The Four Networks Theory of Power: A Theoretical Home for Power Structure Research
by G. William Domhoff
April 2005
This document explains why and how organizations are the starting point for understanding power. It focuses on four main organizational networks -- ideological, economic, military, and political -- as the building blocks for power structures. To provide a backdrop for understanding the American power structure, it then briefly applies the theory to Europe from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, showing how the economic and political networks gradually subordinated the ideological and military networks. Finally, it shows how the theory explains the class domination that characterizes the American power structure.

The theoretical starting point for power structure research is a seemingly mundane one, but that's what makes it very useful: power is rooted in organizations. From that humble beginning we can soon reach classes, states, the military and the ideological organizations that provide the basis for the collective search for meaning and forgiveness (organized religions).

Organizations at their most basic are simply sets of rules, roles, and routines developed to accomplish some particular purpose. They are ways of doing something together that people agree on, or at least accept for the time being. Religious rituals, for example, are routines that become the basis for the institutions called churches. The established routines for face-to-face economic exchanges become one basis for the more complex economic system of markets.

This too sounds very banal. But organizations can quickly become hierarchical and/or fierce when they begin to grow larger or face an outside threat. People will fight to hold on to their organizations. They like their roles and routines, which often become rituals.

Since human beings have a vast array of "purposes," they have formed an appropriately large number of organizations. But only a few of these purposes and organizations weigh heavily in terms of generating power.

According to sociologist Michael Mann's theory -- in my opinion, the theory that best suits power structure research -- the power structures within Western civilization, and probably other civilizations, too, are best understood by determining the intertwinings and relative importance at any given time of the organizations based in four "overlapping and intersecting sociospatial networks of power" (Mann, 1986, p. 1). These networks are ideological, economic, military, and political -- "The IEMP model" for short.

It is important to stress right away that the theory is not derived from any psychological assumptions about the importance of different human purposes. Instead, the point is strictly sociological: these four networks happen to be the most useful organizational bases for generating power. In Mann's (1986, p. 2) words, "Their primacy comes not from the strength of human desires for ideological, economic, military, or political satisfaction but from the particular organizational means each possesses to attain human goals, whatever they may be."

In focusing on these four networks, Mann's concern is therefore with the "logistics" of power (1986, pp. 9-10, 518). In terms of human history, no one network comes first or is somehow more "basic" than the others. That is, each one always has presupposed the existence of the others. However, that does not mean that the networks are usually equal in their importance. Generally speaking, one or two networks usually are more dominant than the others. For example, as I explain later in this document and elsewhere on this website, the economic network is predominant over the others in the United States, leading to class domination.

Furthermore, one kind of organizational power can be turned into any one of the others. Economic power can be turned into political power. Religious power can generate military power. Military power can conquer political power. And so on. In that sense, power is like the idea of "energy" in the natural sciences: it cannot be reduced to one primary form. Thus, there can be no "ultimate primacy" in the "mode of production" or "the normative system" or "the state," as in rival theories. Mann's summary statement on his overall framework is as follows:

A general account of societies, their structure, and their history can best be given in terms of the interrelations of what I call the four sources of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political (IEMP) relationships. These are (1) overlapping networks of social interaction, not dimensions, levels, or factors of a single social totality. This follows from my first statement. (2) They are also organizations, institutional means of attaining human goals. (Mann, 1986, p. 2.)

The four networks vary in size and reach at different times in history. For example, military power had a greater range throughout most of history than either political or economic power, but economic networks became even more extensive in recent centuries. Since the four networks are not encompassed within a larger social framework or any one physical territory, there is no need for concepts such as a "bounded society" or a "social system." Since there is no "totality," there can be no "subsystems," "levels," or "dimensions." Instead, social organization must be understood in terms of the four overlapping networks of power that run off in different directions and have varying extensions in physical space.

