'A gets B to do something that he or she would not otherwise do'. Does this sum up the essence of political power?

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‘A gets B to do something that he or she would not otherwise do’. Does this sum up the essence of political power?

Political power has been described as an “essentially contested concept” and for good reason. Of all of the concepts in political science, power is probably that which is debated most often. This is perhaps unsurprising due to its importance within the discipline. Heywood suggests that “without doubt, students of politics are students of power”. The quote in the question refers to Robert Dahl’s “intuitive idea of power” outlined in his early article ‘The Concept of Power’. It is also the most commonly used ‘definition’ of power; however, to what extent does it describe the nature and essence of political power?

   As the extensive debate suggests, there are many problems when defining power.    As the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Politics explains, issues of “Intentionality”, “Comparability and Quantifiability” and “Time and Causation’” make arriving at a definition very difficult. Without Intentionality, it argues, “we are left with a paradoxical and useless concept of power… the concept of power becomes vague to the point of meaningless”. Also, for a universal concept of power, it must allow for comparative analyses in the form of “A has more power than C in context x” or “A has more power than anybody else in context x” for example. This quote in the question doesn’t refer to the intention of A in relation to the outcomes of the situation. Neither does it introduce the idea of others possessing power.

    While the quote makes no reference to the power of others, it does introduce two important elements of any definition of political power; a relationship and the removal of coincidence. In political situations, coincidence is hard to remove because to do this you must ensure that B wouldn’t have acted in the same way regardless of A. With people, accurate ‘control samples’ are hard to create. A definition of power does not in itself require a relationship. Robinson Crusoe, on a desert island would have power even before the arrival of Man Friday. He would have the power to make a fire or to walk to the sea. He would have the power ‘To do…’. However, political power requires the aforementioned ‘relationship’. Politics is about people and conflict and cannot happen until Man Friday arrives. The form of power in this instance is different. Robinson Crusoe could not just have the power ‘To do…’, but also power ‘Over…’. Goodwin also makes this distinction in the exercise of power between power ‘To do…’ and power ‘Over…’, however, the ‘essence’ of political power must encompass both forms of its exercise.

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   Also, although this idea that ‘A gets B ….’ is so widely used, further on in his original article, Dahl describes the ‘power relation’ slightly differently;

   “It seemed, he writes, ‘to involve a successful attempt by A to get a to do something he would not otherwise do’”.

The difference between the two statements is subtle, but nevertheless, important. The first, as Lukes comments, “refers to A’s capacity (‘…to the extent that he can get B to do something…’) while the second specifies a successful attempt … being the difference between potential and actual power, between its possession and ...

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This is a difficult essay to mark. Depending on the level and objectives of the module, I would likely give this a low 2.1 - but I could easily imagine a different marker deciding otherwise, because it is an essay that shows enormous analytical promise, but falls down on the basics. There is a *lot* of information here and some good (although incomplete) critical insight. The problem is that the author's own ideas are often not developed to a sufficient extent as to make it clear the relevance of the information to the question. This is a shame, as there are a good deal more independent ideas in this essay than is common for an answer to this question. The lack of development is itself a function of the lack of structure. Paragraphs often lack a clear point, and the lack of a defined argument in the introduction makes reading the essay a chore in places. A roadmap introduction and clear essay structure would make a huge difference to the overall quality of the paper.