What is Elite Theory? Here’s the simple explanation

Elite is a value-free term inclusive of all who score high on scales of social values, power, wealth, or knowledge. Elite theory of political power nothing but the unequal distribution of resources, skills of leadership and power. This theory seeks to explain power relationships that are now seen in the modern-day era. Often negotiations between marginalized groups and the country can be studied through discussions made between elites and the ordinary people.

The Elitist View refers to a dominant minority that rules regardless of the form of government and this view is supported by some prominent like Pareto, Michels, Mosca and Mills. These scholars were sceptical about democracy because it is a few who possess the power, have the skill to rule, they are endowed to rule and that they should rule.

The core of the elite theory is that in any society, there is and must be a minority of the population which makes the major decisions in the society and rules the majority. This minority is called the “governing elite” or “political class” – they have their influence on government decisions and policymaking. The minority gains dominance due to influence through certain social, religious, heredity or personal qualifications/achievements and this is beyond the concept of ordinary elections.

Elitism has 3 main characteristics and is the factors why it thrives: group cohesion, consciousness, and conspiracy which implies that elite rule only exists when elites are united. Power gives access to more power to obtain other social goods, economic status, influence social status, educational advantages and so on. This helps the elites maintain their domination over others for subsequent generations thereafter. The elite doctrine believes that the dominant minority cannot be controlled by the majority regardless of the democratic mechanism used. Pareto and Mosca described the phenomenon of ‘circulation of elites’. This circulation among differences categories of the governing elite itself and there’s circulation between the elite and therefore rest of the population.

Pareto’s concept of circulation of elites implies that the process is irregular but incessant as new men of money and power replace the old ones. The circulation of elites is aided and supplemented by raising religious and humanitarian sentiments. In such a time, the existing elite becomes softer, milder, and more humane and less apt to defend its power.

There are 2 classes of the power structure in all societies – A class that rules and a class that is ruled. The first Mosca says that in all countries – “the management of public affairs is in the hands of the minority of influential people to whom willingly or unwillingly, the majority defer. All political cases tend to become hereditary. The circulation of the elite is forceful and makes the point that the whole history of civilized mankind comes down to a conflict between the tendency of the dominant elements to monopolise political power and transmit it by legacy and the inclination towards the displacement of old forces and emergence of new forces.

Influenced by Max Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy as well as by Pareto’s and Mosca’s theories of elite rule, Robert Micheles in his book, “Political Parties” propounded the “iron law of oligarchy”. Michels contended that organizational oligarchy resulted, most primarily, from the priorities of modern organization: skilled leadership, central power, and the distribution of tasks within a pro bureaucracy. The rule by an elite or oligarchy is unavoidable as an “iron law” within any democratic organisation as a part of the tactical and technical necessities of the organisation. No matter how democracies develop, they eventually become oligarchies.

C Wright Mills in his book, The Power Elite in the year 1956 identified a threesome of power groups i.e. the political, economic, and military—which form a divergent yet not united, power-exercising body in the United States. Mills projected that this group had been generated through a process of justification at work in all advanced industrial societies whereby the mechanisms of power became concentrated, funnelling overall control into the hands of a restricted and an unethical group. This imitated a deterioration in politics as a field for discussion and downgrading it to a merely formal level of discourse. This macro-scale examination pursued to point out the degradation of democracy in “advanced” civilisations and therefore the undeniable fact that power generally lies outside the boundaries of elected representatives.



Mahima Shankar, currently pursuing 3rd year in Sociology from M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women, Chennai.