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Steven Lukes 'Power; a Radical View'


There has been much discussion concerning the various faces of power. Steven Lukes’ classical essay entitled: ‘Power; a Radical View’ was written in 1974 and although the essay was based on the context at the time, it still provides political analysts with a robust and rigorous method to approaching the concept of power and how it operates. However, much criticism has arose bringing attention to various flaws in the three dimensional model of power. There are three key arguments that are brought against ‘Power; A Radical View’, which are important to consider in relation to whether the three dimensional model overlooks important aspects of how power actually works.

These include the proposal put forward by individuals such as Clarissa Hayward, Michael Foucault and Jeffrey Isaac that the environment and structures that people reside within have a certain power over individuals; a fact that Lukes inadequately addresses. The whole idea that Lukes determines power as ‘power over’ someone by an opposing agent is criticised.

Peter Morriss and Talcott Parsons

This is an argument brought forward by critics such as Peter Morriss and Talcott Parsons. These political scientists believe that power is not necessarily a negative cycle. The idea that power can be exercised as an enabling force; in terms of ‘power to’ do something is their disagreement with Lukes’ three dimensional approach. Another main argument brought against Lukes’ model of power, which could show how it overlooks important aspects of how power actually operates is the unconvincing reliance that Lukes makes in his essay on the concept of ‘real interests’.

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Ian Shapiro outlines, in his short essay entitled; ‘On the Second Edition of Lukes’ Third Face,’ that Lukes has failed to deal with the possibility of people having conflicted interests and the reality that it is very difficult to predict or assume what factors affect how power operates when those interests “are manipulated or altered to their disadvantage by third parties,” which are often unforeseen and un-specifiable. These three critiques will be examined in detail in order to gain an insight into whether the three dimensional approach by Steven Lukes is still useful and important in light of all the criticism or if it does indeed overlook important aspects of how power actually operates.

The first and second dimensions of power

The first and second dimensions of power can be attributed to Robert Dahl, Morton Baratz and Peter Bachrach. Robert Dahl’s highly simplified definition of power provided a strong point from which Baratz and Bachrach could develop and include the aspects of decision-making and non-decision making surrounding the area of power that involves setting the agenda. This shows us that Lukes, while making important developments in understanding power, was building on work by previous political commentators. This would have allowed him improve work by adding to what had already been done, even though it was by no means wrong to start off with. There are critiques that either still think that the three dimensional model of power does not include all the most important aspects needed to understanding how power actually operates or that it relies on assumptions that are often unconvincing. This implies that although there has been criticism about what Lukes has left out or chose to play down in his examination of power; it still provides much progress in the area of investigating the relationship of those involved in the mechanisms of power.

Peter Morriss has made some compelling criticisms aimed at the three faces of power. These include the view that it is not always wise to think of power as affecting others. Lukes continually defines power in terms of a force that is cast over someone to affect the way they operate. Morriss and Parsons both argue that Lukes’ work is too simplified in the sense that it doesn’t take into account other types of power other than conflict. Lukes acknowledges his mistake in not recognising that power is not always conducted over someone. However, he does defend his stance by claiming that the most relevant power relationship to conduct to gain an insight into matters that affect us all are the conflicting power relationships and the power that people have over one another; as opposed to the powers that we already know and have.

Methods of identifying and using data

Lukes’ model provides methods of identifying and using data to gain an insight into previously difficult to measure areas. He was incorrect not to acknowledge the different types of power – however his rebuttal takes shape in the view that he is aiming to analysis one particular kind of power; one that he identifies as the most relevant to social life. However, Morriss makes valuable point to consider in the form that Lukes fails to recognize that power can exist without their ever been any actual affects that are evident to use for empirical analysis. “The absolutely basic common core to, or primitive notion lying behind all talk of power is the notion that A in some way affects B.”1 This implies that even though Lukes may be making valuable progress in investigating certain types of power; there may be certain power relationships that have no visible outcomes.

It could be argued then, that in certain cases, outcomes may be attributed to the incorrect cases of power relationships because certain power relationship outcomes come about as a result of seemingly unapparent occurrences. The argument that someone can possess power without actually using it; leads Morriss to take the view that power should be thought of as a capacity, rather than an exercise of influence.2 This implies that one should not limit the scope of power and take into account that it includes control of oneself and the environment. This is opposed to the view taken by Lukes, which states that power is a force that is dispensed over you and something which controls you in one way or another. Each of these views has compelling arguments. It has to be said that each is not wrong and do provide good descriptions of different kinds of power, but Morriss’ view does not offer a path that leads to an empirical outcome. It offers no way of explaining how power operates. It only exists to point out, albeit valid, but unsupportive points, to consider when conceptualising power. However, it still does show weakness in the model that Lukes provides and even though the three dimensional model could be used in defining specific power explanations that involve a force being exercised over some else that has a visible outcome; nonetheless there is still always the possibility that the data may be contaminated due to some power relationships resulting in no obvious or visible outcomes. The view that Lukes model does overlook certain aspects of power due to his narrow definition, this in turn implies that he can only apply his model to cases in which A someway affects B.

