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Summary Article: Elitism
from International Encyclopedia of Political Science

The etymology of the word elite (occasionally spelled élite) comes from the Latin eligere (to elect). In general usage, an elite is a relatively small dominant group or social category of people who occupy a position of privilege or dominance and have a privileged status within a larger society. To examine the “elite” category in political science is to take up a fundamental question—that of defining the group or groups that hold “power” in a social system, that is, those who have a dominating influence on the definition and the carrying out of public decisions. The question of who holds power in modern societies is generally dealt with from three different theoretical standpoints: (1) elitism, (2) pluralism, and (3) Marxism. From an elitist perspective, power belongs to an elite that is rather united. Pluralists, on the other hand, consider that there is no single ruling class but rather a plurality of ruling groups that alternate between cooperation and confrontation. According to Marxists, power in capitalist societies is monopolized by a dominant class—the bourgeoisie—and its auxiliaries. Here, domination is concealed by ideology.

Theories of Elitism

The concept of the elite was first introduced by Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), an Italian economist, sociologist, and senator. A firm believer in economic liberalism and an adversary of socialism, he aimed at challenging the Marxist conception of class struggle. In 1901, he published Rivista italiana di sociologica, a famous text later translated as The Rise and Fall of the Elites: An Application of Theoretical Sociology (1968), and in 1916 he published Trattato di Sociologia Generale, later translated as The Mind and Society (1935). He defined members of the elite as people with exceptional virtues who show distinguished abilities in any domain. Being part of the elite therefore depends on individual capacities and natural talent that lead to above-average success.

Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941) had previously worked on a very similar theory, although not explicitly using the concept of elite. A professor of public law, and deputy and then life senator of the former Kingdom of Italy, he wrote the first version of Elementi di scienza politica in 1896 (The Ruling Class, 1939). He further developed the notion of the “ruling class” and the idea that all societies are based on a distinction between the ruled and rulers. According to Mosca, the former is always an organized minority that takes on all political responsibilities, monopolizes power, and enjoys all the subsequent advantages. The latter, always greater in number, is led and controlled by the rulers, who act more or less legally and sometimes violently.

The German socialist Roberto Michels (1876-1936) is also among the elitist authors. A pupil of Max Weber, he studied in England, France, Germany, and Italy, where he taught economics and political science. After World War I, he joined Mussolini's Fascist party, whose ideals he perceived as a more democratic form of socialism. In 1911, he published Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. Untersichungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens (Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies, 1915). His premise was that the masses lacked the “mechanical and technical” capacity to govern themselves. According to Michels, a society cannot exist without a dominant class because leadership is technically indispensable to the survival of organizations. The principle of his “iron law of oligarchy” is that one dominant class inevitably succeeds to leadership in an organization, as the collective psychological characteristics of both masses and elites make the leaders of any organization become concerned above all with remaining in office and strengthening their control over the organization.

In 1941, when his seminal work The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World was published, James Burnham (1905-1987) had already left the American Socialist Workers Party and was soon to serve as a public intellectual of the American conservative movement. Burnham argued that the 19th-century bourgeoisie has been replaced since World War I by a “social group or class,” which he called “managers.” They control the management, the leadership, and the coordination of the economy. But these managers are not capitalists as they do not own, finance, or have a major share in the company. Thus, the main difference between the ruling elite and the masses does not lie in ownership as much as in the control of the means of production, in particular through knowledge and technical competence. According to Burnham, managers do not seek profits so much as they seek power itself, their incentive being more political than economic. They do not distinguish between corporate and state ownership, and their oligarchy holds power in both capitalist and socialist regimes.

These four authors are sometimes called the “Machiavellians,” as they are deemed to convey a pessimistic and cynical view of the world. They defend the idea of the autonomy of politics toward economic infrastructure and give a prominent position to political factors (and not economic ones), as their main interest lies in power, not in ownership.

Usually defined as one of the elitist authors, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) opposed both Marxism (and its principle that power is based on the ownership of the means of production) and the liberal version defended by the previous authors (in particular, the idea of an autonomous political order). Mills (1956) showed that in the United States, the main decisions are made by an elite composed of the people at the top of the three big institutional hierarchies (political, military, and economic elites) that form a “triangle of power.” These major institutional orders are interdependent and interlocked, and their members share a common worldview and a class identity (they consider themselves as being separate and superior to the rest of the society).

