G. William Domhoff (fragments)
In order to study power systematically, we need a basic definition. A good starting point is provided by one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell. It is very simple, but very profound: “power is the ability to produce intended effects” (Russell, 1938). The usefulness of this definition is shown by the fact that a sociologist who surveyed every major discussion of power before and after Russell wrote still ended up with Russell’s definition, slightly altered: “Power is the capacity of some persons to produce intended and foreseen effects on others” (Wrong, 1995, p. 2). Wrong added the words “intended and foreseen” to rule out accidental success as a manifestation of power.
However, to say that power is the ability to produce intended and foreseen effects, and that no one form of power is more basic than any other, does not mean it is a simple matter to study the power of a
group or social class. It is necessary to develop what are called indicators of power.
Unfortunately, the indicators of a concept such as power are never perfect. So it’s important to have more than one indicator. Ideally, indicators will be of very different types so that the irrelevant components of each of them will cancel one another out. In the best of all possible worlds, these multiple indicators will point in the same direction, giving greater confidence that the underlying concept has been measured correctly. This point is most convincingly argued by five methodologists in social psychology and sociology:
Four Power Indicators
Working within this framework, there are four different power indicators that have been used by various researchers down through the decades. They can be called (1) who benefits in terms of having the things that are valued in the society? (2) who governs (i. e., sits in the seats that are considered to be powerful)? (3) who wins when there are arguments over issues? and (4) who has a reputation for power (i. e., who stands out in the eyes of their peers)?
Who governs? and Who wins? are the most widely accepted and used of the four indicators. The reputation for power indicator is the least used, especially at the national level of power.
In the United States society, for example, wealth and well-being are highly valued. People seek to own property, to earn high incomes, to have interesting and safe jobs, to enjoy the finest in travel and leisure, and to live long and healthy lives. The primary focus is on the wealth and income distributions. This does not mean that wealth and income are the same thing as power, but that the possession of great wealth and income is a visible sign that one class has power in relation to other classes.
The argument for using value distributions as power indicators is strengthened by empirical studies showing that such distributions vary from country to country depending on the relative strength of rival political parties and trade unions. In one study, it was found that since 1945, the degree of inequality in the income distribution in Western democracies varied inversely with the percentage of social democrats who had been elected to the country’s legislature. The greater the social democratic presence, the greater the amount of income that went to the lower classes.