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Politics is the process by which individuals or relatively small groups attempt to exert influence over the actions of an organization. Although the term is most commonly applied to behavior within governments, politics is observed in many human (and many non-human) group interactions, including corporate, academic, and religious institutions.

Political science (also political studies) is the study of political behavior and examines the acquisition and application of power.

A natural state

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published his most famous work, Leviathan, in which he proposed a model of early human development to justify the creation of a government. Hobbes described an ideal state of nature wherein every person had equal right to every resource in nature and was free to use any means to acquire those resources. He claimed that such an arrangement created a ?war of all against all? (bellum omnium contra omnes). Further, he noted that men would enter into a social contract and would give up absolute rights for certain protections. Hobbes made a second claim: that the solution to the aggression problem was a centralized authoritarian state, which he called Leviathan.

While it appears that social cooperation and dominance hierarchies predate human societies, Hobbes' model illustrates a rationale for the creation of societies (polities).

Another theory, proposed by biopolitics and based upon evolution is that politics is a macrotool created by man to organise itself for the collective survival of the group or polity. In effect, organising and promoting survival is the purpose, reason and practice of politics.

Early history

V.G. Childe describes the transformation of human society that took place around 6000 BCE as an urban revolution. Among the features of this new type of civilization were the institutionalization of social stratification, non-agricultural specialised crafts (including priests and lawyers), taxation, and writing, all of which require clusters of densely populated settlements - city-states.

The word politics is derived from the Greeks. Corporate, religious, academic and every other polity, especially those constrained by limited resources, contain dominance hierarchy and therefore politics. Politics is most often studied in relation to the administration of governments.

The oldest form of government was tribal organization. Rule by elders was supplanted by monarchy, often aided by military conquest, led to a system of Feudalism as an arrangement where a single family dominated the political affairs of a community. Monarchies have existed in one form or another for the past 5000 years of human history.


  • Power Max Weber defined power as the ability to impose one's will upon another, while Hannah Arendt states that "political power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert."
  • Authority is the ability to enforce laws, to exact obedience, to command, to determine, or to judge.
  • A government is the body that has the authority to make and enforce rules or laws.
  • Legitimacy is an attribute of government gained through the acquisition and application of power in accordance with recognized or accepted standards or principles.
  • Sovereignty is the ability of a government to exert control over its territory free from outside influence.

Theoretical view of political power

Many questions surround the political notion of power with both positive and negative aspects attached to it. Generally, power is considered integral in politics and is the subject of a great deal of debate and definitions that have evolved over time. Many academics define political power by referring to various academic disciplines including politics, sociology, group psychology, economics, and other facets of society. The multiple notions of political power that are put forth range from conventional views that simply revolve around the actions of politicians to those who view political power as an insidious form of institutionalized social control - most notably "anarchists" and "radical capitalists". The main views of political power revolve around normative, post-modern, and sociological perspectives.

Normative faces of power debate

The faces of power debate has coalesced into a viable conception of three dimensions of power including decision-making, agenda-setting, and preference-shaping. The decision-making dimension was first put forth by Robert Dahl, who advocated the notion that political power is based in the formal political arena and is measured through voting patterns and the decisions made by politicians. This view was seen by many as simplistic and a second dimension to the notion of political power was added by academics Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz involving agenda-setting. Bachrach and Baratz viewed power as involving both the formal political arena and behind the scenes agenda-setting by elite groups who could be either politicians and/or others (such as industrialists, campaign contributors, special interest groups and so on), often with a hidden agenda that most of the public may not be aware of. The third dimension of power was added by British academic Steven Lukes who felt that even with this second dimension, some other traits of political power needed to be addressed through the concept of 'preference-shaping'. This third dimension is inspired by many Neo-Gramscian views such as cultural hegemony and deals with how civil society and the general public have their preferences shaped for them by those in power through the use of propaganda or the media. Ultimately, this third dimension holds that the general public may not be aware of what decisions are actually in their interest due to the invisible power of elites who work to distort their perceptions. Critics of this view claim that such notions are themselves elitist, which Lukes then clearly admits as one problem of this view and yet clarifies that as long as those who make claims that preferences are being shaped explain their own interests etc., there is room for more transparency.

