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Floyd Hunter

Floyd Hunter

American social worker and administrator, community worker, professor, and author, Floyd Hunter (born 1912) was an originator of the "power structure" or elite concept in contemporary sociology.

Floyd Hunter was born on February 26, 1912, in Richmond, Kentucky, son of Jesse Hunter, a farmer, and Dovie Benton. He attended Richmond public schools and received both his B.A. (1939) in social science and his M.A. (1941) in social service administration from the University of Chicago. He married Ester Araya Rojas on December 23, 1937, and the couple had four children.

Hunter's mother and father were divorced when he was four and he lived at different times with each parent; with his mother in Bloomington, Illinois, and with his father on a Richmond tobacco farm. Both parents had been descended from British Isle ancestors who had placed great value upon political liberty and independence. This political heritage, along with Hunter's life experiences and intellectual development, formed the bone and sinew out of which he would fashion his controversial theory of "elite" social power.

Hunter's early life experiences were molded by two main influences: both familial and social "marginality" and the effects of the Great Depression on the American economy and polity. His marginality stemmed first from the transitory, shifting role he played in two families. Because both families suffered economic losses, Hunter's social status was unstable, allowing him an "observer's" eye on community status and family systems.

Meanwhile, his experiences in the Depression strengthened an already wary eye toward business interests and the government. He was shocked at the "petty and shoddy" practices of businessmen (the "ownership establishment") as they exploited the "dispossessed" customers. Unemployed and often famished during school breaks, Hunter hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., where he broke bread with the the Bonus Marchers two days before they were routed by General MacArthur's armed troops. Disenchanted by the use of military force in this and in other potentially disruptive occurrences, such as bank closings, he began to question the "relationship between our representative government and the people it was supposed to 'represent."' Local political leaders who exploited New Deal policies for their own benefit, and thereby took a "root hog or die" attitude toward the poor, only alienated the young Hunter even further. "No milk of human kindness seemed to course through the political sieve," he felt. Economic and political injustice, then, formed a theme in Hunter's thought even before he had developed the intellectual tools necessary to craft an academic argument.

Hunter began his career as a social worker in Texas in the 1930s, moved to Chicago, and then to Indianapolis around 1940 as a social work administrator. From there he went to Atlanta in 1943 to head the southeastern regional office of the U.S.O. From 1946 to 1948 he headed the Atlanta Community Council, an experience which only provided real-life fodder for the growth of his power scheme. Following a political dispute with business leaders over the use of public property for a Henry Wallace campaign rally in the 1948 election (which had been allowed in the case of the Republican campaign), Hunter was fired from his position. With his wife and four children, he then moved to the University of North Carolina (U.N.C.), where he received his Ph.D. (1951) in sociology and anthropology. His doctoral dissertation, Community Power Structure (1953), became his most famous published work. A penetrating look at the power of business elites in Atlanta, it was followed up by his 1979 Community Power Succession.

These two works, more than any others, established Hunter as a leading progenitor of the power elite model of political sociology, a theme later picked up by C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff. In broad terms, Hunter and his intellectual descendants represented a crystallization of a 20th-century American paradigm which followed the earlier "conflict" model of economic domination established by Marx in 19th-century Europe. The main assumption of this model—that society was dominated by a relatively small group of social, economic, and political elites who make self-interested decisions in the absence of significant countervailing power—represented a challenge to the more consensually-oriented theory of structural functionalism that had held sway on American sociology for decades. Both of Hunter's studies on Atlanta held firmly to his basic theme.

Hunter was a professor at U.N.C. until 1960. Through the 1960s he headed two research firms, Social Science Research and Development Corporation and Decision Data, both based in the San Francisco area, where Hunter continued to reside in 1990. He was a Fulbright research professor at the University of Chile in 1964, and from the early through the late 1970s he was a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of California, the University of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, and Harvard.

Meanwhile, Hunter wrote many books and articles, both fiction and nonfiction. Aside from the 1953 and 1979 works already mentioned, he published The Big Rich and the Little Rich (1965), Top Leadership, U.S.A. (1959), and Community Organization: Action and Inaction (1956). His unpublished efforts as of the 1990s included several works of fiction and a 1989 attempt to combine the natural and social sciences into a "social physics" or "social relativity." Even his unpublished fiction works, however, such as Chilean Rooms (1964), were often attempts to weave himself "autobiographically into materials of social observation."

His detached, critical viewpoint was finely honed in his other nonfiction work as well. The Big Rich and the Little Rich, which asked, "What is the community function of great personal wealth?" essentially argued the "dysfunctions" of both large and small wealth. Both groups, Hunter believed, "do nothing that others could not do as well and much less expensively." Top Leadership, U.S.A. continued his methodological use of the "reputational" model of power he had developed in Community Power Structures, whereby leading organizations and individuals were asked to weigh the relative influence of others on them. In Radical Democracy: One Man, One Vote; One Man, One Share, a 1972 unpublished manuscript, Hunter broadened his critical view of elitism in society to include communist as well as capitalist states and unabashedly called for "complete trust in the people." Another unpublished work, The Unrepresented (1965), applied the elite model to the particular American context of communities and government.

Hunter's influence on theoretical developments in sociology and other disciplines that utilize the concept of "power" was substantial. Likewise, his methodology, which consisted of the "reputational" approach, also had a profound influence on the debate over how scholars should conduct "power" studies.

