Elite describes a select group that dominates a specific aspect of social life. The word often refers to the power elite or political elite in sociology.
Elite Sociology Definition


The term “elite” refers to society’s “best” or most skilled individuals, such as the academic elite people with excessive influence and authority. Elite describes a select group that dominates a specific aspect of social life.

The word often refers to the power elite or political elite in sociology. The premise of elite theory has been that any complex contemporary society would inevitably be divided among elites and masses and that extreme democratic dreams that the people may govern may be misguided.


While the word elite has historically connoted superiority, it is now employed in modern sociological analysis to refer to a dominant minority with a systematic and considerable impact on public and political outcomes. Elite influence is a reflection of control over “power resources” that are concentrated in big organizations, such as money, power, coercive methods, mass media, expertise, and charisma, as well as the ability of elite groups to coordinate their actions.

Elites develop in all structured societies, particularly those with powerful bureaucracies. Political elites are, therefore, the most prominent representatives of national elites. Such elites run election processes in democratic governments striving for public favor. Elite organizations in the business, media, trade unions, military, and religion also interact with them through cooperation, competition, and sometimes conflict. Stable democratic regimes could develop if elite groups communicate peacefully and reach a high level of agreement. In contrast, elite warfare is a sign of unstable, non-democratic governments.

Most elite researchers limit their size to between 300 and 1,000 people, even though the empirical delineations of elites are arbitrary – power and influence are matters of degree. Such exceptional individuals may be recognized “positionally” if they occupy the top leadership positions in the biggest and most resource-rich businesses, have participated in important decisions, have a good reputation among their peers, or use a mix of the three.

Political leaders are often positioned at the top of national power systems, and national elites are also internally stratified. The masses, also known as “non-elites,” are at the opposite extreme of the power scale. Social scientists also identify “political classes”—the power strata from which elites are recruited and upon which elites depend on wielding power—and “influentials,” individuals who can influence elite decisions—between these two extremes.

Sometimes the terms “ruling classes” and “elites” are used interchangeably. The ruling classes are characterized by capital ownership and are thought to be considerably larger collectivities. Class theorists often see elites as “executive arms” of the ruling class. Unlike class reductionists, elite theorists emphasize the political elites’ autonomy, shown by their ability to expropriate owning classes.

Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels created the classical elite theory around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, heavily influenced by positivism and Max Weber’s views. It served as a criticism of Marxism, which prophesied class struggles and the victory of egalitarian socialism, as well as democratic theory, which promised a radical distribution of political power. The traditional elite theorists proposed an inevitable and ongoing consolidation of power in the hands of the elites in contradiction to both. According to elite theorists, revolutions, even “socialist revolutions,” just recreated elites and did not reduce the power imbalances between the elite and the public.

Both traditional and modern elite theorists believe that specific psychological propensities, organizational skills, small size, and internal coherence serve as the foundations of elite power. Elite coherence does not rule out the potential of brief clashes and fractures among the elite over particular policy issues.

Elite members, however, solidarily protect their authority when it is in jeopardy. Alliances with non-elite social forces, including dominating strata, movements, classes, and organized organizations, help them maintain a solid hold on power. They also influence their successors via exclusive institutions, corporate hierarchies, and political apparatuses.

According to C. Wright Mills, the American elite is firmly entrenched in three major institutions: the federal government, the military, and the largest corporations. Elites and Society by Tom Bottomore and Comparative Study of Political Elites by Robert Putnam provide a thorough survey of contemporary elites.

Bottomore emphasizes the link between the elite and the governing class. Putnam emphasizes how elitist behavior is highly restricted by ideology and national legal frameworks and how elitists are anchored in social and institutional institutions.  The concepts of elite unity and democracy are further developed by other modern elite theorists like John Higley and Eva Etzioni-Halevi. They emphasize competitiveness, agreement, and exceptional effectiveness.

Higley and his associates contend that elites who “make” and maintain stable democracies are unified in their support for peaceful political competition, widely assimilated, and well-connected with the critical mass populations, generally via party organizations and civic groups. With the latter being perceived as a regime of rival elites, Etzioni-Halevi views elites’ successful “coupling” with the lower/working classes as a crucial need for democracy.

Elites and contemporary era

The focus of elite scholars has changed more recently, reflecting changes in the makeup and organization of modern elites.

Five points may be used to summarise it:

A. The rise of elites and global power networks. 

While nation-states continue to be the most significant institutional loci of power, different power concentrations arise due to globalization and the creation of transnational organizations like Greenpeace, the Islamic movements, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. National elites confront issues, including terrorism, environmental degradation, the drug trade, unchecked migration, and the spread of AIDS, which are becoming more supra-state and international.

B. A more comprehensive range of elite autonomy. 

Significant development of non-elective elites capable of bringing about and sometimes guiding social change seems to be one of the essential developments of the recent decades. Thus, some of the perhaps most significant events of the 20th century, such as the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe, and the opening up of the Chinese economy, were the result of elite engineering.

C. The rise of elites who support democracy. 

Elites who were “creating” and consolidating democratic regimes were the principal proponents of the most recent wave of democratization (1989–1995), often with sporadic backing from the general populace. Pro-democratic elites have arisen in southern Europe, Russia, central and eastern Europe, and East Asia.

D. Strong elite circulation and distinctiveness. 

According to recent research, the growth of new companies, civic associations, social movements, and nonprofit organizations results in the emergence of new elite groups.

E. Ideologies’ diminished influence in sophisticated western nations. 

Western elites develop popular support in a practical and impromptu way, often by deploying “spin” in the media and campaigns that highlight leaders’ personalities. This reflects the reality that the support bases of western elites are less tightly bound to certain social classes, racial groups, or religious subgroups.

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