Elites: Sociological Study of Elites (C. Wright Mills)

In political sociological theory, elite is composed of a small group of powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, political power, or skill in a society.  The “elite” are “those people or organizations that are considered the best or most powerful compared to others of a similar type.”

American sociologist C. Wright Mills states that the power elite members recognize other members’ mutual exalted position in society. “As a rule, ‘they accept one another, understand one another, marry one another, tend to work, and to think, if not together at least alike’.” “It is a well-regulated existence where education plays a critical role. Youthful upper-class members attend prominent preparatory schools, which not only open doors to such elite universities as Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth College, Yale, and Princeton, but also to the universities’ highly exclusive clubs. These memberships in turn pave the way to the prominent social clubs located in  major cities, serving as sites for important business contacts.”

According to Mills, men receive the education necessary for elitist privilege to obtain their background and contacts, allowing them to enter three branches of the power elite, which are;

The Political Leadership: Since the end of World War II, corporate leaders had become more prominent in the political process, with a decline in central decision-making for professional politicians.

The Military Circle: a heightened concern about warfare existed, making top military leaders and such issues as defense funding and personnel recruitment very important. Most prominent corporate leaders and politicians were strong proponents of military spending.

The Corporate Elite: In the 1950s when military emphasis was pronounced, it was corporate leaders working with prominent military officers who dominated policies. These two groups tended to be mutually supportive.

According to Mills, the governing elite in the US primarily draws its members from political leaders, including the president, and a handful of key cabinet members, as well as close advisers, major corporate owners and directors, and high-ranking military officers. These groups overlap and elites tend to circulate from one sector to another, consolidating power in the process.

Unlike the ruling class, a social formation based on heritage and social ties, the power elite is characterized by the organizational structures through which its wealth is acquired. According to Mills, the power elite rose from “the managerial reorganization of the propertied classes into the more or less unified stratum of the corporate rich”.

Domhoff clarified the differences in the two terms: “The upper class as a whole does not do the ruling. Instead, class rule is manifested through the activities of a wide variety of organizations and institutions…Leaders within the upper class join with high-level employees in the organizations they control to make up what will be called the power elite”.[12]

The power elite is a term used by Mills to describe a relatively small, loosely connected group of individuals who dominate American policymaking. This group includes bureaucratic, corporate, intellectual, military, media, and government elites who control the principal institutions in the United States and whose opinions and actions influence the decisions of the policymakers.[14]

The basis for membership of a power elite is institutional power, namely an influential position within a prominent private or public organization.[5]

A study of the French corporate elite has shown that social class continues to determining who joins this elite group, with those from the upper-middle class dominating.[15]

A 2002 study of power elites in the US under President George W. Bush (2001-2009) identified 7,314 institutional positions of power encompassing 5,778 individuals.[16]

A later study of U.S. society noted demographic characteristics of this elite group as follows:

Age: Corporate leaders aged about 60; heads of foundations, law, education, and civic organizations aged around 62; government employees aged about 56.

Gender: Men contribute roughly 80% in the political realm whereas women contribute roughly only 20% in the political realm. In the economic denomination, as of October 2017, only 32 (6.4%) of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.[17]

Ethnicity: In the USA White Anglo-Saxons dominate in the power elite, with Protestants representing about 80% of the top business leaders, and about 73% of members of Congress. As of October 2017, only 4 (0.8%) of the Fortune 500 CEOs are African American.

As of October 2017, 10 (2%) of the Fortune 500 CEOs are Latino, and 10 (2%) are Asian.

Education: Nearly all leaders have college education, with half graduating with advanced degrees. About 54% of the big-business leaders, and 42% of the government elite graduated from 12 prestigious universities with large endowments.

Most holders of top positions in the power elite possess exclusive membership to social clubs. About a third belong to a small number of prestigious clubs in major cities like London, New York City, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

Select Bibliography

Ansell, Ben W.; Samuels, David J. (2015). Inequality and Democratization : An Elite-Competition Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Heinrich Best, Ronald Gebauer & Axel Salheiser (Eds.): Political and Functional Elites in Post-Socialist Transformation: Central and East Europe since 1989/90. Historical Social Research 37 (2), Special Issue, 2012.

Jan Pakulski, Heinrich Best, Verona Christmas-Best & Ursula Hoffmann-Lange (Eds.): Elite Foundations of Social Theory and Politics. Historical Social Research 37 (1), Special Issue, 2012.

Dogan, Mattei (2003). Elite configurations at the apex of power.

Domhoff, G. William (1990). The power elite and the state: how policy is made in America. Transaction Publishers.

Hartmann, Michael (2007). The sociology of elites. Taylor & Francis.

Rothkopf, David (2009). Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making. Macmillan.

Scott, John, ed. (1990). The Sociology of Elites: The study of elites. Edward Elgar.

Jenkins, Craig; Eckert, Craig (2000). “The Right Turn in Economic Policy: Business Elites and the New Conservative Economics”. Sociological Forum. 15 (2): 307–338.