Political Sociology: The State, Ideology, and Power

Nick Osbaldiston

The key goals of this chapter are to:

  • understand what the nation-state is
  • explain the different styles of governing that exist in the world
  • discuss the various ideologies that exist within societies
  • examine theories of power from sociology
  • consider these theories with examples.


Central to sociological analysis is the role of government in governing our everyday lives and interests. Key to this are several concepts such as power, the nation-state, ideology, and authority. In Australia, as well as many nation-states in the Western world, the foundation for many of these discussions resides in the operation of democracy and the relationship between the political and civil sections of society. Sociologists since modernity try to understand how this dynamic operates with focus on the nature of power. Power is a pivotal mechanism in modern society. It operates within government and non-government institutions, inside our communities, among our families, and even within university settings. Power according to some ideologies is equally dispersed across our societies. Whereas for others, power is concentrated in those with economic, or political status locking out everyday people from key decision-making.

The Modern Nation-State

In the contemporary world, societies are organised into geographical territories that are governed by an entity known as the nation-state. Usually, the state consists of a group of formal institutions that are arranged to govern the everyday matters of societies within their control. This entity holds sovereign power over its geographical territory and is responsible for the people within these boundaries. Institutions consist of large-scale bureaucracies such as legal, economic, political, health, educational and welfare. Fundamental to the state is also those mechanisms of power, order, and control such as the military and the police who maintain peace and security from other nation-states and also within our communities.

German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) famously argued that the nation-state is in fact the only institution that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory (Weber & Runciman, 1978). Weber and Runciman (1978) argue that the nation-state can enact violence upon its own population to maintain peace and security because of the legitimacy of its authority of a society. Social institutions that grow entities such as armed militia groups, vigilantes, religions, and other groups that seek to impose order on sections of society through violence or threats of violence, are held as illegitimate by the state, and the people that support it.

States are organised differently across the world. For the most part, however, the state is made up of a range of institutions including the following:

  • Legislature – refers to the assembly of people (usually politicians) who have invested power and authority to enact legal instruments (laws) and policies that govern a geographical territory. Examples include Australia’s Federal Parliament and Queensland’s State Parliament.
  • Public service – refers to bureaucracies charged with the development, management and provision of services and resources to the public funded through the state’s resources such as taxation. These services are usually governed by legislation developed by the legislature. Examples include the Department of Education in Australia and Services Australia.
  • Social security or welfare institutions – usually a federal program that the state funds through taxation which provides monetary and other benefits for those who are unemployed, retired, disabled, parents or those who have suffered loss through disaster for example. The resourcing of these services is often the subject of political and ideological debate. An example of this is Centrelink in Australia which manages welfare payments to the public.
  • Health systems – refers to the public health institutions that are put in place to deal with physical and mental health care of civil society. Unlike private health care, public health institutions are fully funded through the public via taxation. Policies that govern these systems come from the legislature. In Australia, the state governments, such as New South Wales, are charged with operating health systems.
  • Police and military – refers to the organisations whose task it is to preserve law and order within a geographical territory or jurisdiction, while also maintaining security from other nation-states and organisations. As Weber (1919/1970) argues, these are the only legitimate institutions that can enact said force in a state.
  • Judiciary and other bodies – refers to the bodies that are responsible for the operationalisation of the legal systems in a state. This includes courts, judges, and other officials charged with interpreting and applying the laws of the land. In federal systems like Australia, courts are divided between different levels with the federal government responsible for some courts (eg. The Family Court) and the state responsible for others (eg. District or Magistrates Courts).

The development of these institutions and the state broadly is also largely dependent on the legitimacy that the people give those who are in power. When people become disaffected with the way they are governed, this can lead to social action such as protests, demonstrations, and even revolutions. The legitimacy of a state in the eyes of the people is a focus of Max Weber’s historical sociology.

A bearded white man in a suit
Figure: Max Weber, 1894 is in the Public Domain

Max Weber and Legitimacy and Authority

Intrinsic to the modern state’s power for Weber is the capacity for those in power to be able to hold legitimate authority over others. Using the German concept of herrschaft which can be loosely translated to mean authority, domination, or control, Weber argues that the legitimacy that the citizenry affords to those in power, is evidence of an acceptance of a certain type of power. If the citizens of a state did not acknowledge the authority of their rulers/governors, it could result in large-scale change through elections or revolutions.

Weber makes use of a mode of historical method which he describes as the ‘ideal type‘. The ideal type should not be confused as a definition of how things ought to be done. Rather, it is a type of concept that is useful for historical analysis and comparison (Weber, 2012). Think of them as “conceptual tweezers” that we can use to understand and speak about “historical reality somewhere between different tendencies” (Collins & Randall, 1986, p. 34). They help us make sense of changes in the world from one time period to another.

For Weber, the legitimacy of authority that the citizens give to those in power can be compared historically. There are three ideal types of authority for him, traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal.

Traditional Authority

For traditional societies, authority to rule is usually legitimated based on sacred or divine rights. The social order that exists here relies on people believing the “dominant group person or group” to have been ‘pre-ordained to rule over’ everyone within a geographical terrain (Blau, 1963, p. 308). For instance, in a traditional society in premodern times, lands, people and cultures were governed by kings, queens, emperors, religious leaders or other forms of traditional reign. The capacity for this group of people to maintain their rule lay in hierarchical norms that dominate ideas, values, customs, principles, and cultures of societies. However, traditional authority extends into other areas of our social lives, including within the family where parents have assumed authority over their children which has now extended into law. Furthermore, religions bound to traditions and custom tend to place leaders in authority over congregations on the basis of a divine right (not to be confused with charismatic authority – see below).

For most of the premodern period, Weber argued that the state was based on this traditional authority, especially in the European countries where monarchies had power over the populace and were in charge of everything from war, internal law and order, punishment, commerce, trade, and the welfare of the people. Of course, the Europeans were not the only population governed in this manner. Across the world, civilisations have been and are governed by those with traditional authority over a territory.