Similarly, the American professor of psychology and sociology G. William Domhoff (1936-) argued in his 1967 book Who Rules America? that there exists a ruling class in the United States that is the elite and in it is concentrated the major part of national wealth; it controls the major companies and the main banks; runs the foundations, universities, and media; and therefore leads the country's economy. According to Domhoff, those who own income-producing property (corporations, real estate, and agribusinesses) set the rules within which policy battles are waged. For him, economy is the only power network of any consequence in the history of the United States. Floyd Hunter (1953) reached similar conclusions about power at the local level. He examined in detail the power relationships in Atlanta, Georgia, where he found that the city was led by a small and homogeneous elite and that “real” decisions were made by a corporate oligarchy.

Elites' Circulation

The notion of elites' circulation is central to elitist theories. According to Pareto, because being part of the elite is not hereditary, there is a constant replacement of old elites by new ones via the circulation of individuals, a process that enables a certain social equilibrium (and prevents revolution). This continuous replacement of one elite by another is the driving force behind history. Mosca further developed Pareto's theory of elites' circulation, claiming that modern democratic societies enabled a high degree of upward social mobility. For these authors, hereditary inequalities are secondary and affect elites' circulation only marginally. Individual capacities are indeed necessary to remain part of the elite, given the fierce individual competition at stake.

According to Mills, the interlocking nature of the power elite allows for interchange between different sorts of institutions, maintaining and strengthening the power of each. But circulation is confined to the “three bigs,” among which it is easy to move frequently given the shared interests and origins of the rulers. In the same vein, the French political sociologist Pierre Birnbaum (1940-) holds that there is interpenetration and a never-ending circulation within this socially and culturally homogeneous ruling space (Birnbaum, 1978).

Criticisms of Theories on Elitism
The Pluralist View

Strongly inspired by Weber's work, supporters of pluralist analysis believe that public policy is the result of interactions between the players and various competing groups situated both inside and outside the sphere of the state. No particular group, or elite, can occupy a constant and far-reaching dominant position.

Robert Alan Dahl (1915-) strongly opposes Mills's and Domhoff's views on the nature of politics in the United States. Dahl holds that far from being unitary and demographically narrow, the elites are numerous and autonomous, and alternate between competition and compromises. According to his polyarchy model, no elite dominates, which makes compromises and negotiations necessary. His 1961 study of the formal and informal power structures in New Haven, Connecticut, where the University of Yale is located, supports this view. This analysis can also be found in Aaron Wildavsky (1930-1993) who examined local decisions made in Oberlin, Ohio. In his 1964 book, Leadership in a Small Town, he concludes that the structure of power is pluralistic and that according to the nature of the problems at stake, different groups will lead and rule at the local level.

According to the French sociologist, political scientist, philosopher, and journalist Raymond Aron (1905-1983), power is structured in a very complex way in modern societies (Aron, 1950). He distinguishes the political elite from five ruling categories: those who hold “spiritual power” and influence the ways of thinking and believing (priests, intellectuals, scientists and scholars, and ideologists), army and police chiefs, managers of collective work (those who own or control the means of production), mass leaders (at the head of trade unions or political parties), and senior civil servants who hold administrative power. In modern societies, these categories are highly competitive.

The Marxist Thesis

Marxist theory is based on an economic analysis according to which power is held by the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, who also monopolize political power and control the state apparatus. According to Marxists, economic factors play a prominent role; the state, far from being neutral, is a means of political domination in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

According to Marxists, pluralists conceal reality by substantiating the liberal illusion of an autonomous political order. They give credence to the idea of state neutrality and mask the true nature of state power as well as class struggle. Marxists also criticize Mills's elitism for not being based on the ownership of the means of production. Elitists in general are criticized for focusing on political domination and failing to identify it with the economic class that owns the means of production. This criticism is in particular supported by the Greco-French political sociologist Nicos Poulantzas (1937-1979), who rejected the very notion of elite in Pouvoir politique et classes sociales (1968), published in English as Political Power and Social Classes (1973). He disagreed with another Marxist political theorist and sociologist, Ralph Miliband (1924-1994), a friend of Mills, who claimed that the notion of elite was relevant and that Marxists could even admit the plurality of elites. Besides being diverse, these elites all belong to the same dominant social class and share the same social origins, the same networks, and the same ideology.

