political science Political science is the scientific study of politics Politics (from , ) is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of ...
sociology Sociology is a social science Social science is the branch The branches and leaves of a tree. A branch ( or , ) or tree branch (sometimes referred to in botany Botany, also called , plant biology or phytology, is the scie ...
, elite theory is a theory of the
state State may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Literature * ''State Magazine'', a monthly magazine published by the U.S. Department of State * The State (newspaper), ''The State'' (newspaper), a daily newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, Un ...
that seeks to describe and explain power relationships in contemporary society. The theory posits that a small minority, consisting of members of the
economic An economy (; ) is an area of the production Production may be: Economics and business * Production (economics) * Production, the act of manufacturing goods * Production, in the outline of industrial organization, the act of making products ( ...

elite and
policy Policy is a deliberate system of guideline A guideline is a statement by which to determine a course of action. A guideline aims to streamline particular processes according to a set routine or sound practice. Guidelines may be issued by an ...

-planning networks, holds the most power—and that this power is independent of democratic elections. Through positions in
corporation A corporation is an organization—usually a group of people or a company—authorized by the State (polity), state to act as a single entity (a legal entity recognized by private and public law "born out of statute"; a legal person in legal ...

s or on corporate boards, and influence over policy-planning networks through financial support of foundations or positions with
think tank A think tank, or policy institute, is a research institute A research institute, research centre, or research center is an establishment founded for doing research Research is "creativity, creative and systematic work undertaken to inc ...
s or policy-discussion groups, members of the "elite" exert significant power over corporate and government decisions. The basic characteristics of this theory are that power is concentrated, the elites are unified, the non-elites are diverse and powerless, elites' interests are unified due to common backgrounds and positions and the defining characteristic of power is institutional position. Elite theory opposes pluralism (more than one system of power), a tradition that emphasized how multiple major social groups and interests have influence upon and various forms of representation within more powerful sets of rulers, contributing to decently representative political outcomes that reflect the collective needs of a society. Elite theory argues either that democracy is a
utopian folly
utopian folly
, as it is traditionally viewed in the conservative Italian tradition, or that democracy in its idealized form is not realizable within capitalism (a common view of
Marxist Marxism is a method of socioeconomic Socioeconomics (also known as social economics) is the social science that studies how economic activity affects and is shaped by social processes. In general it analyzes how modern societies progress, ...

-inspired elite theorists). 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. Democratic systems function on the premise that voting behavior has a direct, noticeable effect on policy outcomes, and that these outcomes are preferred by the largest portion of voters. Strikingly, a study published in 2014, which correlated voters' preferences to policy outcomes, found that the statistical correlation between the two is heavily dependent on the income brackets of the voting groups. At the lowest income sampled in the data, the correlation coefficient reached zero, whereas the highest income returned a correlation coefficient above 0.6. The conclusion of this research was that there is a strong, linear correlation between the income of voters and how often their policy preferences become reality. The causation for this correlation has not yet been proven in subsequent studies, but is an active area of research.


Ancient Perspective on Elite Theory

Polybius Polybius (; grc-gre, Πολύβιος, ; ) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period The Hellenistic period covers the period of Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of the ...

(~150 B.C.) referred to what we call today Elite Theory as simply "autocracy". He posited with great confidence that all 3 originating forms of sources of political power: one man (monarchy/executive), few men (autocracy), many (democracy) would eventually be corrupted into a debased form of itself, if not balanced in a "mixed government". Monarchy would become "tyranny", democracy would become "mob rule", and rule by elites (autocracy) would become corrupted in what he called "oligarchy".
Polybius Polybius (; grc-gre, Πολύβιος, ; ) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period The Hellenistic period covers the period of Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of the ...

effectively said this is due to a failure to properly apply
checks and balances Separation of powers refers to the division of a state (polity), state's government into branches, each with separate, independent power (social and political), powers and responsibilities, so that the powers of one branch are not in conflict ...
between the three mentioned forms as well as subsequent political institutions.

