Sociology of Elites Research Paper

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As commonly defined, elites are small groups of people who exert substantial power and influence over the public and over political outcomes. This power is based on the possession and control of various resources, including economic ones (capital and means of production), control of organizations, political support, symbolic means (knowledge, information, and the manipulation of symbols), and personal resources (such as charisma, or ambition). Some elite persons—those whose power is based on political support or charisma—are also referred to as leaders.

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On this basis, the major elites in contemporary societies include political leaders (who in democracies are usually divided between the government and the opposition), the heads of the state bureaucracy, the military and the judiciary, the captains of business and industry, key media people (top journalists, editors, owners and managers of large-scale media organizations), trade union leaders, the intellectual–cultural– academic elite (influential writers, philosophers, publicists, and the like), religious or church leaders and leaders of civil society, of major interest groups, nongovernmental organizations and social movements (the latter are frequently referred to as non-established, counter-elites).

Vilfredo Pareto (1935), who introduced the term into the social sciences, defined elites as those who are most capable in any area of activity. But, as most commonly defined in the social sciences today, elites are not necessarily the best and the brightest; they are simply those who, for whatever reason, have been able to gain the resources that lend them substantial power and influence. Occasionally the elite is equated with the upper class. However, by the above definition, elites are those who wield power, irrespective of their class background and socioeconomic status. In general, elites tend to stem from privileged class background, but not necessarily from the upper class. The top business elite belongs to the upper (capitalist) class. But other elites (e.g., trade union leaders, prominent media figures, church leaders) do not necessarily belong to that class, yet they still hold power, and therefore, elite positions.

Some elites command more power than others, and elites may thus be looked upon as a pyramid: at the top there are those who hold power at the macro, or national level—such as political leaders, and the top military brass. At the lowest level there are the elites of small units, such as heads of universities or local organizations. And in-between there are those who hold less power at the national level or hold power only in certain sectors or localites, such as the leaders of states or provinces (in a federal system) and city mayors, though the boundaries between the various levels are not sharply defined. The school of thought in the social sciences that focuses on the role of elites in society—or elite theory—has been concerned chiefly with top level or national elites.

1. Classical Elite Theory

Historically, elite theory developed as an alternative to class theory. While class theory, fathered by Karl Marx, stems from the middle of the nineteenth century, elite theory emerged only at the turn and the beginning of the twentieth century. Once it appeared, however, it did so with triple strength, under the aegis of the Italian classical social theorists Pareto (1935), Gaetano Mosca (1939), and Roberto Michels (1915).

The central idea of these founding fathers is, that all societies and/organizations—including democratic ones—are divided into the few who rule and the many who are ruled. The ruling minority—dubbed by Pareto the governing elite or class, by Mosca the political or ruling class, and by Michels the oligarchical leadership—concentrates power in its own hands, uses it in its own interest, and then finds a formula to justify its rule. And the majority that is ruled, the masses, is largely powerless and has but little impact on policy outcomes.

To this Mosca adds that, according to democratic theory, majorities rule minorities. In fact, even in a democracy, the domination of an organized minority over an unorganized majority is inevitable. According to Michels, the very principle of organization spells oligarchy. And Pareto adds that although in principle governing elites are made up of those who excel, this is not necessarily so in practice. As long as a governing elite is composed of people with qualities of excellence and is open to absorb the most talented from the nonelite—while shedding the more degenerate of its own members—this ensures a circulation of elites, that keeps society in a state of equilibrium and gradual change. When this circulation is impeded, the equilibrium is upset and society becomes prone to violent upheavals.

According to critics, the notion that there are those who govern and those who are governed is self-evident. To transcend this truism, it would have to be shown that the governing elite has internal unity, which exacerbates its power. This, in fact, is the thesis of the, now classical, theorist C. Wright Mills. Mills (1956) sees even democratic (especially US) society as dominated by the top executive political, military, and corporate economic personnel, that together form a concerted power elite. At the bottom there are the masses, the powerless and apathetic receiving end of the power-elite’s manipulation and rule.

Another critique leveled at these classical elite theorists was, that they overemphasized the similarity of elite rule in all types of regimes. Thus they had little to say on what still makes democracy (with all its iniquities) a distinctive regime. It fell to the lot of other theorists—known as liberal, democratic elite theorists—to fill this void. These included the German Max Weber who wrote at the turn and the beginning of the century, and surprislingly also Mosca in some later developments of his thought. In the post-war era they also included Joseph Schumpeter (1954), Raymond Aron (1968) and Suzanne Keller (1963), whose writings may now also be considered classical.

