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In political science and sociology, elite theory is a theory of the state which seeks to describe and explain the power relationships in contemporary society. The theory posits that a small minority, consisting of members of the economic elite and policy-planning networks, holds the most power and that this power is independent of a state's democratic elections process. Through positions in corporations or on corporate boards, and influence over the policy-planning networks through financial support of foundations or positions with think tanks or policy-discussion groups, members of the "elite" are able to exert significant power over the policy decisions of corporations and governments. A recent example of this can be found in the Forbes Magazine article [1] (published in December 2009) entitled The World's Most Powerful People, in which Forbes purported to list the 67 most powerful people in the world (assigning 1 "slot" for each 100,000,000 of human population).

Elite theory stands in opposition to pluralism in suggesting that democracy is a utopian ideal. It also stands in opposition to state autonomy theory.

Classical Elite theory[edit | edit source]

The aristocratic version of this theory is the Classic Elite Theory which is based on two ideas:

  1. power lies in position of authority in key economic and political institutions
  2. the psychological difference that sets Elites apart is that they have personal resources, for instance intelligence and skills, and a vested interest in the government; while the rest are incompetent and do not have the capabilities of governing themselves, the elite are resourceful and will strive to make the government work. For in reality, the elite have the most to lose in a failed government.

Classical Elite Theorists[edit | edit source]

Vilfredo Pareto[edit | edit source]

Pareto emphasized the psychological and intellectual superiority of elites, believing that they were the highest accomplishers in any field. He discussed the existence of two types of elites:

  1. governing elites
  2. non-governing elites

He also extended the idea that a whole elite can be replaced by a new one and how one can circulate from being elite to nonelite.

Gaetano Mosca[edit | edit source]

Mosca emphasized the sociological and personal characteristics of elites. He said elites are an organized minority and that the masses are an unorganized majority. The ruling class is composed of the ruling elite and the sub-elites. He divides the world into two groups:

  1. ruling class
  2. class that is ruled

Mosca asserts that elites have intellectual, moral, and material superiority that is highly esteemed and influential.

Robert Michels[edit | edit source]

Sociologist Michels developed the Iron Law of Oligarchy where, he asserts, social and political organizations are run by few individuals, and social organization and labor division are key. He believed that all organizations were elitist and that elites have three basic principles that help in the bureaucratic structure of political organization:

  1. Need for leaders, specialized staff and facilities
  2. Utilization of facilities by leaders within their organization
  3. The importance of the psychological attributes of the leaders

Elite theorists[edit | edit source]

C. Wright Mills[edit | edit source]

Mills published his book The Power Elite in 1956, claiming a new sociological perspective on systems of power in the United States. He identified a triumvirate of power groups - political, economic and military - which form a distinguishable, although not unified, power-wielding body in the United States.

Mills proposed that this group had been generated through a process of rationalization at work in all advanced industrial societies whereby the mechanisms of power became concentrated, funneling overall control into the hands of a limited, somewhat corrupt group.[1] This reflected a decline in politics as an arena for debate and relegation to a merely formal level of discourse.[2] This macro-scale analysis sought to point out the degradation of democracy in "advanced" societies and the fact that power generally lies outside the boundaries of elected representatives. A main influence for the study was Franz Leopold Neumann's book, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944, a study of how Nazism came to power in the German democratic state. It provided the tools to analyze the structure of a political system and served as a warning of what could happen in a modern capitalistic democracy.

Floyd Hunter[edit | edit source]

The elite theory analysis of power was also applied on the micro scale in community power studies such as that by Floyd Hunter (1953). Hunter examined in detail the power relationships evident in his "Regional City" looking for the "real" holders of power rather than those in obvious official positions. He posited a structural-functional approach which mapped the hierarchies and webs of interconnection operating within the city – mapping relationships of power between businessmen, politicians, clergy etc. The study was promoted to debunk current concepts of any ‘democracy’ present within urban politics and reaffirm the arguments for a true representative democracy.[3]

This type of analysis was also used in later, larger scale, studies such as that carried out by M. Schwartz examining the power structures within the sphere of the corporate elite in the USA.[4]

G. William Domhoff[edit | edit source]

In his controversial book Who Rules America?, G. William Domhoff researched local and national decision making process networks in order to illustrate the power structure in the United States. He asserts, much like Hunter, that an elite class that owns and manages large income-producing properties (like banks and corporations) dominate the American power structure politically and economically.[5]

James Burnham[edit | edit source]

Burnham’s early work The Managerial Revolution sought to express the movement of all functional power into the hands of managers rather than politicians or businessmen – separating ownership and control.[6] Many of these ideas were adapted by paleoconservatives Samuel T. Francis and Paul Gottfried in their theories of the managerial state. Burnham's thoughts on Elite Theory were elucidated more specifically in his book The Machiavellians which discusses the thoughts of, among others, Pareto, Mosca, and Michels; it is here that Burnham attempts a scientific analysis of both elites and politics generally.

Robert D. Putnam[edit | edit source]

Putnam saw the development of technical and exclusive knowledge among administrators and other specialist groups as a mechanism by which power is stripped from the democratic process and slipped sideways to the advisors and specialists influencing the decision making process.[7]

"If the dominant figures of the past hundred years have been the entrepreneur, the businessman, and the industrial executive, the ‘new men’ are the scientists, the mathematicians, the economists, and the engineers of the new intellectual technology."[8]

Thomas R. Dye[edit | edit source]

Dye in his book Top Down Policymaking, argues that U.S. public policy does not result from the "demands of the people," but rather from Elite consensus found in Washington, D.C. based non-profit foundations, think tanks, special-interest groups, and prominent lobbyists and law firms. Dye's thesis is further expanded upon in his works: The Irony of Democracy, Politics in America, Understanding Public Policy, and Who's Running America?

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Bottomore, T. (1993). Elites and Society (2nd ed.), London: Routledge.
  2. Mills, C. Wright (1956). The Power Elite.
  3. Hunter, Floyd (1953). Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers.
  4. Schwartz, M. (ed.) (1987). The Structure of Power in America: The Corporate Elite as a Ruling Class, New York: Holmes & Meier.
  5. Domhoff, G. William (1967). Who Rules America?, McGraw-Hill.
  6. Bottomore, T. (1993). Elites and Society (2nd ed.), London: Routledge.
  7. Putnam, Robert D. (1977). Elite Transformation in Advance Industrial Societies: An Empirical Assessment of the Theory of Technocracy. Comparative Political Studies 10 (3): 383–411 (p.385).
  8. Putnam, Robert D. (1976). The Comparative Study of Political Elites, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Bottomore, T. (1993) Elites and Society (2nd Edition). London: Routledge.
  • Burnham, J. (1960) The Managerial Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Hunter, Floyd (1953) Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers.
  • Domhoff. G. William (1967–2009) Who Rules America? McGraw-Hill.
  • Mills, C. Wright (1956) The Power Elite.
  • Lerner, R., A. K. Nagai, S. Rothman (1996) American Elites. New Haven CT: Yale University Press
  • Neumann, Franz Leopold (1944). Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933 - 1944. Harper.
  • Putnam, R. D. (1976) The Comparative Study of Political Elites. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • Putnam, R. D. (1977) ‘Elite Transformation in Advance Industrial Societies: An Empirical Assessment of the Theory of Technocracy’ in Comparative Political Studies Vol. 10, No. 3, pp383–411.
  • Schwartz, M. (ed.) (1987) The Structure of Power in America: The Corporate Elite as a Ruling Class. New York: Holmes & Meier.
  • Dye, T. R. (2000) Top Down Policymaking New York: Chatham House Publishers.

External links[edit | edit source]

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