Comparative Political Elites

  • Ignacio Arana ArayaEmail author
Living reference work entry



Political elite members are individuals who influence or make political decisions that have consequences at the national level. De jure elite members control the top positions in the three powers of the state, while de facto members exercise influence from the shadows, based on their prominent role in society. Political elites vary across countries in their number, recruitment, circulation, integration, and diversity.


Public Administration and Policy in Latin America.


In 1976, Robert Putnam complained that the comparative study of elites remained overly theoretical, with few studies conducting empirical analyses. Such description is currently untenable. In the last decades, research on comparative elites has observed a notorious increase in the number of studies using longitudinal elite surveys and quantitative techniques to analyze data for different regions. Latin Americanists have followed this trend, forming at least two centers to study elites ( and The proliferation of studies and increased methodological variety has allowed to test theories and to understand patterns of recruitment, circulation, competition, integration, and policy attitudes in the political elite. Nonetheless, there are still many areas to unearth. We still know little about the influence of de facto elite members in national decision making. We also ignore how internally cohesive (integrated) political elites are, the role of elite members in bureaucracies and the judicial power, how elite members influence the policymaking process, and the relation between the individual differences of elite members and political outcomes.

Researching elites is not an easy task because a good part of their activities are hidden from the public. Nonetheless, it is an area of research that needs to be developed further to understand how democracies work. This entry examines the state-of-the-art in the study of comparative political elites, with a focus on Latin American elites.

What Are Political Elites?

Burton and Highley (2001: p. 182) define political elites as “the several thousand persons who hold top positions in large or otherwise powerful organizations and movements and who participate in or directly influence national political decision-making.” This definition is uncontroversial: most authors agree that small social groups that concentrate national political decision-making are the backbone of political elites (e.g., Hoffmann-Lange 2007; Putnam 1976).

Political elites have the capacity to dramatically increase and harm the collective well-being of society. They control the three powers of the state and therefore give life and manage the institutions that shape intrastate, state-society, and civic society relations. Political elites decide on the use of the monopoly of force, national economic policies, and the relations with other states. Their messages are so important that they have a profound effect on the beliefs and behavior of average citizens (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000). In fact, for some scholars, elite values and behavior reflect the quality of democracy. Dahl (1973) claimed that democracy becomes possible only once elites have developed patterns of political competition and can form a government without the fear of suffering violence. Relatedly, several studies have found that in democracies elites are more committed to democratic values than the mass public (Sullivan et al. 1993; Stein 1998). In short, like no other group, political elites define the path that a country will follow.

Modern theorists of elites erupted at the turn of the twentieth century, when European elites were being threatened by the rapid expansion of the right to vote, civil rights, modern bureaucracies, and (antioligarchic) socialist ideas. Mosca (1896), Pareto (1900), and Michels (1915) began to systematically analyze how privileged individuals exercise influence in society: who composed the elites? How did they reach a position of power? How could they lose it? Was the elite homogeneous or diverse? These authors coincided in describing societies divided between rulers and the rest. They agreed that political elites tended to be homogenous in customs and values and endogenously perpetuated because their members came from the privileged class. While Mosca normatively proposed that power should be concentrated in a small, capable elite, Pareto and Michels claimed that inevitably in any organization a qualified minority would take the lead.

The assessment of political elites would change by the mid-twentieth century. Among others, Dahl (2005) and Schumpeter (1942/2008) begun to talk about elites in the plural, questioning the validity of descriptions that depicted them as single groups that concentrated political, social, economic, and cultural power. Dahl (2005) described leaders and subleaders within the elites. The latter category included individuals with an unprivileged socio-demographic origin, but whose specialization allowed them to participate in political decision-making.

The pluralist view has prevailed for obvious reasons. Modern democracies are composed of different types of elites. A senator, a cardinal, a businessman, and a renowned writer exercise influence in the political, social, economic, and cultural elites, respectively, and they do not need to interact with each other. Moreover, elites are internally divided. In political elites, different factions are organized mainly through political parties. In fact, Aldrich (1995) defined parties as institutionalized coalitions of elites that aim to capture and use political office.

The study of political elites proliferated since the last quarter of the twentieth century. Scholars have increasingly attempted to address Putnam’s critiques, conducting empirical studies and accepting that the political elite has distinctive recruiting and career patterns and that it is composed of a complex and diverse structure of organizations and individuals (Blondel and Müller-Rommel 2007).