Rejecting the idea that democracy spells the rule of the people, and clarifying that it inevitably spells elite rule, these theorists still stress its distinctiveness. This lies not only in restrained elite competition and free elections that ensure the responsiveness of elites to the demands of the public, but also in the structure of elites. In a democracy, this is characterized by the plurality, autonomy and differentiation of elites, which enables them to countervail each other’s power. These checks and balances increase the liberty of the public and the power-holders’ responsiveness to it.

In opposition to this democratic elite theory, it has been argued that the virtues it attributes to democracy are more fiction than reality. Hence those who believe in them are overly complacent with respect to democracy, naively believing that ‘the system that we ought to have is the very one that we do in fact have’ (Pateman 1970, p. 16).

2. Contemporary Elite Theories

Such critiques have been one of the main causes of the fact that, since the 1960s, elite theory has been overshadowed by Marxist and neo-Marxist class theory. Yet elite analyses have not disappeared, and, indeed in quantity and variety have exceeded the classical writings on this topic.

Some of these new analyses—such as those by William Domhoff (1983), and Thomas Dye and Harmon Zeigler (1996)—may be seen as descendants of classical elite theory, in offering a skeptical view of democracy, albeit with a new twist. These observers of the US scene see the power of elites as exacerbated by their interlocking and consensus. They view popular elections as little more than rituals which lend the illinformed masses sparce influence over policy. Indeed, it is the elites that preserve democracy, which works best when the masses are only minimally involved in politics. Intriguing as these ideas are, they lay themselves open to charges of excessive cynicism.

Such a charge is, in fact, implied by writers, such as Nelson Polsby (1985) and Giovanni Sartori (1987). These are representatives of the pluralist school of thought and they argue that democracies are distinguished by a plurality of elites, that occasionally are in coalition, and, occasionally, in opposition to each other. Such elites develop more links with the public and greater responsivenss to its wishes, than elites ever did before. Once again, swinging the pendulum to the other side, Robert Dahl (1985), who previously was a prominent pluralist, later took a different view in which, although in a polyarchy (i.e., democracy) there is a plurality of elites, the business elite is more powerful than the rest, and can make the government serve its interests.

Is it the case, then, that elites in Western democracies are plural, divided and in collision, or are they unified and in collusion with each other? An original scheme on this has been presented by John Higley and Michael Burton (1989) and some of their colleagues. According to Higley and colleagues elite configurations vary and have an impact on the structure of regimes. Disunified elites generate unstable regimes and ideologically unified elites give rise to stable autocratic regimes. By contrast, consensually unified elites— divided ideologically yet unified by their agreement on the rules of the political game—produce stable democracies.

Critics view this scheme as containing tautological elements (democracy prevails when elites adhere to its rules); but its proponents’ response is that consensual unity historically always precedes the emergence of democracy. Accordingly, the major political turning points in modern history have been transformations of elites into consensually united ones. In any case the scheme is most useful for having produced a large number of studies of the emergence and development of democratic regimes.

Such developments, particularly transitions to democracy in various parts of the world, have also been the focus of other elite analyses. These concur that such transitions are usually crafted by elites. They take place where the previous elite oligarchy included some restricted competition between elites (Diamond and Linz 1989), through the forcible imposition of democracy by elites, or through compromises between contending elites (Karl and Schmitter 1991, Huntington 1991). At times they produce quasidemocracies, in which the elected elites’ power is considerably greater than it is in representative democracies (O’Donnell 1994).

One widespread accusation, leveled at both classical and new elite theories, is that they are not only elite, but elitist theories, and that they applaud elite rule. A response to this charge has been made by a new version of democratic elite theory (Etzioni-Halevy 1993). This holds that the analysis of elites is crucial not as an endorsement, but as a scrutiny, of their power, without which it would be more pernicious. According to some, elites are the enemies of democracy. In fact, since elites are inevitable, all depends on their inter-relations. What makes democracy distinctive is the attempt to set them up as watchdogs for each other, through their relative autonomy, particularly that of the nongovernmental elites from the government.

This, indeed, is the central, implicit, metaprinciple of liberal democracy. It is nowhere so stated, but without it, the explicit principles of democracy, free competitive elections, human rights and civil liberties, would fall by the wayside. Without an opposition that is free from repression by government and not dependent on it for its livelihood, there could be no free elections. Without a judiciary that is exempt from government interference and cannot be dismissed by it, human rights could not be ensured. And without a media elite that cannot be gagged, freedom of expression, free elections, or human rights and civil liberties, could not be sustained.

