Luke's Three Dimensions of Power
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Luke\'s Three Dimensions of Power
"Power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce
powerlessness"(Gaventa,1980:256). Such is the essence of the on going
relationship between the Powerful and the Powerless of the Appalachian Valley
where acquiescence of the repressed has become not only common practice but a
way of life and a means of survival. In his novel Power and Powerlessness, John
Gaventa examines the oppressive and desperate situation of the Appalachian coal
miners under the autocratic power of absentee land-owners, local elites, and
corrupt union leaders. His analyses is based on Lukes three-dimensional
understanding of power from his book Power: A Radical View. Gaventa applies the
three notions of power to the politics of inequalities in the Appalachian Valley
and, while demonstrating the inadequacies of the first or \'pluralist\' approach
and the merits of the second and particularly the third dimensions, asserts that
the interrelationship and reinforcing affect of all three dimensions is
necessary for an in depth understanding of the "total impact of power upon the
actions [or inactions] and conceptions of the powerless"(Gaventa:256)
This essay will examine Luke\'s three power dimensions and their
applicability to Gaventa\'s account of the inequities found in the valleys of the
Cumberland Mountains. Reasons for the mountain people\'s submission and non-
participation will be recognized and their nexus with the power relationship
established. In this way, Gaventa\'s dissatisfaction with the pluralist approach
will be justified and the emphatic ability of the other two dimensions to
withhold issues and shape behaviour will be verified as principal agents of
Power and Powerlessness.
The one dimensional view of power is often called the \'pluralist\'
approach and emphasizes the exercise of power through decision making and
observable behaviour. Robert Dahl, a major proponent of this view, defines
power as occurring in a situation where "A has power over B to the extent he can
get B to do something that B would not otherwise do"(Dahl as cited in Lukes,
1974:11). A\'s power therefore is defined in terms of B and the extent to which
A prevails is determined by its higher ratio of \'successes\' and \'defeats\' over B.
Observable behaviour then becomes a key factor in the pluralist approach
to power. Dahl\'s Who Govern\'s? expresses the pluralist belief that the
political arena is an open system where everyone may participate and express
grievances which in turn lead to decision making. Those who propose
alternatives and initiate issues which contribute to the decision making process
are demonstrating observable influence and control over those who failed all
together to express any interest in the political process.
The Pluralist approach assumes that in an open system, all people, not
just the elite, would participate in decision making if they felt strongly
enough about an issue and wanted their values to be expressed and represented.
Non-participation therefore is thought to express a lack of grievances and a
consensus with the way the leaders are already handling the system. Political
inaction is not a problem within the one-dimensional system, it merely reflects
apathy of ordinary citizens with little interest or knowledge for political
matters, and their acceptance of the existing system which they see as rewarding
mutual benefits to society.
While politics is primarily an elite concern to the pluralist, ordinary
people can have a say if they become organized, and everyone has indirect
influence through the right to the franchise in the electoral process.
Pluralism recognizes a heterogeneous society composed of people belonging to
various groups with differing and competing interests. Conflict is therefore
also recognized as not only an expected result but as a necessary instrument
which enables the determination of a ruling class in terms of who the winner is.
Dahl,(as cited in Lukes,1974:18) states:
Who prevails in decision-making seems the best
way to determine which individual and groups have
more power in social life because direct conflict
between actors presents a situation most approximating
an experimental test of their capacities to affect
Both Lukes and Gaventa put forward the notion that restricting your
analyses of a power situation to the one dimensional model can skew your
conclusions. If you limit yourself to this approach your study will be impaired
by a pluralistic biased view of power. Where the first dimension sees power in
its manifest functions of decision making over key issues raising observable
conflict due to policies raised through political participation, it ignores the
unobservable mechanisms of power that are sometimes just as or even more
Many times power is exercised to prevent an issue from being raised and
to discourage participation in the political arena. Potential issues and
grievances are therefore not voiced and to assume this means that
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John Gaventa, Appalachia, Power, Philosophy, Political philosophy, American studies
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