A key aspect of elite studies is the extent of the elites’ internal differentiation and integration. Elite differentiation alludes to the diversification within the elite regarding number, organization, specialization, and social heterogeneity (Keller 1991). Integration refers to how internally cohesive the political elite is (Putnam 1976, pp. 118–121). In other words, differentiation refers to the proliferation of groups within the elite, while integration refers to how these groups relate to each other. Naturally, both dimensions are interrelated: integration is what keeps political elites together despite increasing diversity and specialization, although it is harder to attain as power is dispersed among diverse groups (Burton and Higley 2001, p. 184).

How to Study Political Elites?

The first methodological step a researcher needs to make is to decide what type of information she wants to collect about elite members. Scholars may be interested in the social background of elite members, such as their ethnicity, socioeconomic origin, formal education, and religiosity. Researchers may also be interested in studying the trajectories of elite members to uncover patterns of elite circulation and behavior. The path of elite members can reveal who and how enters the political elite, how to succeed (or fail) in it, and the roles performed in such select group. A third type of study that researchers may be interested in is the study of the personality of elite members. Since human beings have stable personality traits that do not vary much over time (Costa and McCrae 1992; Goldberg 1990), researchers may want to examine how the individual differences of elite members explain their behavior.

The controversies start when defining who belongs to the political elite. Burton and Highley (2001: p.182) mention that the political elite is composed of “top business, government, and military leaders, but also top position holders in parties, professional associations, trade unions, media, interest groups, religious, and other powerful and hierarchically structured organizations and sociopolitical movements.” Arana (2016) differentiates between de jure and de facto political elites. De jure elite members derive their influence from their legal, formal positions, while de facto elite members exercise influence from the shadows, based on their role in society. The first category includes positions such as heads of state, heads of government, ministers, vice ministers, Supreme Court Justices, governors, intendants, Senators, Deputies, party leaders, majors, ambassadors, councilors, and high-profile civil servants. The second category can include businessmen, lobbyists, union leaders, campaign donors, analysts, academics, journalists, and religious, military, and civic society leaders. These categories serve to reduce the number of people in which researchers should focus, but not to identify individual elite members.

Researchers need a strategy to identify who belongs to the political elite. Following Hoffman-Lange (2007), there are three strategies: reputational, decisional, and positional. In the reputational, researchers ask experts to identify elite members. The downside of this approach is that it is onerous and the experts’ knowledge and judgment conditions the identification of elite members. The decisional approach identifies elite members through the analysis of documents and interviews that reveal who the decision-makers in relevant areas are. Since this approach does not depend on subjective evaluations, it is less biased than the reputational method. However, it may exclude elite members who do not make decisions in the selected areas, or who informally participate in national decision-making (e.g., entrepreneurs and opinion leaders). The positional approach is the most used to identify political elites (e.g., Higley et al. 1979; Dye 2002). This method recognizes elite members based on the formal positions they hold. A critical weakness of this approach is that it excludes de facto elite members. Arguably, the shortcomings of the positional approach can be corrected combining it with the reputational approach.

Once elite members are identified, there are different methods to study them. One alternative consists of directly interviewing or surveying them. In presidential systems, legislators are by far the most surveyed, with studies spanning countries such as Brazil (McDonough 2014), United States (Lerner et al. 1996), and all of Latin America (the survey conducted in 18 countries by the Observatorio de Élites Parlamentarias de América Latina, These studies have uncovered relevant data, including the legislators’ origin, trajectory, and degree of consensus and dissent among them (Hoffmann-Lange 2007). However, it is often difficult to contact political elite members and, even if contacted, they may be unwilling to answer researchers’ requests or answer them insincerely. To avoid these limitations, social scientists have developed quantitative and qualitative methods that allow studying individuals at a distance.

Four methods stand out: psychobiographies, content analysis, historiometry, and expert surveys. Psychobiographers explore the life of prominent people, focusing on certain relevant aspects of the life of their subjects of study to have a deeper understanding of their decisions, motivations, and behavior. The primary technique used by psychobiographers is psychoanalysis. By emphasizing the importance of certain events in the lives of prominent individuals, this method helps to develop hypotheses to explain their behavior. However, the shortcoming is that psychoanalysis is highly subjective and therefore cannot be falsifiable (Elms 1997).

