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The concept of elites is used to describe certain fundamental features of organized social life. All societies—simple and complex, agricultural and industrial—need authorities within and spokesmen and agents without who are also symbols of the common life and embodiments of the values that maintain it. Inequalities in performance and reward support this arrangement, and the inequality in the distribution of deference acknowledges the differences in authority, achievement, and reward. Elites are those minorities which are set apart from the rest of society by their pre-eminence in one or more of these various distributions. We shall concentrate here on the elites of industrial society.

In modern societies of the West, there is no single comprehensive elite but rather a complex system of specialized elites linked to the social order and to each other in a variety of ways. Indeed, so numerous and varied are they that they seldom possess enough common features and affinities to avoid marked differences and tensions. Leading artists, business magnates, politicians, screen stars, and scientists are all influential, but in separate spheres and with quite different responsibilities, sources of power, and patterns of selections and reward. This plurality of elites reflects and promotes the pluralism characteristic of modern societies in general.

For virtually every activity and every corresponding sphere of social life, there is an elite: there are elites of soldiers and of artists, as well as of bankers and of gamblers. This is the sense in which Pareto (1902–1903) used the term. There is, however, an important factor that differentiates these various elites, apart from their different skills and talents: some of them have more social weight than others because their activities have greater social significance. It is these elites—variously referred to as the ruling elite, the top influentials, or the power elite—which arouse particular interest, because they are the prime movers and models for the entire society. We shall use the term strategic elites to refer to those elites which claim or are assigned responsibilities for and influence over their society as a whole, in contrast with seg-mental elites, which have major responsibilities in subdomains of the society.

Strategic elites are those which have the largest, most comprehensive scope and impact. The boundaries that separate strategic and segmental elites are not sharply defined because of the gradations of authority and the vagueness of the perceptions that assign positions to individuals. The more highly organized elites are, the easier it is to estimate their boundaries and membership. Thus, the more readily identifiable elites in Western societies are those of business, politics, diplomacy, and the higher civil and armed services. Elites in the arts, in religion, and in moral and intellectual life are more vaguely delimited and hence also more controversial.

The differentiation of elites . Even the earliest-known human societies had leading minorities of elders, priests, or warrior kings, who performed elite social functions. A chief in a primitive society, for example, enacted one complex social role in which were fused several major social functions, expressed through the following activities: organization of productive work; propitiation of, and communication with, supernatural powers; judgment and punishment of lawbreakers; coordination of communal activities; defense of the community from enemy attack; discovery of new resources and of new solutions to the problems of collective survival; and encouragement or inspiration of artistic expression. As societies expand in size and in the diversity of their activities, such activities also expand, and more elaborate, specialized leadership roles emerge. Following are some of the major forms of societal leadership.

(1) Ruling caste. One stratum performs the most important social tasks, obtains its personnel through biological reproduction, and is set apart by religion, kinship, language, residence, economic standing, occupational activities, and prestige. Religious ritual is the main force that supports the position of this ruling stratum [see CASTE].

(2) Aristocracy. A single stratum monopolizes the exercise of the key social functions. The stratum consists of families bound by blood, wealth, and a special style of life and supported by income from landed property.

(3) Ruling class. A single social stratum is associated with various key social functions, and its members are recruited into its various segments on the basis of wealth and property rather than of blood or religion. Historically, ruling classes have held economic rather than political power, but their influence tends to extend to all important segments and activities of society. Although various differentiated and specialized sectors may be distinguished, they are bound together by a common culture and by interaction across segmental boundaries.

(4) Strategic elites. No single social stratum exercises all key social functions; instead, these functions and the elites associated with them are specialized and differentiated. The predominant justification for holding elite status is not blood or wealth as such but, rather, merit and particular skills. Accordingly, these elites are recruited in various ways adapted to their differentiated tasks and are marked by diversity as well as by im-permanence.

