political parties

Formal organizations for representing the aims and interests of different socio-economic forces in the political sphere-although not all societies have a party-political system of government. Political parties are the organizational means by which candidates for office are recruited and ideologies are propagated. Parties seek to organize and dominate the organs of government and to provide national leadership.
Party systems also take a variety of different forms, from the multi-party system at one extreme, to the one-party monopolistic state at the other. Multi-party systems (often with two principal parties) are strong in liberal democratic societies like Britain, the United States, France, and Germany, while the dominance of one political party is especially evident in African countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe. It has been suggested that the type of party system is linked to the stage of development of a society, but local historical and political factors are probably more important in influencing the type of system that emerges.
Political sociologists have focused on political parties as organizations and studied their organizational dynamics. Issues of interest include the socio-economic background of leaders, activists, and supporters; the socio-political ideologies espoused by parties; the distribution of power between the different collectivities embraced by the party organization; and the techniques for mobilizing support. A major pioneering study of political parties was conducted by the German sociologist Robert Michels . In his study of organizational power, he noted the oligarchical tendencies of party leaders and officials who come to dominate the party, as it becomes increasingly bureaucratic . Their beliefs and attitudes, directed towards their own personal goals, are invariably less radical than those of rank-and-file members. Furthermore, where organizational procedures are used to stifle popular aspirations, radical objectives are inhibited. However, evidence from research elsewhere suggests that the oligarchical tendencies of party leaders should not be overstated, especially in accounts of the institutionalization of political parties.
Political scientists have also explored the role of parties in the political process and the extent to which different political regimes may be described as open or closed. The liberal view is that political parties, along with pressure groups and other interest groups , engage in competition for power as the representatives of different socio-economic groups in society. As a result of open competition, power in pluralist political systems is non-cumulative and shared. This benign view of the role of political parties in liberal democracies has been the subject of much criticism. It has been argued that certain groups dominate the political decision-making process-most obviously those who dominate in the economic realm. Furthermore, while observable party politics is worthy of study, the more subtle forms of power (such as agenda-setting) should not be ignored. Thus, while liberals emphasize the important role of political parties in representative democracies, neo-Marxists play down their significance. In capitalist societies, it is argued, since the dominant economic power is also the ruling class, parliamentary politics is illusory, and simply an ideological strategy which diverts attention away from the real sources of political power.
Many have argued that this Marxist view of political parties and power is at least as unsophisticated as the liberal alternative. True, power may be concentrated, but it is possible for the views of ordinary people to influence political outcomes. In this respect, political parties are not inconsequential, and play an important role in the political sphere of advanced capitalist societies.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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