Some of the main threats to democracy spring from the subversion of this metapricinciple as, even in Western countries, elites develop a close connection with each other. Thus, politicians frequently live in a cosy symbiosis with business magnates. A symbiosis has also developed between state elites and leaders of civil society, social movements and voluntary organizations.

The relative independence of such bodies has long been one of the hallmarks of democracy. But, recently, environmental movements have been institutionalized in parties, governments, and governmental organizations. And voluntary organizations let governments offload some of their responsiblities to them in return for funding. Thus, the boundaries between the state and civil society have been blurred and the latter can no longer serve as a check to government power. This puts the onus of preserving the watchdog metaprinciple of democracy more heavily on other elites, such as the media, which are not always well equipped to carry the burden.

3. Recent Developments In Elite Analysis

Elite and democratic elite theory, justifiably, has also been censured for paying insufficient attention to the public, and to economic, class-based inequalities within it, particularly in Western (capitalist) democracies. Such inequalities and exploitation had long been the main theme of Marx-inspired class theory. However, with the breakdown of communism in Eastern and Central Europe, class theory has suffered a severe setback.

This opened an opportunity for elite analysis to incorporate socioeconomic inequality into its own domain. It did so by evincing a greater interest than before, in linkages between elites and the public, and in the impact of such linkages on both democracy and inequality. Such linkages involve a reciprocal relationship, whereby elites organize and promote the interests of certain constituencies, classes or groups within the public, which in turn support these elites. Linkages may be strong and clear, or weak and blurred. They may be direct, or through mediating bodies. Sustainable democracy relies on linkages that combine strength with extensive mediation (Pakulski 2000).

Much also depends on which groups within the public the elites link up with. Linkages between elites and the disadvantaged classes and groups within the public, are crucial for a stable democracy. For the disadvantaged—encompassing millions of people— cannot promote their own interests, unless they generate or adopt elites to represent them. And, unless the interests of all, including the disadvantaged, are represented in the political arena, there can be no democracy. The coupling of elites and the disadvantaged also makes elites struggle for a more egalitarian distribution of resources, and thus is essential in promoting progress towards greater equality.

This is, in fact, what happened in the West at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, as labor movement, union, and partyleaders linked-up with the working class and, to some extent, promoted their interests. At that time workers’ wages rose, inequalities decreased, the working class gained the suffrage, and democracy was born.

Recently, in postindustrial society, the linkages between elites and the disadvantaged—those in the underprivileged labor market, the unemployed, the poor, the excluded—has become especially problematic. Together with insecurity of employment, this creates a destabilizing potential for democracy (Higley and Burton 1999).

At the same time, several elites have uncoupled from the disadvantaged. Labor-party leaders have turned their parties into ‘catch-all’ parties; leaders of social movements are more concerned with quality of life and identity issues, than with the redistribution of resources; and unions have been weakened and can no longer staunchly support the interests of the workers. This partial vacuum in elite–public linkages exacerbates inequality and insecurity. This, in turn, boosts fundamentalism and spurs the birth of populist and doubtfully democratic movements (Etzioni-Halevy 1997).

Another inequality is that between men and women in power positions. Until recently women were virtually excluded from such positions, even in advanced democracies, and this fact was largely ignored in elite analysis. But in recent decades women’s presence in such posts has increased—even though they have not reached parity with men—and so has the attention paid to this issue in elite analysis. This analysis now shows that, to access elites, women must often offset the ‘handicap’ of gender, by even more privileged social background, and even greater human capital, than those of their male counterparts. Once in decision-making posts, women tend to have less hierarchical orientations than men; thus their increased representation in them constitutes a crucial factor in decreasing inequalities in society at large (Vianello and Moore 2000).

New times create new elites, and the new elite analysis also focuses on these. The transition from communism in Eastern and Central Europe has been led by elites and involved novel elite configurations. Yet a marked continuity of elite personnel has been widely noted, so that the pressing question is whether changes in elite values and behaviours have accompanied the transition.

Meanwhile, in the West the information society has generated new conglomerations of power in the high-tech, computer, and Internet centered fields; and the elites at their head have few visible links with the public. Further, globalization has given rise to transnational organizations—such as the International Monetary Fund and the European Union—and these have sprouted a second layer of elites beyond those of the state. These elites have the ability to shape people’s life chances around the globe, yet they maintain but a minimal accountability to the public, to the detriment of democracy in global or transnational organizations. New transnational grassroots movements whose counter-elites would balance globalization from above with globalization from below, could vitalize transnational democracy.


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