In general it appears that where the society as a whole is relatively undifferentiated, elites are few in number and comprehensive in their powers; where social differentiation is extensive, elites are many and specialized. The principal social forces underlying the change from societal leadership based on aristocracy or ruling class to that based on strategic elites are population growth, occupational differentiation, moral heterogeneity, and increased bureaucratization. In a large, industrialized mass society, marked by innumerable ethnic, regional, and occupational differences and stratified as to work, wealth, prestige, style of life, and power, leadership cannot be entrusted to a single ruler, be he chief, warrior, or priest, or to a single stratum marked by hereditary exclusiveness and traditionalism. Instead, the elites of this society will tend to be varied, specialized, and differentiated as to skill, style, background, and rewards. In this way the characteristic attributes of the larger society are mirrored in the strategic elites through whom that society tries to realize its main goals and projects. The division of a society into many groups and strata is therefore paralleled by its reunification around a symbolic center, or core, that signifies the common and enduring characteristics of the differentiated whole. The shape of this center is determined by the complexity and variety of the whole. In this way a society, consisting of a multitude of individuals and groups, can act in concert despite its moral, occupational, and technological diversity and can maintain the sense of unity necessary for collective achievements.

The functions of strategic elites . In every differentiated society, there are patterns of beliefs and values, shared means of communication, major social institutions, and leading individuals or groups concerned with the maintenance and development of the society and its culture. These leading elements, by focusing attention and coordinating action, help keep the society in working order, so that it is able to manage recurrent collective crises.

The best efforts at classifying elites are still those of Saint-Simon (1807) and Mannheim (1935), whose approaches, although separated by a century, have much in common. Saint-Simon divided elites into scientists, economic organizers, and cultural-religious leaders. This classification parallels Mannheim’s distinction between the organizing and directing elites, which deal with concrete goals and programs, and the more diffuse and informally organized elites, which deal with spiritual and moral problems.

Elites may also be classified according to the four functional problems which every society must resolve: goal attainment, adaptation, integration, and pattern maintenance and tension management. Goal attainment refers to the setting and realization of collective goals; adaptation refers to the use and development of effective means of achieving these goals; integration involves the maintenance of appropriate moral consensus and social cohesion within the system; and pattern maintenance and tension management involve the morale of the system’s units—individuals, groups, and organizations.

Accordingly, four types of strategic elites, which may include a far larger number of elites, may be identified: (1) the current political elite (elites of goal attainment); (2) the economic, military, diplomatic, and scientific elites (elites of adaptation); (3) elites exercising moral authority—priests, philosophers, educators, and first families (elites of integration); and (4) elites that keep the society knit together emotionally and psychologically, consisting of such celebrities as outstanding artists, writers, theater and film stars, and top figures in sports and recreation (pattern-maintenance elites).

Thus, the general functions of elites appear to be similar everywhere: to symbolize the moral unity of a collectivity by emphasizing common purposes and interests; to coordinate and harmonize diversified activities, combat factionalism, and resolve group conflicts; and to protect the collectivity from external danger.

Societies differ, however, in the way they incorporate these functions into living institutions. In some societies, usually at simpler stages of development, one agent assumes responsibility for all four system functions; in others, several specialized agents emerge. In advanced industrial societies the tendency is clearly toward several elites whose functional specialization is accompanied by a growing moral and organizational autonomy among them. At the same time, however, the overriding goals of these elites are, as they have always been, the preservation of the ideals and practices of the societies at whose apex they stand.

Recruitment of strategic elites . Elite replacement, which occurs in all societies, involves both the attraction of suitable candidates and their actual selection. What is considered suitable depends on the structure of the elite groups and on whether these elites assume comprehensive or specialized functional responsibilities. Recruitment mechanisms, however varied in practice, reflect only two fundamental principles: recruitment on the basis of biological (and, implicitly, social) inheritance and recruitment on the basis of personal talents and achievements. Although these two systems are not mutually exclusive, one or the other tends to prevail, depending on the system of social stratification, on the values placed on ascription and achievement, and on the magnitude of demand for elite candidates in relation to the supply. Broadly stated, these principles reflect the general tendencies within a social system toward expansion or toward consolidation. Under conditions of expansion, recruitment on the basis of personal achievement is likely to be the rule; under consolidation, recruitment based on inheritance of status. Each principle, moreover, has profound social repercussions on social mobility, on the stimulation of individual ambitions and talents, and on levels of discontent among different social strata. Each, furthermore, affects not only the composition of the elites but also their spiritual and moral outlook.

