Political Sociology

Political sociology analyzes the operation of power in social life, examining the distribution and machination of power at all levels: individual, organizational, communal, national, and international. Defined thus, political science becomes a subfield of sociology. Parsons (1951), for example, treated the political as one of the four principal domains of sociological analysis. In practice, however, political sociology has developed as a sociological subfield, with its distinct concerns and fashions.

Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, or Montesquieu may rightfully claim to be the founder of political sociology insofar as they highlighted the social bases of power relations and political institutions. However, most contemporary scholars trace their intellectual lineage to Marx or Weber. Political sociology emerged as a distinct subfield in the 1950s, especially in the debate between pluralists and elite theorists. In the 1980s and 1990s political sociologists focused on social movements, the state, and institutions.


Marx and Weber

According to Marx (and Engels), economic structure and class relations are the basis for all political activity (Miliband 1977). The dominant mode of production determines who wields power in society. Under the capitalist mode of production, the capitalist class controls the state, which serves to perpetuate its domination of subordinate classes and manage ‘‘its common affairs.’’ There are two principal strands in Marxist political sociology. The instrumentalists portray the state as the tool of a unified capitalist class that controls both the economic and political spheres. In this model, the state is virtually epiphenomenal to the dominance of the ruling class. The structuralists view the state (as well as politics more generally) as a relatively autonomous product of conflict between classes and sometimes within classes.

Whereas Marx viewed social classes as the basic units of competition, Weber (1978) recognized that competition occurs among many different types of entities, including not only social classes but also status groups (defined in terms of consumption, codes of honor, education and credentials, ethnicity, and other criteria), as well as political agencies and agents. Contestation for power occurs both across and within various institutions and organizations: heads of state clash with parliaments and civil service bureaucracies over legislation; trade unions and professional groups vie to influence legislators; politicians and bosses fight for control of a political party. The political sphere, while linked to events in other spheres, has its own logic of contestation.

Against the Marxian stress on the economy and class struggle, the defining feature of modern western societies for Weber is the ineluctable advance of rationality. Thus, the bases of political authority shift from traditional or charismatic claims toward legal rational forms of legitimation and administration. For example, the whim of a king or lord who asserts the right to rule based on dynastic precedent (traditional authority) or heroic acts and personal qualities (charismatic authority) is replaced by state control of the populace according to normalized standards and codified laws (legal rational authority). For Weber, the modern state also extends and entrenches its domination of society by expanding its coercive apparatus, chiefly in the form of bureaucratization. The central function of modern mass citizenship is to legitimize this iron cage; even in a democracy, real power would reside in the hands of a few.

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Elite Theory, Pluralism, and the Third World

That power in society is always concentrated in the hands of a few is the basic assumption of the elite theory of society (Bottomore 1993). The elite theorists drew heavily on Weber, but placed greater emphasis than Weber on power rather than authority as the key to political dominance. Whereas Weber agreed that the power to make major political decisions always concentrates in a small group, he viewed the authority that stems from popular support as the foundation for all institutions that provide this power. For the elite theorists, it was the reverse: power made authority, law, and political culture possible.

Michels (1966) proposed ‘‘the iron law of oligarchy’’: the thesis that all organizations – whether political parties, trade unions, or any other kind – come to be run by a small group of leaders. He saw the oligarchical tendency as ‘‘a matter of technical and practical necessity,’’ citing several causes for this tendency: the impracticality of mass leadership, the organizational need for a small corps of full time expert leaders, the divergence of leaders’ interests from those of the people they claim to represent, and the masses’ apathy and thirst for guidance. Schumpeter agreed with elite theorists, including Pareto and Mosca, that mass participation in politics is very limited. Emphasizing the lability and pliability of popular opinion, he stated that ‘‘the will of the people is the product and not the motive power of the political process’’ (Schumpeter 1976).

With The Power Elite (1956), C. Wright Mills produced a radical version of elite theory. Mills described a ‘‘power elite’’ of families that dominated three sectors of American society: politics, the military, and business. The power elite was cohesive and durable because of the ‘‘coincidence of interests’’ among organizations in the three sectors, as well as elites’ ‘‘similarity of origin and outlook’’ and ‘‘social and personal intermingling.’’ Radical elite theory presumed the passivity of mass politics, which was articulated most influentially by Marcuse (1964).

