élite theory

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élite theory

the 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.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
References in periodicals archive ?
In particular, it provides an economic foundation for the elite theory that has been developed by social scientists for more than a century and integrates elite theory into the public-choice framework.
The paper is hinged on elite theory. The theory was propounded in the 1930s, by the likes of Vilfredo Pareto (1935) and Gaetano Mosca (1939).
McCloskey has a broader vision of the bourgeoisie than is found in Marx, or by extension, in elite theory or the Occupy movement.
The book is careful to parse effects based on attentive and inattentive individuals, a decision that reveals how public opinion follows aspects of elite theory (i.e., citizen dependence on elite communications) as well as democratic theory (i.e., rational response to contemporary events).
This political science textbook introduces the elite theory of governance.
This study is hinged on the elite theory. The elite theory argues that all societies are made up of two broad groups of individuals: the elites and the masses.
In response to elite theory, pluralists depict think tanks as a diverse set of organizations promoting the interests of many groups competing to set policy agendas (see Polsby 1983; on pluralism generally, see Alford and Friedland 1985; Dahl 1974, 1989; Lukes 2004).
A particular strength of her conceptual analysis of the position of the media in the transitional process is a restrained application of elite theory, which has largely been applied to stable democracies where it is projected, more or less, as the nucleus of national power.
Fine connoisseur of the German and Italian social-democratic movement, Robert Michels has tried to apply Vilfedo Pareto and especially Gaetano Mosca's elite theory to the capitalist working class.
Wright Mils in his "Political Elite Theory" presented in his book "The Power Elite".