In modern industrial societies recruitment and selection patterns reflect the changes toward differentiation and autonomy among the elites. According to available evidence from a number of such societies, recruitment based on social inheritance is giving way to recruitment based on individual achievement. This is true for England (Cole 1955; Guttsman 1963; Thomas 1959), Germany (Deutsch & Edinger 1959; Stammer 1951; Dreitzel 1962), France (Aron 1950), the United States (Warner & Abegglen 1955; Mills 1956; Matthews 1960; Keller 1963), and the Soviet Union (Fainsod 1953; Crankshaw 1959), among others. Nonetheless, taking the elite groups as a whole, we note the simultaneous operation of several recruitment and selection principles. Some elites stress ancestry; others, educational attainments; still others, long experience and training. Some elites are elected by the public, others are appointed by their predecessors, and still others are born to their positions. The members of some elites have relatively short tenure, while that of others is lifelong. This is a dramatic contrast to other types of societies with relatively small leadership groups that have diffuse and comprehensive functional responsibilities and comprise individuals trained for their status from birth on.

Of course, looking at modern developments at a single point in time, we note that the hold of the past, with its emphasis on property or birth, is still very strong among some elites. Conspicuous achievements are still often facilitated, if not determined, by high social and economic position, since wealth and high social standing open many doors to aspiring candidates and instill in them great expectations for worldly success. From a long-range perspective, however, it is clear that the link between high social class and strategic elite status has, in many modern societies, become indirect and informal. Ascribed attributes, such as birth, sex, and race, although they play a greater role in some elites than in others, have decreased in importance in comparison with achieved attributes. This is in line with the general modern trend toward technological and scientific specialization, in which individual skill and knowledge count more than does a gentlemanly upbringing in the traditions and standards of illustrious forebears.

Rewards of strategic elites . The process of selection or allocation is facilitated by the system of rewards offered to individuals assuming leadership positions in society. Some rewards are tangible material benefits, such as land, money, cattle, or slaves, and others are intangible, such as social honor and influence. The specific rewards used to attract potential recruits to elite positions depend on the social definition of scarce and desirable values and the distribution of these values.

Rewards play a twofold role in the recruitment of elites: they motivate individuals to assume the responsibilities of elite positions, and they maintain the high value placed on these positions. They thus serve as inducements to individuals, as well as indicators of rank.

Rewards, too, have become specialized in modern industrial societies. Some elites enjoy large earnings; others, popularity or fame; and still others, authority and power. Not all elites are equally wealthy, not all have equal prestige; only some have much more power than others, and none have influence in all spheres. The assumption of elite positions thus also involves the acceptance of specific rewards associated with them. Responsibilities and rewards form parts of a whole and may be discussed jointly. And each is linked to recruitment, for rewards are the spur to the expenditure of effort that the duties of strategic positions demand.

The process of recruiting elites and the manner of rewarding them must not be confused with their purposes and status. For although recruitment and rewards affect the composition and performance of elites, they do not alter their functions. As Mosca (1896) clearly demonstrated, democratically and hereditarily recruited elites differ in many important ways, but they nonetheless function as elites.

The tendency toward a pluralization of elites is likely to conflict with the older tendency toward the monolithic exercise of power and leadership. This is a problem in totalitarian as well as in liberal societies. In totalitarian societies, the problem is how to permit the desired flexibility and variety without corroding social stability. Conversely, in liberal pluralist systems, the problem is how to achieve the necessary degree of social cohesion and moral consensus among partly autonomous, highly specialized, yet functionally interdependent elites. The cohesion and consensus are necessary if the society is to pursue common goals and is to be unified in more than name only.

These recent tendencies and trends are neither absolute nor inevitable. They are clearly manifested today in a wide variety of contexts and reflect the tempo of social change in a technologically expanding world. Should this tempo slow down markedly or cease altogether, the impulses toward rigidity and ascription may well come to the fore once again, albeit within a social structure shaped by centuries of industrialism. Some security and stability will be gained, but at the price of adventure and novelty—a familiar exchange in the annals of history and one bound to be reflected in the character and stamp of the strategic elites.

Suzanne Keller

[See alsoBureaucracy; Community, article onthestudyofcommunitypower; Politicalsociology; and the biographies ofAristotle; Mannheim; Michels; Mills; Mosca; Pareto; Plato; Saint-Simon.]


Aron, Raymond 1950 Social Structure and the Ruling Class. British Journal of Sociology 1:1–16, 126–143.

Bottomore, Thomas B. 1964 Elites and Society. London: Watts.

Cole, G. D. H. 1955 Studies in Class Structure. London: Routledge. → See especially pages 101–146 on “Elites in British Society.”

