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Élite Theory

  Élite theorists, in historical and political studies, maintain that all forms of complex social organization inevitably become dominated by a small group, an élite (literally ‘the elect’, or ‘chosen’). In a normative sense élitism suggests that the skills needed to manage a complex organization, like the state, require the elevation of a select group to positions of control. The classical élite theorists, like Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Roberto Michels, argued that it is an empirical fact that governments and societies throughout history have been controlled by a ‘ruling class’ or power élite. Michels\' ‘iron law of oligarchy’ described the process whereby an élite, once in a position of leadership, is able to accumulate more power through the control of access to information and through the manipulation of the decision-making process. The iron law of oligarchy dovetails neatly with the conservative (see conservatism) belief in the necessity and virtue of hierarchy in human affairs.

As a theory of history, élite theory emerged as a reaction against Marxists who claimed that history has been the history of class struggle, but that after the socialist revolution there would no longer be any objective need for a ruling class. Élite theorists maintained that if Marxists were ever successful they would in turn form a new political élite. Indeed Pareto argued that political change is measured by the ability of an established élite to withstand challenges from the inevitable emergence of new élites. In Pareto\'s scheme the control of information, coercion and conciliation, and the management of bureaucratic power constitute determinants of the cycles of political change; he also detects a cycle in the psychological character of élites, in which ‘lions’ alternate with ‘foxes’.

The difficulty in defining where élite power begins and ends, especially in a democracy, is one focus of criticism of élite theory, especially by thinkers from the pluralist tradition (see pluralism). Modern élite theorists argue that though most liberal democracies superficially appear to be open to competition and influence by non-élites, in fact, this competition is managed from above by a small group, usually representatives of government, big business and the military, sometimes referred to as the ‘military-industrial complex’. Their critics maintain that this argument is unfalsifiable. The most prominent applications of élite theory in the social sciences analyse the background characteristics of élites (for example, their education and family history), and their social and professional networks. BO\'L

See also historical materialism; liberalism; socialism and social democracy.Further reading P. Dunleavy and , B. O\'Leary, Theories of the State: the Politics of Liberal Democracy; , S.J. Eldersveld, Political Elites in Modern Societies: Empirical Research and Democratic Theory.



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