Sociology Elites
Shamus Khan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0017


Elites are those who have vastly disproportionate access to or control over a social resource. Such resources have transferable value—access or control in one arena of social life can result in advantages in other. This control over or access to transferable social resources provides elites with disproportionate social power and advantages; their decisions and actions influence and affect vast numbers of people. We can categorize elites by the kinds of resources they have access to or control. We might speak of “economic” elites, who have money or control over the economy; “political” elites, who influence or make decisions within the state; “social” elites, whose personal ties provide them with information and access to other resources; “cultural” elites, who influence social tastes, dispositions, and cultural development; and “knowledge” elites, who control or influence social knowledge. These arenas of social power are not exclusive—more-powerful elites have access to more resources. Scholars often focus on the social institutions that serve gatekeeping functions to these resources. These include the family, clubs, and, most importantly, schools. Most studies of elites understand this group relationally. The asymmetric advantages enjoyed by elites are understood relative to the disadvantages of the less powerful. As such, elites are understood less in relation to their particular properties and more in terms of the social structural conditions that allow for the emergence or seizure of particular advantages. Elite sociology is not a particular coherent realm of inquiry. It transcends a range of subject areas and overlaps with other social science disciplines, notably history, economics, and political science. After the rights movements of the late 1960s, interest in elites waned, with the notable exception of social science work in France. More recently, work on elites has become popular again.

Classic Works

Before the 1970s, the study of elites was somewhat fashionable, and the subject area was relatively more coherent. These studies tended to focus on the resilience of elites as democratic institutions become more prominent (Michels 1915). They asked how a small group of people could retain social power as such political institutions seemed to open to the masses (Domhoff 1967, Giddens 1973 [see Political section], Mills 1956, Mosca 1939), as economic opportunities expanded from the long-term control over lands to innovations within commerce and production. In short, as the world radically changed, how was it that a seemingly tiny group was able to retain the lion’s share of social power (Pareto 1935)? More recently, particularly through the influence of work in France (Bourdieu 1984), elite sociology has revived (Bottomore 1993), in part through expanding the analysis beyond economic and political power and ties, to some of the more cultural elements of the elite (Veblen 1994).

  • Bottomore, Tom B. 1993. Elites and society. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    Bottomore outlines the various theoretical approaches to elite theory. An indispensable text for its parsimonious yet judicious review of the varied theoretical approaches to elites and the ways in which they have been categorized by different social thinkers. Originally published in 1965.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Bourdieu presents a theory of “distinction” within a relational analysis. Elites are those within a “field of power” who have considerable social, economic, cultural, and/or symbolic capital. Bourdieu conceptualizes elites relative to the power they have over others (to define tastes through consumption, association, or disposition) and holds that among elites there is a constant struggle for the relative strength of the resource they most firmly control. Originally published in French in 1979.

  • Dahrendorf, Ralf. 1959. Class and class conflict in industrial society. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Dahrendorf was critical of the turn made by Mills, seeing the ruling elites as an almost cabal-like group. He argued that it bordered on conspiracy theory. Instead, Dahrendorf argued that there was no “elite class.” Elites do not share common interests. Instead, they are a group who, because of their social power, share a degree of autonomy that allows them to influence state policy.

  • Domhoff, William G. 1967. Who rules America? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Domhoff argues that the upper class in the United States is both a social class and a governing class. Due to common socialization and network participation, people in higher levels of government and business tend to have similar backgrounds and social ties to one another. The power elite is the “operating arm” of the upper class.

  • Mills, C. Wright 1956. The power elite. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The American power structure is characterized by three levels: (1) the power elite, consisting of corporate, military, and executive leadership; (2) a middle stratum, consisting of labor, regional/local elites, members of Congress, and other organized groups; and (3) the unorganized masses. He explained the power structure of the United States as an integrated array of elites in different spheres.

  • Michels, Robert. 1915. Political parties: A sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy. Translated by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul. New York: Free Press.

    Famous for the term iron law of oligarchy. Michels argues that as organizations become more formally organized, they become less democratic. To meet organizational demands and stay in power, organizational leaders tend to act in antidemocratic ways. Michels sees the masses as disorganized and incapable of collective action unless led by an activist minority. Originally published in German in 1911.

  • Mosca, Gaetano. 1939. The ruling class. London: McGraw-Hill.

    Suggests that the “ruling class” is almost uniform in its interest, as such uniformity is required for a minority that rules a majority. Looking across a range of time periods, Mosca finds that there is nothing hereditary or natural about elite rule. Instead, Mosca identifies the superior organization of this minority as the key to explaining its elite position. Originally published in Italian in 1896.

  • Pareto, Vilfredo. 1935. The mind and society: A treatise on general sociology. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

    English translation of Trattato di Sociologia Generale, first published in 1916. Pareto argues that people are unequal in their qualities. The group that is more gifted than others is the elite. From this Pareto developed the idea of the “circulation of elites.” In healthy societies, elite status is not inherited or protected through social institutions. Instead, new members join the elite because they are the most talented. Those elites who lack talents should lose their status.

  • Veblen, Thornstein. 1994. The theory of the leisure class. New York: Penguin.

    In warring tribes, the winners would make the losers perform degrading, difficult tasks. Though these jobs were more socially productive than those performed by the rulers, higher-status groups began to be valued for their lack of social activity. Elites are a “leisure class.” Coining the term conspicuous consumption, Veblen argues that elites do little to advance the economy or the social welfare and instead define themselves by their leisure and consumption. Originally published in 1899.

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