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September 8, 2008 / C H Thompson

What do sociologists mean by power?

max_weberWeber’s definition of power in society has remained the starting point for many sociologists. He defined power as being:

“the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent them from realising them”

From this Weber identified power as being either authoritative or coercive. Authoritative power is exercising power which is seen as legitimate. By being legitimate it is effective because those who are subject to the power do so with consent. In contrast coercion is where someone exercises power through force – you’re forcing someone to do something against their wishes.
In contrast authoritative power isn’t coercive and Weber argues it manifests itself in three forms
  1. Charismatic authority – this type of authoritative power is based on ‘charisma’ – for example the personal qualities an individual has in order to influence a group or person.
  2. Traditional authority – this form of authoritative power comes from established customs passing power down on a hereditary basis  – for example British monarchy
  3. Rational-legal authority – this form of authoritative power comes from certain groups having certain positions of power over  subordinate groups – for example a policeman telling you to move

Stephen Lukes’ perspective on power

Though Weber’s definition is accepted by many sociologists as their starting point in understanding power in society, many sociologists thought it was too narrow a definition.

In 1974 Stephen Lukes’ put forward his ‘radical’ view of power. This is discussed below:

According to Stephen Lukes there are three faces of power rather than one. He said to have an understanding of power you need awareness of all three.


 Pluralists have adopted this approach. Pluralist theories argue that power can be seen from the outcome of a decision making process. Whoever gets their way has all the power!

 Example, A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.



 Critics of the pluralist view, such as Peter Bachrah argue that simply studying decision making ignores a second dimension of power: the ability to control the agenda of debate.

 In their view real power lies in the ability to prevent certain issues from being seriously considered.




  Power is the ability to shape the wishes and desires of others……without them even knowing! This 3rd face or dimension of power is known as Lukes radical view of power because it is so different!

 Next lesson here



Leave a Comment
  1. Het Sushimeisje / Oct 12 2015 8:00 am

    Hi, a question here. When I read your explanation on Weber I automatically thought this also included Luke’s idea’s on power since those dimensions are also a way of achieving your goals. But Weber doesn’t mention anything like that at all? Then does he imagine power just as person A telling B to do something so A achieve it’s goals and doesn’t take into account ”passive/soft” power at all?

    • C H Thompson / Oct 12 2015 11:45 am

      You’re spot on about Weber. Which is why Lukes takes us through his three faces of power because he’s acknowledging Weber’s contribution but is saying his radical view of power is more appropriate. Hope that helps?

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