Rational-Legal Authority

The second and most relevant form of authority to our contemporary society Weber calls rational-legal authority (also known as legal authority). In this form, the relations between society and authority take on a number of important distinctions from traditional societies. Importantly, this form of authority takes legislation or law as a foundation for the organisation of life. People in our society are provided with power not afforded through custom, like royalty. Rather, positions of authority are determined by first a strong belief in the validity of legal rules, norms, and procedures, and second an acceptance of those people who hold positions above us as having a superiority over us formally.

Intrinsic to Weber’s understanding of this ideal type of authority is the growth and acceptance of the bureaucracy (Blau, 1963; Weber & Runciman, 1978). The nation-state is no longer simply a geographical territory ruled by a small group of individuals. Rather, the state is a conglomeration of politicians and departments that oversee different areas of social/economic/political life, law and order, health systems, welfare organisations, and so on. The important distinction between traditional and rational-legal authorities for Weber is that development of organisations that have impersonal layers of authority built within them. Each of these organisations has defined values, rules, legislation, procedures and ultimately, rather impersonal relations with the citizens of the state. They also have certain powers which can at times engage punitive measures such as fines and penalties. These formal bureaucracies are found in all our social lives, governing aspects of how we live from everything including taxation through to fishing.

The nation-state is therefore not just one entity or a small group of elites maintaining a kingdom any more. For Weber (1973), the modern nation-state rests upon the validity that citizens give to those who hold offices across these bureaucracies. People are generally not elected into these bureaucratic positions, but are “appointed to positions on the basis of technical expertness” and “assigned specialised responsibilities” (Blau, 1963, p. 309). Of course, not only did bureaucracies come to dominant government, we can see them organised in all aspects of modern life. Sporting clubs, community groups, universities, and even social movements, are rational, formal and have hierarchical positions with different rules, laws and norms assigned. For Weber and Runciman (1978), the bureaucracy has become the dominant modal of organisational life due to its rational structure, and the appearance of optimal efficiency.

🧠 Learn More: Max Weber and Sociology (Video)

Watch this short video [1:36] to examine Weber’s arguments around bureaucracy and what his arguments around this organisation of authority were.


Charismatic Authority

Weber and Runciman (1978) spent significant time discussing rational-legal authority through bureaucratic power. However, he was also fascinated by a third form of power that appears throughout both premodern and modern societies, charismatic authority. Charisma is not simply holding a charming personality. Rather, charismatic authority is essentially irrational (not unlike traditional authority) where an individual convinces an audience of an extraordinary message that often challenges the status quo. Throughout history, Weber saw that there were unique cases where individuals created a following via a message of new values, rules and modes of living. He argued that these individuals generally must ‘prove’ themselves to their audience through miracles and heroic deeds. Important here is the audience who become followers. Instead of ceding to traditional or rational-legal authority, they become subservient to their new charismatic leader, and in some cases, become devoted to them.

Several examples of this form of authority exist in premodern and modern times. For instance, in biblical history and thought, several figures rise to take on the mantle of leadership despite not having any traditional right to the position. A classic case for Weber is Jesus Christ, who was not born into any position of note. However, through miracles and a message that criticised the dominant Jewish hierarchy at the time, he attracted a significant following, leading to one of the most significant religions in the world.

A red baseball cap with 'make america great again' on the front and an American flag on the side
Figure: The famous MAGA hat from Trump’s Presidential campaign by Natilyn Hicks (Natilyn Photography) is licensed by Unsplash. Did Trump display charisma?

Charismatic authority does not always lead to good outcomes for Weber though. Years after his death, Weber’s idea of charisma was realised in his home nation-state of Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler to power in 1933. Hitler’s rise to power, and that of the Nazi party, came at a time of unrest, especially in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles where the Weimar Republic agreed to pay war reparations to allies. His message blaming former leaders for their incompetence, along with his call for a new republic along with his anti-Semitic beliefs grew in popularity and led to one of the most devastating modern wars in recent times and a large-scale genocide of Jewish and other peoples.

Charisma was important to Weber’s understanding of the future of an increasingly bureaucratised and rationalised society. As Barbara Adam (2009, p. 11) suggests, Weber’s thinking around charisma suggests that as we are increasingly “controlled through rational calculation” and bureaucratic authority, we will yearn for “charismatic leaders, spiritual fulfilment and ‘sublime values'”. Leaders in political and social life will rise often with a new message that shakes the status quo, provides pathways forward to a new authentic way of being, and provide new rules and even laws for living.

Power and Control – Elitism

Figure: Robert Michels’ book Political Parties (1911) by P.S. Burton (contributor) is in the Public Domain

Unlike Weber, other sociologists and theorists have examined the structures of the state in a more critical fashion. One such individual was Robert Michels (1876-1936), an Italian sociologist and student of Webers’. Michels argued that within democracies, there is a tendency for power to eventually be concentrated within an elite few. This he described as the iron law of oligarchy. Following along from Weber’s analysis of bureaucracies, Michels argued that within any setting, only a small amount of people will eventually make decisions. While this serves a purpose, for Michels, eventually those in the decision-making roles become isolated from others, take on more power, and lock out others. He writes:

It is organisation that gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organisation, says oligarchy. (Michels, 1962, p. 365)

The problem for Michels is that the nature of modern organisations as bureaucracies (as Weber analysed them), requires ‘leaders’ or officers whose job it is to make decisions. He argues that in every organisation, especially democratic parties, leaders arise who become “professional leaders” who are difficult to remove due to the chain of command and service they provide the party (Michels, 1962, p. 364). Unless someone comes along who is charismatic and able to open up new possibilities, ‘professional leaders’ will continue to hold positions of power repeatedly eventually locking others out. A small group of people “exercises control” over the organisation or party (Michels, 1962, p. 278). For him, this can lead to problems as while the individuals may start with the best intentions, they can easily be led to selfish desires including the maintenance of their power or gaining it through larger processes such as an election. This is especially a problem for political parties who begin to neglect the wider constituency, focusing instead on political survival.