Italian school of elitism

Vilfredo Pareto Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto ( , , , ; born Wilfried Fritz Pareto; 15 July 1848 – 19 August 1923) was an Italian civil engineer A civil engineer is a person who practices civil engineering Civil engineering is a Regulation and licensur ...

Vilfredo Pareto
Gaetano Mosca Gaetano Mosca (; 1 April 1858 – 8 November 1941) was an Italian political scientist, journalist A journalist is an individual trained to collect/gather information in form of text, audio or pictures, processes them to a news-worth form and d ...
(1858–1941), and
Robert Michels Robert Michels (; 9 January 1876 – 3 May 1936) was a German-born Italian sociologist who contributed to elite theory by describing the political behavior of intellectual elites. He belonged to the Italian school of elitism. He is best kn ...
(1876–1936), were cofounders of the Italian school of elitism, which influenced subsequent elite theory in the Western tradition. The outlook of the Italian school of elitism is based on two ideas: # Power lies in position of authority in key economic and political institutions. # 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 strive to make the government work. For in reality, the elite would have the most to lose in a failed state.

Vilfredo 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: # Governing elites # 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

MoscaPeople * Alessia Mosca (born 1975), Italian politician * Angelo Mosca (born 1938), Canadian Football League player and professional wrestler * Antonio Mosca (1870–1951), Italian painter * Bianca Mosca (dead 1950), London-based fashion designer * Cl ...
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 group: # Political class # Non-Political class Mosca asserts that elites have intellectual, moral, and material superiority that is highly esteemed and influential.

Robert Michels

MichelsMichels is a surname, derived from Michaels, which in turn is derived from the given name Michael. Notable people with the surname include: * Birgit Michels (born 1984), German badminton player * David Michels, British businessman *Jan Michels, Dut ...
developed the
iron law of oligarchy #REDIRECT Iron law of oligarchy The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory Political philosophy is the philosophical study of government A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, generall ...
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: # Need for leaders, specialized staff and facilities # Utilization of facilities by leaders within their organization # The importance of the psychological attributes of the leaders

Contemporary elite theorists

Elmer Eric Schattschneider

Elmer Eric Schattschneider Elmer Eric Schattschneider (August 11, 1892 – March 4, 1971) was an American political scientist. Life and career Schattschneider was born in Bethany, Minnesota. He received his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Pittsburgh , nickname = ...
offered a strong critique of the American
political theory Political philosophy or political theory is the philosophical Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about existence Existence is the ability of an entity to interact with physical or menta ...
of pluralism: Rather than an essentially democratic system in which the many competing interests of
citizens Citizenship is a relationship between an individual and a state to which the individual owes allegiance and in turn is entitled to its protection. Each state determines the conditions under which it will recognize persons as its citizens, and t ...

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". 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".

C. Wright Mills

Mills Mills is the plural form of mill (disambiguation), mill, but may also refer to: As a name *Mills (surname), a common family name of English or Gaelic origin *Mills (given name) *Mills, a fictional British secret agent in a trilogy by writer Manning ...

published his book '' The Power Elite'' in 1956, in which he claimed to present 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. This reflected a decline in politics as an arena for debate and relegation to a merely formal level of discourse. 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 Franz Leopold Neumann (23 May 1900 – 2 September 1954) was a German people, German political activist, Western Marxist theorist and labour law, labor lawyer, who became a political scientist in exile and is best known for his theoretical analyse ...
'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 Structural functionalism, or simply functionalism, is "a framework for building theory that sees society as a Complex systems, complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability". This approach looks at society through a ...
approach that mapped hierarchies and webs of interconnection 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 Representative democracy, also known as indirect democracy, is a type of democracy where elected persons represent Represent may refer to: * Represent (Compton's Most Wanted album), ''Represent'' (Compton's Most Wanted album) or the title song ...
. 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.