Crankshaw, Edward 1959 Khrushchev’s Russia. Har-mondsworth (England): Penguin.

Deutsch, Karl W.; and Edinger, Louis J. 1959 Germany Rejoins the Powers: Mass Opinion, Interest Groups, and Elites in Contemporary German Foreign Policy. Stanford (Calif.) Univ. Press.

Dreitzel, Hans P. 1962 Elitebegriff und Sozialstruktur: Eine soziologische Begriffsanalyse. Stuttgart (Germany): Enke.

Fainsod, Merle (1953) 1963 How Russia Is Ruled. Rev. ed. Russian Research Center Studies No. 11. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Guttsman, Wilhelm L. 1963 The British Political Elite. London: MacGibbon & Kee.

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

Jaeggi, Urs 1960 Die gesellschaftliche Elite: Eine Studie zum Problem der sozialen Macht. Bern (Switzerland) and Stuttgart (Germany): Haupt.

Keller, Suzanne 1963 Beyond the Ruling Class: Strategic Elites in Modern Society. New York: Random House.

Lasswell, Harold D. 1936 Politics: Who Gets What, When, How? New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mannheim, Karl (1935) 1940 Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction: Studies in Modern Social Structure. New York: Harcourt. → First published as Mensch und Gesellschaft im Zeitalter des Umbaus.

Matthews, Donald R. 1960 U.S. Senators and Their World. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Mills, C. Wright 1956 The Power Elite. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Mosca, Gaetano (1896) 1939 The Ruling Class. New York: McGraw-Hill. → First published as Elementi di scienza politica.

Pareto, Vilfredo 1902–1903 Les systemes socialistes. 2 vols. Paris: Giard.

Parsons, Talcott; Bales, R. F.; and Shils, E. A. 1953 Working Papers in the Theory of Action. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Saint-Simon, Claude Henri De (1807) 1859 Oeuvres choisis. Volume 1. Brussels: Meenen & Cie.

Sereno, Renzo 1962 The Rulers. New York: Praeger; Leiden (Netherlands): Brill.

Stammer, Otto 1951 Das Elitenproblem in der Demo-kratie. Schmollers Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Ver-waltung und Volkswirtschaft 71, no. 5:1—28.

Thomas, Hugh (editor) 1959 The Establishment: A Symposium. London: Blond.

Warner, W. Lloyd; and Abegglen, James C. 1955 Occupational Mobility in American Business and Industry: 1928–1952. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

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The term elites refers to a small number of actors who are situated atop key social structures and exercise significant influence over social and political change. Much of the power of elites stems from their economic resources, their privileged access to institutions of power, and their ability to exercise moral or intellectual persuasion. At the same time, however, elites embody the values and represent the interests of particular groups in society. This can limit their autonomy, complicate efforts to cooperate with each other, and narrow the support they elicit from the public. It is this contradictory aspect of elitessimultaneously empowered and constrained by their positions as leaders in societythat defines their role in the political system.

While traditional notions of elites have typically focused on members of an aristocracy (or oligarchy), whose positions were based on claims to hereditary title and wealth, elites today comprise key figures across various sectors of society. In and around government, they include political leaders within the executive and legislative branches of government, those in command of the bureaucracy and military, and leading representatives of organized interests in society (such as labor unions or corporate lobbying groups). Within the economy, elites reside at the pinnacle of finance, banking, and production. In the cultural sphere, elites include major patrons of the arts, cultural icons (including pop culture), writers, academics, religious leaders, and prominent figures within the mass media. Most recently, transnational elites have arisen within emergent supranational institutions, such as corporate actors in the World Economic Forum, technocrats working in the United Nations system, and the heads of international nongovernmental organizations.


Although the idea of elites can be traced back to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, the term elites was first used in modern social science by the Italian economists Vilfredo Pareto (19021903) and Gaetano Mosca (1939) in the early twentieth century. In contrast to class theories, in which the sources of societal power inhered in institutions of property and class relations in society, early elite theories saw power concentrated among a minority of the population who were able to rule over the rest of the population with little accountability to them. As a result, elites were often conceptualized as ruling elites, by virtue of their authority over the masses. As critics noted, however, the origins of elite power were underspecified. It was not clear, for example, if elites were inevitable products of modern organization, or if their position was contingent on their ability to control vital resources in society and mobilize the public.

