Political Elites Research Paper

Custom Writing Services

Sample Political Elites Research Paper. Browse other  research paper examples and check the list of research paper topics for more inspiration. If you need a religion research paper written according to all the academic standards, you can always turn to our experienced writers for help. This is how your paper can get an A! Feel free to contact our research paper writing service for professional assistance. We offer high-quality assignments for reasonable rates.

The question of who rules is always central to political science precisely because power is never evenly distributed. At any given time, some individuals and subgroups in society will have more power than others. While most non-Marxist theorists tend to agree that concentrations of power are inevitable, their understandings of how individuals or groups gain, maintain, and distribute influence differ widely. Further, despite the common usage of the term elite, theorists fail to agree on an appropriate definition.

Need a Custom-Written Essay or a Research Paper?

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Some descriptions of elites focus on the role and effectiveness of a society’s leaders. Suzanne Keller, for example, defines elites as ‘a minority of individuals designated to serve a collectivity in a socially valued way’ (1963, p. 4). Alternatively, Eva Etzioni-Halevy (1993), following in the tradition of Lasswell (1936), Lasswell and Kaplan (1950), and Sartori (1976), grounds her definition of elites in terms of distribution of resources, explaining that ‘resources are mostly (though not exclusively) accumulated in organizations, and elites are thus mostly (though not exclusively) people who control such resources through incumbency of certain top positions in organizations’ (p. 221). Taking still another tack Dogan and Higley define political elites as ‘the holders of strategic positions in powerful organizations including dissident ones, who are able to affect national political outcomes regularly’ (1998, p. 15, Dogan 1989). In their view it is elite adjustment and compromise which creates stable political orders, even under conditions in which the population as a whole is characterized by sharp ethnic and cultural divisions, a perspective which is shared by Luther and Deschouwer (1999).

Etzioni-Halevy’s definition, which we follow in this research paper, allows analysts to include among elites, movements which are attempting to change the structure of leadership in the social and/or political order. Thus African Americans holding important positions in, say, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) will be included among political elites.

1. The Study Of Elites

Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941), and to a lesser extent, Roberto Michels (1876–1936) developed the underpinnings of modern elite theory. In part they were reacting to a Marxist analysis which insisted that, in bourgeois society, basic divisions occurred between two social classes, the bourgeoisie and the industrial workers (Pareto 1935, Mosca 1939, Michels 1915). Politics and political power were perceived as effects of these arrangements. Formal or nominal political leaders of all societies were agents of the dominant class and were not free to act on their own in any but matters of relatively little consequence. By the late twentieth century, Marxists had changed their orientation somewhat, allowing the state and political leadership some freedom to act upon a few important matters, but Marxist theory, even in its present tattered form continues, basically, to urge the dominance of economic class and the mode of production as the prime moving forces (Sitton 1996).

Both Mosca and Pareto insisted that political elites play an independent role in determining the nature of regimes. They argued that all societies are hierarchical, dominated at any given time by one or more elites which, eventually, will be replaced by others. Dominant elites are political elites and will remain in power as long as they retain their unity and character.

Elite theory has changed a great deal since its initial formulation but many of the same arguments continue. Thus populists and quasi-Marxist analysts such as C. Wright Mills (1959) and William Domhoff (1990) (see also Zweigenhaft and Domhoff 1998) continue to insist that America and other capitalist societies are ruled by powerful socioeconomic groups (capitalists and the military for Mills; WASP capitalists and their dependents for Domhoff). More recently feminists and race theorists have maintained that gender or race in conjunction with class are the dominant forces in society, and consequently political elites’ thoughts and behavior emerges from their economic, or racial, or gender status (McClain and Garcia 1993, Carrol and Zerilli 1993).

