Contemporary political sociology involves, but is not limited to, the study of the relations between state, society, and citizens. Where a typical research question in political sociology might have been "Why do so few American or European citizens choose to vote?" or even "What difference does it make if women get elected?", political sociologists also now ask: "How is the body a site of power?", "How are emotions relevant to global poverty?", or "What difference does knowledge make to democracy?"
Traditionally there were four main areas of research:
- The sociopolitical formation of the modern state;
- "Who rules?" How social inequality between groups (class, race, gender, etc.) influences politics;
- How public opinion, ideologies, personalities, social movements, and trends outside of the formal institutions of political power affect formal politics;
- Power relationships within and between social groups (e.g. families, workplaces, bureaucracy, media, etc.).
In other words, political sociology was traditionally concerned with how social trends, dynamics, and structures of domination affect formal political processes, as well as exploring how various social forces work together to change political policies. From this perspective, we can identify three major theoretical frameworks: pluralism, elite or managerial theory, and class analysis (which overlaps with Marxist analysis). Pluralism sees politics primarily as a contest among competing interest groups. Elite or managerial theory is sometimes called a state-centered approach. It explains what the state does by looking at constraints from organizational structure, semi-autonomous state managers, and interests that arise from the state as a unique, power-concentrating organization. A leading representative is Theda Skocpol. Social class theory analysis emphasizes the political power of capitalist elites. It can be split into two parts: one is the "power structure" or "instrumentalist" approach, whereas another is the structuralist approach. The power structure approach focuses on the question of who rules and its most well-known representative is G. William Domhoff. The structuralist approach emphasizes the way a capitalist economy operates; only allowing and encouraging the state to do some things but not others (Nicos Poulantzas, Bob Jessop).
Pluralism and power relations
Contemporary political sociology takes these questions seriously, but it is concerned with the play of power and politics across societies, which includes, but is not restricted to, relations between the state and society. In part, this is a product of the growing complexity of social relations, the impact of social movement organizing, and the relative weakening of the state as a result of globalization. To a significant part, however, it is due to the radical rethinking of social theory. This is as much focused now on micro questions (such as the formation of identity through social interaction, the politics of knowledge, and the effects of the contestation of meaning on structures), as it is on macro questions (such as how to capture and use state power). Chief influences here include cultural studies (Stuart Hall), post-structuralism (Michel Foucault, Judith Butler), pragmatism (Luc Boltanski), structuration theory (Anthony Giddens), and cultural sociology (Jeffrey C. Alexander).
Political sociology attempts to explore the dynamics between the two institutional systems introduced by the advent of Western capitalist system that are the democratic constitutional liberal state and the capitalist economy. While democracy promises impartiality and legal equality before all citizens, the capitalist system results in unequal economic power and thus possible political inequality as well.
For pluralists, the distribution of political power is not determined by economic interests but by multiple social divisions and political agendas. The diverse political interests and beliefs of different factions work together through collective organizations to create a flexible and fair representation that in turn influences political parties which make the decisions. The distribution of power is then achieved through the interplay of contending interest groups. The government in this model functions just as a mediating broker and is free from control by any economic power. This pluralistic democracy however requires the existence of an underlying framework that would offer mechanisms for citizenship and expression and the opportunity to organize representations through social and industrial organizations, such as trade unions. Ultimately, decisions are reached through the complex process of bargaining and compromise between various groups pushing for their interests. Many factors, pluralists believe, have ended the domination of the political sphere by an economic elite. The power of organized labour and the increasingly interventionist state have placed restrictions on the power of capital to manipulate and control the state. Additionally, capital is no longer owned by a dominant class, but by an expanding managerial sector and diversified shareholders, none of whom can exert their will upon another.
The pluralist emphasis on fair representation however overshadows the constraints imposed on the extent of choice offered. Bachrauch and Baratz (1963) examined the deliberate withdrawal of certain policies from the political arena. For example, organized movements that express what might seem as radical change in a society can often by portrayed as illegitimate.
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