In 1915, in his book Political Parties, the German sociologist Robert Michels introduced the iron law of oligarchy. Michels contended that the existence of elites sprang from an inherent tendency of all complex organizations to delegate authority to a ruling clique of leaders (who often take on interests of their own). Accordingly, even the most radical organizations will develop a self-interested elite. In a prominent 1956 study of the United States, C. Wright Mills proposed that elite power was defined by its institutional origins. Mills argued that the place of a power elite was maintained by their positions in government, the military, and major corporations, which enabled them to command the organized hierarchies of modern society. While these and other works of the time, including Joseph Schumpeters 1954 competitive elitist account of democracy, demonstrated the importance of the organizational bases of elite power, the origins of elites are more socially contingent on factors such as patronage and factionalism, leadership, and social structure than on institutional structure. Nonetheless, this classic work has heavily influenced elite studies, particularly scholars studying intra-elite political struggles within East bloc countries (through work termed Kremlinology).

Distinguishing themselves from these classical theorists, scholars since the 1960s have begun to differentiate elites and recognize their diverse roles. Major works, such as Suzanne Kellers Beyond the Ruling Class (1963), have traced elites sociological origins, examined their varied social functions, and engaged in empirical studies of a range of actors at the apex of almost any area of human activity. In contrast to classical approaches, these authors have highlighted ways in which elites conveyed societal claims upon the state. While this opened new avenues of research, their tendency to rely on the social profile of elites (such as age, education and occupation, and region or country of birth) at times produced inaccurate predictions of elite behavior. Though influential in shaping latent political attitudes, empirical research has shown that background characteristics are mediated by personal beliefs and values. As scholars such as Robert D. Putnam (1976) have concluded, the attitudes and political styles of elites do affect political outcomes, but behavioral patterns must be placed in a context of elite linkages to different social strata.

There has also been considerable cross-national variation in the openness of elites. In many societies, the elite manipulation of political patronage and the organization of political parties have perpetuated elites positions. In some countries, however, government programs have been designed to desegregate elites (though the success of these programs has been limited). As Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff demonstrated in Diversity in the Power Elite (1998), affirmative action initiatives within the United States have led to some openness along racial, gender, and class lines. However, they also showed that minorities and women absorbed into the elite often minimize their differences and, paradoxically, strengthen the existing system. Thus, government reforms (in the United States and elsewhere) seeking to enhance the diversity of elites have not produced the expected or hoped for results.


As suggested in foundational studies of elites, the importance of elites to the political system is heavily affected by struggles within ruling cliques and by elites relationships to social structures. Although elites influence the political system in numerous ways, the focus here will be on their effects on political regimes and democracy, the politics of state development, and incidences of violent conflict.

The nature of competition and compromise among ruling elites carry major implications for democracy. Although pluralist theory suggests that the dispersion of power in democratic systems across interest groups and institutions leaves elites in charge of different sectors of democratic politics, elites have a coordinated effect in mobilizing public opinion and ushering in political change. In The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (1992), John Zaller describes how, even in established democracies, elites attempt to construct a political world through messages delivered via media outlets to the mass public. In nondemocratic regimes, concentrations of power within ruling circles means that stability and prospects for political change hinge on the skill and engineering of elites, who can negotiate compromises between competing factions. Indeed, it has been long held that elite failures to rise above societal divisions can contribute to the rise of extremist politics, as typified by the rise of Nazism in interwar Germany. As Dankwart A. Rustow (1970) and more recently John Higley and Michael Burton (1989) have argued, democratic elites must not only establish a language of compromise across factions, but also accept the boundaries of political competition, and become habituated to the rules of the game. Recent studies, however, have shown that extremist popular mobilization can coexist with elite negotiations, and that the success of democratic transition depends not on moderation per se, but on elite calculations and projections of whether the forces of political changemoderate or extremistwill threaten their interests after they cede power (Bermeo 1997).

In addition to power struggles within ruling circles, the struggle between rulers and local elites has been crucial in centuries-long efforts to complement states juridical sovereignty with empirical statehood. As much of western European history attests, nobles, magnates, and landlords (among others), supported by property holdings and large armies, posed substantial challenges to the centralization of state power. Initially, future sovereign rulers were little more than members of the elite, as illustrated by Perry Andersons reprint of the famous oath of allegiance among Spanish nobility: We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not. (Anderson 1974, p. 65) Such diffuse systems of authority under local societal elites are also found in many weak states in contemporary Asia, Africa, and post-Communist Eurasia. Both historically and today, therefore, the emergence of effective state infrastructures depends on whether mixtures of coercion and patronage dispensed by rulers convince entrenched elites to cede political authority.