Radical elite theory was largely a response to pluralism, which was particularly influential in US social science in the two decades following World War II. Pluralism has its roots in Montesquieu (1989), an advocate of the separation of powers and of popular participation in lawmaking, and Tocqueville (2004), who famously observed decentralization of power, active political participation by citizens, and a proliferation of associations in the early nineteenth century US. In addition to these earlier theorists, pluralists also drew inspiration from Weber, particularly in his view of the political sphere as a realm of constant contention.

The basic assumption of pluralism is that in modern democracies power is dispersed among many groups and no single group dominates. Power is dispersed in part because it has many sources, including wealth, political office, social status and connections, and popular legitimacy. Pluralists also note that individuals often subscribe to multiple groups and interests, making pluralist systems more stable in their opinion. In this model, the state is largely an arbiter facilitating compromise between competing interests.

The 1950s and early 1960s were the heyday of pluralist theory, coinciding with the apparent stability of liberal democracy in the US, which most pluralists viewed as an exemplar. David Truman’s 1953 book The Governmental Process was a defining work of the period, focusing on interest groups as its basic unit of analysis and examining how their interaction gave rise to policy (Truman 1971). In Who Governs? (1961), Robert Dahl argued that city policies in education and development were a function of input from many individuals and groups, and that neither individual office holders nor business leaders wielded overriding influence. Lipset and colleagues (1956) challenged empirically Michel’s iron law of oligarchy in their analysis of a trade union.

The Cold War directed attention to democratization in the face of rapid industrialization, transition from colonial rule, and other conditions that prevailed in the third world: the world outside of Europe and North America. Modernization theory posits that societies follow a stage by stage process of political, economic, and social development. It typically portrays western democracies as consummately ‘‘modernized’’ societies. Different modernization theorists have highlighted different social conditions as critical to democratization. For example, Lipset (1994) has argued for the importance of ‘‘political culture,’’ defined as popular and elite acceptance of civil and political liberties. Allied with pluralism, modernization theory delineated an optimistic, evolutionary account of democratization and development. Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966) provided a profound critique – not only stressing the role of power and class struggle, but also the fact of distinct trajectories of political development – and laid the foundations for historically oriented political sociology. Dependency theory emerged in response to the apparent failure of modernization theorists’ prescriptions in the developing world. Drawing heavily on Marx, dependency theory argued that the economic and political problems of the developing world were not a function of ‘‘backwardness,’’ but rather of developing societies’ structural positions in the capitalist world economy (Cardoso & Faletto 1979). Dependency theory inspired much of world systems theory and would come to engage in dialogue with it (Wallerstein 1984).

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Social Movements, the State, and the New Institutionalisms

Crises of authority and production shook the industrialized world in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Civil Rights Movement and pro tests against the Vietnam War in the US, the social upheaval of May 1968 and radicalization of the Left in France, and the global oil shocks and stalling of growth regimes. These events suggested flaws in pluralist models of democratic society that assumed stable competition among groups and consensus about the rules of the political game. Meanwhile, anti colonial nationalist movements in Africa and Southeast Asia drew further sociological attention to questions about collective behavior and the conditions for successful mobilization against state structures. In this environment the study of social movements evolved and gained prominence within sociology.

The three major theoretical models of social movements have corresponded with the pluralist, elite, and Marxist models of institutionalized power in society (McAdam 1982). The classical model of social movements portrays them as the result of structural pathologies that led to psychological strain and the desire to pursue non conventional channels for political participation in an otherwise open system. The ‘‘resource mobilization’’ model of social movements posits that they arise and grow because rational individuals decide that the benefits of joining outweigh the costs and because the necessary resources are available and worth investing. As such, they do not reflect social pathologies or psychological abnormalities, but are a natural feature of political life (McCarthy & Zald 1977). Finally, the political process model of social movements blends elite theorists’ position that power is highly concentrated in society with the Marxist conviction that the ‘‘subjective transformation of consciousness’’ through popular movements nevertheless has the immanent power to force social change (McAdam 1982). It stresses the interplay between activist strategy, skill, and intensity on the one hand, and the favorability of resources and political opportunity structures to movement tactics and goals, on the other.

