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Power is central to sociological analysis. More has been published on power than on almost any other sociological concept. Yet, more needs to be said. Power must be integrated within more general theoretical frameworks. Reconsidering Talcott Parsons might offer us a way forward.

I have set out a typology of power in my book Power and various other papers. The basis of this was the development of ideas from Max Weber. While recently working on a book on Talcott Parsons – to be published later this year – I worked through Parsons’s own attempts to develop Weber’s ideas and to construct a typology of modes of control. This led me to attempt to reconcile Parsons’s scheme with my own and I would like to suggest the direction in which I think this could be taken.

 The aim of Parsons’s work on control was to devise a classification of the various ways in which actors can secure compliance or conformity. He aimed to differentiate these in terms of the particular medium of exchange that makes control possible. To this end, he identified four symbolic media of exchange: money, political power, influence, and value commitments. This work was incomplete and inconsistent, but it provides the basis for reconstructing a typology of power.

 The basis of Parsons’s scheme was to identify four basic mechanisms of interpersonal control: inducement, coercion, persuasion, and ‘activation of value commitments’. These concepts were developed over a period of years and were not always consistent, and Parsons recognised that changes to his terminology were needed. My initial thoughts are that we need, at the very least, to replace the strange term ‘activation of value commitments’ by the term ‘exhortation’. This term recognises that the fourth mode of control involves one actor exhorting another to act in terms of a moral value commitment, rather than offering reasons that might persuade the other to act one way rather than another.

 Parsons then went on to see how these can be ‘generalised’ and given symbolic form, resulting in his typology of money, political power, influence, and value commitments. This, again, was rather inconsistent, especially its final term. Parsons confuses the symbolic medium with the actual form of power exercised, conflating the two together. An awful lot needs to be unpacked.

 Looking at the institutional base of power (or what Parsons termed control), he identified two basic categories. What can be called the ‘Weberian’ modes appear in his discussions of money and political power, rooted respectively in institutional structures of contract and authority. On the other hand, what might be called the ‘Durkheimian’ modes appear in his discussions of influence and value commitments, rooted in institutional structures of solidarity and morality. This clarifies the nature of his confusions. The discussion of money and value commitments focuses on the generalised media of exchange, while the discussion of political power and influence focuses on the modes of control. Discussion of the media leaves the modes of power unclear; discussion of the modes leaves the media of exchange unclear.

I want to suggest a provisional reconstruction of Parsons typology that can give greater parallels with my own typology and can pave the way to further developments. I want to argue that we can recognise four modes of control and types of power:

1. Within the economy, relations of inducement are organised through an institutional structure of contract and property to generate and distribute goods and services that are generalised as ‘wealth’ or utility and expressed symbolically in money. Inducing compliance through money is the financial power or market power that Weber saw as expressed in a constellation of interests.

2. Within the polity, relations of coercion are organised through an institutional structure of constitutionalism and legitimacy to generate collective effectiveness that is generalised as authority and expressed symbolically in warranted sanctions. Coercing compliance through sanctions is the political power of governance or command that Weber saw as domination by virtue of authority.

3. Within the societal community, relations of persuasion are organised through an institutional structure of ranking to generate solidarity that is generalised as prestige and expressed symbolically in forms of honour. Persuading others to conform is the form of social influence.

4. Within what Parsons called the ‘fiduciary’, which might more appropriately be seen as the ‘conservation’ system mediating between culture and the social system, relations of exhortation are organised through an institutional structure of moral commitments that generate obligations and motivational energy that are generalised and symbolically expressed as ‘devotion’. Exhorting others to conform is the form of moral leadership or power.

 Thus, there are four basic forms of power involved in relations of control, compliance, and conformity: financial power, command, social influence, and moral leadership. This view provides a first step to reconciling Parsons with a Weberian approach to power and to setting this in the context of a Durkheimian analysis of social solidarity and morality. Much more, clearly, needs to be done. Not least, a reconciliation with the Weberian view of stratification that recognises three, not four, basic forms. I have thoughts on that, but they must wait for a later posting.

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Tagged under: Max Weber   power   Talcott Parsons   financial power  

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