G. William Domhoff

In his controversial 1967 book ''
Who Rules America? ''Who Rules America?'' is a book by research psychologist and sociologist, G. William Domhoff, Ph.D., first published in 1967 as a best-seller (#12), with six subsequent editions including ''Who Rules America Now?'' (1983, #43), ''Who Rules America ...
'', G. William Domhoff researched local and national decision making process networks seeking 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.

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. Many of these ideas were adapted by
paleoconservatives Paleoconservatism is a political philosophy and variety of conservatism in the United States stressing American nationalism, Christian ethics, Regionalism (politics), regionalism, and Traditionalist conservatism in the United States, traditionali ...
Samuel T. Francis and
Paul Gottfried Paul Edward Gottfried (born November 21, 1941) is an American paleoconservative Paleoconservatism is a political philosophy Political philosophy is the philosophical study of government, addressing questions about the nature, scope, and leg ...
in their theories of the
managerial state The managerial state is a concept used in critiquing modern procedural democracy, especially social democracy. The concept is used largely, though not exclusively, in paleolibertarian Paleolibertarianism is a political philosophy and variet ...
. Burnham described his thoughts on elite theory more specifically in his book, ''The Machiavellians'', which discusses, among others, Pareto, Mosca, and Michels. 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 that strips power from the
democratic process Democracy ( gr, δημοκρατία, ''dēmokratiā'', from ''dēmos'' 'people' and ''kratos'' 'rule') is a form of government in which people, the people have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation ("direct democracy"), or to choo ...
and slips it to the advisors and specialists who influence the
decision process
decision process
"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."

Thomas R. Dye

Dye A dye is a color Color (American English) or colour (Commonwealth English) is the visual perception, visual perceptual Physical property, property corresponding in humans to the categories called ''blue'', ''green'', ''red'', etc. Colo ...
in his book ''Top Down Policymaking'', argues that U.S.
public policy Public policy is an institutionalized proposal to solve relevant and real-world problems, guided by a conception and implemented by programs as a course of action created and/or enacted, typically by a government A government is th ...
does not result from the "demands of the people", but rather from elite consensus found in
Washington, D.C. ) , image_skyline = , image_caption = Clockwise from top left: the Washington Monument The Washington Monument is an obelisk within the National Mall The National Mall is a Landscape architecture, landscaped ...
-based non-profit foundations,
think tank A think tank, or policy institute, is a research institute A research institute, research centre, or research center is an establishment founded for doing research Research is "creativity, creative and systematic work undertaken to inc ...
s, special-interest groups, and prominent
lobbying In politics Politics (from , ) is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions In psychology, decision-making (also spelled decision making and decisionmaking) is regarded as the Cognition, cognitive process resultin ...

law firm A law firm is a business entity formed by one or more lawyers A lawyer or attorney is a person who practices law, as an advocate An advocate is a professional in the field of law. Different countries' legal systems use the term with some ...
s. 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 Environmental policy is the commitment of an organization or government to the laws, regulations, and other policy mechanisms concerning environmental issues Environmental issues are harmful effects of human activity on the biophysical environme ...
urban sprawl Urban sprawl (also known as suburban sprawl or urban encroachment) is the unrestricted growth in many urban area An urban area, or built-up area, is a human settlement with a high population density and infrastructure of built environment. ...
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'',
Ralf Dahrendorf Ralf Gustav Dahrendorf, Baron Dahrendorf, (1 May 1929 – 17 June 2009) was a German-British sociologist, philosopher, political scientist and liberal politician. A class conflict theorist, Dahrendorf was a leading expert on explaining and a ...

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, the 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 Statistical inference is the process of using data analysis to infer properties of an underlying probability distribution, distribution of probability.Upton, G., Cook, I. (2008) ''Oxford Dictionary of Statistics'', OUP. . Inferential statistical ...
of 1,779 policy issues professors Martin Gilens and
Benjamin PageBenjamin Ingrim Page (born 17 September 1940) is the Gordon S. Fulcher professor of decision making at Northwestern University. His interests include American politics and U.S. foreign policy, with particular interests in public opinion and policy m ...
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."

