Power Elite Theory Essay Example

by Sam Cook a former student
Elite theory explains the power relationships in modern society as one held by a tiny elite. It argues that a small minority, consisting of members of a social elite who hold power no matter what happens in elections in a country because of their innate characteristics. For Pareto it is the psychological traits or characteristics of elites which separates them from the masses. He classified elites into two types – those with the power or traits of ‘lions’ who use force to gain or retain power like military dictators and those who had the traits of a ‘fox’ using cunning and guile to get their own way. While this classical elite theory is often criticised for its simplicity.

Elite theory stands in opposition to pluralism in suggesting that democracy is a utopian ideal. It also challenges any theories which argue the state acts as an autonomous institution. Before you read the more ‘academic’ explanations of elite power, it’s worth looking at recent comments on the power of elites by The Guardian’s Owen Jones  and the power of Whitehall civil servants who run the UK like Sir Humphrey Appleby as discussed by The Times’s Rachel Sylvester.

Elite theory is explained in general elite-theory1. The work of C. Wright-Mills is explained in greater depth the-power-elite while this link explores the relationship between Weber and C. Wright-Mills with the middle-section providing excellent resources on the power elite. Recently ex Prime Minister John Major discussed the extent to which C Wright Mills ideas are being played out in contemporary UK society.

John Major argues a power elite is running Britain and undermining social mobility. It’s important to note that for Stanworth and Giddens, John Major represents their concept of elite recruitment which makes Major’s comments largely paradoxical. At the same time Tony Blair’s son, Nicky Blair has already established himself as successful football agent, therefore the question is which version of elite theory best explains this meteoric rise?  In contrast this Guardian report examines the power of elite civil servants in the UK today.

Through positions in corporations, public schools and other social networks a small group of people run the country (rather than one individual). Their power comes from social privilege being passed from generation to generation mainly through inherited wealth and participation in privileged forms of education. To understand the extent of their privilege, take a look at Eton College here. and now read the influence and power of such social networks with The Times’ article Politics and the Oligarch here

Other sociologists (Stanworth and Giddens) have looked at the how members of elites are recruited into the network of elites, rather than it being a closed network as C Wright Mills suggests. Their research suggests too much emphasis has been placed on social-class and the influence of privileged backgrounds. Instead Stanworth and Giddens elites networks are open to all. Political leaders like Thatcher and Major came from ordinary backgrounds and neither attended fee-paying schools. However it’s worth pointing out David Coates argue social class still plays an important role in elite recruitment especially in politics which is evident in this House of Commons report mps-background

So extensive is the hold of elites on the top jobs that in January 2009 the government has proposed to tackle the issues as so many top professions are dominated by elites even though academically they might not be as strong. Take the incident of Chelsy Davy, Prince Harry’s girlfriend who got a placement at a top legal firm while ‘only’ attending Leeds university to study law. You can read about this and more here.

In contrast Ian Budge’s fragmented elite model suggests (unlike C Wright Mills’ view of a cohesive elite) there’s a number of elites in Britain all competing with each other for power. This is evident with Cameron and Clegg having similar backgrounds but heading different political parties (the recent coalition does challenge this perspective and adds more weight to C Wright-Mills).

Like this:




C. Wright Mills on the Power Elite

By Frank W. Elwell

In all of his writings, Mills interprets the world through a theoretical perspective very much influenced by Max Weber. In The Power Elite, Mills made explicit his belief that the American doctrine of balances of power is an ideal showing less vigor today than was true in the past. According to Mills, there is a power elite in modern societies, an elite who command the resources of vast bureaucratic organizations that have come to dominate industrial societies.

As the bureaucracies have centralized and enlarged the circle of those who run these organizations have narrowed and the consequences of their decisions have become enormous. According to Mills, the power elite are the key people in the three major institutions of modern society: 1) Economy; 2) Government; and 3) Military. The bureaucracies of state, corporations, and military have become enlarged and centralized and are a means of power never before equaled in human history. These hierarchies of power are the key to understanding modern industrial societies.

The elite occupy the key leadership positions within the bureaucracies that now dominate modern societies, the positions in which the effective means of power are now located. Thus their power is rooted in authority, an attribute of social organizations, not of individuals. It is not a conspiracy of evil men, he argues, but a social structure that has enlarged and centralized the decision-making process and then placed this authority in the hands of men of similar social background and outlook.

In Mills’ view, major national power now resides almost exclusively in the economic, political, and military domains. All other institutions have diminished in scope and power and been either pushed to the side of modern history, or made subordinate to the big three. It is their similar social backgrounds that provide one of the major sources of unity among the elite. The majority of the elite, Mills asserted, come from the upper third of the income and occupational pyramids. They are born of the same upper class. They attend the same preparatory schools and Ivy League universities. They join the same exclusive gentleman's clubs, belong to the same organizations. They are closely linked through intermarriage.

The coordination of elites also comes from the interchange of personnel between the three elite hierarchies. The closeness of business and government officials can be seen, Mills asserts, by the ease and frequency with which men pass from one hierarchy to another. Mills also asserted that a good deal of the coordination comes from a growing structural integration of dominant institutions. As each of the elite domains becomes larger, more centralized, and more consequential in its activities, its integration with the other spheres becomes more pronounced.

Of the three sectors of institutional power, Mills claims, the corporate sector is the most powerful. But the power elite cannot be understood as a mere reflection of economic elites; rather it is the alliance of economic, political, and military power. Mills saw two other levels of power in American society below the power elite. At the bottom are the great masses of people. Largely unorganized, ill informed, and virtually powerless, they are controlled and manipulated from above. The masses are economically dependent; they are economically and politically exploited. Because they are disorganized, the masses are far removed from the classic democratic public in which voluntary organizations hold the key to power.

Between the masses and the elite Mills saw a middle level of power. Composed of local opinion leaders and special interest groups, they neither represent the masses nor have any real effect on the elite. Mills saw the American Congress and American political parties as a reflection of this middle-level of power. Although Congress and political parties debate and decide some minor issues, the power elite ensures that no serious challenge to its authority and control is tolerated in the political arena. The positions of the elite allow them to transcend the ordinary environments of men and women. The elite have access to levers of power that make their decisions (as well as their failure to act) consequential.

By 1958 (Causes of World War III), Mills seemed much more concerned with the rise of militarism among the elites than with the hypothesis that many elites were military men. According to Mills, the rise of the military state serves the interests of the elite of industrial societies. For the politician the projection of military power serves as a cover for their lack of vision and innovative leadership. For corporate elites the preparations for war and the projection of military power underwrites their research and development as well as provides a guarantee of stable profits through corporate subsidies. This militarism is inculcated in the population through school room and pulpit patriotism, through manipulation and control of the news, through the cultivation of opinion leaders and unofficial ideology.

 But it is not just the existence of a power elite that has allowed this manufactured militarism to dominate. It has also been enabled by the apathy and moral insensibility of the masses and by the political inactivity of intellectuals in both communist and capitalist countries. Most intellectual, scientific, and religious leaders are echoing the elaborate confusions of the elite. They are refusing to question elite policies, they are refusing to offer alternatives. They have abdicated their role, they allow the elite to rule unhindered.

For a more extensive discussion of Mills's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. W. (2006). Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Mills, C. W. (2000). C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. (K. Mills, & P. Mills, Eds.) Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mills, C. W. (1960). Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mills, C. W. (1958). The Causes of World War Three. London: Secker & Warburg.

Mills, C. W. (1956/1970). The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. W. (1959/1976). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. W. (1951/1973). White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.




Served since March, 2005.

One thought on “Power Elite Theory Essay Example

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *