Power Elites

  • Niilo KauppiEmail author
  • Mikael Rask Madsen
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1364-1

Sociologists have taken an interest in elites since the discipline started to take form in the nineteenth century. Alexis de Tocqueville’s explorations of the formation of the United States and modern society clearly highlighted the key role played by legal professionals in this process and how they offered an important alternative to the landed elites who still dominated in Europe (Tocqueville 1842). Half a century later, Max Weber explored modern society by highlighting how the bureaucratization of the state via legal rationalization created a professional corps of jurists who effectively exercised (delegated) state power (Weber 1978). Moreover, the modern state and society developed a professionalization of politics which challenged other, previously established, forms of power and domination. Both authors were however very much aware that there was no complete transformation from older forms of power to a meritocratic and democratic society and its agency.

This tension between traditional elites (broadly speaking) and modern meritocratic and professional elites such as lawyers and economists remains central to understanding contemporary processes of globalization and the formation of power elites (Kauppi and Madsen 2013a, 2014). Scholars have shown how an often ambiguous combination of transnational professionals and more traditional powerholders (supranational capitalists, hegemonic states, etc.) not only dominate international affairs but also largely define the very territory of what is typically referred to as the international. This challenges more formalist ideas of the delineation of the international sphere and its agency by situating processes of internationalization as prolongations of the struggles over power and domination which characterize the national level (Dezalay and Madsen 2009). The dichotomy between the national and the international is largely erased, and most of the processes in question are indeed more transnational in scope, that is, encompassing several national and international spaces – and so are the elites in question: They are global in outlook, and their actions help produce global fields. They are, in the words of Jeffrey Jackson, globalizers (Jackson 2005).

Following Tocqueville and Weber, elites are as a select group of agency that can be defined as elites by virtue of them being superior in terms of competence (knowledge and know-how) and/or because they enjoy a superior status (socially, economically, or intellectually). Elites are in other words either relatively defined (they are superior to the rest of their group) or materially defined (they possess more of a given (material or symbolic) asset than others). Importantly, they are in both cases in a position to exercise significant power with regard to global processes – and more power than nonelites. Approaching elites this way helps capture, for example, both transnational capitalists and transnational professionals under the same overarching notion of global (power) elites. This is important as to avoid distinguishing too sharply between new transnational professional elites and what could be defined as old more traditional international elites. The first reason for this is that these groups in some cases are interchangeable and often tacitly use the different professional and social venues they have access to (Dezalay 2004). The second reason is that research into global power elites should not limit itself to an extension of the sociology of professions. Instead, it should be concerned with the sociological properties of these groupings with the goal of explaining the political and social consequences of their rise to dominance for the broader social and political figurations of emerging global society.

Theories of Global Elites

This way of delineating elites differs from most studies in the area. In a previous study, we coined the notion of transnational power elites with the goal of identifying our object as the agents of new forms of power and global change triggered by powerful transnational agency (Kauppi and Madsen 2013b). Thereby we sought to remedy what we saw as a flaw in existing literature which primarily has described global elites by emphasizing how they are denationalizing themselves. Samuel Huntington’s “Davos Man” is one example of the latter. In his account, global elites are above all posing a threat to the coherence of the State, in his case the “American creed” (Huntington 2005). More recently, David Rothkopf has gone further and analyzed what he terms the global “superclass” (Rothkopf 2008). This new power elite, he estimates, has some 6000 members who are all defined by the fact that their connections to one another are more important than their connections to their home countries. Following this definition, the Pope and leading global terrorists are all members of the same global “superclass.” Using a less glossy vocabulary and drawing on more substantiated theory, in this case global system theory and Marxism, Leslie Sklair’s The Transnational Capitalist Class provides a striking account of a social group and structure which seeks to further the interest of global capital in ways no nation-state – or other social group – does or could possibly imagine (Sklair 2001). Sklair insists on the fact that this transnational social group is a class when defined in respect to the means of production and distribution. It is capitalist because it owns or controls – individually or collectively – the means of production. Thus, a transnational capitalist class is sustained by its interlocked agencies, ranking from business, bureaucracy, and professions – or, as we suggest by drawing on Mills, by a complex of interrelated transnational power elites.

A related sociological study is found in an analysis of development workers entitled The Globalizers (Jackson 2005). In his analysis of three decades of state building in Honduras, Jeffrey T. Jackson shows how the development community functions as a close-knit network of state building assistants who themselves have become policy makers. They clearly have in common with the “Davos Men,” the global “superclass,” and the “transnational capitalist class” in some traits of an epistemic community – they share international beliefs and goals within their community. Such a view ultimately draws on Peter M. Haas’ seminal work on epistemic communities (Haas 1992). What makes the community particular is its episteme, that is, its adherence to a certain set of values and modes of validity. One might question whether the transnational capitalist superclass of “Davos Men” is as much an epistemic community as that of development workers. What is certain, however, is that they are all globalizers.

