where is power elite theory when you need it?

When I was in grad school, power elite theory seemed antiquated, an explanation founded on paranoid underpinnings. It was an undergrad-ish view of the world. Sure, Domhoff was fun to read in your SOC 101 class, but as an explanation for state behavior it sucked. Skocpol said so. Sociologists weren’t getting jobs selling power elite stories. People on the job market talked about status dynamics, social movements, categories, and other important stuff.

And then the financial crisis happened, and the government bailed out a bunch of firms and through good journalism we learned that a lot of that money directly funded the investment projects of Wall Street executives’ wives. And we learned that Goldman Sachs never rests and never loses. And we figured out that ex-Goldman executives are now basically running our economy (and perhaps the world). And we found out that grass roots movements are covertly being funded by the super wealthy Koch brothers.  It turns out that the power elite has been really busy while sociologists have been off studying other things.

To be fair, not all sociologists stopped engaging with elite theory. The holdout Mark Mizruchi, for example, hasn’t stopped (even though even he thinks that the elite has become fragmented, causing individual firms to pursue  their own business interests more vigorously).  His work and the research of others like him (e.g., Val Burris) makes me feel silly for ever doubting the power of the elite. I encourage you to read Mark’s excellent 2004 article from Theory and Society, “Berle and Means revisited: The governance and power of large U.S. corporations.”  It’s a great scholarly article that will rejuvenate your interest in elite theory while also making the classic work of Berle and Means (written in 1932) seem very contemporary and sexy. Perhaps there will be a resurgence in this area of economic and political sociology in the next few years.

Written by brayden king

April 21, 2011 at 5:52 am

28 Responses

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  1. I do recall that my former professor, Fred Block, had a spat with Domhoff over elite theory.



    April 21, 2011 at 7:02 am

  2. Yep, Fred Block’s “The Ruling Class Does Not Rule” is a classic.


    brayden king

    April 21, 2011 at 2:01 pm

  3. A big issue with elite theories is that a lot of people find it hard to believe in coordinated action among elites. It’s too conspiracy theory for many folks.



    April 21, 2011 at 3:29 pm

  4. fabio wrote:
    >A big issue with elite theories is that a lot of people find it
    >hard to believe in coordinated action among elites. It’s too
    >conspiracy theory for many folks.

    Half of my dissertation (including this article) was a critique of elite theory on precisely these lines. I think Stuart Hall put it best:

    Are the “distortions” [of ideology] simply falsehoods? Are they deliberately sponsored falsifications? If so, by whom? Does ideology really function like conscious class propaganda? And if ideology is the product or function of “the structure” rather than of a group of conspirators, how does an economic structure generate a guaranteed set of ideological effects? The terms are, clearly, unhelpful as they stand. They make both the masses and capitalists look like judgmental dopes.

    Also, see the CT symposium on Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, wherein people discuss the subtleties of the relationships between business and intellectual elites.



    April 21, 2011 at 3:49 pm

  5. I agree that some versions of elite theory are very conspiracy theory-like; that’s why I didn’t fall in love with elite theory in grad school. But some of the journalistic reporting of the current era suggests that there may be truth to some conspiracy theories.

    I think we just need a more realistic accounting of elite influence. If we believe that elite networks exist, and if it’s true that social influence tends to travel through social networks, then why wouldn’t it make sense that elites transmit their influence through social networks? If you accept that elite influence probably does exist, then the next question you have to answer is how and when. Clearly, elites are not well coordinated on most issues, but in certain conditions they may be more likely to mobilize. Again, Mark’s 2004 paper makes some nice points along these lines.

    Another important point: It doesn’t take many elites to unite around an issue for them to generate some influence. It’s not likely every wealthy individual out there is funding Tea Party growth, but you only need a few billionaires to fund a few grass roots groups to really start or accelerate a movement. Because elites have more social influence and power to begin with, they’re more likely to have an impact on the public debate when they decide to get involved and make some noise.


    brayden king

    April 21, 2011 at 4:10 pm

  6. Matt Taibbi is entertaining and certainly capable of demolishing the likes of Tom Friedman, but should not be relied on by social scientists. Simon Johnson would be a better bet.


    Wonks Anonymous

    April 21, 2011 at 4:22 pm

  7. Wonks – I agree that Taibbi isn’t a social scientist like Simon Johnson. He’s a muckraker (and a very entertaining one at that). But I wouldn’t say he’s just making stuff up. He’s got journalistic credibility.

    My point was that sociologists aren’t anywhere near this stuff at the moment, even though journalistic accounts suggest there are some serious patterns to be concerned about. I don’t think you’re saying that social scientists should just ignore journalism (even of the muckraking variety) altogether, are you?


    brayden king

    April 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm

  8. That elite theory is too ‘conspiracy-like’ is a poor argument. Are we to think powerful individuals do not ever consult one another? Pool resources? Share interests? Have coffee? That position, too, is untenable. I think brayden king nails it in his post and subsequent comments. Whether elites who share interests attempt to act in concert is an empirical question, for which, as he points out, there is growing evidence, no thanks to actual sociologists, who tend to say things like the critical study of elites is too conspiracy-like. Thanks for the interesting post.