Alternatively, scholars like Robert Dahl (1982), Nelson Polsby (1980), Theda Skocpol (1979), Evans et al. (1985), Gabriel Almond (1978), Etzioni-Halevy (1993), Dogan (1989), and Keller (1963) argue that the political order and political elites play a significant, independent role and are not merely the captives of class, gender, or racial patterns. Indeed as noted earlier, Dogan and Higley (1998) and others go so far as to argue that it is the character of political elite conflicts and settlements which determine the nature and stability of the social order.

A number of social scientists, including Robert Putnam (1976), Samuel Eldersveld (1989, Eldersveld et al. 1995), Eric Carlton (1996), and Ronald Ingelhart (1997), have conducted empirical studies of elites around the world and through time. Their work permits some generalizations based on the evidence but does not resolve key issues concerning the structure of power. There is still little agreement as to the role of political elites as compared with other elite groups, or to what extent gender and race need to be brought into the analysis of elite organization and power.

2. What Kinds Of Elites?

While Marx and Engels’ notion of an anarchic, communal, totally egalitarian society at the dawn of history, in which women played key social and political roles, seems to have little basis in fact, the earliest groupings of human beings were members of relatively egalitarian, though male dominated, segmented societies. With little societal power available, power differentiation was, almost by definition, limited (Service 1975). Historically, the next human developmental stage involved the creation of pyramidal systems of social organization. This pattern characterized the most advanced societies down to the fourth or third millennium BCE and generally involved a number of groups or villages loosely organized under the authority of a paramount chief. Such chiefs often emerged as charismatic leaders who were successful in the hunt and/or war and whose power waned as they aged.

A new step in societal evolution, generally associated with the further development of agriculture and its consequent population growth, was the emergence of patrimonial societies, dominated by one individual (king or chief) whose authority was generally based on tradition supported by religious myths (Weber 1978). Such societies often attempted to institutionalize succession by hereditary right as a means, theoretically, of overcoming succession crises, and ensuring that the present chief or king could pass authority on to his male heirs. Historically, however, the hereditary mechanism for choosing rulers has not been very effective in maintaining social peace (Burling 1974).

Patrimonial kingdoms also took the first steps in the differentiation of political institutions with at least some authority devolving to subordinate officers whose positions were based on lineage and/or personal or contractual fealty. The expansion of power available to the new social organizations led to greater asymmetries in the society. It is in patrimonial kingdoms and, even more so, in the great bureaucratic empires of the ancient world, i.e., China, Egypt, Rome, etc., that one can begin to analyse issues in terms of mutually supportive or competing elites (the army, the bureaucracy, religious elites) who shared at least some power with the ruler (Eisenstadt 1963). These societies, too, selected leaders on hereditary principles for the most part, though rulers were not infrequently deposed by the military or bureaucrats. Indeed military control of the succession came to characterize the Roman Empire by the third century CE. Military or bureaucratic leaders seized power to improve their own status and that of their clan or family. It was partly for this reason that Chinese and Byzantine emperors often assigned eunuchs to key bureaucratic and military roles in the empire (Balch 1985). Since they lacked direct descendents, eunuchs were considered more reliable instruments of the ruler.

3. Political Elites In The Modern World

In the modern world societies become more differentiated and patrimonial orders based on traditional authority gradually give way to authority derived from the beliefs in the legitimacy of ‘rational laws’ in the Weberian sense, agreed to by the people. Not only does the emergence of democratic structures (polyarchies to use Dahl and Lindblom’s (1953) felicitous expression) increase the number of power centers and the complexity of power relations, but the issue of how power should be distributed becomes more central to political discourse. At the same time patterns of recruitment to and career development in elite institutions change dramatically.

Some groups which traditionally held political power lost it. For example at one point religious leaders had to be counted among political elites. Today religious leaders may still play a significant role on the political scene though, in the Christian world, their impact on political outcomes is far more limited than it once was. Indeed the process of secularization has proceeded in Europe, and, even the more religious United States boasts a fairly strict separation of religious and political institutions. In some Muslim countries religious leaders play a much more significant role. However, they are not, with the exception of Shi’ite Iran, members of the political elite per se, with the power to formulate and enforce policies (Tschirgi 1994, Zartman 1980).