A final realm of politics in which elites play a critical role is violent conflict within society. In particular, intraelite politics and elite-mass linkages reside at the center of civil wars, and elite power-sharing models have been applied across a diversity of contexts. Among the most well-known is Arend Lijpharts consociational model (1977), which claims that a coalition of elites, drawn from the conflicting sides, can mitigate violence through a system of elite consensus built on mutual veto power, proportional allocation of offices, and granting each group partial autonomy. The success of such negotiated pacts has been variable, deterring violence in the Netherlands and in post-apartheid South Africa but failing to prevent an explosion of intra-state conflicts in the immediate postcold war period. Ultimately, the prevention or cessation of violence is causally related to how elites interact with one another and how effectively they channel societal claims through political institutions.

SEE ALSO Aristocracy; Campaigning; Elections; Elitism; Power; Power Elite; Public Opinion


Anderson, Perry. 1974. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: Verso.

Aron, Raymond. 1950. Social Structure and the Ruling Class. British Journal of Sociology 1 (1): 116, 126143.

Bermeo, Nancy. 1997. Myths of Moderation: Confrontation and Conflict during Democratic Transitions. Comparative Politics. 29 (3): 305322.

Bottomore, Thomas B. 1964. Elites and Society. London: C.A. Watts.

Higley, John, and Michael G. Burton. 1989. The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions and Breakdowns. American Sociological Review 54 (1): 1732.

Keller, Suzanne. 1963. Beyond the Ruling Class: Strategic Elites in Modern Society. New York: Random House.

Lijphart, Arend. 1977. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Michels, Robert. 1915. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies. Trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mosca, Gaetano. 1939. The Ruling Class. Trans. Hannah D. Kahn. New York: McGraw-Hill. Originally published as Elementi di scienza politica (1896).

Pareto, Vilfredo. 19021903. Les systemes socialistes. 2 vols. Paris: Giard.

Putnam, Robert D. 1976. The Comparative Study of Political Elites. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Rustow, Dankwart A. 1970. Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model. Comparative Politics 2 (3): 337363.

Schumpeter, Joseph. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. London: Harper & Brothers.

Zaller, John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Zweigenhaft, Richard L., and G. William Domhoff. 1998. Diversity in the Power Elite: Have Women and Minorities Reached the Top? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lawrence P. Markowitz

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Small but powerful minorities with a disproportionate influence in human affairs.

Both tribal society and Islam have a strong egalitarian component, but early Islamic writers assumed a distinction between the few (khassa) and the many (amma) not unlike that in modern Western elite theory between the elite and the masses. Like the term elite, khassa had vague and various meanings. It was applied on occasion to the following: the early (661750) Arab aristocracy under the Umayyads; the whole ruling class; the inner entourage of a ruler; educated people generally; and philosophers who pursued a rational (and sometimes a mystical) road to truth.

In the 1960s and 1970s, elite analysispioneered by V. Pareto and G. Mosca early in the twentieth century, partly as an alternative to Marxist class analysisattracted many Western scholars of the Middle East. National political elites received much of the attention, although anthropologists continued their special interest in local elites. Economic, social, and cultural elites attracted notice particularly when they overlapped with political elites. Elite studies examine the background, recruitment, socialization, values, and cohesiveness of elites. They probe elite-mass linkages, circulation into and out of the elite, the effects of elite leadership on society, and the evolution of all these factors over time.

The Ottoman Empire, which ruled loosely over most of the Middle East in the late eighteenth century, conceived of society as divided into a ruling class of askaris (literally, "soldiers" but also including "men of the pen"ulama [Islamic scholars] and scribal bureaucrats) and a ruled class of reʿaya (subjects). "Ottomans" were the core elite among the askaris, presumed to be Muslim, available for high state service, and familiar with the manners and language (Ottoman Turkish, which also entailed a knowledge of Arabic and Persian) of court. The recruitment of slaves into the elite was one mechanism that made for extreme upward social mobility.