Like Michels, others have argued that power can be concentrated in the few. American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) in his book The Power Elite (1956) argues that the organisation of the state specifically in the US, means that power is concentrated in three specific groups – the military, the major corporate entities, and the political class. These three areas for him have come to dominate American social life leaving other areas dwindling in importance. For instance, the rising importance of the economic conditions meant that the unions were afforded less power, and subsequently of less importance to society. The military also makes increasingly more important decisions leading to an increased position of value in American life.

Mills argues there is a core group of individuals within these organisations who can freely move across different high-ranking positions making decisions with major consequences. These individuals all hold similar social backgrounds. They tend to be from the upper classes, have degrees from prestigious universities, hold similar financial positions, and have subsequently similar values and ideas. As such, and due to their shared social and political values, major decisions are made that have a significant impact on citizens. Power is concentrated within this group, leaving others with little to no power. Hence, it is elitist because the values that these usually upper-class men hold, are singular, leaving out a diversity of thought and consideration of others.

People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages. They come readily to define themselves as inherently worthy of what they possess; they come to believe themselves ‘naturally’ elite, and, in fact, to imagine their possessions and their elitist privileges as natural extensions of their own elite selves. (Mills, 1956, p. 14)

Subsequently, elites who dominate decision-making in the military, political and economic circles tend to ignore what society may think, believing that they themselves are aware of what is best given their status. Furthermore, the citizenry even when they can use their power in elections, become disenfranchised and are more likely to vote through emotion or culture. This works only to support the elites as they are rarely challenged and continue to hold positions of authority.

Similar arguments are made by Australian sociologist Michael Pusey (1991) in his work Economic Rationalism in Canberra. Pusey (1991) argues that within the Australian public service, significant decision-makers who changed the values of organisations towards more economic rational approaches (an approach which suggests that markets provide better outcomes than governments and encourages deregulation), were elite private school educated and had economics degrees. He argues that over time, “economists were appointed to positions from which they completely dominated the whole policy apparatus” (Pusey, 2018, p. 13). Those who had command over economic principles, and who overwhelmingly valued economic deregulation, became leaders of public services leading to an inevitable homogenization of values and ideas. Furthermore, these important decision-makers were independent completely from elections as in Australia, citizens do not have a say on who is appointed to leadership roles within public services. This creates a new form of elite class that goes unnoticed in Australian political life (see also Connell, 1977).

Sharing Power – Pluralism

Unlike elitists who see power as concentrated among the few, pluralists tend to view power as shared among different groups in society. These compete for influence over political and government decision-makers equally, and all groups have the capacity to win their case and exercise political power. The fundamental principle of pluralism is that of democracy – all people have power, and will compete in the public for attention. No group has more power than another in this respect. However, like elitists, pluralists accept that once a group wins, they have exercised that power to the detriment of other competing groups. These groups emerge from different sections of society including religion, trade unions, ethnicities, special interest groups, generations, suburbs, or even sporting associations. Even though some groups will win over others, this does not prevent a group from continuing to advocate for their causes again.

This is the argument of political scientist Robert Dahl (1915-2014) in his work Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City published in 1961. In a rebuttal to C. Wright Mills’ power elite theory, Dahl explores the power and decision-making networks within the city of New Haven, Connecticut and argues that different groups participate in decisions by being in competition with one another. While these groups will have access to different resources, social and political capital, and status within the community, this does not necessarily lead to having political influence. Some groups will have influence, without having money. The politicians within a community can and will, at times, bow to pressure from those in the community who have established status. In other words, unlike Mills’ assessment, groups can have influence on the political decision-makers despite lacking the resources that the elites hold. Importantly, and unlike Mills, Dahl (1961) argues those decision-makers within political organisations or bureaucracies, require the support of groups in the community. They cannot simply exercise power according to their own ideas.

Dahl (1971) applied his ideas on pluralism to democracies by suggesting that genuine democracy is near impossible to achieve. The ideal of all of society being able to have their say is too difficult. Democracy can achieve some ideal, through polyarchy – the rule by many. Dahl (1971) argues that representative democracy, where citizens elect individuals to represent their communities in government, provides the best answer to the democracy problem. Through this, elected individuals would be beholden to special interest groups and held accountable by the broader citizenry. Power is therefore invested into the representative for decision-making.

There are clearly issues with this approach. Some groups will have greater access to those representatives while others will not. Dahl (1989) recognises this by later arguing that citizens require access to avenues to express their concerns within the public and need rights such as freedom of speech to ensure they can do so. Allowing citizens the ability to form groups and compete for attention is crucial to the dispersal of power among society. Neo-pluralists such as Charles Lindblom (1982) suggest further that some groups will have more power according to the context of the issue that they are competing in. For instance, medical associations will have more power in cases where their expertise is important. For contemporary pluralists, this is not a problem and represents the structure of society where some groups should have more power than others. Furthermore, Lindblom (1982) argues in a capitalist system, governments do have to cooperate with business to ensure a successful society and economic growth. This does mean providing business with more power at times than other groups – something criticised by elite theorists.

However, in the contemporary age, we can see that there is potentially an overload of information for the public exacerbated by social media and other forms of communication. As Petray (2011, p. 925) suggests in her research into social movements, the widespread proliferation of groups all competing in the online space, especially for attention and resources, may cause “opinion overload” leading to an apathy. Furthermore, Possamai-Inesedy and Nixon (2017) argue that one of the deep concerns of social media is that it causes greater polarisation, meaning that individuals are increasingly only exposed to groups that align with their ideological position. This potentially undermines the sort of pluralistic democracy that Dahl and others sought.

Social Relations, the Self, and the Power Within

Social Identity Theory

Sociologists and their cousin discipline social psychology are quick to remind us that much of the power of modern-day life occurs in our experiences and interactions. One such theory, social identity theory, posits that we all belong to different groups of individuals which “hold a common social identification or view themselves as members of the same category” (Stets & Burke, 2000, p. 225). At times, these groups are not simply something we choose, but something which is ascribed to us by others through our external characteristics, or implied characteristics because of our race, religion, gender, and so on. As Stets and Burke (2000, p. 225) acknowledge, we are born into a structured society, where different groups will emerge according to the different social structures that exist.