There are today, also, a few patrimonial regimes dominated by particular lineages: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf Emirates come to mind as well as a few small African kingdoms. As traditional authority has come to be replaced by the notion that governments should be based on the rule of the people (which emerged in Europe as part of the liberal tradition), most regimes, even when not democratic, pretend to be so, basing their authority on mass parties, often dominated by charismatic leaders such as Hitler or Mao Zedong and his successors. Charisma plays an even more important role for leaders who have not institutionalized their power. One clear example is Fidel Castro, who rules directly like a traditional Latin American caudillo (chief), eschewing a mass party (Aguila 1990).

Military leaders, who emerge from time to time claiming to speak for the people, and/or ‘to restore order’ continue to play an active role in such countries as Myanmar (formerly Burma), Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, and a number of African and, from time to time, Latin American countries. In Turkey the military considers itself to be the inheritor of the policies of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and has intervened in politics on a regular basis to preserve a secular state, usually withdrawing once the crisis was over. It is currently highly suspicious of a Muslim revival with important political overtones (Gole 1997). The military has played a similar role in other Muslim countries, such as Algeria, where it has been the prime competitor of fundamentalist groups. Of course the military plays an influential role in such countries as China and North Korea though not officially part of the governing structure of either regime. Military influence and indirect connection to policy making is more likely today than direct military rule over a political system which, when it occurs, typically does not last too long. In long-established and strong parliamentary regimes (as in Europe and the United States), the military role in political decision making is very limited.

4. Elites In (Mostly) Modern Democratic Systems

In relatively polyarchic systems with successfully functioning parliamentary or presidential regimes, legislatures elected by the populace play key roles in making binding decisions about the distribution of resources. In such societies election to office is mediated by political parties and the character of the electoral system is important. In both parliamentary and presidential regimes the key elite players tend to be lawyers and other professionals such as teachers and retired bureaucrats and politics becomes a fulltime profession, replacing the old English notion of the amateur politician (King 1981). In presidential regimes the chief executive (whatever the formal title) exercises considerable power independent of the party to which he/she is attached and has, in the past, based more of his authority on charisma. Indeed, in the United States, the president, while not independent of his party, draws much of his authority from his unique relation with the mass media. Arguably the political roles of American political parties have substantially diminished in the face of the media revolution.

In parliamentary regimes, however, chief executives (prime ministers, premiers) are selected from within the party and generally are leaders of a group of almost equals and exercise less personal power than presidents. Of course this depends partly on the particular nature of the party system. Within the framework of a relatively disciplined two-party system, party members are more likely to adhere to the party line than in regimes characterized by multiple, usually weaker, parties and coalition governments. Exceptionally, during their heyday, the Communist parties of France and Italy were, despite multiparty systems with relatively weak political parties in each country, quite able to retain control over party members. Even in parliamentary systems with relatively disciplined parties, the role of the media has heightened the charisma and power of the party leader (especially when in office) above that of his closest associates. This results in greater identification of the Party with the leader (Dogan 1989, Kamarck 1995, Linz and Valenzia 1994, Mainwaring and Valenzuel 1998, Patterson and Mughan 1999, Trend 1997, Yesilada 1999, Riggs 1988).

Political parties are present even in authoritarian regimes such as the People’s Republic of China. They were the preferred mode of political organization in most other Communist countries and in many African states. Generally, such parties have been instruments of mobilization and control allowing relatively little freedom. They have also been the central loci of power in the society. There have been some partial exceptions. In Mexico the PRI (The Party of the Institutionalized Revolution) effectively dominated politics but opposition was permitted and the party did not attempt to control the whole society. The Mexican system has further opened up in recent years and the one-party system is probably in a state of terminal decay. Also, the Soviet Union and its former satellites have, at least temporarily, transformed themselves into more open societies often with a substantial circulation of elites. Under the Soviet regime, and still in China, advancement in political power required working one’s way up through the party with the aid of powerful patrons whose fall from favor could seriously affect one’s career (MacFarquhar 1993, Li and Bachman 1989, Lane 1995).

