Community power structure refers to the distribution of power at the local community level. There are numerous empirical studies to discover the nature of the distribution of power at community level.Among these community studies two categories can be clearly identified one supporting the major contention of the elite thesis and the other refuting the elitist argument and replacing it by what is known as the Pluralist Thesis.
Lloyd Hunter's Community Power Structure based on the study of distribution of power in Atlantic is a prominent study in the elitist tradition. Hunter's study was based on reputational approach. He made a preliminary list of 175 leaders who held formal important positions in politics, business and civic organizations and have reputation for leadership. Then he selected the panel of 14 judges representing religious, business and professional interest and asked them to select those who in their eyes are the top leaders. The result showed that half of these leaders were upper-class businessmen. The empirical study confirms the elitist thesis that a clear defined group of decision makers can be identified who are highly organized and who decisively dominate the public life of the organized and who decisively dominate the public life of the city.
Pluralists led by Robert Dahl have challenged the main elitist contention that a society is marked by the existence of a single centre of political power. They argued that in a society there are multiple centers of political power none of which are completely sovereign. The decision making maybe done by few but then this decision making cannot be understood except within the context of a continuous bargaining process among the elites and also of a general consensus established only through the mass approval which is hard to secure.
Further continuing his criticism of the elite model he argued that the elite theory confuses potential control with actual control. He agrees that it is quite possible that a group in the society has a very high potential for control. But that does not automatically make this group very powerful since the actual power of a group is established not only by a high potential for control but also by a high potential for nuclearity.Next according to Dahl the elite theories disregarded the fact that there may be different scopes of power and that a group having a high degree of influence over one scope may not necessarily have the same degree of influence over another scope within the same system.
Dahl selected three distinct decisions -areas covering urban development, public schools and political nominations. Within each area he studied a number of decisions thus he picks up three categories of political leaders which are political notables ,social notables and economic notables and enquires whether each of these groups participate in decision-making only in one or in all of the three issue areas. He takes as the sign of power the ability to successfully initiate or veto the proposals for policies. After examining all the available data Dahl admits that the in The New Haven a tiny group the leaders exert great influence on individuals who are influential in one sector of public activity are found not to be influential in another sector and further leaders exerting influence in different issue areas do not come to be drawn from a single homogenous stratum of the community.
Dahl's pluralist model has been subjected to severe criticisms. Firstly the model wrongly locates power in concrete decisions or in activities having direct bearing on decision making. He ignores the fact that power is also exercised in creating and reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues that are comparatively harmless to the interest of the powerful. Thus the powerful groups may never let these issues which affect their vital interests come to the stage of public decision making. Thus Dahl's model fails to differentiate the unimportant issues arising in the political arena.