The other three techniques overcome the subjectivity of psychobiographies and other qualitative studies by using statistical tools (Song and Simonton 2007). Content analysis is the analysis of different types of texts (including images and recordings) related to psychological constructs. Students of presidents, for example, have examined their diaries, speeches (Winter and Carlson 1988), and letters (Suedfeld et al. 1986). Historiometric studies test hypotheses of individuals using quantitative methods on historical data. Galton (1869) popularized historiometric studies in what is considered the first social scientific attempt to study geniuses and greatness. There have also been studies centered on American presidents (Simonton 1986). Expert surveys allow gathering information and data from qualified individuals. They are used in different areas, from health issues to investment decisions to military conflict. According to Meyer and Booker (2001), researchers gather expert judgment to (1) provide estimates on new, rare, complex, or poorly understood phenomena; (2) forecast future events; (3) interpret or integrate existing data; (4) learn the processes through which experts solve problems or groups make decisions; and (5) capture the present knowledge of a field. Expert surveys are the most popular technique among those who attempt to assess American presidents (e.g., Arana 2016; Taranto and Leo 2004), and may become the most popular method among political elite researchers. Compared to the alternatives, the measurement advantages of expert surveys are straightforward: they offer high levels of measurement validity and can cover more extensive and updated information at a low cost (Arana 2016).

Political Elites in Latin America

The study of Latin American political elites was sporadic and unsystematic until the 1980s (an exception is Lipset and Solari 1967), when regime transitions started. Since then, scholars began to examine more methodically the composition and behavior of political elites to understand if those factors could explain successful (or failed) transitions toward democracy (e.g., Higley and Gunther 1992).

Prominent scholars proposed that democratic transitions and breakdowns were the results of elite choices (e.g., O’donnell and Schmitter 1986; López-Pintor 1987). For O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986), the decisions, political skills, and leadership of elite members were as important as the country’s level of development, path dependency, and social structure to explain regime change. These authors proposed a turn from dependency theory, dominant in Latin American studies during the 1970s. They started a shift from explanations based on long-term structural forces to analyses centered on the strategic agency of political elites.

However, some scholars disagree with the claim that political elites have significantly changed in the region. Highley and Burton (1989) argued that disunity is the general condition of national elites and that such disunity persists irrespective of socioeconomic development and regime change. That would explain the regime instability and authoritarian setbacks experienced by newly democratized countries. More recently, Rovira (2009) proposed an intermediate position. He claimed that taking into account extended periods of time, there is significant elite circulation in Latin America. Rovira (2009) examined the trajectories of several countries and described processes in which counter-elites that ambitioned to develop new models of society replaced existing elites. As examples of elite replacement, he mentioned the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), the emergence of Peronism in Argentina, the 1973 military coup in Chile, and the “Estado Novo” in Brazil (1937–1945) under the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship. Irrespective of the different approaches, most authors agree that political elites have played a key role during the democratizations and authoritarian setbacks experienced in the region since the 1980s.

Once the nascent democracies became more stable, scholars focused on how political elites related to the quality of political representation and democracy (Albala 2016). In the 1990s, there was a proliferation of studies centered on members of Congress. The collective behavior of Latin American legislators became widely researched (e.g., Cox and Morgenstern 2001; Jones 2002; Alemán and Tsevelis 2006). At the individual level, the University of Salamanca’s Project of Parliamentary Elites in Latin America ( has conducted five rounds of interviews with legislators from 18 countries. These publicly available datasets have revealed interesting patterns. For instance, Corral (2011) used them to analyze elite and mass support for democracy in the region, finding a stronger preference for democracy at the elite than at the mass level.

While research centered on legislative behavior continues to grow, recent years have witnessed an increase of studies focused on the executive. Most research has centered on the practice of ministers from different countries, such as Argentina (Camerlo 2014), Brazil (Codato et al. 2014), and Chile (Dávila et al. 2013). Unfortunately, most of these works do not compare ministers across countries. Recently, Arana (2016) conducted a cross-country examination of the individual characteristics of those at the top of the political elite, presidents. He showed that, taken as a group, Latin American presidents tend to come from affluent socioeconomic backgrounds, at least one third are either lawyers or worked in the security forces, and that the leaders tend to score low on agreeableness and neuroticism, moderately high in extroversion and openness to experience, and high in conscientiousness. The next step in this type research is to explore how the individual differences among elite members such as presidents explain their behavior and decision-making.

An important research question among students of political elites is whether privileged individuals represent the societies they rule. Kitschelt et al. (1999) argued that strong ideological commitments between political elites and citizens help to create cycles of political responsiveness and accountability, which leads to policy stability. In contrast, shallow connections between elites and the mass public may incline citizens to be more open to an authoritarian regression (Diamond 1996).