In well-established parliamentary regimes the success of those seeking elite status depends on party position, seniority, and effectiveness in parliamentary work including the give and take of debate. Party loyalty generally remains the requisite condition of advancement in parliamentary regimes with disciplined party systems. Loyalty is less important in the American presidential regime. There power in the legislature is partly a function of seniority, good committee assignments, service to constituents, and a good relationship with the media.

In most of Europe, party organizations are relatively weak and the number of active party militants small. In less developed countries parties are even weaker and mostly quite short-lived. Parties often are the personal vehicles of individual charismatic leaders. After the leader passes from the scene, such parties usually fall apart to be replaced by still another ‘personal’ party. Political power in such countries is actually heavily dependent upon ‘clientelist’ relationships among various political families.

In modern democracies politics has increasingly become a career in which those aspiring to office start early and remain long, often beginning in local government (Eldersveld et al. 1995). With the passing of distinctly working-class socialist parties in Europe, political leaders are even more likely than they were in the first half of the twentieth century to come from middle-class backgrounds and to boast college or university degrees (Dogan 1989, Putnam 1976).

Money plays a relatively important role in elections in capitalist societies even when stringent limitations are placed upon the amounts parties are permitted to raise. However, individual wealth has not provided a passport to office, even in the United States where considerable freedom in the use of personal and contributed funds is permitted. Middleor lowermiddle-class aspirants to office can usually obtain financial support from backers who, for one reason or another are willing to bankroll them.

Among the unique elements of modern, relatively large complex societies is their heavy dependence upon highly differentiated bureaucracies. Despite important elements of bureaucratic structure in traditional empires, bureaucracies of the modern type never developed in these countries. High level bureaucratic officials, as Weber pointed out early in the twentieth century, are among key political elites (Weber 1978). They have played especially important roles in societies such as the Soviet and Chinese Communist regimes whose theoretical goal was to eliminate them. Indeed as late as the 1960s Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution was designed to abolish or at least sharply reduce bureaucratic power. Mao had a point. Bureaucrats were blunting the cutting radical edge of the Chinese revolution for, as Weber argued, bureaucrats tend to routinize decision making. Mao did not succeed, for Weber was also correct in asserting, when many social theorists thought otherwise, that socialism could only increase the size and power of bureaucracy.

Weber, however, was wrong in implying the modern political order would eventually be dominated by bureaucratic elites. It is true that carrying out legislative mandates always involves administrative discretion. However, bureaucracies have never completely dominated a political system, with the possible exception of Japan in the decades after World War II (Van Wolferen 1989).

The influence of bureaucracy is heightened when the technical training of an elite corps of bureaucrats emphasizes their authority and power in the state. The second empire in Germany (1870–1918) was characterized by the very significant role of the bureaucratic elite as was France under the Fourth Republic (1946–58). In the latter case the substantial power of the bureaucracy was partly a result of the inability of the party system to create a stable executive (Koh 1989, Peters 1978, Suleiman 1984, Farmer 1992, Thakur 1981).

For different reasons England and the United States have never created a bureaucratic elite of the continental European type. In the US, especially, the courts have added a layer of control above that created by Congressional oversight and presidential authority, and have insisted, in many cases, upon public consultation in bureaucratic decision making. Indeed, the role of courts has become so significant in many countries (though not as significant as in the United States) that some scholars now speak of the ‘judicialization of politics.’ Such judicialization has strongly affected bureaucratic decision making (Vallinder 1994).

In many modern political regimes, e.g., France, Japan, England, etc. higher level bureaucrats are recruited directly from the university for bureaucratic careers and often retire early to enter business or run for political office. High office in the United States federal bureaucracy is more permeable through inhouse promotion and lateral recruitment. This gives American bureaucratic recruitment a more democratic cast than that of most other advanced industrial nations.

