Political Sociology Essay

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Political sociology analyzes the operation of power at all levels of social life: individual, organizational, communal, national, and international.

Although Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, or Montesquieu could claim to have founded political sociology, most political sociologists 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 turned to social movements, the state, and institutions.

Marx and Weber

According to Marx and Engels, economic structure and class relations underpin all political activity. Under capitalism, the capitalist class controls the state, which helps perpetuate its domination. Instrumentalist Marxists portray the state as the tool of a unified capitalist class that controls both the economic and political spheres. Structural Marxists view the state, and politics more generally, as a relatively autonomous product of conflict between and sometimes within classes.

Weber recognized that political competition occurs among not only classes but also status groups, political parties, trade unions, bureaucracies, and powerful officeholders. The political sphere, although linked to other spheres, has its own logic of contestation. Against Marx’s stress on the economy and class struggle, Weber emphasized the advance of rationality. Over time, the bases of political authority have shifted from traditional or charismatic forms to legal-rational ones. Contemporary states dominate society with expanded, bureaucratized coercive apparatuses. Mass citizenship legitimizes this ”iron cage.”

Elite Theory, Pluralism, and the Third World

Weber argued that political power always concentrates in small groups, but he believed that popular support provides the authority behind institutions that grant this power. Elite theorists, such as Pareto and Mosca, posited the reverse: power makes authority, law,  and  political  culture possible. According to Michels’ ”iron law of oligarchy” (1966), all organizations come to be led by a few.

Mills (1956) produced a radical version of elite theory. He described a ”power elite” of families that dominated America’s political, military, and business sectors. Radical elite theory presumed that mass politics is passive. Radical elite theory responded to pluralism, which was influential in the two decades after World War II, when American liberal democracy seemed stable.

Pluralism’s basic assumption is that in modern democracies, no single group dominates. Power is dispersed because it has many sources, including wealth, office, social status, social connections, and popular legitimacy. Individuals subscribe to multiple groups and interests, creating stability. The state merely arbitrates among competing interests.

The cold war highlighted democratization, industrialization, and anti-colonialism in the ”third world.” Modernization theory posits that societies follow a stage-by-stage trajectory of political, economic, and social evolution. Dependency theory responded that developing societies’ problems arise from their structural positions in the capitalist world-economy, not from evolutionary backwardness (Cardoso and Faletto 1979: Dependency and Development in Latin America). By presenting distinct paths of political development, Moore (1966: Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy) also critiqued modernization theory and laid the foundations for historically oriented political sociology.

Social Movements, the State, and the New Institutionalisms

In the 1960s and 1970s, protests shook the industrialized world, undermining pluralism’s claims. Anti-colonial movements in Africa and Southeast Asia raised questions about the conditions for resistance and revolution. Social movements gained scholarly attention.

McAdam (1982: Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency) identifies three models of social movements. The pluralist-friendly classical model portrays them as abnormalities, occurring when structural pathologies cause psychological strain. The resource-mobilization model retorts that they are natural political phenomena; rational individuals join based on a cost-benefit calculus. Finally, the political-process model stresses the interplay between activist strategy, skill, and intensity on the one hand and resource availability and political-opportunity structures on the other.

In the late 1970s, social scientists began arguing that pluralist, elite, and Marxist theory underemphasized the state as an autonomous entity. ”State-centered” approaches sought to remedy a ”society-centered” bias in scholarship. Skocpol (1985) remarked that state goals do not simply reflect ”the demands or interests of social groups, classes, or society.” This state-centered movement has included research on how the modern state arose: how states became centralized, developed differentiated structures, increased coercive power over their populations, and developed national identities superseding class and religion.

Scholars soon recognized that ”the state” is a broad concept best analyzed in terms of institutions that compose and shape it. Three ”new institutionalisms” emerged, each defining institutions differently. Rational-choice institutionalism defines institutions as the formal rules, historical institutionalism defines them as formal and informal rules and procedures, and organizational institutionalism includes not just rules but also habits, rituals, and other cognitive frameworks.

Redirecting Political Sociology

Changing national and international political environments have taken political sociology in new directions. It participates in the proliferating globalization literature and increasingly addresses the ”sub-politics” lying outside politics’ traditional realm of contestation for state power (Beck 1992).

Theoretically, there are serious challenges to the foundations of political sociology. Rational-choice models assume actors in political contexts seek to maximize utility. This de-emphasizes politics’ social dimensions. From different perspectives, Unger (1997: Politics, 3 vols.), who argues for the autonomy of politics, and Foucault (1977: Discipline and Punish), who probed the microphysics of power, bypass traditional sociological concerns with groups and institutions. For Unger and Foucault, political sociology misrecognizes the very nature of power.

Political sociology’s evolution has mirrored modern history’s political movements. Class-based models have risen and fallen with socialism’s cachet. Conservative elite theory linked itself to Italian fascism in the 1920s. Pluralist models have been fellow-travelers of liberal democracy’s credibility. Social-movements theory interrogated upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, as boundaries and identities change in a global age, political sociology continues to expand its horizons, investigating new configurations of power.


  1. Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society, trans. Mark Ritter. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.
  2. Michels, R. (1966) Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Free Press, New York.
  3. Mills, C. W. (1956) The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, New York.
  4. Skocpol, T. (1985) Bringing the state back in: strategies of analysis in   current       In:    Evans, P., Rueschemeyer, D., & Skocpol, T. (eds.), Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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