Theories and their Differences: Analysis of Robert Dahl’s Who Governs, and Robert Michels’ Political Parties

Theories and their Differences: Analysis of Robert Dahl’s Who Governs, and Robert Michels’ Political Parties

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It should be a fare assumption, that most social scientists have an intuitive notion of what constitutes ‘power’. Nonetheless, academia has been unable to formulate a single defining statement for the concept of power, rigorous enough to be used interchangeably when studying various political or social phenomenon. Worse yet, the more attempts are made to define power, the more complex the concept becomes. Although the conceptual definition of power is difficult to pinpoint, its pervasive applicability, and on-going importance to political theorists is certainly not lost, as countless academics define and apply the concept of power in order to add depth to their work. Of these theorists, Robert Dahl, and Robert Michels are two. The field of Political Science has been host to a fierce debate, between those who assert that democratic societies are ruled by elite(s), and those who believe that the pluralist model is a more accurate description. Robert Dahl, who is arguably the most influential of the pluralists, attacks ‘elitists’ in his book Who Governs, by applying his own conceptualization of power to the American community of New Haven, empirically backing his beloved pluralist model. At the other end of the spectrum, Robert Michels’ Political Parties offers a different take on the nature of political and social organization. Standing in disagreement to Dahl’s conclusions, Michels uses a rather social/psychosocial approach, in order to demonstrate what he though was the true nature of governmental politics, the unavoidable elite-mass relation, and the inevitable sociological tendency towards oligarchy (Michels 1915, 384). Granted, both thinkers have the concept of power embedded at the core of their respective work, a brief analyt...

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...tinuing our search, in labouring indefatigably to discover the indiscoverable, we shall preform a work which will have fertile results in the democratic sense” (Michels 1915, 405).
In due course, what is demonstrated by both Dahl and Michels’ work is how research from a relatively similar project, can lead a philosopher to incredibly different conclusions. For Dahl, his specific focus into the inner political workings of New Haven led him to conclude that pluralism is alive and well in America. However, with a much broader realm of focus, Michels work steered him into quite the pessimistic view of modern day politics, arguing that oligarchy is unavoidable due to certain instinctive features in human organization. In the end, it seems that regardless of whether one chooses to believe Dahl, or Michels’ conclusions, the political machine will never stop chugging.

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