Community Power and Social Distribution: A Debate Over Social Stratification and Elitism from Hunter Onwards
Floyd Hunter was a sociologist whom identified himself as part of the early stages of a movement to enact greater systems of localized, community social justice. Such movements were to later grip the American nation during the 1960's. However, as early as the 1950's, Hunter sought to quantitatively and qualitatively measure who had 'political power' in the community of Regional City in the American South over the course of the early 1950's. Hunter stated in his text Community Power Structure that in Atlanta, ostensibly a regional power base of the time, he had 'found' an elite whom formed the core of the local political power nexus, an elite that was not institutional in nature, but personal. In other words, through Hunter's social excavation over the course of his doctorial dissertation, Hunter discovered a hidden elitist system manifest within the ostensibly democratic and responsive community political hierarchy.
Hunter's suggestion was radical at the time because he suggested that the community political process was not inherently democratic. Rather than power within a community structure taking the form of something that could be conferred by an electorate, or fairly accessed through the use of institutional framework, power was really mainly located in relationships, and in individuals' relationships with other individuals within the community's contextual political structure. Power was tied to money, social standing, and influence peddling. Although today the cynical platitude 'it's not what you know, but who you know,' when local politics is concerned, may not sound overtly radical, to make such an assertion at the time, particularly during the onset of the civil rights movement and its exposure of the injustices built into state political system (as opposed to the idealized view of the responsive institutional framework of local politics, which was ostensibly equitable) was quite perhaps jarring to Hunter's first readers.
Hunter's book portrayed a city divided in terms of groups. These groups were headed by core ruling elites, known as "interlocking directorates of corporations" by the author. (Hunter 77). Some of these elites existed within an elite, called "interlocking club memberships" (Hunter 87). Hunter showed a variety of crowds in Atlanta, all located in economic institutions, government institutions, religious institutions, educational institutions, professional associations, civic associations, and cultural associations that solidified their power base. (Hunter 91) As later confirmed by Clarence Stone, "social stratification" or elitism, was inherent to Hunter's view of local politics. The core question to ask when viewing any institution was who had power. (Stone, 1980).
Hunter's data did not show in any definite way a unity of elite interests. The different elites might conflict, he acknowledged, but ultimately the elite's hierarchy of interests was confirmed. However, in contrast to Hunter's view of power in politics, Nelson Polsby said that power, rather than seeing something generated and held within specific group structures, was something more diffuse and unconsciously disseminated within a community. Polsby rejected the idea of elitism as a core aspect of studying 'power' within any community framework.
Polsby said that power was not a localized phenomenon within any one group, but was the ability to enact change to achieve a result desirable for one's group. However, there is some difficulty in measuring this conceptualization of power. After all, what is the desirable result for one's group -- is it what a group articulates, or is it what evolves over time? This idea seems more tenable inequities between different social groups become less observable than in Hunter's Atlanta. "Power and Social Stratification: Theory or Ideology?" Polsby asks, with the clear answer that social stratification is the latter. But Polsby wrote in a more theoretical, less localized fashion about communities other than Regional City, for example where the interests of specific groups were more obvious in relation to others and certain political groups were forcibly disenfranchised. (Polsby 98-111) Polsby asserts that power is not something that can be held in a concrete fashion by any elite organization, but is something that is often quite widely and indeed wildly diffused throughout any given community, as different groups interests predominate over time.
Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz, in their article, "Two Faces of Power," published in American Political Science, attempt to find a middle ground between elite-focused analysts such as Hunter, whom might assert that to find out whom has power in a given community, discover which elites and contextual community relationships of personality have power, with Polsby's view that power is entirely issue-based. Polsby might state that every community is unique, and that power is not found, but generated through systems of organization that retain power only so long. (Bachrach & Baratz 948) Polsby and those theorists of his school of 'pluralism' for whom power can be identified only after the impact of certain key decisions are evaluated over time, Bachrach and Baratz agree, have created an important caveat to Hunter's theories, as community power is difficult to quantify, because what issues are truly important are not always 'givens.' To measure "truly significant issues," as Polsby argues, is difficult to quantify unless one can measure the impact of those issues. (Bachrach & Baratz 950)
But ultimately, Bachrach and Baratz call upon a new study of political power. Do not ask, they say, merely 'who rules' in community power, because to ask so, like theorists of elitism as Hunter do, is to assume that power is a concrete and fixed given within a community's political system. 'Power' is not a physical entity or even a personal relationship, power is fungible and must accomplish something, must do some real political work in the world. However, one cannot simply suggest that no power exists at all, to query that "does anyone have power" in any fixed sense, as posited by pluralists such as Polsby? Were that the case, all members of a community would be potentially equal, regardless of personal standing and would have the same platform as everyone else in the community -- a specious argument whose logical extension would be that the mayor of the city is equal in power to the ordinary citizen that elects him.
Rather Bachrach and Baratz suggest that any analysis of power is really an analysis of a mobilization of bias, which they term to be an analysis of the diffuse biases within any institution. (Bachrach & Baratz 952) An example of such biases within any community, they assert, might not be able to be objectively measured. However, the elitist and pluralist theorizers of power were similarly subjective in their determinations of issues of importance and the concentration of power within the province of certain local groups.
To demonstrate their view of an individual oppressed by an institutional bias as a form of power, the authors posit the suggestion of a professor, early on in their article, whom is silenced before a powerful university figure within his institution, not because of a concrete fear of losing his job (as Hunter might suggest) or because of the university president's community standing -- nor even of the importance of the issue he is addressing at the moment in the institution's history -- but simply because of the professor's awe of the figure. Power's subjective as well as hierarchical nuance is felt, suggest Bachrach and Baratz -- power as something subliminal in its force. The professor may have tenure, but this does not mean he or she will always express him or herself to the fullest extent of his or her thoughts because of institutional, social, and personal shaping -- in other words, the effects of a culture of power, as well as the concrete mechanisms of power elites and the particular issue at hand.
This idea of power, as articulated by Bachrach and Baratz is especially useful today, when one…