Elites and Socialization

For a theorist such as Mills, leaders share the same origins, the same interests, and the same education and training. Their solidarity stems from their “social similarities and psychological affinities,” in which their common training plays a critical role as the basis for permanent alliances of power and for strategic marriages and other affiliations. According to Domhoff (1967), educational institutions participate in the reproduction of the power of the wealthy few. Schools and universities are indeed developed by the upper class and are filled with their children, who are socialized in an upper-class worldview along with the newly wealthy people who are assimilated there. The primarily White and Protestant elite of the Ivy League that he identifies as being dominant in all fields hold a common vision of society and “what must be done” to govern. This homogeneity is linked to a homologous socialization (same schools, same social circles, etc.) and to their easy access to positions of power both in and out of the government.

Education is also critical in the reproduction of the social order, according to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). He showed that elites are able to reproduce themselves, that is, pass on their privileges to their offspring, even in the ostensibly most meritocratic social fields, such as education. The educational system enables children from the dominant class to obtain the best diplomas and thus gain access to dominant social positions. At the same time, the system legitimizes their academic achievement by linking it to individual and natural gifts, concealing its social origins (Bourdieu, 1996).

Education and Monopolization of Power Positions

According to Birnbaum (in Madeleine Grawitz & Jean Leca, 1985), the differentiation between state and society, which is greater or smaller depending on the country and the time period, may account for both the contours of the elite or elites involved in the making of public decisions and the extent of their power. Thus, for example, in the case of France, at least since 1945, the combination of a protean state intervention and networks for the education and selection of elites in a few prestigious state “grandes écoles” have contributed to the quasi-monopolization of ruling positions by those belonging to the highest levels of the engineering and administrative fields (Ezra Suleiman, 1978). This tendency was mainly reinforced by the relative weakness of intermediary bodies, employers' organizations, and trade unions and, from the 1960s onward, by a process of political “technocratization,” that is, the access to positions of political responsibility by high-ranking civil servants. The fact that these situations were not called into question undoubtedly contributed to the legitimization of an ultimately hegemonic organization of power distribution.

If one believes that the place occupied by the elite(s) varies according to the problems presented and the time period concerned, then the beginning of the crisis of the French model of public policies in the 1970s had a significant effect on the elitist structures. Members of the state nobility still occupy the majority of the dominant positions in the field of public service and continue to be the main players. The ability of the administrative elite to move easily from one social group to another (e.g., to hold directorial positions in large private firms) allows them to continue to capture a lot of power, even if they are not in power. But a state's fall into a crisis, on both ideological and practical levels, is also accompanied by the promotion of new elites who are supposed to embody new ways of defining public policy. The more competitive nature of the decision-making networks, the introduction of private sector-inspired management models into public administration, Europeanization, and even the globalization of issues, and thus of procedures, are directly contrary to a unified, monistic conception of power. Administrative elites are thus beginning to be seriously challenged by corporate actors such as private consultants, who have been educated in the same “grandes écoles” and impose themselves as experts on public sector matters, as in other countries (Canada, the United States, or the United Kingdom) where their success has been much quicker (Denis Saint-Martin, 2001).

The Concept of Elite and the Issue of Democracy

Most authors agree on the fact that democracy is an illusion and impossible to achieve. According to Roberto Michels, history is led by elites' struggle for power. His idea of the iron law of oligarchy was the result of his analysis of leadership patterns in democratic governments and in other organizations, such as trade unions. According to this law, the overthrow of any elite by the masses will eventually lead to such oligarchical leadership. Michels, therefore, refutes the possibility of the existence of an ideal democracy. For the supporters of classical elitist theories, the existence of elites at all times and places is a natural phenomenon because of unequal distribution of talent, wealth, and political influence in society.

According to Mills, the great masses of people are largely unorganized, ill informed, virtually powerless, and controlled and manipulated by the powerful elite who exploit them both economically and politically. Their dependence and disorganization prevent the masses from participating in democratic life. Above the masses, Mills saw a middle level of power (composed of local opinion leaders and special interest groups) that is reflected in the U.S. Congress and in U.S. political parties. But they not only fail to represent the masses but also have no real effect on the elites, who leave them to debate and decide some minor issues, as long as they do not represent a serious challenge to their authority. The political directorate itself is described as undemocratic in both the process of its selection and its maintenance. Moreover, Mills believed that widespread alienation of the masses, their political indifference, and the economic and political concentration of power are serious threats to democracy. The U.S. political scientist Harold Dwight Lasswell (1902-1978), who also used both power and control of hierarchies as elements in identifying elites, insisted on the critical importance of legitimacy. In his 1930 book Psychopathology and Politics, he held that the extent of elites' positions of authority is determined by the reactions of the public toward those who hold power. The existence of political elites depends on the legitimacy of their authority “in the eyes of the people.”

