Sociology has long examined the concept of “elite” as a group with disproportionate power in society. In this post, we examine classic and contemporary definitions of the elite and methods for identifying them.
The literature on the elite is vast. We will only scratch the surface to get at key points of definition and methods of identification.
Definitions of the elite
We can turn to C. Wright Mills, author of The Sociological Imagination, for his second most famous book, The Power Elite (1956). But, Mills was not the first to write about the elite. In
Indeed, an earlier major treatise of the elite was by Floyd Hunter in his book, Community Power Structure (1953). (Mills, in an attempt to set himself up as the true popularizer of elite studies in the US, side-eyed Hunter’s study in a book review before The Power Elite came out.)
Hunter studied Atlanta (read Domhoff’s excellent summary). For Hunter, the power elite were mainly in the political and economic realms. The informal connections between men of top economic and political positions created policy and had the true force of power.
There are deep similarities to Hunter’s earlier work and Mills’ later work, as they tap into the same idea: there are people in society who have a disproportionate level of power. The first paragraph of Hunter’s Community Power Structure:
“It has been evident to the writer for some years that policies on vital matters affecting community life seem to appear suddenly. They are acted upon, but with no precise knowledge on the part of the majority of citizens as to how these policies originated or by whom they are really sponsored. Much is done, but much is left undone. Some of the things done appear to be manipulated to the advantage of relatively few.”
Mills popularized the term and argued that the elite may be national, as well. Mills defines the elite in Chapter 1:
“The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern…
But not all men are in this sense ordinary. As the means of information and of power are centralized, some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon, so to speak, and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women…
The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences.”
These “men” are the power elite. In some sense, the term “power” in power elite is redundant. In Hunter and in Mills, the elite have the power. Perhaps Mills was addressing the upper national echelons of American society. As Bachrach and Baratz expanded upon later (1962), these men also possess non-decision power.
Mills identified three sectors of society of which these men are at the top: political, economic, and military. These sectors, and the people in the top positions of these sectors, reinforce each other.
Hunter’s suddenly appearing policies and Mills’ uncontrollable forces have the same root: People in positions of power create and maintain an undemocratic power structure that benefits the few at the expense of the many.
According to Khan (2012), The elites are “those who have vastly disproportionate control over or access to a resource. Within this definition we can think of elites as occupying a position that provides them with access and control or as possessing resources that advantage them…” and they can convert “that resource into other forms of capital” (362).
Elites are not omnipresent or omniscient
As noted elite scholar Suzanne Keller argued, the elite do not necessarily agree on every issue. There is infighting. However, they have a collective set of beliefs that they push forward, e.g. capitalism, or meritocracy, or unequal democracy, or sexism or racism, that they agree with in principle.
Moreover, their issue positions change over time, and the people in the positions change. But in Millsian fashion, the importance of the sectors in modern capitalist society do not change.
Identification of the Elite
We now examine three of the most common ways sociologists have identified who the elite in society are.
Note that, in general, elites are generally identified by their resources, positions, and networks (recognized by others). These positions are also their ties to the community, i.e. their positions not only at work, but also in other spheres of society/community (cultural, educational, etc.)
Positional (and Resource) Method
- Identifying the key sectors and the key positions in those sectors. E.g. the mayor, the head of city council, the CEOs of top businesses, etc.
- Identification is often connected to economic resources that they hold.
- It is an “objective” approach, meaning that the elite do not have to identify as elite to be considered as the elite.
- Problems: sampling frame, may not identify key actors, requires a deep, a priori knowledge of the power structure, and identifies the “passive elite,” those who may not be using their resources to influence society.
- With this method, you may miss key actors who are not the elite by position, but by reputation. Or, there are mechanisms of power that you do not understand, and there are positions that are important, but you missed them. As Hoffman-Lange writes, “power and influence are never perfectly correlated with positions held” (82).
- Identifying the key policy decisions and the key actors in those decisions.
- As with the positional methods, it is an “objective” approach
- Identifies the “active elite,” those know to wield power.
- With positional and decisional methods, we tend to find a larger, diverse elite.
- Problems: which policies to choose? It may not identify key actors outside of those policies; requires a deep, a priori knowledge of the power structure for those policies
- While it gets at power after it is exercised, it may miss “non-decision making,” depending on what they tell you during the interviews.
Domhoff summarized the method:
- Identifying the the key actors as identified by the key actors
- It is an “subjective” approach, meaning the elite identifies others as the elite.
- Problems: sample frame; if the researcher asks for nominations, they may miss key actors who are unpopular but important.
- Does not require a deep, a priori knowledge of the power structure
- Identifies the active and passive elite
- We tend to find a smaller, more homogenous elite.
“For one thing, its method, later called the “reputational method,” was new. Hunter began by asking a panel of 14 people who were highly knowledgeable about the city, essentially upper-middle-class professionals, to pick out the top ten leaders from the lists of organizational leaders he had collected from the Chamber of Commerce (business leaders), the League of Women Voters (government officials), the Community Council (civic leaders), and newspaper reporters and civic leaders (“society” leaders). From these lists containing 175 names, he picked those 40 people who received the most votes, and then set out to interview as many of those people as he could. Among other things, he asked them who they thought were the most important leaders in the city, how well they knew the other people on the list, and what they thought were the two most important issues facing the community at that time.”
The definition of the elite seems to be stable over time, meaning that it is a group with disproportionate resources who are involved in key decisions that influence the lives of the masses.
Identification methods had not changed over time. Hunter pioneered the reputational method, while Mills used the positional method, and Dahl used the decisional method. All of these were decades ago.
It is best to combine methods, e.g. positional with reputational, to identify the elite in society.
A note on selection bias in elite studies
- The odds of individuals to be included in the study may not be random.
- Rather, there may be some factors that make some individuals more likely to be included than others.
- Bias is not intrinsically bad, so long as the factors of bias are known – it depends on whether the researcher intended for this non-randomness such that they were searching for specific characteristics.
- Purposive sampling, for example, is biased, but the researcher intended for that bias.
All methods of identification potentially lead to selection bias. The positional method selects on the passive elite, and may miss the active elite. The decisional method is biased toward whatever policy decision the researcher is analyzing, and will miss the elite who were not involved in those particular decisions. The reputational method will lead to a smaller, more homogenous network and miss influential outliers.
Further reading on the elite
Rahman Khan, Shamus. “The sociology of elites.” Annual Review of Sociology 38 (2012): 361-377.
Hoffmann‐Lange, Ursula. “Methods of Elite Identification.” In The Oxford handbook of political behavior. 2007.
Keller, Suzanne. Beyond the Ruling Class: Strategic Elites in Modern Society. Routledge (1963)
López, Matias. “Elite theory.” Sociopedia. isa 1 (2013): 12.
López, Matias. “The state of poverty: elite perceptions of the poor in Brazil and Uruguay.” International Sociology 28, no. 3 (2013): 351-370.
Lopez, Matias, Graziella Moraes Silva, Chana Teeger, and Pedro Marques. “Economic and cultural determinants of elite attitudes toward redistribution.” Socio-economic review 20, no. 2 (2022): 489-514.
Lopez, Matias. “States, elites, and inequality in Latin America.” Sociology Compass 12, no. 8 (2018): e12598.
Mike Savage and Johs Hjellbrekke. The Sociology of Elites: a European
stocktaking and call for collaboration. LSE Working Paper.
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.