Handbook of Politics

Part of the series Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research pp 161-176

Elite Theory and Elites

  • John HigleyAffiliated withDepartment of Government, The University of Texas at Austin

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Elite theory's origins lie most clearly in the writings of Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941), Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), Robert Michels (1876–1936), and MaxWeber (1864–1920). Mosca emphasized the ways in which tiny minorities out-organize and outwit large majorities, adding that “political classes” — Mosca's term for political elites — usually have “a certain material, intellectual, or even moral superiority” over those they govern(1923/1939: 51). Pareto postulated that in a society with truly unrestricted social mobility, elites would consist of the most talented and deserving individuals; but in actual societies, elites are those most adept at using the two modes of political rule, force and persuasion, and who usually enjoy important advantages such as inherited wealth and family connections(1916/1935: 2031– 2034, 2051). Pareto sketched alternating types of governing elites, which he likened, following Machiavelli, to foxes and lions (see Marshall 2007). Michels rooted elites (“oligarchies”) in the need of large organizations for leaders and experts, in order to operate efficiently; as these individuals gain control of funds, information flows, promotions, and other aspects of organizational functioning, power becomes concentrated in their hands(1915/1962; see Linz 2006). Weber held that political action is always determined by “the principle of small numbers, that means, the superior political maneuverability of small leading groups. In mass states, this Caesarist element is ineradicable” (1978: 1414).