Further Reading

Hunter was cited in connection with the power elite theory and/ or the reputational method in almost any standard sociology text. His Community Power Structure is favorably reviewed by C. Wright Mills (whose 1956 The Power Elite had a profound influence on American sociology) in Social Forces (October 1953). Community Power Succession was reviewed, among many other places, in the American Journal of Sociology (July 1982). For versions of the power elite theory, see such works by G. William Domhoff as The Higher Circles: The Governing Class in America (1970), Who Rules America (1967), and Power Structure Research (1980). A work that utilized Hunter's work was Domhoff and Thomas, editors, Power Elites and Organizations (1987). The leading competitive model with elite theory was represented by the "pluralist" school. See Robert Dahl's Who Governs? (1962) and David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (1953). For a critique of the reputational approach see Martin's The Sociology of Power (1977). Both critiques and extensions of the elite model may be found in Domhoff's and Ballard Hoyt's 1968 C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite.

The Special Collections Department of Emory University's Woodruff Library was the repository for Hunter's papers. These papers (47 boxes, 19.50 linear feet) consisted primarily of Hunter's notes, drafts, writings, and related materials from 1933 to 1989. Also included was a correspondence file and sets of autobiographical materials. The Hunter Papers were used extensively for this biographical sketch. □

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Hunter, Floyd

Hunter, Floyd 1912-1992


Born into a farm family of meager means, Floyd Hunter came of age during the Great Depression and early on displayed populist tendencies. His experiences as a social worker and administrator heightened his wariness of business. Subsequent to receiving his undergraduate degree (1939) and his masters degree in social service administration (1941) from the University of Chicago, Hunter began work with the United Service Organizations. He came to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1943 and headed that organizations southeast office, shifting to work with the Atlanta Community Council from 1946 to 1948. Fired from the latter position as a controversial figure, Hunter had acquired an insiders understanding of how communities deal with social problems.

He next undertook graduate study in sociology at the University of North Carolina and returned to Atlanta for field research, completing his dissertation and then converting it into a reputation-establishing first book, Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers (1953). A work about Atlanta, it inspired a surge of community leadership studies. Hunters later research extended to state and national levels, but subsequent work never matched the pathbreaking impact of Community Power Structure. Within political science a pluralist school of thought attacked Hunters approach, blunting its influence within this area of academia.

Some ambiguity is attached to the term power structure. It is often used simply to refer to a group deemed to be top leaders. True to his training in sociology, Hunter, however, coined the phrase to refer to stable relationships through which major policy decisions are made for the community. For Atlanta in the immediate postwar years, Hunters central finding was that reality deviated sharply from the ideals of representative government, with policy making centered in arrangements around the citys top business leaders.

Critics attributed to Hunter the view that Atlanta was run by forty individuals. This, however, is an oversimplification of both his method and findings. Hunter relied on knowledgeable insiders to compile and refine a list of top leaders, ten from each of four sectors of community life. He then used a sociometric technique to identify patterns of interaction. For good measure, he added an examination of particular issues, and he did a separate analysis of leadership within the black subcommunity and how it related to Atlantas white leadership. The logic of Hunters research was not about determining a specific number of top leaders, but about examining the relations among different sectors and how those interrelations affect policy making for the community.

In contrast with Robert S. Lynd and Helen M. Lynds (1929, 1937) earlier works on Middletown, in which business is accorded a pervasive form of influence based on the domination of business values, Hunters study of Atlanta was specifically concerned with the ability of business-centered leadership to manage social change through a structured capacity to set the policy agenda. Atlantas business leaders led lives quite insulated from the concerns faced by ordinary citizens, especially the poor. Nonetheless, Hunter found that through their control of economic assets, their central role in civic matters, and their ability to use informal channels of interaction among themselves to reach consensus, they formed a relatively closed leadership group.

Later works, including his follow-up study of Atlanta, Community Power Succession: Atlantas Policy-Makers Revisited, were variations on this initial theme. Hunter taught at the University of North Carolina until 1960, then moved to California, mixing social-research consulting with numerous visiting faculty appointments. He died in 1992.

SEE ALSO Community Power Studies; Pluralism; Power



Hunter, Floyd. 1953. Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hunter, Floyd. 1959. Top Leadership, U.S.A. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hunter, Floyd. 1965. The Big Rich and the Little Rich. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Hunter, Floyd. 1980. Community Power Succession: Atlantas Policy-Makers Revisited. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


DAntonio, William V., Howard J. Ehrlich, and Eugene C. Erickson. 1962. Further Notes on the Study of Community Power. American Sociological Review 27, no. 6 (December): 848853.

Herson, Lawrence J. R. 1961. In the Footsteps of Community Power. American Political Science Review 55 (December): 817830.

Hunter, Floyd, Ruth Conner Schaffer, and Cecil G. Sheps. 1956. Community Organization: Action and Inaction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Lynd, Robert S., and Helen M. Lynd. 1929. Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Lynd, Robert S., and Helen M. Lynd. 1937. Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Polsby, Nelson W. 1980. Community Power and Political Theory: A Further Look at Problems of Evidence and Inference. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Saunders, Peter. 1983. Urban Politics: A Sociological Interpretation. London: Hutchinson.

Stone, Clarence N. 1988. Preemptive Power: Floyd Hunters Community Power Structure Reconsidered. American Journal of Political Science 32 (February): 82104.

Wolfinger, Raymond E. 1960. Reputation and Reality in the Study of Community Power. American Sociological Review 25 (October): 636644.

Clarence N. Stone

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"Hunter, Floyd." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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