The three dimensional model of power

Clarissa Hayward criticises the three dimensional model of power for not including other factors that have power over us. She outlines the possible of other influences such as the environment in which we live in or the structural restraints brought upon us in terms of social factors such as class or legislation passed by governments often have considerable effect over an individual. Lukes’ view is more reductionist in terms of the focus on power that individuals within institutions have over people. Hayward believes that collective power and structural power are important aspects to consider. Theoretically individuals may hold much personal power within certain organisations; however there is a certain power that an institution has that accumulates the more it becomes ingrained into our society.

This implies that there is a certain power that emulates from collective force that has no moral responsibility because it is not a specific individual. A main basis for Lukes’ thesis is cast around the idea of morals and the fact that it is possible to use power over someone as a positive phenomenon because the person dealing out the power is morally responsible and often accountable. This implies that there is a flaw in the three dimensional model because there is a certain influence and power that affects individuals which comes from an amoral agent. Hayward argues that there are influences and power over individuals coming from other sources that are often either void of responsibility or the lack the capacity to act in a moral way. Again this points to Lukes’ narrow view on power due to his connections he makes with moral responsibility and power, which doesn’t allow him to consider other potentially influential factors affecting how power operates. However, Hayward does make some concessions, in the sense that it is useful to tie in moral responsibility and use of power to create a working model. Although she does make well-founded claims that show that not all relations, actions and processes involving power are attributable to forces that can be not be specified.

How power operates

Hayward does provide some insightful points to consider when considering how power operates and her argument does imply that Lukes has overlooked important aspects to how power operates. However, if Lukes had included aspects such as non-moral bodies like social structures, companies or governmental institutions it may have increased the analytical accuracy of the model, but it would weaken the models’ overall explanation and moral significance. Lukes’ recognises these criticisms in his latest edition of his thesis. However he still highlights the point that he is specifically concerned with power relationships that happen between individuals that have an observable outcome – those power aspects that most affect each and every one of us. This shows us that while Lukes’ model does have a narrow view on power and may overlook certain aspects of how power operate; it is not for good reason. This is because the non-moral influences are not accountable and therefore there is no way to provide a means to an end. Therefore only the aspects of power that we can compare morally and identify through individuals are worth considering and are therefore concentrated on in the three dimensional approach.

‘Steven Lukes performed a valuable service by emphasising that power can be exercised by manipulating people’s preferences, in addition to manipulating agendas and ordering people to do things6. This quote from Shapiro’s review tell us that even Lukes critics are willing to accept the accomplishments and progress that Lukes has provided within the subject of political power. Although he goes on to call attention that his presentation of three different kinds of power are only three different possibilities that are potentially applicable to studying how power operates.7 Shapiro argues that environmental factors such as religion, gender, race and class are all human identifications that could possibly have an effect on a certain or specific power relation. He goes on to stress that the power relation may be subject to perceived real interests, which may in actual fact not be the real explanation. This implies that Lukes’ model has some fundamental flaws based around the rational choice approach of assuming that one’s optimum or best interests are their real interests. Shapiro’s claim that any of the mentioned human identifications could be used as a motivation or restraint8 has a strong argument because power relationships and therefore how power operates within our society have the potential to be very complex. This tells us that it would not be wise to oversimplify the basic assumptions of the three dimensional model – a fate that Lukes’ has been condemned for because it potentially considerably overlooks important features of how power operates by assuming them away.

However, if Lukes’ model was backed with complete and relevant knowledge of the relationship or exercise of power in question; one could imagine the third face of power, which involves the manipulation of the individuals’ human identifications, could operate successfully. Shapiro offers an alternative approach to discovering the real interests behind exercises of power. This involves starting with the complete knowledge of what influences affected a power relation, enabling one to work from empirically accurate foundations to reach a theorised thesis. Shapiro also points out that there are many varying types of power that are exercised. An example used to consider this point is the difficulty in differentiating between the use of illegitimate and legitimate power. Both have a great deal of influence in certain situations but it would be very difficult to establish when a particular course is taken due to illegitimate influences or otherwise.

The arguments of Shapiro

This implies that power as an area for research is a very intricate subject and Shapiro argues that Lukes’ overlooks this point by trying to oversimplify and over generalise the topic in order to produce more concise explanations. It seems with the argument brought forward by Ian Shapiro grouped with the more institutional and collective view held by those such as Clarissa Hayward implies that there are some key factors involved in how power operates that Lukes’ model has overlooked. Lukes defends and amends his original definitions and explanations in his new edition. However, even if he does claim that his model is designed for specific power operations involving domination over someone by another agent; it still cannot claim legitimacy without refining the assumptions and foundations concerning real interests. Once, solid, empirically backed knowledge of influences and restraints involved in a power exercise can be identified; the ability to use Lukes’ model to properly explain power relations accurately becomes much more likely.

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Steven Lukes 'Power; a Radical View'. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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