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A2 Unit 1 - Power and Politics

5) Elite Theory

Elite theory rejects the plurality that classical and elite pluralism proposes. Instead Elite theory says there is a small group of “power elites” who hold a very large percentage of power in society.

Classical elite theory was the work of Vilfredo Pareto (1848 – 1923), it states than there will always be this inequality of wealth, in every society due to genetic predispositions.

The big difference between classical elite theorist and Marxists is that elite theorists think the domination by power elites is desirable and natural. This is because some people are genetically better than the rest of society, so it is right and just that they rule.

Evaluation of Classical Elite Theory

+ Evidence from communist countries – Pareto said that even in communism there would still be an elite, this is evident in USSR where Stalin and others had massive power over the citizens who had very little power

– Classical elite theory has been accused of being to simplistic. This is because he says all societies are similar, however, even in the modern world, there is massive difference between different societies, for example North Korea and South Korea, although neighbours, couldn’t be more different.

However contemporary elite theory has differing views to that of classical Elite Theory. The main difference being that many modern elite theorist sociologists believe that rule by elites isn’t inevitable in society.

C. Wright Mills said that in American society there are 3 important institutions that create the power elite, the business community, the military and the government. He said that through these institutions and social networks, for example all power elites attending similar private schools, means the power elites share the same common interests, and the power continues to remain in these social circles.

Criticisms of C. Wright Mills

Critics of Mills’ work say that his research can only be applied to US society as that is where he studied. Also Dahl argues that pressure groups, religious leaders, trade unions etc. provide a counterbalance to the power elite, effectively reducing the power the elites have in society. Marxists also disagree, saying power in society doesn’t come from positions in institutions but instead from owning the means of production.

Another critic of C Wright Mills view that the power elite is set in stone by social networks is Budge. Budge said there is a “fragmented elite”. This is because the power elite is also made up of those who’ve won the lottery, X-Factor winners etc. as well as those C. Wright Mills described. Budge said that there is fragmented elite because of “elite recruitment” whereby normal people can enter into the power elite.


About Sam Cook

A blog set up to help A Level students revise Sociology


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