Free «Keith Dowding's Power» Essay Sample


The book Power by Dowding Keith describes and analyses the concept of power and its functions in modern society. The author underlines that power is necessary to the existence of society, a crucial means whereby human beings regulate their mutual lives. Power is an important part of the social world whose contribution to the functioning of human social life is all too often overlooked. The question of whether the project of a theory of social power makes sense is one that becomes urgent in light of this theoretical situation. The range of conflicts among various discourses of power makes it hard to accept the idea that there could be a single theoretical explanation of what power is.

Brief Summary of the Book

The book consists of four parts devoted to different problems and issues. The first part, “Power To and Power Over” pays attention to such problems as conflicts, game theory, types of power, fallacies in political thought and relations between power and game theory. In this part, Dowding Keith puts forward a theory of social power despite recognition of the problematic nature of the concept of power. The author underlines that it is necessary to explain why such power makes sense. In claiming that there are two meanings of the concept of power, one need not be claiming that there is no relationship between them. Indeed, since any attribution of an ability to an agent will involve attributing a power to her, the attribution of power-over an agent to another agent will involve some attribution of power-to. Nonetheless, the concept of power-over picks out a different aspect of reality than does the concept of power-to.

The second part, “Structure and Interests” describes the correlation between power, interests of social groups, conflicts between individual and collective power, social structures and their dependence upon power structure. This brief look at the development of these different conceptions of power within the philosophic tradition and their impact upon social theory help to explain why "power" is an especially problematic concept within social theory--because it does not have a single use within ordinary discourse. When social theorists have attempted to introduce a more precise discursive practice, they have tended to stipulate a single use on the only appropriate one.

The third part, “Luck and Power” discusses the issue of pivotality and relations between luck and power. Also, this part pays attention to possible methods for studying power. Given the two basic uses of the concept within ordinary discourse, this practice has resulted in the emergence of two distinct trends within social theoretic conceptions of power: one developed by those who have stipulated a theoretical concept that is derived from the ordinary use of the phrase "has power to" and another developed by those who have stipulated one derived from the phrase "has power over".

The forth part, “Systematic Lack” discuses weaknesses and drawbacks in current research and perceptions of power by different social groups. Dowding Keith analyses such types of power as business power, political power, social and state power. In this part, the author proves that the power is constituted by the presence of aligned social agents who use an aspect of his relationship to the subordinate agent as a criterion for the subordinate agent's access to certain items, access that they control. Because this conception proceeds in terms of a dominant and a subordinate agent, it might suggest that the dominant agent is empowered to act in regard to the subordinate agent in any manner in which he sees fit. But although the dominant agent in a power relationship has power over the subordinate agent, this does not generally mean that he can exercise that power without any restraint. Rather, since a power relationship is itself constituted by the ongoing actions of the social agents, in order to maintain his power the dominant agent in such a relationship must act in a way that does not disturb the ongoing patterns of actions that these agents engage in.

In the research, Dowding Keith follows the deductive approach based on secondary data analysis and literature review. The author addresses such philosophers as Hume, Popper, Sartre, Mills etc in order to support his ideas and concepts. The proposed approach helps the author to create a framework of the study and illustrate the main concepts. The author concludes that when relationships rather than events become the focus of a theory of power, it becomes clear that power is not a piece of property that can simply be physically possessed by its owner. An adequate conception of power, therefore, must have a means for acknowledging the nature of power as a social relationship. What this means, however, is that power relationships, if they are to continue to exist, must constantly be reproduced by the actions of social agents.


Strengths of the research

One of the strengths of the conception of power is that it acknowledges that power exists primarily in social relationships and not in isolated exercises. It posits a particular ontological structure of human social relationships as constituting power relationships and, in so doing, explicitly posits ongoing social relationships as the primary locus of power in society. Once power is recognized as having its basis in the manner in which social agents interact with one another, its reality is seen to lie in the ongoing nature of such interactions. Power, like all social relationships, is dynamic, not static. It can be a constant feature of the social world because it can constantly (re)produce itself. A theory of power must focus upon such processes of (re)production.

The idea that a theory of social power needs to develop, then, is that power, because it is the result of the ongoing actions of human beings interacting with one another and with their non-human environment, is always the result of human beings acting in particular ways. As such, it is not an "objective" feature of the social environment in the sense that human beings could not, by acting differently, alter it. In this sense, I shall claim that power is always contestable--that is, that power relationships are a site of constant and ongoing social contest. A theory of power also must focus upon the question of how the power relations that hold at a given moment in time can be maintained. Temporally speaking, the social present is brought into existence by a past and contributes toward the bringing about of a future. Thus, the "present" of social power relationships is one that contains the traces of the past and the seeds of the future. This aspect of the temporality of human social action also needs to be captured within a conception of power.

