Pareto Vilfredo

Pareto Vilfredo

(1848-1923) French-born, Italian engineer and social scientist who turned to sociology only in later life. In social science, he sought to apply the principles of mechanical systems in equilibrium to social systems, an approach which influenced Talcott PARSONS. He is best known in sociology for his work on political ÉLITES.

His first recognition in social science was as an economist, in which subject he is still remembered for his ideas on the distribution of income (see PARETO OPTIMALITY). Disillusioned with liberal politics and believing that political economy could not ignore psychological and sociological factors, the major focus of his sociological analysis was on social differentiation as an enduring feature of social and political life, including a distinction between élites and masses.

Critical of SPENCER‘s evolutionism as well as MARX's socialism, Pareto made the ‘unequal distribution of capacities’ the bedrock of sociological theory. He accepted neither liberal or Marxian conceptions of social progress. Rather he saw history as involving the endless CIRCULATION OF ÉLITES. According to Pareto: ‘a political system in which the “people” expresses its will (supposing it had one, which is arguable) without cliques, intrigues, lobbies and factions, exists only as a pious wish of theorists. It is not observable in the past or present either in the West or anywhere else.’

As Pareto conceived of it, much of social life was governed by the operation of underlying nonrational psychological forces (see RESIDUES AND DERIVATIONS). These he believed had been ignored by most previous theorists, and had been given a proper scientific analysis only by him. Above all he distinguished between ‘non-logical’ and logical’forms of action (see LOGICAL AND NONLOGICAL ACTION). Previous theorists had simply underestimated the extent of the former, while overestimating the movement from non-rationality to rationality in human societies. Equilibrium in societies is seen by Pareto as something that can only be understood as the outcome of the complex interplay of sentiments and interests.

Pareto's major sociological work – Trattoto di sociologia generale – first published in Italy in 1916 (and translated as The Mind and Society, 1936) is a rambling treatise of very great length, in which, despite great pretensions to a new scientific rigour, his ideas are illustrated rather than systematically tested. While his contribution to ÉLITE THEORY and his conception of ‘social system’ influenced many (including Mussolini), no one now accepts the detail of his sociological thinking.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000