5. Issues For The Present And The Future

Political elites in advanced industrial societies do exercise more power in the sense of producing desired outcomes than do those in less developed countries. Elites in the poorer countries of Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia often behave as if they are creating new public policies and yet nothing changes. This occurs because the organizational capacity of the society is limited and thus there is simply not sufficient power to carry through new initiatives. Promising beginnings frequently end in failure, too often frustrating, and eventually corrupting, those elites who begin as sincere reformers. Individuals or political groups may dominate the political orders of poorer societies but frequently they can change very little because the population lacks the capacity to respond effectively to new initiatives. Similarly efforts by richer more powerful nations to assist in or compel change are usually unsuccessful.

In general the role of women in public affairs has been very limited. In western Europe and the United States increasing numbers of women are becoming part of the political elite, though their role remains relatively small except in the Scandinavian countries. In most of the rest of the world their role is still smaller. Indeed the representation of women in official governmental organs dropped when the regimes in Communist states were overthrown. However, the offices they had held in various ineffective legislative bodies did not entail real authority so that the loss is more symbolic than real.

The distribution of power among racial and ethnic groups in increasingly multiethnic societies is very likely to be a major source of conflict in the twenty-first century. How such conflicts are to be handled is an issue which, except in a few cases, has not been dealt with effectively.


