4 Major Theories of Power (Class, Elite, Pluralist and Gender Theories)

Power is a factor of all social relations, particularly the political relations. It is present in every society. However, its distribution differs from society to society.

Two major and interesting questions which demand answers are: who hold power in society? How power stands distributed in society? Several theories have been advocated by Political Sociologists and each of which seeks to explain the possession and distribution of power in society..

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(1) Class Theory of Power


(2) Elite Theory of Power

(3) Pluralist Theory of Power

(4) Gender Theory of Power

1. Class Theory of Power:

The Class Theory of power stands associated with the name of Karl Marx and his Marxism. It holds that in each society there are present two classes:


(i) The class of the Rich (Haves) which owns the means of production and is the dominant economic class.

(ii) The class of the Poor (Have-nots) which is the class of economically weak and poor workers who are economically, socially and politically exploited and dominated by the class of the rich.

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The class of the Rich is the dominant class. It possesses social, economic, ideological and political power in society. It uses power to maintain its dominance over the society.


It exploits suppresses and dominants the class of the poor. It is the Ruling Class. It uses the state as an instrument for maintaining its dominant status. It uses political/governmental power for strengthening its dominance over society.

Marxism holds that in every stage of social evolution, the class of the rich (the propertied class which owns the means of production and distribution in society) has always used power in society.

In the Slave Stage the masters used power over the slaves, in the Feudal Society, the feudal lords (Feudal Nobility/ the class of land owners) used power over the serfes, peasants and the land labour, and in the present Industrial society (age of capitalism), the power is being used by the capitalists for dominating and exploiting the proletariats. The class of the rich always imposes and maintains its economic, social, ideological and political domination over the whole society.

However, some Marxist scholars, like Gramsci, and others like Weber, advocate the view that undoubtedly power in each society is really in the hands of the dominant class which can be any class, the bureaucracy or an ideologically dominant class.

This dominant class can use an ideology or political persuasion or leadership structure or intellectual power or morality as the means for securing the consent of the non-propertied class or other classes for securing its dominance in society.

In other words, while Marx and his traditional followers hold that power is possessed and always used by the economically dominant class of the rich, some other scholars hold that no doubt the power is always in the hand of a class but this can be any class which dominates the society by using several different means.

Thus, Class Theory of Power holds that power is always possessed and used by a class of persons in each society.

2. Elite Theory of Power:

The Elite Theory of holds that in each society power is possessed and used by a small group of persons, the elite, which takes all decisions and rules the society. In each society, the power is really in the hands of the elite (called the Power Elite).

The Elite is a small group of persons which takes all major decisions and is the centre of power in society. The ruling elite are always a minority of the people which uses power.

Even in a democracy the power is really in the hands of the elected elite of dominant political leaders’ or the chosen element of society.’ The government of the people really means “Government of the elite sprung from the people.” (Duverger)

Pareto, Mosca, Robert Michels, C. Wright Mills, O.Y. Gasset, and James Burnham have been the major protagonists of the Elite Theory of Power. Each of them holds that power in each society is in the hands of a minority (A small group of people) or some particular social groups which are powerful not only because they are well organized groups but also because they possess some special qualities (ruling ability, wealth, skill, knowledge or social status). The struggle for power in each society is really a struggle among elites for getting the power to make all major decisions in society.

The membership of dominant elites keeps on changing but the elite rule is the law of each society. Some elite theorists like Mitchell advocate faith in the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” which lays down that society is always and continuously ruled by an elite- the power elite, and each section of society is also dominated by a particular elite.

In other words, the Elite Theory advocates the view that power in each society is always used by elites – by a minority of people which uses political power by virtue of its organisation, ideology, wealth, ability or royal status. Each social class or a section of society is really dominated by an elite.

3. Pluralist Theory of Power:

The Pluralist Theory of Power rejects both the Class theory of power as well as the Elite theory of power. It holds that power is each society is really used neither by one class nor by any elite but by several different groups. In every society there are present several groups of people each of which represents a major interest or some interests.

These are competing groups which compete for sharing power and influence in society. These share and use their activities of influencing and determining all decisions and policies of society and its government. Sovereignty is exercised by social groups and associations and it is not the monopoly of the state.

4. Gender Theory of Power:

The Gender Theory of Power holds that in all societies, the power is actually in the hands of the men who as a group dominate as the group of women in society.

The power in each society stands centralized in the hands of the group of men and it is the power of the gender domination of man as a group over the women as a group.

Gender Theory is supported by the feminist writers and activists. They hold that each society stand divided on gender basis into the dominant group of all men and the dependent and dominated group of all women.

They criticise the existing situation and want to end male domination of society. They strongly advocate and want the liberation of women from male dominance which is held to be unnatural, undemocratic and harmful for the society.

The present system of patriarchy needs to be replaced by a society based on real and comprehensive equality between men and women. The prevailing system has for its basis the biological difference between men and women and wrongly gives all importance and power to men.

It has been working as a system of all round and wholesale exploitation, oppression and suppression of women who constitute half of the world population and perform nearly 2/3 of the work hours. It is therefore imperative that women should have the right to be equal partners in the exercise of power in society.

All feminist scholars, women rights groups and women liberalisation movements strongly criticise and reject the exercise of power by the Gender M. They advocate M = W Model for the exercise of power.

The Gender Theory of Power holds that currently power in each society is exercised through a system of male domination which needs to be replaced by a system of real and effective social, economic and political equality of men and women in each society. The two classes of men and women must be equal partners in the exercise of power in each society.

Thus, each of the above four theories, the Class Theory, the Elite Theory, the Pluralist Theory and the Gender Theory, gives its own view of the distribution and exercise of power in society.

Together these adopt and advocate different standards and principles for the study of distribution and exercise of power in each society. We can approach the study of power on the basis of all these theories simultaneously.


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