The elite, its role and significance in society
The present study aims to explain and make clear the significance and fundamentals of the “elite” concept. It attempts to clarify the concept's very meaning. In so doing, it investigates the conditions and mechanisms under which some social group, a so–called ”elite”, is formed and operated with a view to organize the knowledge about the “elite” and bring the concept closer to those interested in its role and momentousness in societies, especially contemporary ones.
Eventually this issue can be related, somehow, to other issues, including the great importance attached to “power elites”, whose impacts are increasingly influencing the whole society, and sometimes even various societies. Henceforth the seriousness of the study emerges particularly if we keep in mind that certain personalities or persons appeared on the last twenty five years of the twentieth century – titles included among others, “leader of human development”, “father of home land”, “father of the nation”. Meanwhile most of the leaders led, in a way or another, their countries and societies to poverty and degradation.
Concept of Elite and its Significance.
The word “elite” is derived from the French “Elite” which originally meant “the good” or a “selected community”. But in the seventeenth century, the meaning developed referring to both people and commodities. In the nineteenth century, the English language borrowed the French concept, denoting a good selected group. In this latter sense the concept became quite common in social and political literature , especially in W. Pareto writings – the first who theorized idea of elites. Meanwhile the contemporary concept has acquired two close meaning. The first signifies useful people who excel in specific specializations; such a meaning is in fact very close to the concept of officials in the Latin sense of the word. Whereas the second (as dealt with in sociological and political sciences) applies to the knowledgeable and professionally distinguished persons among a group of people in some society, according to certain social tests.
Early beginnings, in this respect, date back to Greek studies where Agathos referred to the ideally mannered gentleman of noble birth. Then Platoon argued that the more knowledgeable persons should lead the utopian society which realizes comprehensive and complete conditions for the development and stability of society. The knowledge here indicates philosophers.
Therefore it is necessary to take into consideration the sociological characteristics of the phenomenon because these characteristic totally determine the phenomenon's features, details, types and motives.
the “Elite Theory”, apud W. Pareto, is divided into two parts. One part, the general concept, embraces all those persons who excelled in certain fields like science, arts, and sports in their societies. Thus, they become more distinguished than average or less-than-average people. He relied upon the idea that social differences generate differences in work, activities, persistence and patience. The second part of the theory deals with power elite. Pareto seemed to be influenced by G. Mosca who, in turn, categorized society into ruling elites and a public deprived of authority.
From this perspective, I disagree with Pareto for there is more than one elite type in society. Even the publics differ and vary from one individual to another. From a sheer sociological point of view, minorities enjoy a remarkable prestige in, for instance, economics, politics, science, culture, etc., and they are nominated according to certain principles derived from customs and traditions, not to mention those who inherit prestigious social positions, real estate owners, descendants of cultural heritage and the like, I can also add people of high rank, power or good reputation to the list.
Two types of those distinguished individuals are to be recognized:
Men of influence or actions; and
Men who work for important organizations or departments in their societies; they are unnecessarily appointed in an official way.
There are, undoubtedly, considerable differences between elite and the public. Jose Ortega y Gasset argued from a moral perspective, that “In Modern societies, one can identify two basic groups: a large group called the public or the peoples and a small group called a selected minority. The public are average undistinguished persons having no special values in the positive or negative sense of the word; and they are quite happy with this. Whereas the selected minority sets certain duties for themselves and is exposed to danger. They have specific values and feel, continuously, distinguished from the first group, the public”. Ortega further assumed that even some intellectuals may be classified under the category “the public“.
Here arises the question: under what conditions may an individual belong to the elite? Advocators of the social class’s concept assume that an elite has the highest values and some specific physical and psychological features. Pareto defined these values as someone's cultural values. (While Robert Michael and Max Weber, who put forward the Charismatic Leadership Theory, considered the psychological condition the most crucial in belonging to this class. Though the literature does not agree all along on the elite phenomenon, Weber thought that elites have something in common, i.e. the biological and psychological factor, and exceed the social and economic factor .