  1. Aguila J M del 1990 Development and revolution in Cuba. In: Wiarda H J, Kline H F (eds.) Latin American Politics and Development, 3rd edn. Westview, Boulder, CO, pp. 420–54
  2. Almond G A, Powell G B Jr 1978 Comparative Politics, 2nd edn. Little Brown, Boston, MA
  3. Balch S H 1985 The neutered civil servant: Eunuchs, celibates, abductees and the maintenance of organizational loyalty. The Journal of Social Biological Structures 8: 313–28
  4. Burling R 1974 The Passage of Power; Studies in Political Succession. Academic Press, New York
  5. Carlton E 1996 The Few and the Many: A Typology of Elites. Scolar Press, Brookfield, VT
  6. Carroll S J, Zerilli L M G 1993 Feminist challenges to political science. In: Finifter A W (ed.) Political Science: The State of the Discipline II. American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, pp. 55–76
  7. Dahl R A 1982 Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy s. Control. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  8. Dahl R A, Lindblom C E 1953 Politics, Economics, and Welfare: Planning and Politico-economic Systems Resolved into Basic Social Processes. Harper, New York
  9. Dogan M 1989 Pathways to Power: Selecting Rulers in Pluralist Democracies. Westview Press, Boulder, CO
  10. Dogan M, Higley J 1998 Elites, Crises, and the Origins of Regimes. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD
  11. Domhoff G W 1990 The Power Elite and the State: How Policy is Made in America. De Gruyter, New York
  12. Eisenstadt S N 1963 The Political Systems of Empires. Free Press of Glencoe, New York
  13. Eldersveld S J 1989 Political Elites in Modern Societies: Empirical Research and Democratic Theory. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI
  14. Eldersveld S J, Stromberg L, Derksen W 1995 Local Elites in Western Democracies: A Comparative Analysis of Urban Political Leaders in the U.S., Sweden, and the Netherlands. Westview Press, Boulder, CO
  15. Etzioni-Halevy E 1993 The Elite Connection: Problems and Potential of Western Democracy. Polity Press, Cambridge, MA
  16. Evans P B, Rueschmeyer D, Skocpol T (eds.) 1985 Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge University Press, New York
  17. Farmer K C 1992 The Soviet Administrative Elite. Praeger Publishers, New York
  18. Gole N 1997 Secularism and Islamism in Turkey: The making of elites and counter elites. Middle East Journal 51(1): 46–58
  19. Inglehart R 1997 Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  20. Kamarck E C 1995 Structure as strategy: Presidential nominating politics in the post-reform era. In: Pfiffner J P (ed.) Government and American Politics, Classic and Current Perspectives. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, Fortworth, TX
  21. Keller S I 1963 Beyond the Ruling Class: Strategic Elites in Modern Society. Random House, New York
  22. King A 1981 The rise of the career politician in Britain—and its consequences. British Journal of Political Science 11(3): 249–85
  23. Koh B C 1989 Japan’s Administrative Elite. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  24. Lane D (ed.) 1995 Russia in Transition: Parties Privatisation and Inequality. Longman, London
  25. Lasswell H D 1936 Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. Whittlesey House, New York
  26. Lasswell H D, Kaplan A 1950 Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  27. Li C, Bachman D 1989 Localism, elitism, and immobilism: Elite formation and social change in post-Mao China. World Politics 42(1): 64–94
  28. Linz J J, Valenzia A 1994 The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  29. Luther K R, Deschouwer K 1999 Party Elites in Divided Societies: Political Parties in Consociational Democracy. Routledge, New York
  30. MacFarquhar R (ed.) 1993 The Politics of China 1949–1989. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  31. McClain P D, Garcia J A 1993 Expanding disciplinary boundaries: Black, Latino and racial minority groups in political science. In: Finifter A W (ed.) Political Science: The State of the Discipline II. American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, pp. 247–80
  32. Mainwaring S, Valenzuel A 1998 Politics, Society, and Democracy: Latin America. Westview, Boulder, CO
  33. Michels R 1915 [trans. Paul E and Paul C]. Political Parties; A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Hearst’s International Library Co., New York
  34. Mills C W 1959 The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, New York
  35. Mosca G 1939 [trans. Kahn H D]. The Ruling Class. 1st edn. McGraw-Hill, New York
  36. Pareto V 1935 [trans. Bongiorno A, Livingston A]. (ed.) The Mind and Society. Harcourt, New York
  37. Patterson S C, Mughan A (eds.) 1999 Senates: Bicameralism in the Contemporary World. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH
  38. Peters B G 1978 The Politics of Bureaucracy: A Comparative Perspective. Longman, New York
  39. Polsby N W 1980 Community Power and Political Theory: A Further Look at Problems of Evidence and Inference, 2nd edn. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  40. Putnam R D 1976 The Comparative Study of Political Elites. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  41. Riggs F W 1988 The Survival of Presidentialism in America: Power-Constitutional Practices. International Political Science Review 9(4): 247–78
  42. Sartori G 1976 Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  43. Service E R 1975 Origins of the State and Civilization, 1st edn. Norton, New York
  44. Sitton J F 1996 Recent Marxian Theory: Class Formation and Social Conflict in Contemporary Capitalism. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY
  45. Skocpol T 1979 States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge University Press, New York
  46. Suleiman E N (ed.) 1984 Bureaucrats and Policy Making: A Comparative Overview. Holmes & Meier, New York
  47. Thakur R 1981 Elite Theory and Administrative System, 1st edn. Sterling, New Delhi, India
  48. Trend D 1997 Cultural Democracy: Politics, Media, New Technology. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY
  49. Tschirgi D (ed.) 1994 The Arab World Today. Lynne Rienner, Boulder, CO
  50. Vallinder T 1994 The judicialization of politics. The International Political Science Review 15(2): 91–9
  51. Yesilada B A (ed.) 1999 Comparative Political Parties and Party Elites: Essays in Honor of Samuel J. Elders eld. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI
  52. Van Wolferen K 1989 The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation. Knopf, New York
  53. Weber M 1978 [Roth G, Wittich C (eds.); trans. Fischoff E et al.] Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 2 Vols. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  54. Zartman I W (ed.) 1980 Elites in the Middle East. Praeger, New York
  55. Zweigenhaft R L, Domhoff W G 1998 Diversity in the Power Elite: Have Women and Minorities Reached the Top? Yale University Press, New Haven, CT


Political Geography Research Paper
History Of Political Economy Research Paper


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655