Steven Michael Lukes is the author of numerous books and articles about political and social theory. Currently he is a professor of sociology at New York University. He was formerly a fellow in politics and sociology at Balliol College, Oxford. He was then, in turn, a professor of political and social theory at the European University Institute, Florence, of moral philosophy at the University of Siena and of sociology at the London School of Economics.
His first major work was a full-length study of the life and ideas of Emile Durkheim and he retains a keen interest in the Durkheimian tradition in sociology and anthropology. He then published a study of the history and diverse meanings of the concept of ‘individualism.’ His interests include political sociology, focusing on the study of power; political theory and philosophy; Marxism and other socialist traditions; philosophy of the social sciences; the history of ideas, in particular the political thought of Condorcet; political humour and satire; and, most recently, the sociology of morals, his current preoccupation.
Lukes’s best-known, still controversial academic theory is his so-called ‘radical’ view of power. It can be simply stated. It claims there are three dimensions of power. The first is overt power, typically exhibited in the presence of conflict in decision-making situations, where power consists in winning, that is prevailing over another or others. The second is covert power, consisting in control over what gets decided, by ignoring or deflecting existing grievances. And the third is the power to shape desires and beliefs, thereby averting both conflict and grievances. The first is the most public of the three and is how the powerful usually want to be seen: for instance, the power of political leaders to make policy decisions after widespread consultation with opposition parties and the wider public. The second is the power to control agendas. It has been called the ‘mobilization of bias,’ reinforcing the powerful by excluding threatening issues from discussion in public forums. The third kind of power can be the most insidious. It is the most hidden from view—the least accessible to observation by social actors and observers alike. It can be at work, despite apparent consensus between the powerful and the powerless. It is the power to influence people’s wishes and thoughts, inducing them to want things opposed to what would benefit them and to fail to want what they would, but for such power, recognize to be in their real interests.
He is a member of the editorial board of the European Journal of Sociology and a fellow of the British Academy.