Harold Lasswell, the first who explained the phenomenon sociologically, linked it to individuals holding particular sociopolitical positions in society. (That's to say, the elite is associated with the sociopolitical position. Then Wright Mills developed the concept, assuming that belonging to the elite class is attributed to the person's position in the economic, social, political, or scientific structure etc. . Personal values, he added, ranks second .
Contemporary sociology differentiates between various meanings of the elite concept as follows: elite is a group of people who hold key positions in authority structure. They influence social life and social institution in society. They perform the functions of governmental authorities, political parties or social economic or cultural organizations, etc. Prestige and authority, here is linked to the person's true position in relation to the 'elite' or in the institution where he works.
a) Elite is a group of people who hold the highest position in authority or have special prestige in society. They, mainly, get the social approval necessary for their primary existence and have dominating qualifications and characteristics.
b) Elite is a group of people who hold the highest positions according to authority and prestige standards in a local society. They have certain traditional values, being local elites or some customary groups. Dahrendorf attempted to define the concept comprehensively. “The elite is a group of people who hold high position in political, economic, educational, legal, army, religious institutions, in society .
Elites appeared in old-time societies in the form of groups formed according to the nature and size of those societies. In some societies, elites consisted of elders; in others of religious men or tough fighters. As societies were developing, elites became more distinguished from the societies and individuals according to the degree of economic and social development. At a more advanced stage, aristocracy, moral leaders or leader ship guards – pushing some people towards authority or forming an authority body – raised and became elites later.
When societies developed, to a certain degree, especially the most industrial, the phenomenon of separating administration from the church – not only in industrial companies, but also in the complex bodies of the state which started to demand professionals in all fields – turned to the more appealing. Influenced by these shifts and by the increasing labor struggle for rights, the methods and means of managing the industrial centers and countries changed as well, here comes the contradiction between the industrial oligarchy and the founders of democratic bourgeois. At this point, the inevitable question is raised: what are the practical opportunities required to overcome such obstacles and contradictions?
First, consider the following rules:
(1) Legal knowledge about the equal opportunities available for the participation of all the educated and politically efficient citizens in public life should be widespread.
(2) Large groups of professionals should be qualified to become leaders capable of defining the entire social goals and demands; these goals are set by the most influential groups under the public's and society's eye of course.
Intelligent, active, leading groups can be selected from all social classes and categories according to professional standards and moral social indicators. Thus we aim to prevent permanently the negative phenomenon which Pareto related to the “elite circulation”. This causes an important value shift and substitution in leading positions.
Elites Models and Features.
The standards and criteria required to join such elites or elite groups are:
(1) The candidate should have a ceremonial title given by a cultural authority or by a religious authority.
(2) He may inherit a socially privileged position or have a land or other property that entitles him for one of the above-mentioned titles, or the like.
(3) He may have strong, wide connection with authority in economic, political, scientific, or cultural fields, so he can take decisions which fundamentally influence on the social life in his society.
(4) He has special values higher than the average person's and respected in society.
(5) He has values and things useful for certain elites, and thus he becomes acceptable by and useful for those elites. Take for instance, a charismatic person or one who is distinguished in an applied or theoretical field.
According to these criteria, we may identify the following elites:
a) Elites with ceremonial titles (e.g. Lord, Baron, etc.);
b) aristocratic elites (by inheritance);
c) Elites having accomplished useful and necessary achievements for society)(6).
Such factors, which actually disagree on determining the person who belongs to the elite, do not necessarily imply that intelligent people – like the demagogues – cannot join authority or elites. In fact, since the Byzantine times some people have participated in authority for unknown reasons. Bokassy, for example, simply announced and appointed himself a king! Every now and then, groups of people are recognized as elites because they have certain characteristics stuck to them, though they are neither important or efficient, nor morally useful for their societies. While other people elected as party leaders influence authority.