Since the emphasis is on people acting through social networks, the distinction between "social action" and "social structure," is cast aside. There no longer needs to be a periodic revival of the "agency vs. structure" debate. Because the four networks have different and constantly changing boundaries that vary with the invention of new technologies and the emergence of new organizational forms, the old division between "endogenous" and "exogenous" factors in the understanding of social conflict is discarded as "not helpful" (Mann, 1986, p. 1).

Mann underscores his general point about the interacting and intersecting nature of the four power networks by noting "the promiscuity of organizations and functions" (1986, p. 17). That is, the four networks can fuse and borrow from each other in complex ways. There are always power structures, but they vary from time to time and place to place in how the four power networks are interrelated. For example, medieval European states were "overwhelmingly, narrowly political" (Mann, 1986, p. 17) and they were autonomous, but states in modern capitalist societies are both political and economic, and they usually are not autonomous (Mann, 1993).

Mann defines the ideology network in terms of those organizations concerned with meaning, norms, and ritual practice (1986, p. 22). It generates "sacred" authority and intensifies social cohesion. Its usual manifestations are in organized religion, and its most prominent historical power actor was the Catholic Church. In all cases, it gains loyalty and financial support by providing answers to universal concerns about the origins of humanity, death, the purpose of life, the reasons for guilt feelings, and other existential questions.

The economic network is that set of institutions concerned with satisfying material needs through the "extraction, transformation, distribution and consumption of the objects of nature" (Mann, 1986, p. 24). The economic network gives rise to classes, which can be defined as positions in a social structure that are shaped by their power over the different parts of the economic process. The most powerful economic class is called a "ruling" or "dominant" class if it "has successfully monopolized other power sources to dominate a state-centered society at large" (Mann, 1986, p. 25). Geographically extensive classes arose only slowly in Western history, because they were dependent upon advances in infrastructure made possible by developments in the other power networks. For the first 2500 years of Western civilization, economic networks were extremely localized, especially in comparison to political and military networks.

Because economic classes are also social relationships between groups of people who often have different interests, the economic network can generate class conflicts, which are disagreements over such matters as ownership, profit margins, wage rates, working conditions, and unionization. Class conflicts can manifest themselves in ways that range from workplace protests and strikes to industry-wide boycotts and collective bargaining to nationwide political actions.

However, class conflict is not inevitably present because both owners and workers, the most likely rival classes in recent times, have to have the means to organize themselves over an extended area of social space for conflict to occur. For much of Western history, there have been well-organized dominant classes, but class conflict has been important only in certain periods of Western history, such as ancient Greece, early Rome, and the present capitalist era. That's because non-owning classes usually find it very difficult to organize themselves.

The military network is defined in terms of organized physical violence. It is the power of direct and immediate coercion. As already noted, military power had a greater range throughout most of history than either political or economic power. Even so, we often forget that until very recently an army could only carry enough food for a 50-60 mile march, which forced it to rely on the local countryside in extensive military campaigns.

Historically, many armies fought for the benefit of their own leaders, who created "empires of domination" by taking over newly arisen civilizations based on the economic, ideological, and political networks. In more recent centuries military networks usually are in the service of a political network, but they still can be separate from it, as seen with guerrilla armies based in subjugated ethnic groups and terrorist organizations based in ideological networks.

Although most theorists regard military power as one aspect of state power, there are four good historical reasons for distinguishing political and military power. First, the original states had little or no military capability. Second, most historical states have not controlled all the military forces within the territory they claim to regulate. Third, there are historical instances of conquest undertaken by armies that were not controlled by the states where they resided. Fourth, the military is usually separate from other state institutions even when it is officially controlled by the state, making possible the overthrow of the political elite by military leaders (Mann, 1986, p. 11).

