Circulation of Elites

Vilfred Pareto used the phrase "circulation of elites" to describe the never-ending cycle of renewal and replacement of elites, in which another replaces one kind of political elite.
Circulation of Elites Sociology Definition


Vilfred Pareto used the phrase “circulation of elites” to describe the never-ending cycle of renewal and replacement of elites, in which another replaces one kind of political elite. According to Pareto, there is a tendency for elites with one psychological orientation, such as lions, to alternate with more creative but unreliable foxes. Pareto believed that more democratic forms of governance could never take the place of elite power in this process.


Pareto introduced the idea of elites and focused on the administrative elites in particular. In Pareto’s view, men are not all created equal; they vary among themselves in terms of their skills and aptitudes. There is a class of superior individuals known as elite, which means superior, in every social activity area.

Types of elites

He identified two categories of elites:

Those with a direct or indirect interest in governance are called governing elites. These people hold key positions in society and perform crucial roles.

Elites who are not related to the government but have positions in society that allow them to have some influence on government are non-governing elites.

Features of Circulation of Elites

Pareto emphasizes the importance of psychological traits as the foundation of elite power. The political power is manipulated by the elites both publicly and surreptitiously. Elites belong to a universal class. Every civilization has it; thus, it is everywhere. A class of superior individuals must be actively or indirectly involved with any administration technique, no matter where it exists.

Pareto’s Foxes and Lions principle

According to him, there are two primary categories of the ruling elite: “foxes” and “lions.” Lions can act forcefully and directly, which helps them rise to positions of leadership. Military dictatorships illustrate the ruling class, while foxes control via cunning and deceit, diplomatic manipulation, and backroom trading. Members of the ruling elite are in their positions mostly because of their individual traits, either because they are lion-like or fox-like.

The “Circulation of Elites,” as Pareto called it, happens when one elite is replaced by another, causing significant social change. All elites have a propensity to degenerate. They lose their “vigor” and “decay in quality.” With the benefits of a comfortable life and the perks of authority, they can become soft and ineffectual or too set in their ways and rigid to adapt to new circumstances. Each sort of elite is deficient in the traits that, in the long term, are necessary to preserve power.

The elite of lions will have to accept foxes from the crowd to make up for their lack of inventiveness and cunning essential to retain their power. Foxes gradually saturate the whole elite, changing its nature. However, foxes cannot take strong, decisive action, which is sometimes necessary to hold onto power. The elite of foxes is overthrown by a well-organized minority of lions determined to restore powerful rule. According to Pareto, history is a never-ending cycle of elites. History is and always will be “a cemetery of aristocracies,” and nothing changes.

Analysis of Circulation of Elites

Pareto’s interpretation of history is straightforward and oversimplified. He ignores the variations on a fundamental theme that characterize political regimes like western democracies, communist single-party governments, fascist dictatorships, and feudal monarchies. The variations between them are negligible compared to the reality that they are all fundamentally manifestations of elite power.

Pareto falls short in offering a way to quantify and differentiate between the better traits of elites. He believes that the elite has better traits than the general population. His standard for separating lions from foxes is essentially his interpretation of the form of elite leadership. 

Pareto doesn’t even provide a measure to gauge the elite decadence process. He does, however, argue that an elite will quickly lose its energy and vitality and have a limited life if it is closed to recruiting from below.

Modern democracies, in Pareto’s opinion, are just another kind of elite dominance. He disapprovingly rejected those who saw democratic systems as a more egalitarian and inclusive form of governance.

Criticism of circulation of elite

Pareto received much criticism, with some arguing that he did not adequately define the characteristics of elites. They lack specificity and objectivity. His theory that elites move around because of psychological issues is likewise insufficient.

Talcott Parsons criticized Pareto for failing to specify the factors causing residue proportions variations. The biological and genetic variables “bearing upon these alterations,” have not been mentioned by him.

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