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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Simply put, the political dimension of culture and society is all about power

Whereas politics and political science include discussions about other things, such as political ideologies, the political dimension of society is limited to power, and leaves ideology to the values dimension of culture.

Political parties are institutions, and belong to the institutional or interactional dimension.

As with all six cultural dimensions, and the physical dimensions of length, width and depth, the political dimension is a construct, based upon reason rather than observation, and exists in our heads.

It is not intrinsic in culture, nor is it an aspect of culture; it is a dimension.

As when we have “two” apples, the “twoness” is not intrinsic in the apples, but is in our minds.

Power is one of the three elements, along with prestige and wealth,  of social inequality or class, studied by sociologists.

The political dimension is in any social or cultural entity, from the smallest interaction, as in a dyad (two people), to a whole country.

As when a pencil may be short or long, it always has a length, so small or large groups and institutions have a political dimension.

Symbolic interactionists prefer to study at the micro level, small groups, and the exercise of power in them.

While functionalists and conflict sociologists both look at the macro level, their approaches differ widely.

The functionalists see the national political system as it appears on the surface, a set of institutions which tend to balance groups competing for power, so national decisions reflect the values of the majority.

Conflict sociologists see a “power elite,” composed mainly of leaders in corporations, who hold most of the power, often in a hidden manner.

The aim of the power elite is to maintain a system of privilege for those at the top of the country’s class system.

* * *

Two or three friends are walking on the street.

As they approach a junction, one suggests that they turn onto another street.

The person making the suggestion is trying to exercise power.

Whether they turn or not reflects the amount of power held at the time by the friend making the suggestion.

We call small informal groups (as in your friends on the street) and bands (usually found in gathering and hunting societies) that have no formal permanent leader as “acephalous” (meaning “headless”). Leadership is informal, temporary and ephemeral.

* * *

Canada makes a national decision in choosing its prime minister.

All the events that come into play –– party meetings, campaigns, voting –– relate to the political dimension, in that one person is chosen who will have that large amount of power.

* * *

We can gain a better understanding of our political dimension if we see how it has been built up and put together over the millennia.

As with most social change, political development has tended to be cumulative: new things are added onto the old rather than replacing the old.

The old things may continue so long as they are not dysfunctional, even if they are no longer needed.

In the simplest societies, the political system is one with little difference in power acquired by the most powerful, compared to the least powerful.

It is very equalitarian in terms of distribution of power.

As society becomes more complex, the gap between the least powerful and the most powerful increases.

Compare an informal hunt leader in a gathering society, with a band member with the least power.

Very little difference.

The power gap in Washington, DC, between the president in the White House, and some janitor in a slum hotel in inner city Washington, is immense. (In the Values Dimension, the prestige gap is also immense)

The difference between lowest and highest increases with the complexity of the society.

The more informal and equalitarian range of power has not disappeared with the coming of agriculture then industrial society.

The equalitarian and informal power allocation remains in the private and domestic areas of society, while the hierarchical systems are widest in the public arenas.

An important concern held by sociologists is the difference between legitimate and non legitimate use of power.

When it is legitimate it is called authority, and when not, it is called coercion.

Since the origin of cities and states, brought on by the agrarian revolution, the head of state, usually a king at first, has monopolized the use of legitimate force.

That is why the military and police are closely associated with government, and many regiments in the Commonwealth are named “The King’s own . . .,” reflecting this history.

An important reason for this is that violence, or more importantly, the threat of violence, has been a useful and efficient manner of exercising power.

As Mao Tse Tung said, “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun.”

Politics and the military have always held a special relationship with each other in the history of humans.

War has often been used over the history of humanity, since the agricultural revolution, to achieve political objectives.

See the paper on religion. Although on the surface, the large number of wars based on religion appear to be conflicts over beliefs, closer analysis reveals political purposes.

Conflict sociologists see police as part of a justice system which has the main purpose of oppressing the poor and underprivileged.

Political scientists see three types of national political systems, monarchies, democracies, and dictatorships (including oligarchies).

For the most part, these are all systems of allocating power within a state, and difference between them is a difference in succession, how new leaders are chosen when the old ones die or are overthrown.

When succession is peaceful and ordered, the state will more likely remain stable.

Weber saw three different types of authority.

“Charismatic” is power based on the personality of the individual.

“Traditional” power is based on the legitimacy of the succession laws.

“Bureaucratic” power is based on the rational rules for choosing a successor (salute the rank, not the individual wearing it).

The word democracy derives from the Latin language, “demo” meaning “the people”, and “cracy” meaning “power.”

The slogan “power to the people” is really a cry for democracy.

The suffix, “archy” derives from the Greek, and also means power.

A monarchy is rule by one (the king or queen) and “oli” (as in oligarchy) means few.

In a European monarchy, when the king or queen dies, succession is usually by traditional means, eg first born male is automatically selected.

(This is different in Akan matrilineal societies, where the new leader is chosen from the matrilineage which owns the office of king, chief, or elder; succession is not automatic).

Succession to dictatorships or oligarchies is usually be military force, while succession in democracies is usually by rational legal means, such as through elections.

Our parliamentary system is called “representational democracy” which is an oxymoron.

When people vote, they give up power to the person or persons elected, and no longer have direct involvement in the decisions affecting the nation or state.

Direct democracy implies that everybody continues to be involved in the decision making, but that is impractical in large, complex societies, and can be practised only in very small groups, clubs, villages, residential communes and associations.

On the world scene, we see two forces moving in different directions.

On one side we see a movement to a global economy as capitalism replaces socialism.

On the other side, we see a growth of strong (some may say fanatic) nationalism or localism.

The Political Dimension of Society

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