The Social Science Encyclopedia

Authors: Kuper & Kuper
Summary: To define the term, the entry distinguishes between two different traditions. In the older tradition, elites are treated as exemplars who fulfill a historic mission, meet a crucial need, possess superior talents, or otherwise demonstrate qualities which set them apart. In the newer tradition, elites are understood more neutrally as incumbents: those who are, collectively, the influential figures in the governance of any sector of society, any institutional structure, or any geographic locality. They are thus roughly the same as leaders, decision-makers or influentials. This newer approach to the study of elites is more matter-of-fact.
Many scholars have worked out theories of elites. Mosca and Pareto both presumed that a ruling class effectively monopolized the command posts of a society. Michels insisted that, according to his "iron law of oligarchy," in any organization an inner circle of participants would take over and run it for their own purposes. Lasswell's formulation was radically pluralistic. According to him, elites are those who get the most of what there is to get in any institutionalized sector of society, not just in the governing institutions. Pareto stressed how elites change their character; he saw vitality and decay as an endless cycle.
In the modern world, when elites are seen as housed within conventionally recognized establishments such as military, diplomatic, legislative or party structures, mid-elites and cadres are linked hierarchically to top elites and specialized to implement the specific public and system goal of their domains.