Elite theory

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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. An example of this can be found in the Forbes magazine article (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 one "slot" for each 100,000,000 of human population).[1]

Even when entire groups are ostensibly completely excluded from the state's traditional networks of power (historically, on the basis of arbitrary criteria such as nobility, race, gender, or religion), elite theory recognizes that "counter-elites" frequently develop within such excluded groups. Negotiations between such disenfranchised groups and the state can be analyzed as negotiations between elites and counter-elites. A major problem, in turn, is the ability of elites to co-opt counter-elites.

Elite theory opposes pluralism, a tradition that assumes that all individuals, or at least the multitude of social groups, have equal power and balance each other out in contributing to democratic political outcomes representing the emergent, aggregate will of society. Elite theory argues either that democracy is a utopian folly, as it is traditionally viewed in the conservative Italian tradition, or that democracy is not realizable within capitalism, as is the view of the more Marxist-compatible contemporary elite theory permutation. The field of elite theory thus encompasses opposing normative orientations to democracy. Elite theory has likewise countered state autonomy theory, a tradition that has attempted to demonstrate that enlightened, independent, often middle-class state managers have the power to effectively intervene in capitalist market power to uphold the aggregate social and economic interests of the entire nation. Where Rousseau posed the General Will as the liberal democratic solution to the conservative Hobbesian problem of the state as sovereign protector, with the caveat that factions would undermine the General Will, the pro-democratic elite theory approach demonstrates that Pluralist and State Autonomy liberals are only attempting, unsuccessfully, to avoid the Rousseauian problem: accumulated, exclusive private property within capitalism fuels a capitalist faction that colonizes and eviscerates the democratic General Will. However, even pro-democratic elite theory tends to diverge from Marxism where elite theory assumes military power as a determining, independent aspect of elite power. While this is admittedly a fine line, Marxists tend to view the military as subordinate to capital within capitalism. Essentially, elite theory accounts will foreground military power more than Marxists accounts will.

Classical elite theory

The aristocratic version of this theory is the classical 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 would not have the most to lose in a failed state

Classical elite theorists

Vilfredo Pareto

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 non-elite.

Gaetano Mosca

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

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

Elmer Eric Schattschneider

Elmer Eric Schattschneider offered a strong critique of the American political theory of pluralism: Rather than an essentially democratic system in which the many competing interests of citizens are amply represented, if not advanced, by equally many competing interest groups, Schattschneider argued the pressure system is biased in favor of "the most educated and highest-income members of society", and showed that "the difference between those who participate in interest group activity and those who stand at the sidelines is much greater than between voters and nonvoters".[2]

In The Semisovereign People, Schattschneider argued the scope of the pressure system is really quite small: The "range of organized, identifiable, known groups is amazingly narrow; there is nothing remotely universal about it" and the "business or upper-class bias of the pressure system shows up everywhere". He says the "notion that the pressure system is automatically representative of the whole community is a myth" and, instead, the "system is skewed, loaded and unbalanced in favor of a fraction of a minority".[3]

C. Wright Mills

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.[4] This reflected a decline in politics as an arena for debate and relegation to a merely formal level of discourse.[5] 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

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 of 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.[6] 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 United States.[7]

G. William Domhoff

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.[8]

James Burnham

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.[9] 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

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.[10]

"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."[11]

Thomas R. Dye

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 lobbying 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?.

George A. Gonzalez

In his book Corporate Power and the Environment, George A. Gonzalez writes on the power of U.S. economic elites to shape environmental policy for their own advantage. In The Politics of Air Pollution: Urban Growth, Ecological Modernization and Symbolic Inclusion and also in Urban Sprawl, Global Warming, and the Empire of Capital Gonzalez employs elite theory to explain the interrelationship between environmental policy and urban sprawl in America. His most recent work, Energy and Empire: The Politics of Nuclear and Solar Power in the United States demonstrates that economic elites tied their advocacy of the nuclear energy option to post-1945 American foreign policy goals, while at the same time these elites opposed government support for other forms of energy, such as solar, that cannot be dominated by one nation.

Ralf Dahrendorf

In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,[12] Ralf Dahrendorf asserts that, due to advanced level of competence required for political activity, a political party tends to become actually a provider of "political services", that is administration of local and governmental public offices. During the electoral campaign, each party tries to convince voters it is the most suitable for managing the state business. The logical consequence would be to acknowledge this character and openly register the parties as service providing companies. In this way, the ruling class would include the members and associates of legally acknowledged companies and the "class that is ruled" would select by election the state administration company that best fits its interests.

Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page

In their statistical analysis of 1,779 policy issues Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found "that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."[13][verification needed]

See also


  1. "The World's Most Powerful People". Forbes. 2009-11-11. Retrieved 2015-09-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Woolley and Papa 1998, 165
  3. Schattschneider 1960, 30-36
  4. Bottomore, T. (1993). Elites and Society (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Mills, C. Wright (1956). The Power Elite. p. 274. ISBN 0-19-541759-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Hunter, Floyd (1953). Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers. p. 6. ISBN 0-8078-0639-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Schwartz, M. (ed.) (1987). The Structure of Power in America: The Corporate Elite as a Ruling Class. New York: Holmes & Meier. ISBN 0-8419-0764-1. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Domhoff, G. William (1967). Who Rules America?. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-7674-1637-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Bottomore, T. (1993). Elites and Society (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 59.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 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).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Putnam, Robert D. (1976). The Comparative Study of Political Elites. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 384. ISBN 0-13-154195-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Dahrendorf, Ralf (1990) Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: In a letter intended to have been sent to a gentleman in Warsaw. New York: Random House
  13. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (Fall 2014)


  • 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.
  • Gonzalez, G. A. (2012) Energy and Empire: The Politics of Nuclear and Solar Power in the United States. Albany: State University of New York Press
  • Gonzalez, G. A. (2009) Urban Sprawl, Global Warming, and the Empire of Capital. Albany: State University of New York Press
  • Gonzalez, G. A. (2006) The Politics of Air Pollution: Urban Growth, Ecological Modernization, And Symbolic Inclusion. Albany: State University of New York Press
  • Gonzalez, G. A. (2001) Corporate Power and the Environment. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

External links