Social identity theory posits that there are two forms of identity in modern life. The first is self-categorisation which can be defined as a process through which we identify with different groups and therefore take on board their norms, values, ideas, traits, and practices. Stets and Burke (2000) argue that we tend to accentuate our similarities with others, and seek to align ourselves with the group. These norms within the group then teach us how to act, and importantly how not to. As Emile Durkheim (1995) also suggests, groups have important identifiers such as objects or totems, that define the group and which become sacred and require protection at all times from the profane everyday world.

Importantly, once you identify with the group, the second process called social-comparison is undertaken. Here, members of groups compare themselves with other groups and accentuate differences through evaluation. In other words, we take our group’s values, ideas, and other characteristics, and compare them to other groups. This is at times done unconsciously in our everyday life. For instance, we might identify strongly with a particular football team accentuating our similarities with other fans of the same club. Through this process, we might identify other fans of other teams by comparing our team with theirs. This can lead to a situation where we identify those others, especially if they are strong rivals, as outsiders, and therefore, disassociate with them. Through this also we develop labels and stigmas.

In terms of power, this process of identifying ourselves with groups in this manner means that we are controlling our own selves to align with expectations and norms from the inside. These expectations then feed into our everyday life and cut across many social identities including gender, race, sexuality, religion, community, and friendship circles. A great fictional representation of this is the 2004 movie Mean Girls which highlights how groups form in high school in America, and how expectations within and outside these groups create comradery in some sections, and hostility in others. We can see that this form of power is not controlled by some larger entity, such as the state, but is embedded in our very lives.

🎞️ Sociology on screen: Mean Girls (2004)

If you have ever watched Mean Girls or have a chance to, you will notice sociology in action. The movie shows social identity theory in effect with different groups with different labels, all with their own sub-culture within them, all distinguished from other groups. In some cases, certain groups are degraded, and have stigmas applied to them by the main characters. This means that even being near these ‘outsider’ groups is considered to be inappropriate. Some questions you might like to consider during this chapter are,

  • Can we see this attitude still in the contemporary school?
  • Why do you think we create ‘groups’ in our everyday life?
  • What do you think of labelling today? Is it still in effect? Or have we gone beyond?


One sociologist who extended upon this was Erving Goffman (1922-1982) who developed a theory of stigma to identify how people’s identities can be shaped by negative stereotypes. A social interactionist, Goffman argues that our everyday life is shaped by our relations with other people. We control the impressions we want to give to others about who we are through what he calls our “performance” (Goffman, 1959, p. 15). Utilising the metaphor of the theatre, Goffman argues that we construct our identities that we want others to know about us through our props, our frontstage behaviour, what we keep hidden in the backstage, and our character performance (actions, how we speak, how we present). Going back to our football example, for instance, we might seek to present ourselves as a supporter of the team through our clothing which quickly identifies us as part of that group. Importantly for Goffman though is not just the presentation, but the audience. The key to a successful performance is how well an audience responds or believes in what you are presenting.

Goffman (1959) however argues that sometimes, people will identify others in ways that the individual did not intend. This can include identifying someone negatively because of their external characteristics including race, gender, sexuality, bodily appearance, clothing, class, and status. People may make assumptions about an individual through stereotyping and then completely discredit the person. This is what he calls stigma. For Goffman (1968) there are three different types of stigma which are;

      1. Physically identifiable abnormalities (such as disability)
      2. Individual behavioural issues (for instance drug addictions)
      3. Group identification or social identity (for instance race, gender, religion)

Through this, Goffman (1968) argues that stigmas are identified because of visible markers (such as religious attire or disability), public knowledge of the individual already, the relevancy of the context (so for instance someone speaking loudly in a movie) and the obtrusiveness of the stigma into everyday life.

The power of stigma relies heavily on the casting of the individual as outside normal, an outsider, less than human. Once a stigma is successfully applied and accepted by members of a group, the stigmatized individual is then as Goffman (1968) argues, disqualified from full social acceptance. This form of power over the individual can be quite debilitating causing distress. Goffman (1968) suggests that once applied, individuals can spend time and resources trying to remove their stigma. For instance, corrective practices such as surgery to correct perceived abnormalities might be undertaken (Roach-Anleu, 2006). Furthermore, as we have seen in the past, people might be removed from society and taken to mental institutions to remove the cause of their behaviour that is stigmatised.

Self-Control and Emotions

Much of the discussion so far has been about how the state, powerful actors and other people exercise power, or how we exercise power ourselves such as in democracies. However, sociologists are also very interested in how we control ourselves and exercise power in various contexts. For instance, imagine one day you are in the shopping centre waiting in line at the checkout and a customer starts to get angry with the clerk at the counter. You notice that the clerk is doing their best to handle their emotions and tries hard to calm down the customer. You think to yourself, ‘Wow they’re really good at controlling themselves because I would be upset right now’.

In the above example, we can see evidence of an area that sociologists are continuing to show interest in, that of emotions. While in the past, emotions were considered an area exclusively for biologists and psychologists, sociologists have been able to show how emotions can be structured – in other words, we adopt different emotions and sometimes control our emotions based on situations.

One of the first sociologists to engage with emotions was Norbert Elias (1897-1990). Influenced heavily by Max Weber, Elias (1991, p. 116) argued that emotions are entirely sociological and not simply biological. He considered our reactions as adults as not simply “an entirely unlearned, genetically fixated reaction pattern”. Rather, during our formative years, and throughout life, we learn not just how to act and what to value. We also learn how to express our emotions, and importantly when to express them. Different structures, such as gender, class, status, occupation, and ethnicity, will determine how you learn to exercise your emotions, and when to control them or not. Importantly, certain cultural expectations about our emotions are intrinsic to how we control them.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1979) takes this further by arguing that there are rules to how we are to feel during different contexts. She breaks this into two different areas, “evocation” where we are required to feel something and “suppression” where we need to control our emotions that might arise due to different contexts (Hochschild, 1979, p. 561). In the case above in the supermarket, we can see that the clerk is required to suppress their internal emotions – something that Hochschild (1983) also calls emotional labour. However, in other situations in our everyday lives we can see rules and expectations about when we are required to exercise self-control over our emotions. We can also see places, contexts and times where we are expected to feel certain emotions. For instance, at a wedding, there is an expectation that we feel hope, happiness and love for the couple. When we subvert these expectations, others may well exercise power and control over us.

