John Higley: "Elite Theory in Political Sociology"

John Higley is emeritus professor of government and sociology at the University of Texas in Austin. In his paper entitled “Elite Theory in Political Sociology”, Higley focuses on elite theory by examining the general relationships between elites and politics.

The article opens with a paragraph which summarizes how the founders of elite theory, Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941), Vilfred Pareto (1848–1923), and Robert Michels (1876–1936) defined the most fundamental concepts on elites. The importance and influence of these three men on the development of elite theory is also reflected in William Genieys’ book “Sociologie politique des élites”, whose first three chapters are dedicated to the discussion of their work. While the works by Mosca, Pareto, and Michels contain slightly different definitions on how elites function and how they exert their power, Higley highlights the instance that all of them saw the inescapable existence of elites as the reason why a truly democratic society would remain unattainable.

Higley underlines the importance that is given to elites in political contexts, however, he also points out the difficulties which arise when attempting to establish a general theory of elites and politics, since “there is no accepted typology of elites and no accepted specification of the circumstances and ways in which one elite type replaces another; political interactions between elites and non-elite populations are captured only piecemeal.” Despite the elusiveness of these concepts, Higley stresses the importance of elites in times of (dramatic) political change.

What are elites? According to Higley, the existence of elites is based on the fact that are no “robust common interests” in large collectivities, since the goals of its members never overlap 100%. However, the need for collective decisions beyond individual interests ultimately places concentrated amounts of power on certain people. Thus, Higley defines political elites as follows: “persons who, by virtue of their strategic locations in large or otherwise pivotal organizations and movements, are able to affect political outcomes regularly and substantially.”

Keeping this definition in mind, Higley then examines the connections between elites and political stability. He first emphasizes that situations in which elite groups exert direct influence or force on political institutions are more common than stable, institutionalized political power. In this context, elites are closely linked with forces which have the possibility to give rise to sudden political change. Thus, the group of people in power (described by Higley as a disunited elite) is always in control over entities/institutions of force.

In places where political stability is the norm, a united elite has previously been formed, which can be categorized into two types. The ideologically united elite is defined by an image of a homogenous leadership group, united by a defined ideology represented by all or nearly all group members. However, Higley points out that the exact definition of said ideology is made by elite members of the highest status, and the need to follow said ideology is not a choice, but a prerequisite for any elite member. The second type of elites is the consensually united elite, which is not based on a single defined ideology everyone must follow. Elites which are consensually united work under defined sets of rules, and due to the instance that all members have the possibility to take part in political decisions, it is not in their interest to overthrow political institutions by force.

Ideologically united elites often originate in the context of revolutions, where new elites use specific ideologies to overturn previous elites. Higley specifically names – among others – China after 1949, and Iran from 1979 to 1981. The example of Iran is especially interesting, since, according to William Genieys, the word in Farsi for elites, nokhbé, refers to someone who has been elected or chosen among others. Today, the term has a positive connotation but is exclusively used to describe groups of individuals who excel in their professional activities, in areas such as science and culture. However, it is never used in economic, political, or religious contexts. This divergence in how an ideologically united elite formed in Iran after 1979, and how the word for elites is used today, is important to highlight.  

Contrary to ideologically united elites, consensually united elites can occur when opposing elites abandon their disputes, and begin to collaborate in an elite settlement. According to Higley, this process typically happens at relatively low levels of socioeconomic development. Alternatively, consensually united elites can also form in colonial contexts, where local elites have had experience in political management.
Finally, Higley adds a third way which leads to a consensually united elite: elite convergence. This process can happen in places where democratic elections are held, and where the opposing elites have formed a coalition broad enough that it wins enough votes to win elections repeatedly. Again, seizing power by force is not a realistic opportunity, and thus, democratic processes are acknowledged by the elites, and political institutions are stabilized.

John Higley also discusses the connection between elite theory and democracy. In analyzing this connection, he remarks that democratic institutions and practices depend on the type of elite that is prevalent in a society and this elite’s ability to keep political tensions low or moderate. This refers to the instance that whenever a political issue is too explosive or morally charged, elites will neglect the issue if it endangers political stability. In other words, according to Higley, a democracy depends on consensually united elites to function.

Higley concludes by stressing the limitations of elite theory. Based on the inevitability of social and political conflicts, he states: “(…) elites are central actors in politics, but the theory that centers on them is unlikely to have many enthusiastic adherents.”

  • How or to what extent can elite theory describe the newly emerging elites of the 21st century? As William Genieys remarks, terrorist groups/movements could also be seen as elitist groups – how do they “fit” into elite theory?
  • How can we interpret the general “war against the media” and the “fake news movement”? Are these movements the result of resentment against elites?

  • John Higley, “Elite Theory in Political Sociology”
  • William Genieys, Sociologie politique des élites (Paris: Armand Colin, 2011)