Pluralists do not believe in the ideal of democracy either. For Dahl (1989), it is a theoretical utopia. But Dahl sees polyarchical institutions as a major improvement as they create multiple and autonomous centers of political powers where decisions can be made through competition, bargaining, and compromises.

Marxists also view liberal democracy as an unrealistic utopia. According to them, the capitalist state is inherently undemocratic as it represents the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The fact that intermediary powers such as the media and most political parties need the support of the bourgeoisie to win elections makes the system intrinsically undemocratic. Vladimir Lenin asserted in The State and Revolution (1917) that the dictatorship of the proletariat would be the highest possible form of democracy.

Broadening and Completing the Analysis

In other respects, the development of research on the structuring of public decisions and their practical implementation has led to a better understanding of the role played by the elite. The classic idea that it is the position held that infers the power now appears to be a necessary but insufficient condition. Research on the sociology of elites conducted in the 1960s and 1970s remains quite relevant when it comes to describing the social and educational resources required to hold a position of influence and/or power. On the other hand, since the 1980s, developments in sociology of public policy have allowed for the reexamination of at least three avenues of research:

  1. Public decisions are made in an often competitive and uncertain context. Holding a position objectively seen as being dominant does not guarantee the ability to effectively develop a given public policy. If the "dominators" remain dominant, they must exercise their authority more often than in the past and bargain to keep it.

  2. Exerting a direct influence on the definition of a public policy does not necessarily mean that the policy, once implemented, will not be the object of various and sometimes unexpected reappropriations that can ultimately produce concrete results that are quite different from what the producers intended.

  3. To understand public policies through the eyes of an elite(s), one must go beyond the question of specific interests to take into account the values, world visions, and, more generally, the knowledge that together play a role in the framing of political exchanges and decision making.

One of the major contributions of the sociology of the players and the studies of “street-level bureaucracy” (Michael Lipsky, 1980) or middle-ranking officials (Herbert Kauffman, 1960; Page, 2003) who carry out the wishes of the administrative elite is to show that public policies are shaped and designed during the implementation process by people with low- or middle-range powers. In short, the elitist approach to public policy, since it expresses a global point of view, can be supplemented and enriched by a more microsociological perspective that provides a better explanation of public policies in action and thus proposes a re-reading of elitist theories in the negative.

See also:

Class, Social, Elites, Oligarchy, Political Socialization, Power

Further Readings
  • Aron, R. Social structure and the ruling class. British Journal of Sociology, 1 : , 1950.
  • Bourdieu, P.1996 The state nobility: Elite schools in the field of power [La Noblesse d'Etat: Grandes écoles et esprit de corps, 1989]. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Burnham, J.1941 The managerial revolution: What is happening in the world. New York: John Day.
  • Dahl, R. A.1961 Who governs? Democracy and power in an American city. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Dahl, R. A.1989, Democracy and its critics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Domhoff, W.1967 Who rules America? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Kaufman, H.2006 The forest ranger: A study in administrative behavior. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future. (Original work published 1960).
  • Lasswell, H.1930 Psychopathology and politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lipsky, M.1980 Street-level bureaucracy: The dilemmas of individuals in public services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Michels, R.1915 Political parties: A sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracies (Paul, E. & Paul, C., Trans., from Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie. Untersichungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens, 1911). New York: Hearst International.
  • Mills, C. W.1956 The power elite. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Mosca, G.1939 The ruling class [Elementi di Scienza Politica, 1896]. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Page, E. C. The civil servant as legislator: Law making in British administration. Public Administration, 81 : , 2003.
  • Pareto, V.1935 The mind and society. New York: Harcourt Brace.
  • Pareto, V.1968 The rise and fall of the elites: An application of theoretical sociology [Un applicazione die teorie sociologiche, Rivista Italiana dieSociologia, 1901, 402-456]. Totowa, NJ: Bedminster Press.
  • Poulantzas, N.1973 Political power and social classes [Pouvoir politique et classes sociales, 1968]. London: New Left Books.
  • Saint-Martin, D.2001 Building the new managerialist state: Consultants and the politics of public sector reform in comparative perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Scott, J.1991 Who rules Britain? London: Polity Press.
  • Suleiman, E.1978 Elites in French society: The politics of survival. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Wildavsky, A.1964 Leadership in a small town. Totowa, NJ: Bedminster Press.
  • Mathiot, Pierre
    Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille Lille, France Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille Lille, France
    Gervais, Julie
    Triangle Centre for Political Research, CNRS Lyon, France Triangle Centre for Political Research, CNRS Lyon, France
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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