Thinking sociologically…

Remember back to when you were a child and you learned about emotions. This could be at school, at home or among your friends and the wider community. Ask yourself the following questions and start to unpack these sociologically:

  • What were some of the rules for feelings? Were these structured in any way do you think if you were to compare yourself to other groups such as genders, cultures, or ethnicities?
  • If you, or someone else, contravened the rules for emotions, what happened to them?
  • Have the rules for emotions changed since you were young?

Much of sociological research demonstrates how emotional work is largely gendered (Hochschild, 1983). Men are importantly governed by certain rules that mean they have to exercise more self-control in different situations. Women conversely also have many rules and there is an expectation that women are more caring and able to express compassion. This general rule Hochschild (1983) argues shows why more women end up in careers that require self-control but an ability to use emotions in work. She calls this emotional labour which is work that “requires one to induce or suppress feelings in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others” (Hochschild, 1983, p. 7). For instance, a nurse is required to be an expert not just in their job, but also in the way they show their care and attention. Flight attendants are the same – managing their physical tasks while also expressing emotions to make customers feel relaxed and comfortable. For Hochschild (1983), the general belief that women are more expressive, in touch with their feelings, and naturally more caring, means that women tend to gravitate towards these careers more than men. Once in these roles, women are required to control and evoke certain emotions.

Self-Regulation and Discipline

Much of what we have discussed above is about learning self-control due to societal expectations. The power, therefore, is exercised by culture, or those interacting around us. However, for others, those expectations come from outside of culture in our government, disciplines and institutions. In particular, French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926-1984) identifies in his work the relationship between us, and the ways in which society is organised that causes us to self-control our behaviour. Foucault (1977) especially is known for his work entitled Discipline and Punish in which he sets out how state surveillance has changed through time, to the point that we self-govern. This form of power is worked through us internally.

Central to Foucault’s (1977) thesis are three major points;

    1. Changes to criminal justice from explicit punishment such as public executions, to prisons and so on, are based on a movement towards more rational forms of punishment which includes segregating offenders from the population.
    2. Governments have learned that it is more effective to exercise control over the consciousness than to discipline bodies.
    3. Power is now exercised throughout society by several disciplines over us who teach us the correct way to live – for instance psychiatrists and psychologists. These experts are vitally important to people and we turn to them for advice on how to conduct ourselves.

Foucault’s theories can be difficult to understand so in what follows we will break this into two main areas, discipline, and governmentality.

Let’s start with discipline. Imagine for a moment that you are driving very late at night in an out-of-town area and you come across an intersection with traffic lights. You slow down and stop because the light is red. There is no one around anywhere and the lights are taking a long time to change. The question you might like to ask yourself here is, why did you stop and what stops you from going through the red light?

Foucault (1979) answers this question by describing the society we live in as governed by disciplinary power. He uses the proposed architectural structure of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) called the panopticon as a metaphor to explain this. Bentham’s design was a prison shaped like a circle divided into cells around a central guard tower located in the middle of the circle. The tower had the capacity to look out but prisoners from the outside could not see in. Bentham’s idea was to invoke a feeling in the prisoners that they could be watched at any time and not know this (as they could not see into the guard tower. His belief was that the prisoners would start to self-regulate on the assumption that they were being surveilled.

This metaphor works for Foucault in general for society as we are disciplined not in jails per se, but in other areas such as schools, government agencies, policing, and even universities. Foucault (1979) argues that power is held in these institutions that have the ability to monitor, record, report and withhold or provide resources according to an individual’s behaviour.

This approach to power appears to privilege then, the state as an actor that uses different institutions to discipline the population into subservience. In other words, we stop at the traffic light because we are afraid of getting into trouble with the police. However, Foucault (1984) also envisioned power as something that was productive. This does not mean he saw power as something positive, but rather, sometimes we do things not because we feel like we are being surveilled, but rather we feel compelled to act in certain ways. This form of power he describes as governmentality.

A basic definition of governmentality is the “dramatic expansion in the scope of government due to the emergence of the human sciences, which provide new mechanisms of calculation, especially statistics, that enable particular kinds of knowledge about populations and, in turn, become the basis for regulation, intervention and administration” (Roach-Anleu, 2006, p. 90). As modernity progressed for Foucault (1984) and the state grew in size and rationality, so too did the growth of human sciences like psychology, sociology and demography. More knowledge was accumulated on the population, and as such, ability to understand how to regulate, and entice individuals to become disciplined in their everyday lives. In short, Foucault and Hurley’s (1990) argument is that government now has access to understanding people more than ever, and as such can entice individuals to act, or not act according to the needs of society (from their point of view).

For Foucault and Hurley (1990) this information is used every day to regulate society. We see this in the form of signs, information, knowledge, directions, and advice, that we as individuals take on board. For instance, we receive constant advice on how to remain healthy and to monitor our actions accordingly. When you pick up a food product now, you will find all sorts of health advice listed on the packet. Foucault and Hurley (1990) would not argue that this is a good or bad thing for your body, but rather it demonstrates the nature of society and government. Unlike our predecessors in the past, we are far more motivated to self-regulate, and as such governmentality presents a very different way of exercising power.

Different Ideologies, Different States

In most nation-states today, there are competing political parties whose task it is to obtain power of the legislature so that they can enact their style of governance. In most cases, these different parties hold distinct political ideologies which encompass a range of values, ideals, beliefs, and interests that the group (or an individual) holds. These ideologies are often in competition on a range of issues including the role of government in societal and individual lives. Ideologies also determine attitudes towards the economy, business, diplomacy, and security not only within the state, but with other states and global entities. There exists a range of different political ideologies throughout history. However, for ease of analysis, we will select five here to discuss further. Like Weber’s ideal type, these are concepts that allow us to compare, but are not without fault. Sometimes, political parties will exhibit ideologies across different areas. Such is the nature of democracy! The five ideologies we will examine here however are liberalism, communism, socialism, conservatism, and neoliberalism.