Reflecting on the bases of the elite concept introduced
by Pareto, we can conclude that he privileged the elites created by people's
activities in social fields. They get high positions and consequently play a
leading role in certain spheres. Then they join the power elite through
elections. shortly after,
Harold Lasswell and Arthur Caplan classified ideal elites – where distinguished elites and general values, and authority giving are clearly manifested – into:
Those models have become quite known in European societies, as well as others. Simplify stated, some categories of individuals lead economic, political, cultural, scientific, and religious life and the rest of the whole social life spectrum. They are generally called elites and represent a pyramid, where political and strategic elites engage the top.
In the American society, new classifications have appeared following the studies made on that society. Right Mills' prominent classification of elites from bottom to top is similar to the idea of the pyramid as follows:
“(1)A Local Society’s elites. Elites include those who have a great prestige and authority in local societies, like cities and districts. They are classified into small groups, a matter which weakens their importance though the Small numbers do not prevent their very existence” .
(2) The 400 colonizer families. This type of elites exists in
(3) Celebrity elites. They are famous individuals like businessmen and film, stage, screen, and sport starts they need no introductions because the public already know no introductions the radio and T.V.
(4) Average rich elites. Being wealthy, those elites practice
limited authorities which secure their money and keep their places in the
“(5) VIP manager elites. They are distinguished elites, who started their career as excellent professionals in managing big companies and took over decisions from the capitalist owners of the companies – as the later lacked, in fact, the necessary managerial knowledge. Then they became a separate group due to the development taking place in the size, wealth and organizational structure of their institutions or companies. Therefore, a respectable civilized management began to be inevitably obligatory.
(6) Cartel rich elites. They secured their property and privileges
(7) VIP military elites. They are a group of generals and admirals who lead the complex, huge, military mechanisms and forces, and the affiliated economic institutions. The large numbers of staff commanders in the various armies manage the complex military industries which support the state authority and sovereignty.
from top-to-bottom classification of elites represent a pyramid whose top is occupied by political leadership, i.e. rich businessmen, top VIP army and marine officers, and VIP politicians there is nothing like it the whole history of human beings .
Power elites are not unified or integrated. It is not similar to a Aristocracy which emerged due to inheriting nobility, as Mills said. Power elites are united by means of personal, official connections, and have something in common, namely the common life style or awareness of interests in such a way that a common psychological obligation is created. Elites, here, do not necessarily participate personally in decision-making. Instead, an internal circle contributes to this, provides information and bear direct responsibility in the end. Another group which does not attempt to take over top political positions can be added to this class of elites.
Power elites don't represent a permanent, specific, official club for its members. Studying the foundation of this type of elites, we may argue that some of the members are moved from inside, due to a free game of powers played by the three partners (officers, businessmen and political leaders). In spite of the objective critical attitude towards the elites, Mills conceivably maintained that power elites are not equal partners because capital has the strongest impact. Businessmen have a remarkable impact on officers and political leadership. Furthermore, some governmental institutions like legislators, judges, scientists, ideologists, etc.) serve power elites and are subject to VIP businessmen's influence. Meanwhile there exist closed elite groups creating and forming “money sharks” or grand companies.
The studies focused on the elite concept, distinguished features, social and demographic characteristics specific to the sample elites and the development of an elite theory.
It is noteworthy, here, to refer to some of the important issues posed in the above-mentioned studies:
(1) The demographic analysis of an elite indicates his personal formation, functions, social position, stability and the classification processes.
Elites and Democracy.
Ortega noticed the new categorization of contemporary societies into a majority and elites. While Pareto indicated that elites are creators and determinatives of development is society. ”His idea was harshly criticized by representatives of historical materialism. The word elite was despised and almost considered a crime. Only studies on the bourgeois society – particularly the role of both individuals and the public in history – used the word. Elites has instinctively associated with elite as a concept expressing the opinion that in every society there are distinguished positions in need of special efficient individuals” .
They belong to various elites and will form power elites, from whom ruling elites would be selected and appointed. But does the growth of elites in contemporary societies threaten democracy?
