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Learning Objectives

Looking Ahead


This unit continues considering the sociological analysis of social institutions. First, it studies politics, its sources and basic types of government in a political system. Special attention is given to political socialization and citizens' participation in political life. The question «Who does rule in a society?» is posed and models of power structure are contrasted. Then, the unit examines the economic classification of societies and modern economic systems with particular emphasis on the rise of multinational corporations and their negative impact on the economic and political life of both industrialized and developing nations.

After studying this unit, you should be able to answer the following questions:

1. How are systems of power and authority organized?

2. How does a democracy differ from a totalitarian state?

3. How do we acquire our political beliefs?

4. Who does rule in a society?

5. How do capitalism and socialism differ as ideal types?

6. What impact do multinational corporations have on the world's industrialized and developing nations?

A political system is a cultural universal and a social institution formed in every society. Each society must have a political system because polities is deciding who gets what, when and how.

Power is at the heart of a political system, for it is defined as the ability to exercise one's will ever others. Power relations can involve large organizations, small groups, or even people in an intimate association.

There are three basic sources of power within any political system — force, influence and authority.Force is the actual or threatened use of coercion to impose one's will on others. When leaders imprison or even execute political dissidents, they are applying force; so, too, are terrorists when they seize an embassy or assassinate a political leader.

Influence, on the other hand, refers to the exercise of power through a process of persuasion. A citizen may change his or her political position because of the newspaper editorial, an expert testimony, or a stirring speech at a rally by a political activist.

The termauthority refers to power that has been institutionalized and is recognized by the people over whom it is exercised. Sociologists commonly use this term in connection with those who hold legitimate power through elected or publicly acknowledged positions.

Each society establishes a political system by which it is governed. In modern industrial societies there are five basic types of government:

monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship, totalitarianism and democracy.

A monarchy is a form of government headed by a single member of a royal family, usually a king, or a queen. At present, monarchs hold true governmental power in only a few nations, such as Monaco. Most monarchs have little practical power and primarily serve ceremonial purposes.

An oligarchy is a form of government in which a few individuals rule. Today, it usually takes the form either of military rule, like in the developing nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America, or of a ruling group as is the case with the Communist Parties of some countries in Europe and Asia, the Soviet Union including.

A dictatorship is a government in which one person has nearly total power to make and enforce laws. Typically, dictators seize power by force and are usually bitterly hated by the population over whom they rule with an iron hand.

Frequently, dictatorships develop such overwhelming control over people's lives that they are called totalitarian.Totalitarianism involves complete governmental control over all aspects of social and political life in a society. Both Nazi Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union after the October Revolution are classified as totalitarian states.

Political scientists have identified six basic characteristics of a totalitarian state: 1) Large-scale use of ideology. 2) One-party system. 3) Control of weapons. 4) Terror. 5) Control of the media. 6) Control of the economy. Through such methods totalitarian governments have complete control over people's destinies.

In a literal sense,democracy means government by the people. The word «democracy» is originated in two Greek roots — «demos», meaning «the common people», and «kratia», meaning «rule». Of course, it would be impossible for all the people of a country to vote on every important issue that comes about. Consequently, democracies are generally maintained through a mode of participation known as representative democracy, in which certain individuals are selected to speak for the people.

Each society has its own ways of governing itself and making decisions, and each generation must be encouraged to accept a society's basic political values and its particular methods of decision making. Political socialization is the process by which individuals acquire political attitudes and develop patterns of political behavior.

The principal institutions of political socialization are the family, schools, and the media. Many observers see the family as playing a particularly significant role in this process, as parents views have an important impact on their children's outlook. The schools can be influential in political socialization, too, since they provide young people with information and analysis of the political world. All societies, even democracies, use educational institutions for this purpose and political education generally reflects the norms and values of the prevailing political order. Like the family and schools, the mass media can have obvious effects on people's thinking and political behavior. Today, many speeches given by a nation's leaders are designed not for immediate listeners, but for the larger television audience. Yet, a number of studies have reported that the media do not tend to influence the masses of people directly. Messages passed through the media first reach a small number of opinion leaders including teachers, religious authorities, and community activists, and later, these leaders «spread the word» to others over whom they have influence.

In theory, a representative democracy functions most effectively if the majority of its citizens gets involved in the political process. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case in our contemporary societies. Though the majority is familiar with the basics of the political life, but, only a small minority (often members of the higher social classes) actually participates in political organizations on a local or national level.

Sociologists note that people are more likely to participate actively in political life if they feel that they have the ability to influence politicians and the political order. In addition, citizens are willing to become involved if they trust political leaders or feel that an organized political party represents their interests. Without question, in an age marked by revelation of political corruption at the highest level, many members of all social groups feel powerless and distrustful. As a result, many view political participation, including voting at presidential elections, as a waste of time.

When we speak about models of power structure, it is important to answer the following questions: Who really holds power in a society? Do «we the people» really run the country through elected representatives? Or is there a small elite of people that governs behind the scenes? It is difficult to determine the location of power in a society as complex as modern industrial ones. In exploring these critical questions, social scientists have developed two basic views of a nation's power structure: the elite and the pluralist models.

The elite modelisa view of society as ruled by a small group of individuals who share a common set of political and economic interests. Very often it isthe power elite, if all power — industrial, military, governmental — rests in the hands of a few who control the fate of a state. Some sociologists do not fully accept this power elite model and suggest that, in this case, a society is run and controlled by a social upper class, that isa ruling class that exercises the dominant role in politics, economy and government. By contrast,the pluralist modelis a view of society in which many conflicting groups within a community have access to governmental officials and compete with one another in an attempt to influence policy decisions.

Without question, the pluralist and elite models have little in common and each describes a dramatically different distribution of power. Yet, each model offers an accurate picture of the political life in contemporary society. Power in various areas rests in the hands of a small number of citizens (elite view), yet within contemporary society there are a great number of political institutions and agencies with differing ideas and interests (pluralist model). Thus, we may end this discussion with one common point of the elite and pluralist perspective — power in a contemporary political system is unequally distributed; all citizens may be equal in theory, yet those high in a nation's power structure are «more equal».