Elites are influential, often smaller groups within society, gaining power through resources like wealth, knowledge, or connections. Their presence is felt in politics, economics, culture, and institutions. They can shape public opinion and social change but are also criticized for creating inequality. Their roles and identities vary across societies and times.
Origins of Elites
Elites can emerge from various factors like wealth, education, familial or political connections, or specialized knowledge or skills.
Sociology of Elites
In sociology, there are two main theories of elites:
- Classical Elite Theory: This argues that elites are inevitable due to the nature of human societies.
- Pluralist Theory: This posits that multiple elites exist in society and compete with each other for power and resources.
In politics, elites often hold a disproportionate amount of political power, whether in democratic societies (as elected officials or influential voters) or autocracies (as dictators or oligarchs).
These individuals possess a disproportionately large share of resources and economic control. This can manifest as high net worth individuals, corporate leaders, or owners of significant assets.
Cultural and Intellectual Elites
These individuals possess high status due to their recognized expertise, skill, or influence in cultural, academic, or intellectual domains.
Certain organizations or institutions are considered “elite” due to their status, historical prestige, selective membership, or influence in their fields. Examples include Ivy League universities, major multinational corporations, and prestigious art and science academies.
Critiques of Elites
Critics argue that elites can lead to social inequality, by maintaining and enhancing their power at the expense of others. This has led to debates about income inequality, social mobility, and fairness.
Elites and Public Opinion
There’s an ongoing debate about the extent to which elites shape or respond to public opinion. Some argue that elites largely dictate public opinion, while others argue that they are more responsive to it than is often assumed.
Elites in Different Societies
The concept of ‘elite’ varies greatly depending on cultural and societal context. For example, what constitutes an ‘elite’ in one society might not be the same in another.
Elite Consolidation and Circulation
There are debates about whether elites are becoming more consolidated, with the same individuals and families remaining elite over time, or whether there is significant circulation, with new individuals and families becoming elite regularly.