Liberalism – Rights, Liberty, and Freedom

One of the earliest political ideologies that continues to exist today is that of liberalism. Developed by philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), this approach to government prioritises the rights, freedoms, and liberties of individuals and advocates for minimalising government interference as much as possible. Initially, Hobbes and Locke designed this philosophical tradition with the desire to liberate individuals in society from the monarchy, providing opportunities for individual success through freedom and rights.

Painted portrait of a gaunt old white man
Figure:“Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his (sic) life, health, liberty and possessions,” John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690). Portrait of John Locke 1697 by Godfrey Kneller is in the Public Domain

This tradition led to several key moments in history including the French Revolution and the independence of America. In both instances, the push for freedom and democracy was founded in pursuit of liberty for individuals from what was seen as oppressive regimes (e.g. monarchies). The emphasis on freedom led to key documents such as the American Constitution, which privileges aspects of individual life over government such as freedom of speech, religion, thought, and assembly. In addition, liberalism identifies a number of ‘rights’ that are legislated and protected by the state. These rights importantly include the right to private property.

Importantly, for traditional liberalism, the state should have minimal interference in the everyday lives of individuals (Heywood, 2003). This means that states, for liberals, should be small and allow people to live freely unless they infringe on the rights of others. For this reason, liberal democracies develop laws that protect people from the actions of others ensuring their ability to continue living freely.

The emphasis here on freedom leads to significant and divergent thinking around outcomes for others. Liberals tend to argue that everyone in society should have an equality of opportunity but accept that there is a tendency in a capitalist society to have inequality in outcomes. In other words, all people should have the ability and freedom to learn skills and talents that will lead to success. Furthermore, liberal philosophers such as John Stuart Mill (1806-73) felt that freedom would advance society as people could innovate, discover and contribute new knowledge, skills, and technologies. Subsequently, government should support freedom to think, act and be independent, to ensure that society is developing and progressing.

As noted, the emphasis of liberalist thought on freedom, leads to legislation and policy designed to increase opportunities for people to develop, such as providing equal access to schooling and universities. However, the focus on individuals means that liberalism accepts that different outcomes will occur. Some people will succeed through hard work and intelligence, others will fail. This motivates people to push harder to succeed so that they can live better. While people are free to live how they want, they are responsible for the outcomes of their choices and the state should not be required to intervene if they fail. As such liberals tend to argue for smaller welfare states, with more funding allocated to providing equal resources for areas such as education to ensure everyone has a chance to succeed.

Several states in the world are founded on the principles of liberalism. Examples include the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Norway, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, India, Australia, and New Zealand. Each have different approaches to the structures of governments and the ideological position according to the political party that is in power, but each also have certain rights and protections that centre on the individual especially the right to private property.

Communism – Class Struggle, Common Property, and Harmony

At the core of critical thought on contemporary politics, economics and social life is the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his colleague Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Marx’s contributions in the volume Das Kapital offered a deep critique of the economic system of capitalism and the liberal philosophical position that upheld it. Broadly, Marx’s criticism revolved around three key points.

Firstly, history is defined by an ongoing struggle for survival which he calls historical materialism. This persisted throughout each age including the feudal or premodern period. However, with the industrial revolution and development of capitalism, Marx argued that society is organised around a quest for profit and wealth. The bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) used their power in the market to dictate terms of employment to the proletariat (the workers) and use them for surplus (profit) which Marx saw as deeply unequal. The workers were providing the labour but were not being adequately paid for their contributions to the profits of the bourgeoisie.

Secondly, and importantly, Marx argued that the state was designed to support private property (a hallmark feature of liberalism) which could realistically only be owned by the bourgeoisie. The state’s laws and order policies were orientated to protecting private property and upheld the rights of the bourgeoisie while ignoring workers’ rights. As such, the state is a critical structure in supporting deep class inequality.

Thirdly, and crucial to world politics especially post World War 2, Marx’s ideas coalesced with Engels into the development of the document The Communist Manifesto in 1848 which called for a broad movement against the bourgeoise, and capitalism generally. Importantly, the document sought for removal of ‘freedom’ as articulated by a liberal state, especially around the issue of private property, wealth, and profit.

And the abolition of this state of things is called by the bourgeois, abolition of individuality and freedom! And rightly so. The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at. (Marx & Engels, 1848, p. 23)

Overcoming the bourgeois could only be achieved through revolution hence the oft-cited phrase from them ‘workers of the world unite’. The end goal for Marx and Engels was a classless society where individuals would share common property, people would be ‘truly’ free, and inequalities that persist in liberal capitalist societies disappear. To get to this stage, however, capitalism would need to be replaced with socialism which would eventually lead to a fully communist society. In this position, people would be able to contribute to the genuine progress of society as the need for material survival through labour would be gone. Individuals would live in harmony with one another as class would be done away with.

The movement of this ideology grew and eventuated in the development of several states that identified as communist. Russia for instance, experienced a pattern of protests leading to a movement in 1905 and the eventual 1917 February Revolution which led to the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic. Eventually, led by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) who was significantly influenced by the writings of Marx, the communists took control of the government, and Russia became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Following his death in 1924 however, the USSR’s leadership transitioned to Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) whose state was opposed to Western capitalism and liberalism. Stalin quickly exiled and murdered several opponents, and transitioned the USSR into a dictatorship.

Inevitably, the USSR collapsed because of pressure from within and outside in 1991. However, the ideas of Karl Marx had made their mark on the world for numbers of years and persist today. Importantly, the divide between liberalist philosophy and communism resulted in one of the most tense periods of modern history, the Cold War. These opposing ideologies progressed the development of nuclear weapons and the eventual policies of mutually assured destruction. Nevertheless, communism did eventually collapse, and the Soviet Union dissolved into what is now known as the Russian Federation.

Several countries followed the USSR’s example developing their own approach to communist ideology, the largest being the Chinese Communist Party which established control of China in 1949 and continues to identify as communist today. Other states still identifying with communism include Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos. However, among most liberal democracies you will still find communist parties, including in Australia. Furthermore, some of the ideas of communism are found throughout other ideologies including socialism or social democracy.