Ever shifting social realities rarely match prescriptive theories. Although theoretically excluded from the askari elite, merchants, Coptic scribes, Jewish financiers, and Greek Orthodox patriarchs wielded considerable power in some times and places. Women attained such great informal power during one seventeenth-century period that the Ottomans called it "the sultanate of women." When central control weakenedas in the Fertile Crescent provinces in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a "politics of notables" mediated between the center and the provincial masses. Notable status often ran in families; the notables could include ulama, tribal shaykhs, merchants, large landowners, and local military forces.

Since 1800, the Middle East and its elites have greatly changed under the impact of the Industrial Revolution, European conquest and rule, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, nationalism and independence struggles, the ArabIsrael conflict, the petroleum and oil bonanza, secularist and Islamic ideologies, and the frustrations of continuing military, cultural, and economic dependency. Yet there has been continuity too.

In the countries where colonialism prevailed, foreign elites forced the partially displaced indigenous elites to make the painful choice of collaboration or resistance. Collaboration was particularly tempting to some religious and ethnic minorities. In the Fertile Crescent, tribal shaykhs and large landowners functioned as notables mediating between the colonial power and the people, as they had once done with the Ottomans. Whether one collaborated or not, knowledge of the West and Western language became a career asset for officials and the emerging professional class. In the milieu of mandates and of party and parliamentary politics between the two world wars, lawyers flourished in both government and opposition. After World War II, as most Middle Eastern countries regained control of their affairs, landed elites and reactionary politicians in many cases still frustrated serious social reform. Pressure built, and army officers of lower-middle-class origin overthrew one regime after another. Was it a return to the praetorian politics of the Ottoman Janissaries and the Mamluksthe armed forces that early nineteenth-century rulers had destroyed to clear the way for Western-style armies? The new armies remained on the political sidelines for most of the nineteenth century, reemerging briefly in Egypt during Ahmad Urabi's vain attempt to resist colonial control.

After 1900, armies reentered politics first in countries that had escaped colonial ruleTurkey with the Young Turks and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Iran with Reza Shah Pahlavi. Military coups in the Arab countries began later, following independence from colonial rule: Iraq in the 1930s and again in 1958, Syria in 1949, and Egypt in 1952. The regime of Gamal Abdel Nasserwith its Soviet alliance, single-party authoritarianism, and Arab socialismbecame a prototype for many others. Hopes that the new military elites and their civilian technocratic allieseconomists, engineers, scientistsrepresented the progressive vanguard of a new middle class soon proved to be overblown.

Patrilineal monarchies in Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula weathered the revolutionary Arab socialist challenge. Oil wealth helped rulers purchase political acquiescence, but it did not save the monarchs of Iraq, Libya, or Iran. In both the monarchies and their revolutionary challengers, patterns of authoritarian rule persisted. Family connections, old-boy networks, and patron-client relations still figure prominently in elite recruitment and perpetuation despite the widespread longing for a fair and open system.

Unlike the military, the ulama have lost much of the influence they had in 1800. During the nineteenth century, reforming rulers appropriated revenues from religious endowments, tried to turn the ulama into bureaucrats, and bypassed them with Western-style courts and state-school systems. In the ulama 's willingness to provide legitimization for almost any regime in power, they have jeopardized their moral authority. Engineers and others associated with the state schools, not the ulama, have been in the fore-front of Islamic and Islamist protest since the late 1960s. Yet in contrast to the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, most Middle Eastern regimes proved remarkably durable in the 1970s and 1980s. In Iran, however, the distinctive tradition of Shiʿism enabled a counterelite of ulama to lead a revolution against the shah and to consolidate its power as the core of a new ruling elite. Attempts to export the revolution to Sunni-dominated countries have met little success.

See also AtatÜrk, Mustafa Kemal; Colonialism in the Middle East; Fertile Crescent; Janissaries; Mamluks; Nasser, Gamal Abdel; Nationalism; Pahlavi, Reza; Shiʿism; Ulama; Urabi, Ahmad; Young Turks.


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Findley, Carter Vaughn. Ottoman Civil Officialdom: A Social History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Hourani, Albert. "Ottoman Reform and the Politics of Notables," In The Emergence of the Modern Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Hunter, F. Robert. Egypt under the Khedives 18051879. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984.

Zartman, I. William, et al. Political Elites in Arab North Africa. New York: Longman, 1982.

donald malcolm reid

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"Elites." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . 30 Mar. 2017 <>.

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