Some scholars have explored the elite-mass public connection. Since the primary mechanism that political elites use to formally organize themselves and represent citizens is political parties (Aldrich 1995), some studies have examined party behavior. Rosas (2005) found that there is significant ideological variation across parties and legislatures in Latin America. For instance, while the Chilean and Mexican legislatures are highly organized along ideological lines, the opposite occurs with their counterparts in Bolivia and Peru. The author also found that the regional ideological variation takes into account political, cultural, and economic dimensions. For example, he found a relevant economic-distributive divide in most legislatures, but not in Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador. Similarly, Luna and Zeichmeister (2005) found that there are significant differences across regional elites. The authors used elite and mass data to create measures of representation in nine countries and showed that in Chile and Uruguay, party elites accurately represent the preferences of their voters, who have clear policy positions. In contrast, representation is weaker in countries with lower levels of political and socioeconomic development, such as Bolivia and Ecuador. In sum, Rosas (2005) and Luna and Zeichmeister (2005) show that it is hard to make generalizations about Latin American elites. Organized in parties, they have demonstrated a high level of differentiation across countries.

The importance of the elite-mass connection remarks the relevance of the messages and values that regional elites hold. The evidence remains mixed. Corral (2011) found that national elites have a stronger attachment to democracy than the general population. But the work of Stevens et al. (2006) suggests that such elite support may be feeble. They examined the prevalence and consequences of authoritarian attitudes among elites in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Among other things, they found that perceptions of economic threat raise elite levels of authoritarianism. This finding seems problematic in developing nations that periodically have experienced financial crisis, because it makes support for democracy conditional on economic performance.

Conclusion and Future Agenda

Putnam’s (1976) criticism is no longer tenable. The study of political elites has dramatically increased since the 1980s. Latin Americanists have examined the role of regional elites during regime changes, have explored the elite-mass electoral connection, have empirically shown that national elites are ideologically diverse, and that in recent history there have been processes of elite circulation (although this view remains somewhat contested). Over the last few years, scholars have studied individual elite members in the legislature and in the executive with the aim to understand how their characteristics and behavior relate to the quality of political representation and democracy.

Despite the numerous progresses in the study of Latin American political elites, there are still relevant areas that remain unexplored. First and foremost, we still know little about how the de facto political elite influences national decision making. There has been some advances, though. Arana (2012), for example, analyzed how the type of presidential leadership shapes the relationship between ministers and presidential advisors. But we still know little, for instance, about how businessmen, lobbyists, union leaders, and campaign donors influence political decision making.

Second, although we are aware that there is significant elite differentiation across countries, we still know little about elite integration. As aforementioned, the level of cohesiveness within political elites is relevant to understand issues as important as regime stability and elite support for democracy.

Third, studies on the elite members of the executive and legislative powers have not been replicated by examinations of elite members in bureaucracies and the higher echelons of the judiciary (i.e., Constitutional Courts and Supreme Courts). This lack of research is an unfortunate lacuna because regional bureaucracies (and some judicial systems) are highly sensitive to changes in the political elite. Scholars have described Latin American bureaucracies as having low levels of professionalization and stability because they tend to employ servants who are responsive to politicians and special interests (Zuvanic et al. 2010).

Fourth, political elites are responsible for the policymaking process, but much research is pending in this area. Numerous works have explored how the composition of parties, legislatures, and the executive explain policymaking. However, there is little information on how the composition, integration, and diversity of the political elites help to explain policy outcomes. The most prominent work on how politics impacts policy making – Policymaking in Latin America (Stein et al. 2008) – analyzes interactions between actions and institutions, but pays little attention to the interactions among actors who influence policymaking.

Finally, researchers have failed to associate the individual differences of elite members to political outcomes. This failure is especially relevant in a region where key members of the elites led the transitions toward democracy, first, and the democratic consolidation, later.

To identify future areas of research is easier than explaining how to expand elite research. The most apparent limitation is that political elites do not want to expose the private, informal relations that connect their members and that are crucial to understand their behavior. However, preceding research has already shown some techniques to study them (e.g., semi-structured interviews, expert surveys, elite surveys, content analysis, archival analysis, and psychobiographies). The recent proliferation of studies that analyze political elites suggests that, in the short term, researchers will address most of the challenges mentioned.




FONDECYT Project N°3160357 generously funded this research.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto de Ciencia PolíticaPontificia Universidad Católica de ChileSantiagoChile