élite theorythe hypothesis that political élites are inevitable in complex modern societies. In its original form this theory was a sociological response to the relative failure of modern democratic movements, judged by their own highest objectives. Rather than power to the people, the advent of modern DEMOCRACY brought new bases of élite membership. Associated particularly with the pessimistic view of modern democracy taken by PARETO and, to a lesser extent MOSCA, élites were seen as an inevitable consequence of psychological differences between élites and MASSES and the organizational requirements of modern societies. See also IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY, MICHELS. Compare RULING CLASS.
In its more recent form (see DEMOCRATIC ÉLITISM) élite theory has modified its pessimism about modern democracy Building on arguments already implicit in the work of theorists such as Mosca and Michels that different bases of élite power have important social consequences, what some theorists (e.g. Dahl, 1961) now propose is that a democratic competition between rival representative élites constitutes the best practicable form of modern government. Compare POWER ÉLITE; see also STABLE DEMOCRACY.
The study of élites and the testing of élite theories has been a notably controversial area. While some researchers (e.g. Hunter, 1963) have pursued a ‘reputational’ approach asking respondents ‘who holds power’, others, including Dahl, have argued only the careful study of actual ‘decisions’ – the outcomes of the operation of power – can satisfactorily establish who in fact is powerful. Even this, however, is not decisive, for as Bachrach and Baratz (1962) have argued, the study of overt ‘decisions’ fails to explore the existence of ‘non-decisions’ (see COMMUNITY POWER), the many circumstances in which the balance of power may be such as to preclude political debate or political contest, so that no overt point of‘decision’ is actually observable. See also POWER, MASS SOCIETY.