Weaknesses of the research

The main weakness is lack of theoretical support and small literature review. The problem of power was addressed by such philosophers as Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Plutarch etc by all of them are omitted in this work. Deductive approach creates only a general picture of the research question but deprives readers a chance to find answers themselves. Dowding Keith states that because power is the result of the aligned agents treating the subordinate agent in a certain manner, that power can be maintained only through the continued cooperation of the aligned agents. I would not agree with this notion and would reject the idea that a dominant agent in a power relationship therefore needs to exercise his power in a manner that will not result in the failure of the aligned social agents to continue to empower him. This feature of power relationships results in a number of different tendencies that restrict the power of the dominant agent. All of them depend on his need to keep the cooperation of the aligned social agents. In particular, there are two important limitations on the power of the dominant agent: the scope of issues over which he has control and the manner in which he exercises his power.

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The second chapter ignores a theoretical perspective and concentrates on subjective opinion of the author. Also, there are a few examples of demand-side problems, and relations between collective actions and power. I would disagree that the scope of issues over which the dominant agent is able to make decisions is limited by the aligned agents. In general, aligned social agents empower him to make only certain sorts of decisions concerning a subordinate agent. The social alignment functions as a sort of transmitter, transmitting to the subordinate agent the effects of the dominant agent's decisions. In order for the alignment to do this, however, those decisions have to be seen as legitimate by the agents within the alignment at least to the extent that they will not simply refuse to continue acting as they are expected to. For if the aligned social agents fail to act in this manner, they will disempower the dominant agent. A police officer, for example, may refuse to enforce a law that she feels is ridiculous and unfair by simply turning her back when she sees the law being broken. This type of constraint on the dominant agent's exercise of his power exists within the alignment that constitutes the dominant agent's power in the first place and, as such, is a constraint on his power.

The most unclear part is the third one. There is no logic between luck and power elations so it is really difficult to grasp the idea at once. Although this feature of a power relationship can be thought of as a structural limitation on the power of the dominant agent, its existence is due to the aspect of power relationships. Because the dominant agent needs to maintain the cooperation of the aligned agents in order to maintain his power in the future, his decisions must be made in light of that need. This limitation of the dominant agent's power is, however, itself not absolute: Like all aspects of social reality, it can become subject to conflict.

The Implications of Weaknesses and Criticisms

In spite of some weaknesses and lack of examples, the book would be interested to everyone involved in power relations, political and social work. Taking into account the information and conclusion of the book, I would say that power can seek to enlarge the scope of decisions over which he has control. For example, a dictator who has seized control of his government may try to assume as much power as possible. He may decide, for example, to dissolve the legislative branch of government in order to enlarge the scope of his own power. Such an example shows that the scope of an agent's power is itself something that the dominant agent is able to enlarge; the crucial point to remember is that such an enlargement always contains within itself the possibility of backfiring in that it calls into question the ongoing allegiance of the aligned social agents. This example shows that, although a social alignment may empower a social agent in regard to another social agent, such empowerment always has tacit riders to the effect that the dominant agent must abide by certain standards of conduct. Although a dominant agent is always free to challenge the limits implicitly set on his conduct by the alignment, such challenges carry with them the possibility of alienating the aligned agents and thus undermining the power relationship. By looking at the power of the dominant agent from a point of view, it is possible to see that power is itself so constituted that it is a possible site of ongoing social struggle. The power that the dominant agent has is his only because of the cooperation of aligned social agents. They can try, in certain circumstances, to change themselves, just as he can try to broaden the range of issues over which they will align themselves with him. Power, as a social reality, can always be a field of social struggle, though not always simply between the dominant and the subordinate agents themselves.

As a result of this feature, the unique view of power provides greater insight into the dynamics of social change than views such as the dyadic one. It is evident that a power relationship may be altered as a result of actions undertaken by the agents outside the central dyad. People who are peripheral to a given power relationship may, because of their own broader power relations with the aligned social agents, influence the alteration of the power in that relationship. the general public's becoming involved in the police's treatment of a protester can result in the governmental alignment's changing its view about what the police can do and even about the issue over which the protest was staged. In such a case, the alteration of power is a result of agents' becoming interested in how a particular power relationship is exercised and thus moving into an aligned relation- ship with the protester. The conception of power allows to see social change as having a more mediated logic than views that focus only upon two social actors struggling against one another. The power of the dominant agent in a power relationship operates within a horizon based upon the need to maintain the allegiance of a social alignment. As a result, the dominant agent will normally act in such a way as to maximize her chances of keeping the cooperation of the aligned agents. In normal situations, this will result in a maintenance of the power relationship as it was; in revolutionary situations, however, the dominant agent can seek to enlarge the scope of her power or the subordinate agent can seek to alter the cooperative structure of a social alignment.