Postmodern challenge of normative views of power

Some within the postmodern and post-structuralist field claim that power is something that is not in the hands of the few and is rather dispersed throughout society in various ways and that power relationships are part of everyday life. This is part of French philosopher Michel Foucault's view, which he terms the microphysics of power and is part of a European debate over how to define power. Foucault seeks to convey a questioning of authority in various ways and also attempts to illustrate the repressive nature of power through societal controls which include institutional indoctrination (schools), surveillance (the police-state), and defining normal and abnormal behavior so as to stamp-out any challenges to the status quo. This view of power treads a line that leans more towards institutions as the basis of societal control (see New institutionalism) and ignores certain aspects of agency and ideational agendas. Power, according to Foucault, is 'ubiquitous' (everywhere in society) and cannot be easily measured or critiqued without a great deal of context. Critics such as Jurgen Habermas and Noam Chomsky charge that such views by Foucault and his followers are nihilistic and even supportive of conservative and Social Darwinism views of society and defend the status quo of inegalitarian societies, which Foucault claims is a misreading of both his intent and conclusions which are that power must be questioned in all of its forms and not simply those aspects that some might view as inegalitarian since even humanism can be a mask for those seeking power. Ultimately, this concept of power has helped political analysis to question both itself and the societal controls that permeate all aspects of society, but the ambiguity of the post-modern challenge has left many to use the methodology sparingly since measuring power from a post-structuralist perspective remains somewhat problematic. Nietzsche wrote: "how can we help it that power likes to walk on crooked legs?"

Pragmatic view of power

Samuel Gompers' maxim, often paraphrased as,"Reward your friends and punish your enemies," hints at two of the five types of power recognized by social psychologists: incentive power (the power to reward) and coercive power (the power to punish). Arguably the other three grow out of these two.

Legitimate power, the power of the policeman or the referee, is the power given to an individual by a recognized authority to enforce standards of behavior. Legitimate power is similar to coercive power in that unacceptable behavior is punished by fine or penalty.

Referent power is bestowed upon individuals by virtue of accomplishment or attitude. Fulfillment of the desire to feel similar to a celebrity or a hero is the reward for obedience.

Expert power springs from education or experience. Following the lead of an experienced coach is often rewarded with success. Expert power is conditional to the circumstances. A brain surgeon is no help when your pipes are leaking.

Authority and legitimacy

Max Weber identified three sources of legitimacy for authority, known as the tripartite classification of authority. He proposed three reasons why people follow the orders of those who give them:


Traditional authorities receive loyalty because they continue and support the preservation of existing values, the status quo. Traditional authority has the longest history. Patriarchal (and more rarely matriarchal) societies gave rise to hereditary monarchies where authority was given to descendants of previous leaders. Followers submit to this authority because "we've always done it that way." Examples of traditional authoritarians include absolute monarchs.


Charismatic authority grows out of the personal charm or the strength of an individual personality (see cult of personality for the most extreme version). Charismatic regimes are often short-lived, seldom outliving the charismatic figure that leads them.

Examples of Charismatic regimes include: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Hitler, Napoleon, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro.

For a charismatic regime to survive the rule of the individual personality, it must transform its legitimacy into a different form of authority. An example of this would be Augustus' efforts to create the position of the Roman principate and establish a ruling dynasty, which could be viewed as a shift to a traditional form of authority, in the form of the principate that would exist in Rome for more than 400 years after his death.


Legal-rational authorities receive their ability to compel behavior by virtue of the office that they hold. It is the authority that demands obedience to the office rather than the office holder. Modern democracies are examples of legal-rational regimes. People also abide by legal-rational authority because it makes sense to do so for their own good, as well as for the greater good of society.

Other considerations

Often hybrid forms of the above will be found, especially in transition from one form to another, such as in the transition from the Weimar Republic to the Nazi domination of Germany, in which the Nazi party gradually suspended many laws regarding various civil rights for an indefinite period.

See also