🧠 Learn More: The Chinese Communist Party and the Cultural Revolution – documentary [49:44]

Socialism/Social Democracy – Social Cohesion, Equality, and Justice

One of the fundamental criticisms of Marx is that he predicted that inevitably capitalism would fail. Capitalism for Marx is too volatile destroying all that is meaningful to humanity and eventually ‘man (sic) is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind’ (cited in Harrington, 2004, p. 48). However, capitalism has not ended. In some ways it has flourished creating wealth and lifting especially developed nations out of poverty. However, that progress out of poverty has not been uniform across the world.

🛠️ Sociological Tool Kit  

Exercise: The World Population Review Poverty Index

Click through to the World Population Review poverty index to review poverty across the world. As you hover over the map and gain information on poverty data from each country, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where are the countries with the highest levels of poverty located?
  • What about the countries with the lowest levels of poverty?
  • Why do you think that poverty is this way inclined?
  • What do you think someone who comes from a Marxist tradition might say about this?

Over time therefore, socialism or social democracy has increased in response to this by altering forms of Marxist thought to align with the contemporary capitalist environment. Rather than seek to overthrow capitalism, modern socialists/social democrats seek to lift the standard of living for all, reduce the inequalities that come from an unequal distribution of wealth, eliminate poverty and homelessness, and express the importance of the collective over the individual. Unlike communist states such as the USSR and China, contemporary socialists/social democrats believe that these goals are best achieved in a democratic setting and operate mostly in states who have free and open elections.

The importance of equality is paramount to socialists and social democrats. The principle of equality of outcomes (rather than simply equality of opportunity) which seeks to ensure that all members of a society have access to opportunities for education, health care, housing and other services, is vital to this form of government. Furthermore, like Marx, socialists/social democrats are wary of the claim from liberalism that individuals should be free to flourish without intervention. They argue that this tends to favour the wealthier classes, producing heavy income inequality and leaving certain groups in society behind.

White woman in a seated pose. she is neatly dressed and wear a necklace
Figure: Photo of sociologist Beatrice Webb founder of the Fabians Society by LSE Library is in the Public Domain

One of the organisers of the group known as the Fabians and sociologist Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) argued that capitalism depresses the community or public spirit as it focusses on greed (Webb & Webb, 1970). As such, socialists/social democrats emphasise a collective responsibility that society has towards all peoples and subsequently support a large welfare system to support all.

In principle then, socialists/social democrats support a strong government (opposed to liberalism) as in order to supply services across different sectors of society, a state needs large organisations and bureaucracies to manage resources. Advocates argue that the ability to progress as a society is stifled without this strong support. A capacity to produce and advance new knowledge, ideas, skills and technologies is limited in a liberal system as it assists only those who are wealthy. Consequently, only a small number of people can actively assist in society’s progress.

One of the limitations and criticisms of socialism and social democracies was launched by eminent sociologist Anthony Giddens (1998) in his book The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. In his work, Giddens (1998) argues that socialist/social democracy had limited innovation and creativity due to over-regulation by the state on business and industry. As such, he calls for a reduction in government size, encouraging individuals to develop their business and innovate technologies and skills. In a globalised economy dominated by two trends in government, liberalism (or neoliberalism) and social democracy, Giddens (1998) argues for a smarter and ethical third approach that serves to create empowered citizens, emphasis on environmental protection, policies on equality of inclusion, a commitment to pluralism, and an emphasis on building resources through government to enhance economic competitiveness at a national level. This new form of social democracy sought not equality of outcomes, but rather equality of opportunity recognising that the global economy has made it difficult to have large government intervention. However, Giddens (1998) stresses the importance of social justice as an ethos for governing, with emphasis on the well-being of all people in society.

Giddens’ (1998) approach was significant in the United Kingdom where his social democratic renewal project influenced Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ movement which proclaimed itself as a centre-left party, leading to an election win in 1997. Earlier in the United States of America, the renewed project of social democracy enabled Bill Clinton to win the presidential race in 1993 with an approach that he deemed as ‘centrist’. Nevertheless, Giddens’ (1998) approach is also heavily criticised as favouring small government, which traditional socialists argue still only assists the wealthy. Furthermore, nations where socialism/social democracy flourishes, such as Denmark or Sweden, innovation and progress has not been stifled by strong government. These countries are among some of the richest countries in the world despite being heavily influenced by socialist/social democratic policies.

In Australia, the approach to socialism/social democracy was founded in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in their early formation in 1890 and continues to be their guiding principle today. The ALP represents what is commonly known as the left-wing of politics in Australia.

Conservatism – Tradition, Strong Government, Skepticism

Throughout the late eighteenth century, dramatic changes were happening all across Europe initiated arguably by the French Revolution (1789-1799). This movement which created impetus for rapid economic and social transformations caused some groups in society to grow uneasy and push back with a form of government called conservatism. In general terms, conservatism supports traditional ideals, values, and authorities such as the monarchy or the church. However, divisions began to appear in conservative ideology early on with some in Europe outright dismissing social change, whereas in the United States and United Kingdom, conservatives accepted that change was indeed ‘natural’ (Heywood, 2003, p. 138).

Conservatives are sceptical of the ideologies set out above as they see individuals as inherently greedy and selfish. As such, human nature under liberalism will lead to inequality in society and a lack of strong community-mindedness. Conversely, socialism is utopian and unachievable as it relies too heavily on the rational ideals of enlightenment. People, they argue, need authority that promotes shared understanding of morality and obligation to each other. People also require guidance and direction from elites, as they are the talented and knowledgeable in society. As such, conservatives advocate for large government especially in law and order, with laws designed to protect individuals.

Conservatives are deeply concerned with the increasing tendency to elevate the individual’s rights and freedoms above society (as is the case with liberalism). Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) argued that with the decline of traditional social structures (such as religion, family, community), individuals would use their democratic power to focus on their own individual needs. This would then leave minorities and others with no voice as the majority will only seek policies that improve their own lives. As such, conservatives tend to have a paternalistic approach to the state whereby people require governing to protect each other and promote a strong community structure founded on traditional institutions such as the family.