I would say that possessions of power by one agent are always potentially able to be countered. This means that there are ways in which subordinate agents can seek to achieve power over the dominant agent that would allow them to counter his power. This point has often been glimpsed in an obscure manner by theorists of social power when they have claimed that the interesting question, from the point of view of the theory of power, is not whether a social agent has true political power, but whether that agent has power, all thingsconsidered. For if the power that an agent has is counterbalanced by the power that another agent has, that agent will be in a very different situation than is suggested simply by saying that she has power. My claim is simply that such countering of the power of the dominant agent by the subordinate agent is always possible within a social power relationship.

The book would be more interesting and valuable if more examples are included. Also, the research needs more theoretical background and analysis of such works as “Politics” by Aristotle, “The Republic” by Plato, “Pericles” by Plutarch. The author could include some rhetorical questions and address the problem from philosophical point of view. The implications of the book are that one aspect of the temporality of social relationships is that they need not remain the same over time; there is always a possibility of altering them. I shall now show how this fact entails the possibility of constructing alternative social alignments as a means by which subordinate social agents can change the power relationships within which they find themselves. An alignment is an alternative to a given alignment for a social agent if and only if that alignment gives the agent an alternative means of access to the same items that she could have access to through the original alignment (or similar ones). The old-boy network is, in this sense, an alternative to the grading alignment. It allows certain agents to avoid the power of the dominant agent in the grading alignment by giving them an alternative means of access to jobs, an item that is available to social agents primarily through the grading alignment. Since an agent who has access to a job through such a means will not have to rely on the teacher's evaluation in the same way as agents who do not have such an option, the old-boy network fundamentally alters the power relationship between a student who has access to it and her teacher. If alternative alignments, countering alignments, and the possibility that an agent may decide to forego the items available to her through various power relations are included in the broad social context of a power relationship, it becomes clear that social power, despite its ubiquitous presence in the social world, is by no means a monolithic structure. There is room for individuals to maneuver within the constraints imposed upon them by power relationships. By relying on given structures of alignments to counter the power of a dominant agent within a central alignment, and also by forging new alignments, social agents are able to achieve a greater degree of control over their lives, to receive the items they desire through channels alternative to those present in the central alignment, and to achieve a degree of independence from the power constituted by such an alignment. A particular man's ability to exercise power over a woman may depend, for example, on that woman's inability to get her fellow workers to stand up for her. Such general social facts are themselves part of what constitutes men's power over women. The actual interventional uses of power by men are dependent upon a more systematic structure of power that allows them to exercise power over women in the first place.

These theoretical reflections would help explain the impression that developments in the power debate are not getting us closer to an adequate definition of power. The attempt by theorists to ground ascriptions of power in some sort of observational basis involves an inadequate appreciation of the interplay between theory and observation in science. The obvious rejoinder to their attempt is the claim that power must be grounded in intentional discourse and not in a privileged "objective" realm. The lesson to be learned from a consideration of scientific methodology is that the concept of power has a place within an intentional language dealing with social agents. The attempt to deny this leads to an inadequate understanding of power as well as of human agency itself. The failures of the power debate should not cause people to reject the attempt to explicate the meaning of social and political relations but rather should provide us with a clear sense of both the terms within which such an explication can be made and the phenomena that such an explication will have to elucidate.


The book has many weaknesses and limitation as a result of incorrect and weak approach in research. The assumption concerns the question of what sorts of relations between social agents actually count as relations in which power can be a factor. A central problem with the views of power put forward by the theorists in the power debate is that they tend to think of power in terms of what I shall call "an interventional model." A theorist who accepts the interventional model of power thinks of power as something that is present as a factor in the relations between two social agents only as a discrete event in which the relation between the two agents changes. Power is therefore conceptualized as an agent's intervention in a previously given social relation. Still, the author clearly explains that when two social agents interact in a particular social event, there can be an exercise of power; in the absence of such an intervention, however, there is no power. As a result of this analysis, it is possible to see that the interventional model of power is not an adequate manner of conceptualizing a fundamental use of power in society, namely its use to structure the basic terms of interaction of social agents. As a result, the terms within which the power debate is conducted can be seen to be inadequate to understanding the most basic aspects of power in society. In the power debate, power is conceptualized as something that exists only within specific events that take place between two independently constituted agents. Individual and collection power are a part of social relations and cannot be considered in isolation from social life. This results in a focus on specific events as the sole "locations" at which power is exercised in society. In so doing, relationships between agents are ruled out as proper domains in which power can be a constituting factor. Although it is possible to see power as relational--indeed, even as dyadic--they do not provide a conception of power that is adequate for understanding the nature of power relationships--that is, long-term patterns of mutual interaction that are shaped by the power of one agent over another. Since these sorts of relationships are one of the primary things that a theory of power must conceptualize, the power debate's focus on discrete events as the locus of power in society obscures many real issues that are at stake in a theory of power.


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