Thomas Ferguson

The political scientist Thomas Ferguson's
Investment Theory of Party CompetitionThe Investment theory of party competition is a political theory Political philosophy is the philosophical study of government A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, generally a State (polity), ...
can be thought of as an elite theory. Set out most extensively in his 1995 book ''Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-driven Political Systems'', the theory begins by noting that in modern political systems the cost of acquiring political awareness is so great that no citizen can afford it. As a consequence, these systems tend be dominated by those who can, most typically elites and corporations. These elites then seek to influence politics by 'investing' in the parties or policies they support through political contributions and other means such as endorsements in the media.

See also

Democratic deficit A democratic deficit (or democracy deficit) occurs when ostensibly democratic organizations or institutions (particularly government A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, generally a State (polity ...
Elitism Elitism is the belief or notion that individuals who form an elite In political Politics (from , ) is the set of activities that are associated with Decision-making, making decisions in Social group, groups, or other forms of Power (soci ...
Iron law of oligarchy #REDIRECT Iron law of oligarchy The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory Political philosophy is the philosophical study of government A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, generall ...
Mass society Mass society is any society of the modern era that possesses a mass culture and large-scale, impersonal, social institutions. A mass society is a "society in which prosperity and bureaucracy The term bureaucracy () may refer both to a body of ...
Positive political theory Positive political theory (PPT) or explanatory political theory is the study of politics Politics (from , ) is the set of activities that are associated with Decision-making, making decisions in Social group, groups, or other forms of Power (s ...
* '' The Power Elite'' *
Ruling class In sociology, the ruling class of a society is the social class A social class is a set of concepts in the social sciences and political theory Political philosophy is the philosophical study of government A government is the ...
Expressions of dominance Power and dominance-submission are two key dimensions of relationships, especially close relationships in which parties rely on one another to achieve their goals and as such it is important to be able to identify indicators of dominance. Power i ...
* Liberal elite



* Amsden, Alice (2012) ''The Role of Elites in Economic Development'', Oxford University Press, 2012. with Alisa Di Caprio and James A. Robinson. * Bottomore, T. (1993) ''Elites and Society'' (2nd Edition). London: Routledge. * Burnham, J. (1960) ''The Managerial Revolution''. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. * Crockett, Norman L. ed. ''The power elite in America'' (1970), excerpts from expert
online free
* Domhoff. G. William (1967–2009) ''Who Rules America?'' McGraw-Hill
online 5th edition
** Domhoff, G. William. ''Studying the power elite: Fifty years of who rules America?'' (Routledge, 2017); new essays by 12 experts * Downey, Liam, et al. "Power, hegemony, and world society theory: A critical evaluation." ''Socius'' 6 (2020): 237802312092005
* 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 * Hunter, Floyd (1953) ''Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers''. * Lerner, R., A. K. Nagai, S. Rothman (1996) ''American Elites''. New Haven CT: Yale University Press * Milch, Jan, (1992) . C.Wright Mills och hans sociologiska vision Om hans syn på makt och metod och vetenskap,. Sociologiska Institution Göteborgs Universit-("C.Wright Mills and his sociological vision About his views on power and methodology and science. Department of Sociology Gothenburg University") * Mills, . Wright (1956) '' The Power Elite''
* 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 Prentice Hall is an American major educational publisher owned by Savvas Learning Company. Prentice Hall publishes print and digital content for the 6–12 and higher-education market. Prentice Hall distributes its technical titles through th ...
. * 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. * Volpe, G. (2021) ''Italian Elitism and the Reshaping of Democracy in the United States''. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.

External links

"Who Rules America?" website
{{DEFAULTSORT:Elite Theory
Comparative politics {{See also cat, Political schisms Comparisons, Politics Politics, Comparison Subfields of political science ...
Political science theories Sociological theories Social class in the United States
Political science Subfields of political science include international relations, comparative politics, public law, and political theory. Each subfield tends to overlap with other academic disciplines, such as political history, history, political philosophy, philos ...
Conflict theory Structural functionalism Majority–minority relations