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.