élite, élite theory
It was the work of two nineteenth-century Italians-Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca -that turned the rather commonplace observation that for much of recorded human history the few have ruled the many into an important contribution to modern political sociology. For Mosca, whose Elementi di scienza politica of 1896 (translated as The Ruling Class in 1939) was the first statement of the theory, the distinguishing mark of the rulers and therefore the explanation for their political dominance over the ruled lay in the rulers' superior organization. But the dominance so achieved would last only so long as it was exercised in a manner consonant with the values (‘the political formula’) of the society concerned. If it was not so exercised, the élite involved would be replaced sooner or later by another, one that was prepared to rule in accordance with the prevailing values.
Although he is usually considered to have derived the idea from Mosca, it was Pareto who, by naming the ruling few ‘the élite’, gained much of the credit for the theory's creation. However, Pareto went on to develop the idea, as part of a complex sociology of his own making. According to this sociology, social action is determined by one or other of six basic ‘sentiments’ or ‘residues’, which are typically rationalized by more intellectual sets of ideas (for example, democracy, nationalism, and liberty), which he terms ‘derivations’. Amongst the residues two were far more important than the others: the ‘residue of the persistence of aggregates’, which stimulated courage and strength; and the ‘residue of combinations’, which stimulated cunning and compromise. Borrowing from Machiavelli, Pareto termed those rulers moved by the first of these residues ‘lions’ and those moved by the second ‘foxes’, and then used this distinction to formulate his theory of the ‘circulation of élites’. According to this theory, every society is founded in violence and therefore by lions, but as it settles down the need for their courage and strength declines. Eventually, this need is replaced by an even more compelling one for the subtler skills of the foxes, who then become the rulers. The rule of the foxes remains in place until the society's identity and sense of direction become so unclear that a need for more leonine qualities once again arises.
Despite the formalistic, ahistorical, and manifestly psychologistic nature of these ideas, they have been periodically revived since Mosca and Pareto's time by those seeking ways of filling gaps in other theories of the distribution of power - hence, for example, C. Wright Mills's use of them in The Power Elite (1956) to overcome the economic reductionism of Marxism . Hence also their use by the ‘democratic élitists’ (see, The Theory of Democratic Elitism, 1967) of the 1960s to overcome the too indeterminate nature of pluralist theories.
For a review of both the extensive literature on élite theory, and the substantive material deriving from studies of bureaucracy , business, the military, and community power, see, Political Elites (1969). See also Michels, Robert; power élite.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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