The fourth and final network, "the state," is defined as a political network whose primary function is territorial regulation (Mann, 1986, p. 26-27). Its usefulness in laying down rules and adjudicating disputes in specific territories is the source of its uniqueness (Mann, 1984; Mann, 1986). This unique function is the basis for its potential autonomy, but it gains further autonomy due to the fact that it interacts with other states, especially through warfare (Mann, 1986, p. 511). The state can take on other functions besides territorial regulation and has had varying degrees of influence at different phases of Western history ( (Mann, 1977; Mann, 1986, p. 514).

People in general, and the economic network in particular, desperately need the regulatory and judicial services offered by the political network. Groups of people may be in general cooperative, but there are always disagreements here and there, and inevitably a few people who are a real pain in the neck, disputing every little issue, pushing themselves forward, and on and on (you know them well, no doubt). No other network is capable of providing regulations and a judicial system for sustained periods of time. Thus, the Four Networks theory does not put any emphasis on coercion or domination in explaining the origins of the state. Archaeological and historical evidence support this view. The earliest states had coordination functions, and were most closely allied with religious institutions, if not a direct outgrowth of them. Organized violence and class domination came later (Mann 1986, pp. 49-63, 84-87).

Looking at the growth and development of the four networks in Western history, Mann concludes that our theoretical goals as social scientists must be tempered by a respect for the complex realities of history. The historical record does not bear out the claims of any one "grand theory." There are too many exceptions. Lower-level, contingent generalizations are the best we can do. There seems to be a pattern in Western history, but only barely, and this pattern is conditioned by a number of historical accidents, not by some inevitable and immanent societal principles (1986, pp. 531-532). The "European miracle," meaning the tremendous growth in power resources over the past several hundred years, is seen as "a series of giant coincidences" (Mann, 1986, p. 505).

In the terminology that has been adopted since the 1990s, history is "path-dependent." It follows along the path that was taken at key choice points where things could have gone more than one way. Although these new paths sometimes involve mundane choices like the way in which typewriter keyboards were organized, the most important new paths usually involve power struggles between nation-states or classes within nation-states. For example, the world would be very different today if Hitler had not attacked Great Britain and the Soviet Union at the same time, undercutting the strong possibility that he might have solidified his control of continental Europe.

Because all large-scale civilizations and nation-states have been connected to each other in one way or another for several thousand years, comparative studies are far more limited in their usefulness than many social scientists believe. That's because there really aren't enough separate social systems to make meaningful comparisons, and comparisons back and forth in historical time can be downright silly due to the vastly different levels of power development at different historical epochs (Mann, 1986, pp. 173, 501-503, 525). For the most burning questions, historical studies of specific countries or systems of nation-states are the best we can do. This historical emphasis recalls C. Wright Mills's (1962, pp. 119-126) similar admonitions, and it justifies the kind of detailed studies that have characterized research on contemporary power structures.

Even the rise of independent civilizations in only four or five separate places was in good part due to a combination of relatively rare geographical coincidences, not evolutionary inevitability. Mann shows that in many times and places pre-historical social groups reached a level of social development that seemed to suggest that civilization -- defined in terms of cities, ceremonial centers, and writing -- was about to appear, only to fall back or remain at the same level. Significantly, one factor in this "failure" to develop civilizations may have been the ability of ordinary people to control the actions of their leaders, either by resisting or moving to a new group, thereby depriving the would-be power trippers of their base. People seemed to fear the development of full-fledged power structures (Mann, 1986, pp. 38-39, 67-68).

Before civilizations emerged, there may have been "inverted power structures" in which the rank-and-file could discipline would-be dominators through gossip, scorn, shunning, and if need be, assassination (Boehm, 1999). Only where river flooding allowed the possibility of alluvial agriculture, in conjunction with close proximity to geographical areas that encouraged different but complementary networks, did the "caging" of populations make possible the development of the fixed power structures of domination and exploitation that have characterized all civilizations. The strong egalitarian tendencies that characterized pre-historic social groups were submerged when power seekers could build on a religious, economic, military, or political base to gain control of others.

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