Power, Authority and the State, and New Social Movements   1 comment

Posted at 11:27 am in Politics,Sociology

Currently reading: Introduction to Politics and Society – Shaun Best

Brief overview of what has been read:

Following my reading from last week, which looked at the core fundamentals of Sociology and the key academics such as Weber, Durkheim and Marx, I have been reading about the key concepts in Political Science and the contemporary world. Shaun Best’s book looks at power, authority, coercion, surveillance, and legitimacy, based on the ideas of many key academics such as Weber, Marx, and Habermas.

This week’s reading was focused around two major topics within the book:
• Chapter 1 – Power Authority and the State:
• Chapter 6 – New Social Movements

These topics seem relevant to the issue which is trying to be addressed, from looking at how the government uses it power, how bureaucracy takes place and also the struggles within society. Furthermore, New social movements, such that of Women’s liberation movement and other similar social movements and the theories behind their cause may prove to demonstrate similarities which can be seen on the web (petitions, forums, etc).

Knowledge gained and relevance to issue:

To begin with, examining chapter 1 states that the key question of sociology in politics is “How is power exercised?”. Anthony Giddens suggests that power is related to ‘resources’, which are either Allocative (physical) or Authoritative (people etc). Furthermore he suggests that collecting information on people is essential to maintaining the power of the modern ‘nation-state’. This view is also supported by Joanne Fuinkelstein, who also suggests that appearance can be seen as a social passport, improving power.

An interesting argument which could suggest why certain people within a web community may have more power (or influence) than others. For instance, in an online forum, why should a User with a High post count (also denoted by a associated tag, Pro, or star rating) be perceived as someone with a lot of power?
Weber suggests that authority is the legitimate use of power, and that Coercion occurs to force people into action either by action, threat or violence. Also he suggests that there are 3 types of legitimate rule, Charismatic, Traditional and Rational, the later being one with a set of legal rules. The question was also asked, why do people obey them? Is this through Natural law, or Fear?

Weber also looked at bureaucracy and argued that there were two types: either by consent, where rules were formed by process of agreement, or punishment centred, where the imposition of rules were forced. Richard Sennet suggested that this theory was not only applicable to political organisations.
A good definition of a Bureaucracy by Martin Albrow is as follows:
“social units in which individuals are conscious of their membership and legitimise their cooperative activities primarily by reference to attainment of impersonal goals rather than moral standards”

Furthermore, Albrow also puts organisations into 4 groups, Total institutions, Voluntary associations, postmodern organisations and formal and information organisations.
Building on the ideas of bureaucracy, Steven Lukes suggests that power within has three dimensions of appearance: decision-making, Non-decision making and shaping desires. From this Michel Foucault developed a capillary model of power, looking at the relation of Struggle and resistance. Where struggles usually share similar characteristics, such as resisting the role of the government.

Jurgen Habermas further develops the area of bureaucracy and the problems which occur by looking at the core structures of society and identifying the 3 areas causing crisis: Economic, Political, and Social-cultural, which are brought on by a combination of Social and System Integration Habermas also suggests that if the social and system break down, not only will the social system loose legitimacy but it also may collapse.

Expanding these ideas of such academics out to the issue which is trying to be tacked (implications of the webs increased methods of communication between government and society), it could be suggested that the struggles which once were seen actively demonstrated in public has now gone digital, through mediums such as Forums, petitions, even group emails. What needs to be discussed is the dangers that these ‘even more public’ demonstrations have on society?
Richard Sennett argues that authority need to be legitimate in the eyes of the population, and that imposing fear is also a form of authoritative power. He also suggests authority is a emotional connection amongst people, and at the same time it is a constraint. In summary he suggests that people have fear of freedom? Is this the case for the Web, do people really have a fear for freedom, or are they indulging in the lack of power and constraint, with no centralised power or authority dictating what they can or can’t do?

Another key area which was read was New Social Movements (NSM), which is defined by Sztompka as: “loosely organised collectivities acting together in a non-institutionalised manner in order to produce change in their society”. This is in opposition to an old social movement (OSM) which tended to be largely class-based movements and focus upon the state as the target for their collective activities.

Paul Bagguley distinguishes between the two, OSM;s are influenced by economic factors, and supported by the working class, and try to influence important people. They are also formally organised with a central bureaucracy. NSM’s are ‘post-materialist’, concerned with issues such as peace, environment etc. They are supported by the new middle class, and are largely informal, mainly networks of connections. NSM’s also have common factors, such as protests take place with direct action, and are mainly an formed due to failure of traditional political parties.

Claus Offe suggest that the rise of NSM’s may be down to certain factors: Capitalism is becoming more bureaucratic, there is a shift in techniques for managerial control at work, and importantly, the class-based system of political representation has broken down. ‘Disorganised capitalism’, the rise of NSM’s also has resulted from markets being less effectively regulated, and a decline in size of industrial working class.

Mario Diani found 4 trends which can help classify a NSM, to begin with, collective behaviour is one. Where there is no clearly defined membership / leadership. It is informal and based on networks of communications. Secondly, Diani introduced the ‘Resource mobilisation theory;, where ‘a set of opinions and beliefs which represents preferences for changing some elements of the social structures and/or reward distribution of a society. Thirdly, another trend is the political process, where there is social unrest, where the NSM is trying to change distribution of power, through forms of public demonstrations. Finally, the structural and social changes in society, where new contradictions of the middle and working class form.

Some of these key factors can be seen within the web, such as groups forming through networks of connections with a shared ideology, however no structure of leadership is in place.

Habermas asks some key questions about NSM’s including what they express: particularistic values, or universalistic values, affecting a small domain or the entire population respectively? postmodernists clearly argue that NSM’s support particularistic values, where as universalistic values build upon grand narratives. Habermas introduced the ideal speech situation, defined as “A form of shared communication between people who want to resolve their differences”.

Anthony Giddens, another key academic looking at NSM’s suggests that political/ social movements operate will follow 4 dimensions, capitalism, industrialism, centralised administrative power, and centralised control of military power. He also suggests that social movements play a key role in transition from modernity to postmodernity (‘utopian realism’). Furthermore Giddens suggests that social movements have the ability to exercise countervailing powers, and that all people should have greater opportunity to exercise power. He also suggests that NSM’s have important democratic qualities, allowing a space form public dialogue, allowing to enhance the knowledge of ones self, but due to this casts doubt upon expert systems, therefore produces a loss of trust within the social order.

What Giddens suggests here, that NSM’s give society a public voice, where all members should have equal opportunity to exercise power can be extracted to the issue trying to be discussed. Does the new forms of communications on the Web really give all members equal opportunity to exercise their power? Although any user can add a post to a forum, or sign a petition, could an admin just not remove such a vote?

From this reading it can be seen that there is much to be discussed between the theories of politics and the implications that it is having on the web.

Written by rt506 on March 5th, 2010

One Response to 'Power, Authority and the State, and New Social Movements'

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  1. Your blogs have demonstrated good coverage of some broad and general sociological theorising – looking at some of the core differences between the classics/founders (Marx Weber Durkheim) through to more focussed work aobut social movements. All of that classic social theory is pre web, and a lot of the SM stuff is also , so what I’d be interested to see, as your reading develops, is what can these disciplines offer to our understanding of the ways we engage with government now that we have the web. You might want to have a look at the kinds of work the Oii is doing about e-government for some more political science views.

    Catherine Pope

    14 Mar 10 at 3:54 pm

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