    P.S. Mills ‘The Power Elite’ of course had a strong ‘orgtheory’ element, as his central argument was not only that America was largely ruled by a group of mostly like-minded elite actors, but that these actors derived their power from privileged positions within military, corporate, and government organizations.



    April 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm

  9. brayden king wrote:

    “I think we just need a more realistic accounting of elite influence”

    Yes, indeed. The problem — influence, as always, is difficult to describe and impossible to prove. So what methodology can be used to study influence? Influence can be illustrated in a narrative form but cannot be documented in mathematical models or variable analyses.



    April 21, 2011 at 7:02 pm

  10. Taibbi has low credibility even by journalistic standards.


    Wonks Anonymous

    April 21, 2011 at 7:21 pm

  11. ” So what methodology can be used to study influence? ”

    Content analysis comes to mind.



    April 21, 2011 at 7:27 pm

  12. I can’t speak to Taibbi’s journalistic credibility, but I do know that if Megan McArdle is dubious about him, that a priori makes me think he can’t be that bad. Because her credibility is zero.


    Mark K.

    April 21, 2011 at 7:38 pm

  13. “Content analysis comes to mind.” Perhaps, but capturing actual ‘influence’ requires not only describing the contents of communications but linking them to actual human behaviors. The question is how to make the link without resorting solely to a narrative.



    April 21, 2011 at 7:43 pm

  14. Mark, can’t say I disagree with you.

    Austen, usually the best we can do with the data we have on elite influence is to show correlations. But that’s why more in-depth case histories is useful and interesting. They help shed light on mechanisms. That’s essentially what Skocpol did to knock down elite theory the first time around (in a completely different era and context). In the years to come, there will probably be many, many stories to be told about the inner workings of the Fed that will tell us about how elites influence economic policy and resource distribution.


    brayden king

    April 21, 2011 at 7:44 pm

  15. ” Perhaps, but capturing actual ‘influence’ requires not only describing the contents of communications but linking them to actual human behaviors.”

    Depends on what your definition of “influence” is. From analyzing the media I can indeed make inferences about the relative influence of different social groups. Whose group’s messages are most represented in the media? That’s indeed a measure of influence. As to how to measure the direct influence of message on concrete groups, one thing that comes to mind is experimental social psychology. Or you can resort to Sherlock Holmes or Wikileaks, if you want to know who was the real culprit for Bush’s victory in 2000.



    April 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm

  16. If McMegan carries no weight, I can also cite Economics of Contempt in her corner. Although since she’s favorably cited him before, maybe that’s worth nothing too.

    And yes, for as much as Mcardle has gotten wrong, I would still trust her before Taibbi. She’s a business/finance journalist with a degree in that field, Taibbi is a pure entertainer known for throwing horse-sperm pies in people’s faces. He does not have to understand anything about finance for his work, since it really rests on his creative writing talents.


    Wonks Anonymous

    April 21, 2011 at 8:26 pm

  17. As long as you can settle on a rigid definition (i.e. come up with a number of clear-cut necessary/sufficient conditions) I don’t really see why studying influence would have to be any more difficult to study than any other concept we have.

    In KKV-speak, you’d just have to derive some observable implications (if group A/B/C had influence over whatever phenomena I’m interested in, what would it look like?), put those implications to task by gathering evidence (correlations between variables, the occurrence of certain events, the content of legal texts, or whatever), and compare against the most plausible rival theories you can get your hands on.

    And if you can’t settle on a definition for something that you’re really interested in, well then you could always become a post-modernist.



    April 22, 2011 at 8:36 am

  18. […] much promising research is derailed by politicization of the issues being studied? Over at orgtheory, Brayden asks whatever happened to power elite theory. He and Fabio both agree that it’s […]


  19. Good point Mike.

    One reason that people complain that elite theory seems like a conspiracy theory is because they assume that to generate influence elites have to be a cohesive and internally coordinated group. But power doesn’t always work that way. Mark Mizruchi has another interesting paper (this time in Sociological Theory) in which he argues that elite cohesion isn’t necessary to produce elite influence. Structural equivalence among elites and the resulting similarity in behavior may be just as likely culprits.

