in the neutral and benign way characteristic of most organizational theorists, whose primary focus since their field arose in the 1920s has been to help make organizations function more efficiently and smoothly. This often means that the organizational theorists are trying to help control the workforces for the managers who hire them, or get more out of them ("efficiency"), which is just the opposite of the approach Hunter and Mills would advocate.

Power structure researchers start with and are wary of organizations because they see them as power bases for those at the top due to the information and material resources that leaders control, as supplemented by their ability to reshape organizational structures, hire and fire underlings, make alliances with other organizational leaders, and many other factors. However, they do not resign themselves to this situation, as Robert Michels (1915/1958) did when he said that he who says organization says oligarchy. Power structure researchers differ from Michels in that they believe in the promise of greater equality and participation. For them, power at the top is not inevitable. Organizations can be restructured and controlled by the rank-and-file through a variety of means when people organize themselves through a combination of unions, political parties, cooperatives, and other means.

Not only was it a wonderful coincidence that political scientists were asked to reconsider how they have handled the concept of power on a major anniversary of Mills's book, it is a scandal that the book and the research field it helped create were not really a part of that reconsideration. One of the program organizers, Richard Vallely (2006), wrote a piece before the meetings for the Chronicle of Higher Education that said Mills and Hunter were "legendary" sociologists who had triggered the power debate, but there was nary a word about their work at the meetings except during the presidential address--think bold, like Mills did, on the big issues--and on the NPS panel for which an earlier version of this article was written. As so often, pluralists not only had the last word, they had the only word.

But Mills and Hunter should have been central to the whole discussion because the very paper that was the basis for the reconsideration, Robert A. Dahl's (1957) "The Concept of Power," was concerned about far more than a "dominant legalistic approach" that supposedly had "obscured fundamental relations in society," as the Call for the meetings piously stated. In fact, Dahl's paper was also the first shot in the counterattack by him and his students against the concepts that Hunter and Mills were putting forward, which were rightly taken by Dahl as an in-your-face attack on the idea that there was as much power sharing and democracy in the United States as most political scientists claim.

This point is seen mostly obviously in the fact that Dahl discusses Hunter's work toward the end of the paper without even mentioning his name or the book he wrote. Out of nowhere, late in the paper, he says that "One of the most important existing studies of the power structure of a community has been criticized because of what appears to have been a failure to observe this requirement" (i.e., the need to compare the power of an individual or group on a range of issues); shortly thereafter, he asks "On what grounds, then, can one criticize the study mentioned a moment ago" (Dahl, 1957, pp. 208-209)? Apparently Dahl could not bring himself to name Hunter or cite his work, even though there are 11 citations in the References section.

The agenda underlying Dahl's 1957 article on the concept of power, which consists of Max Weber souped up with probability equations that never proved useful, became even more obvious in his follow-up paper on power, "A Critique of the Ruling Elite Model," in which he summarily dismissed both Hunter and Mills with the resounding conclusion that it was "a remarkable and indeed astounding fact that neither Professor Mills nor Professor Hunter has seriously attempted to examine an array of specific cases to test his major hypothesis" (Dahl, 1958, p. 466). Dahl thereby took the substantive issues off the table and turned the argument into a seemingly methodological one, although it was actually an argument about philosophies of science that he was invoking: his single-operation definition of power actually emerged from a strand of logical positivism that had been adapted by the behaviorists within psychology to prove that they were scientific, a briefly successful ploy that was then imitated by "behavioralist" political scientists seeking the same respectability.

Dahl's operationalization of power solely in terms of who wins and who loses in the decisional arenas of government attempted to constrain the study of power in political science to a power indicator that can seldom be used with any confidence without access to historical archives and/or after-the-fact revelations by participants or whistleblowers. That's not only because of the lack of access to the necessary information for reconstructing a decision while it is being made or shortly thereafter, but also due to the active efforts at credit-taking or befuddlement necessarily practiced by all politicians if they are going to placate their various constituencies and continue to be reelected. Worse, it condemned political science to a sterile argument about the "three faces of power" that was at best a side issue (Lukes, 2005).

By contrast, power structure research came to a sophisticated methodological position based on the idea that "power," even though it is a relationship, is for research purposes best understood as an underlying trait of a collectivity, such as an organization or a social class. This trait called "power" has to be studied with a number of different but overlapping indicators that together can overcome the individual weaknesses each one has (e.g., Lazarsfeld, 1966; Webb et al., 1981). Within this context, power structure research is based on a combination of network analysis--more specifically, "membership network analysis," as explained by Ronald Breiger (1974)--and content analysis, and it makes use of all four of the power indicators that have been developed to date (see Domhoff, 2006b, Appendix A, for a detailed statement of the methodology of power structure research). (The four power indicators--what organization or class receives the most of what people seek for and value?; what organization or class is over-represented in key decision-making positions?; what organization or class wins in the decisional arena?; and who is thought to be powerful by knowledgeable observers and peers?--are familiar to most social scientists and are commented upon throughout this indictment.)

Although the main focus of this article is on Mills and power structure research at the national level, the next section briefly discusses the local level because Hunter also played a role in the creation of power structure research and also was criticized heavily by the political scientists who set the tone for the discipline over the next 50 years. Since the original battles between pluralists and power structure researchers were fought out on an urban terrain, it is gratifying to be able to return to it with recent findings that have a little something for everyone, along with considerable vindication for Hunter.

In concluding this introduction, I want to stress that it is not my purpose to defend each and every detail of what Hunter and Mills claimed. I long ago concluded, based on subsequent research, including some of my own, that they were wrong about a number of issues, most of which I will touch on throughout this article. What is important about Hunter and Mills is that they stand outside the usual pluralist vs. Marxist debates. To repeat, they do not stress individuals, voluntary associations, and interest groups like the pluralists do, or class dynamics to the exclusion of almost everything else, like many Marxists tend to do. They point the way to what I think is a solid theoretical starting point, even though they did not themselves fully articulate that position: modern-day power structures are based on a complex mix of organizational and class factors. Empirical political scientists have done many studies that are useful in understanding the American power structure, but the failure of the discipline to start with a perspective based on the interaction of classes and organizations dooms it to failure at the theoretical level.

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