White man in a suit and tie
Figure: British Philosopher Michael Oakeshott by LSE Library is in the Public Domain

Typically, conservatives are sceptical of rapid social change as this is usually untested and the implications for society unknown. Social theorist Michael Oakeshott (1962, p. 169) illustrates this in the following;

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

This is not to suggest that conservatives do not believe in social change. As noted earlier, this is important to a society and inevitable. However, dramatic large changes to structures like the family, community, and traditions, inevitably cause disruption which could break down the strong bonds that we feel attached to within society. Changes ought to be small, ensure that society remains strongly committed to a mutual obligation towards one another, and have no detrimental impact on different groups or individuals. Hence, conservatives often oppose significant change such as same-sex marriage, gender-identity legislation, and abortion.

As noted, the paternalistic approach from conservatives means that they oppose liberalist thought on allowing individual freedom, but also critique socialist thought on regulation of the economy. Rather, conservatives tend to advocate for strong laws to govern and promote moral obligation of individuals to society, while also ensuring individuals have the ability to grow and succeed in the economy. As such, conservatives at times will promote policies that ensure everyone is given access to opportunity and support a stronger welfare state than liberalism does. However, in recent times, a new form of conservatism has arisen that aligns traditional ideas around authority with liberal ideas around economy. This is described as neoliberalism.

🧠 Learn More: ‘Rediscovering Conservatism’ with author Yoram Hazony

In the following interview with the Hoover Institution [1:11:35], learn about academic Yoram Hazony’s attempt to rediscover conservatism’s roots with his book Rediscovering Conservatism.

 Neoliberalism – Individualism, Responsibility, and Free Markets

A term that you will hear often within sociology texts in contemporary times is that of neoliberalism. As a general definition, neoliberalism refers to a political ideology that combines the free market and governance ideals of liberalism, with the parts of the values of conservativism. It can be summarised as an ideology that supports free market economics while maintaining support for traditional values such as the family.

Neoliberalist ideas can be traced back to the governments of US President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990). Both leaders saw a need to increase the economic conditions of their respective countries and did so through a series of reforms that dramatically changed structures in society. This included deregulation of trade to increase competitiveness, the selling of publicly owned resources to private entities such as electricity, airlines, banking and mining, the reduction of welfare systems and expenditure, and a general move to smaller government, or in other words a reduction in the public service. Like liberalism, neoliberalism believes that the economy needs to be free from government intervention to flourish. Important contributors to this idea, such as Austrian-British economist Fredrick Hayek (1899-1992), argued that socialism acted to suppress innovation, individualism and human ingenuity. For him, only the free market, one without intervention from the government, would lead to the improvement of society and genuine wealth creation for all. By limiting regulation and increasing competition, markets are also freed from potential monopolisation (one company dominating industries), lowering costs for consumers, and increasing choices.

Neoliberals seek to increase the wealth of their society by increasing opportunities for companies to do business elsewhere, including overseas. By removing tariffs, regulations and laws regarding taxation in regards to trade, the argument is that businesses will have greater access to other people, and thus increase their profits. These profits will then benefit local economies as more people will be employed, wages will increase, and eventually this will trickle down to the poor lifting them out of poverty.

Unlike liberalism, however, neoliberalism is stronger in certain areas of social governance and like conservativism tends to hold to traditional values. This is especially true in the case of law and order, as neoliberals argue that individuals need to be responsible for their own welfare and not reliant on the state. As such, neoliberalism places significant emphasis on public services in making individuals responsible. The argument here is mostly a moral one and can be summed up in the question – why should the community be responsible for the welfare of others? Subsequently, different laws and agencies have arisen in the neoliberal system to ensure people are responsible for their own lives.

A good example of this is the rise of child support systems in Western countries around the world. While in the past welfare systems would support single parents in their situations of raising children, neoliberal governments have argued that parents ought to be responsible for the economic support of their own children. As such, laws have been enacted that limit how much financial welfare a sole parent can obtain from the state, while also ensuring that the parent not living with the children provide money to support – hence the name child support. Public services like the Child Support Agency here in Australia hold significant power in this domain with the ability to force parents to pay their child support through a range of measures. The ethos of the agency is to make individuals responsible. This ethos is found across several welfare, health, and community services now.

Neoliberalism also opposes the union movement arguing that it restricts individual freedom to be rewarded for their innovation, skills, and abilities. People should be able to negotiate their own employment conditions with their employer, and not be beholden to a broader collective bargaining agreement usually organised between employers and trade unions. Wages or salaries therefore can be agreed upon individually – whereas in an enterprise bargaining agreement, levels are set collectively regardless of individual differences within certain levels.

Critics of this approach to governance emphasise the inability of deregulation to add wealth to the whole of society. Specifically, extremely rich people can increase their profits without this wealth trickling down into the rest of society. Furthermore, critics argue that cutting back public expenditure leads to detrimental impacts on society removing safeguards for those with few resources. This includes long-term unemployment, poverty, ill health and increased income inequality within a society. Critics argue that all people should have access to services that will potentially improve their lives and increase their chances of overcoming structural issues like poverty.

In Summary

This chapter introduces a range of issues related to questions of political sociology that include power, social control, identity and ideologies.

  • The nation-state is one of the most important structures to study given it has significant power in our current age.
  • The nation-state is made up primarily of politicians, bureaucracies in public services, policing, judicial systems, social security and health care.
  • Ideologies (see below) play a significant role in shaping how these components of the nation-state operate for the public.
  • Power is well discussed in sociology. Max Weber considered authority, however, to be more important than power with its different styles of authority (traditional, charismatic, rational-legal).
  • How the state’s power in a democracy is experienced by the public is also contested. Pluralists believe that all groups share power in democracy whereas elitists argue that only a small portion have real power.
  • Australian sociologist Michael Pusey argues that power is actually held in Australia by a small pocket of public servants who are unelected but wield significant influence.
  • Different ideologies exist that govern politics – conservatism, social democracy, socialism, liberalism and neoliberalism. Each has different perspectives on how to govern society, and there are significant examples across the world for all.


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