    If you add homophily to the mix, then I think it makes a lot of sense that elites would grant more access to positions of power and influence to other elites who share the same economic interests as they do.


    brayden king

    April 22, 2011 at 2:32 pm

  20. As someone who made some modest but hopefully constructive contributions to power elite studies, I would like to comment on a the discussion. First, it was a mistake to pose the question in ontological terms, that is, whether or not there “is” a power elite. The most important contribution of Mills, Domhoff, Mizruchi, etc. was twofold–to put questions of power on the agenda and to introduce important methods of addressing power. Remember Walton’s classic article showing that the decision to use network or decision-based methods determined whether findings would support power elite or pluralist theories. As I elaborated on in “Socializing Capital,” “power” dictates an agenda in which the behavior of social actors are explained in terms of their relationship to other social actors (e.g. students write papers because faculty have power). This includes how some people set the consequences of other people’s choices (students major in sociology, not because they are commanded to but because they expect it will enhance their job prospects).
    Second, power elite theory posited that some people have undue influence in political affairs and that these differences cannot be explained in terms of power wielders’ qualities. Some actors can influence political outcomes (including keeping issues off the agenda) much more effectively than others with similar characteristics. Again, this is an agenda as much as a conclusion. How do we explain why some disporportionately influence political outcomes?
    Finally, the networks of political actors affects influence, both for individual actors and groups. “Conspiracy” is a blunt concept that rarely fits. But power elite theory put on the agenda the issue of how political actors relate to each other. If we want to understand the political response to the financial crisis, we should ask what sort of relationships bankers had with other. We would not want to assume that just because they coordinated with each other that they were powerful, a mistake too often in power elite studies, but the network structure among them is very relevant.
    While power elite studies feel antiquated to many, its echo reverberates through institutionalization theory, embeddedness, network studies, and other contemporary modes of sociology.



    April 22, 2011 at 6:33 pm

  21. I’m surprised no one mentions Lachmann:

    I’d hoped Shamus’s book would have added something subtle to this discussion. Interesting book with a different goal.



    April 25, 2011 at 3:57 am

  22. Mike, I find little evidence to support your confidence we currently have the methods to adequately study influence and power. If the methodology is so apparent, then we should be able to name classic studies of power within American sociology. What do you think those are? And what methods have been developed?

    My argument is that theory not methods drives the studies of power we would name were we to list classic studies of power.

    For example, Burawoy’s ‘Manufacturing Consent,’ a study driven by a theory of hegemony. The method to immerse himself in the culture of production then follows logically for Burawoy, as do his data and ultimately his analysis. Other classic studies of power? I suppose the Lipset, Huntington, Fukuyama triumverate, but how many sociologists align with them scientifically or politically?

    One possible counter-example is ‘radical theory of power’ by Lukes, who takes great pains to focus on how power could be studied. But do you think that study spawned a great number of empirical studies of power? I don’t see them. Though I do think, again, that tiny book represents an interesting theoretical reference point.



    April 25, 2011 at 5:34 pm

  23. Austen, I think you’re wrong that we don’t have good methods for the study of power but I suspect that underlying your comment are some pretty strong epistemological assumptions that I don’t think are worth debating in this thread.

    Assuming that we’re open to different methods, then you can’t ignore the contributions of network analysis (see the Mizruchi papers I linked to above), lab experiments (see the work of social psychologists who study the link between power and influence, e.g., Galinsky), and historical work (see the comment by Bill Roy above). Although they came at it from different angles, each of these approaches deals with the general relationship between power and influence and, in the case of Mizruchi and Roy, of the effect of elite influence. We can quibble about methodological sophistication, as we always do, but these are certainly good starting points for the discussion.


    brayden king

    April 25, 2011 at 5:52 pm

  24. Agreeing with an earlier point by Brayden King, from my point of view it is Bourdieu to be read and studied, namely, the importance of social capital and the similarity in behaviour for the ascendance into positions of power.
    For Germany and Europe Michael Hartmann (Prof. of Sociology at the Univ. of Darmstadt) has conducted large-scale studies along these lines. He found strong support for the hypothesis that people climb the ladder because they behave in a way that it is expected from a member of the elite, being humble and self-conscious yet perservering and goal-oriented, focused yet broadly interested, etc. Mainly, those grown up in a bourgeois environment exhibit these traits, norms and values. And even those who haven’t grown up in this way should at least live these traits, norms and values.
    Thus, the elites basically (unconsiously) reproduce themselves. Hartmann explains this unconsious reproduction through the psychological effect that we like people more who are more like us. Overall coordination takes place in a very subtle way, through mental scripts grounded in common norms, values and traits – so basically by some “invisible (cognitive-institutional) hand”, which most likley, is hard to pin down, except for ethnographic studies.

    Books by Hartmann:

    2007 The Sociology of Elites (English)
    2007 (Europe – in German)
    2002 (Germany – in German)



    April 29, 2011 at 2:16 pm

  25. […] the book doesn’t quite go in the direction of old style elite theories, which Brayden discussed at length a few weeks a go. The book gives elites great power but saddles them with nasty feedback loops and unintended […]


  26. There is ample evidence that the French state currently runs as a stable oligarchy.

    I had not read the word ‘muckracker’ in a long time. Last time I did use the word, the (French) journalist in question very seriously threatened to sue me, a destitute and inoffensive (expat) student.

    Liked by 1 person


    June 3, 2011 at 12:31 am

  27. […] where is power elite theory when you need it? « (tags: sociology political-science:executives political-science:power) […]


  28. Wow! This blog looks exactly like my old one! It’s on a entirely different topic but it has pretty much the same page layout and design. Great choice of colors!


    Ginny Llerena

    August 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm

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