One objection raised in the late 1970s to the dominance of post World War II theoretical models in the pluralist, elite, and Marxist camps was that social scientists had been focusing on social and economic activity and had largely ignored the operations of the state as an autonomous entity. Advocates of ‘‘state centered’’ approaches sought to remedy what they saw as a ‘‘society centered’’ bias in scholar ship. In the introduction to Bringing the State Back In, Theda Skocpol (1985) remarks on the trend toward viewing states as ‘‘weighty actors’’ that shape political and social processes. She notes that ‘‘states . . . may formulate and pursue goals that are not simply reflective of the demands or interests of social groups, classes, or society’’ – that is, states are autonomous.

Research on how the modern form of the state arose has been an important part of the movement to refocus attention on the state: how states became centralized, developed function ally differentiated structures, increased their coercive power over their populations, and developed national identities that superseded class and religious differences. The bellicist model of state formation points to the pressure to organize for, prosecute, and pay for war in an environment of interstate competition on the European continent as the driving force behind the evolution of the modern state. As Tilly (1979) put it, ‘‘states make war, and war makes states.’’ Other scholars have emphasized different factors. Anderson (1979) stressed the power of class relations and struggles. Gorski (2003) has called attention to the significance of religion and culture. Mann (1986) has traced European state formation and the growth of western civilization in general as a function of interrelations between four types of power networks – ideological, economic, military, and political – with each taking on different levels of importance at different stages and locales in European history.

The initial call to ‘‘bring the state back in’’ was followed by a recognition that as broad a concept as ‘‘the state’’ is best analyzed in terms of the various institutions that compose it. This led to a renewed focus on institutions, both within the state and outside it. The so called new institutionalisms build on the ‘‘old’’ organizational institutionalism of mid century. Selznick (1949) had called attention to the importance of informal institutions and extra organizational interests in shaping policy outcomes.

Each of the new institutionalisms defines and operationalizes institutions differently, largely a function of its origins in a social science discipline. Rational choice institutionalism, which grew out of the economics literature, defines institutions as the formal rules or ‘‘structures of voluntary cooperation that resolve collective action problems’’ (Moe 2005). Historical institutionalism defines institutions as formal and informal rules and procedures (Thelen & Steinmo 1992). Finally, organizational institutionalism is rooted in the sociology of organizations and embraces a wider definition of institutions than the other two institutionalisms. In addition to formal rules, it considers habits, rituals, and other cognitive frameworks to be institutions, thus situating a large part of the force of institutions within the minds of actors (DiMaggio & Powell 1983).

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Redirecting Political Sociology

Recent changes in national and international political environments have taken political sociology in new directions. Political sociologists have participated in the proliferation of literature on globalization, including work on postnational citizenship (Soysal 1994) and transnational advocacy networks (Keck & Sikkink 1998). The postmodern turn in the human sciences has found adherents among students of post industrial politics (Bauman 1999). There is growing interest in the realm of ‘‘subpolitics’’ that analyzes power outside the traditional realm of politics as a contestation for state power (Beck 1992). In this regard, gender remains under studied in the realm of politics (Gal & Kligman 2000). Theorization of the politics of ethnicity and identity has taken on new urgency in the wake of genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia (Lie 2004).

Theoretically, there are serious challenges to the very foundations of political sociology. Rational choice models are based on game theory, treating individual entities in political con texts as rational actors seeking to maximize their utility (Friedman 1996). In so doing, they deemphasize and at times ignore the social origins or dimensions of politics. From very different perspectives, Unger (1997), who argues for the autonomy of politics, and Foucault (1977), who probes the microphysics of power, bypass traditional sociological concerns with groups and institutions. For Unger and Foucault, political sociology misrecognizes the very nature and operation of power.

The evolution of political sociology has mirrored the great political movements of modern history. Just as class based models of state and society have drifted upward and downward with the political cachet of socialism and communism, and conservative elite theory linked itself to Italian Fascism in the 1920s, so pluralist models have been fellow travelers of liberal democracy’s credibility and theorists of social movements interrogated the global upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, as the meaning of national boundaries and identities changes in a global age, political sociology continues to expand its intellectual horizons and investigate new configurations of power.

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