To answer such a question, we should take into consideration the fact that in contemporary societies there are overt and covert elites – the latter being very dreadfully growing in size and importance. Covert elites affect all fields of the social, even political, life they have legitimate and illegitimate forms. Belonging to the overt type, high power elites and social work leaders play a main role in controlling and supervising the societies or state's agenda. The leaders of the different mafia groups (called the confronting mafia which leads and heads distinguished organizations of this model) are members of the illegitimate covert type of elites. One can find undoubtedly and clearly, personal deeds overwhelmed by corruption and crime, common among legitimate and illegitimate covert elites. Practicing authority is linked to certain interests. So many individuals run after authority, with a view to be power elite’s. Representatives of overt elites, who joined the power elite group through democratic elections in democratic societies and who belong to different political, economic, scientific, or cultural elites, seek these interests too. During electoral campaigns, they become in need for huge financial support from others. Sometimes they offer services to the public, like building kindergartens or playgrounds, or providing their local societies with facilities. That’s why they are supported by covert elites, like mafias or lobbies. The matter, which in turn, deforms the image of opposition candidates and spreads a negative idea about them. Hence, mafias expect to get the necessary approvals for their legitimate and illegitimate actions, e.g. to sell alcohol, to be backed, not to be chased by the police, etc.
Democratic systems are weakened by their fragile mechanism
of social control and supervision. The link between overt and covert elites is
expressed in different publications which reveal the connection net between
politicians and businessmen on the one hand, and the world of crime from the
other hand. In terms of these publications, individuals who have collected
money through criminal ways are extremely useful for authority persons.
Eventually they remain outside the punishment circle. For example, the true
assassinator of J. Kennedy has not been punished in a country that considers
itself democratic modal covert elites
can smuggle weapons, being secretly approved by power elites. Top
politicians are well-connected to businessmen and mafias in such a way that big
scandals have shaken
Political Elites in the Arab Society.
the concerned concepts, terminologies and theories are relatively new to the Arabic dictionary: political elites, democracy, political pluralism, secularism, socialism, capitalism, etc. They rather suit political discourse or articles, and are absolutely detached from the real Arabic political and social life. However, we may refer to the concept of political elites as deemed by some Arab writers.
There is no Arab Theory on elites; one theory came as a response to the concepts of Marxism and democracy. Of course there are democratic or Marxist systems in the wide sense of the word. To refute the two concepts, the word (or concept of) elites was utilized to refer to those who have the keys to political authority in their hands without associating it with priority, excellence or privilege. For instance, it's sometimes said that there are political elites, military elites, religious elites or cultural elites.
Hence, the French society elites are not similar to the
Chinese societies; the Japanese political elites are not similar to the Italian
or Egyptian societies. The Egyptian political elites during
Despite the explicit: discrepancies, the Arab political elites share common features, such as:
“(1) They are changeable elites due to external and internal pressures associated with democratic trends and public awareness.
(2) They are mixed elites consisting of various forces (secular, radicals, traditional, civilized, etc.).
(3) They are force elites, necessarily dependent on army and security to remain in authority.
(4) They are experiencing a state of conflict with the public and religious / ethnic forces.
(5) They reach authority through inheritance or military force, and seek the legitimacy of their existence.
(6) They are mostly affiliated to foreign forces; their decisions do not come from internal considerations, if not entirely made abroad- particularly in regard to foreign policy.
(7) They do not work according to a clear-cut strategy because they are busy practicing daily life affairs and keeping their positions in authority” .
The present study reviewed, so far, the concept of elite
the traditional and contemporary theories on (especially political) elites,
elite characteristics, and the
The following remarks can concluded:
(1) Elites, especially political ones, represent a minority in proportion to the total number of population. Power allows elites to have the upper hand over taking political decisions.
(2) Neither does the word elite mean the one person or dictatorial rule, nor implies the military rule, it's a small numbered group that can express the interests of the social categories.
(3) Usually elites are explicitly or implicitly appreciated and respected by most of the public for their distinct on.
(4) Elite positions are unsecured. Power elites today could not be so tomorrow, for any change in the social structure will affect power relations in society. Consequently, elite ascendance or descendance, in terms of elite circulation, will be affected too.
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