The question we raise is however whether global elites can simply be understood in terms of denationalized globalizers as suggested particularly by Huntington and Rothkopf. In a way, these approaches seem to primarily add an elite component to existing theories and ideas of global civil society or cosmopolitanism. The approach we suggest has more in common with Sklair’s approach. However, we reject the strong global system perspective, as well as we moderate the Marxist metaphors. In practice, our approach is closer to the work of Yves Dezalay and Bryant Garth (2002). Whereas Dezalay and Garth might at first glance be seen as protagonists of the view of global elites as denationalizing elites, at closer examination, the “legal cosmocrats” they have studied in diverse settings and subject areas – politics, economics and human rights – are closely connected to national structures. Pierre Bourdieu, when commenting on the earlier work of Dezalay and Garth on international commercial arbitration, wrapped it up nicely: “Since lawyers and others are trained nationally, and for the most part they make their careers nationally, it is not surprising that they seek as a matter of course to deploy their ways of thinking and practicing in the construction of international institutions” (Bourdieu 1996a). In a similar fashion, global elites, like their historic national counterparts, are neither entirely international nor national but rather transnational and relying, to varying degrees, on both national and international resources and capitals. It is for these precise reasons they are often in a key position to impact globalization.

The Global Power Elites

Emphasizing how global elites move and influence globalization raises the question of what is power. Power, of course, is by no means a clear-cut social scientific concept and necessarily has to be understood in multiple ways and combinations when analyzing global elites: as expert power, cultural power, network power, economic power, etc. Power is a relational social resource (Dahl 1961) that some individuals and groups have access to or that some groups and individuals have the right to use in specific ways following often implicit and informal conventions and rules (Bourdieu 1996b). These resources are all linked to mechanisms of recognition of their value. They consist of a variety of different types, from the most codified like collective organizational assets tied to organizational structures and division of labor or of financial means to more nebulous varieties of symbolic power (Kauppi 2005). Since global elites come in different forms – from experts to financial dynasties – very different forms of power are being exercised by these agents.

Expert power refers to the technical and political role of individuals and groups involved in the formulation and implementation of global policies. Cultural power refers to the models of organization that shape institution building (Meyer et al. 1997). Through institutional isomorphism, the same institutional patterns and modes of decision are being adopted and adapted in very different social and economic contexts. Network power, for its part, refers to the global networks of individuals and organizations in which resources are embedded. These include family networks as well as epistemic cultures that unite professional groups sharing a common interest. Finally economic power refers to the financial muscle of certain groups. Power evolves in all these different networks and spaces where diverse types of agents operate. For this reason, it is important to briefly examine the social scientific theories that seek to define more generally what kinds of groups global (power) elites are and what kinds of social resources they have access to and deploy.

As already indicated, scholars however disagree on who elites are. According to the pluralist theory expounded by, for instance, Talcott Parsons and Robert Dahl, social power (polyarchy) is dispersed and divided. The development of society is determined by democratic competition between a variety of elites, economic elites, trade unions, churches, and so on. The outcome of this competition will be equilibrium between these different interests that share a certain conception of the political game. While this perspective takes into account the variety of interests, it paints a rather harmonious picture of political life. Joseph Schumpeter’s 1950 concept of democratic elitism however seeks to unite the analysis of power with that of democratic principles (Schumpeter 2013). Democracy has evolved from a system of direct popular government into a system of competition between elites for the control of the state. As in the pluralist perspective, this theory reflects the situation in the United States, excluding from analysis the private sector and legitimizing the status quo. But in contrast to the polyarchy perspective, it introduces classes and inequality in the analysis of politics and ultimately law.

The dimension of class is even more present in elite theories that underline the concentration of power and social resources in the hands of a few who are then independent of ordinary citizens. In the classical elite theories of Pareto, Mosca, and Michels, psychological differences distinguish the elites from the masses: the elites are, so to speak, more intelligent. Elite formation is a functional necessity. Organizational complexity requires a leader. Power is situated in the key political and economic institutions of a given society. Following Michels, every organization is by definition elitist: it requires specialized personnel, usage of specialized structures by the leaders, and specific psychological attributes (charisma). In Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy, the state has a quasi-autonomous role in society. Weber understands power as the capacity to realize one’s will even if others oppose it. The state has the monopoly of expertise, but contrary to Michels and his iron law of oligarchy, the state is not totally autonomous. Rather, the state is tied in a multitude of ways to society’s socioeconomic structures. More recent elite theories include that of C. Wright Mills, particularly his landmark study on the American power elite. In contrast to Weber’s individualistic conception of power, for Mills power was essentially institutional, for instance, military, political, or economic (Wright Mills 1956). C. Wright Mills defined the elites as being composed of upper middle class individuals. Powerless, the masses are conversely manipulated and exploited. Another American sociologist, William Domhoff, sought to fuse theories of class together with theories of power elites. A superior class that controlled the large enterprises governed the United States (Domhoff 1970). The governing class was an American business aristocracy. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has developed this idea of dominant elites in his numerous works on French society (Bourdieu 1996b).

While these studies show the mechanisms by which some groups of individuals succeed in staying in power, they tend to minimize the importance of electoral politics and public opinion. The complexity of society is further simplified to an extreme, as being composed of dominant or dominated classes. In revealing the mechanisms of institutional power, most of these approaches create an impression of inevitability: the elites are unified, and the relationships they entertain with the masses are unchanging. Compared to pluralist and power elite theories of elites, Marxist theories however underline the links between the economic system and the political system. Those who control the means of production govern society. According to Ralph Miliband, economical dominance tends to instrumentalize political power to further its own ends (Miliband 1982). Political conflicts are conceptualized in terms of class conflict, and the dominant classes form the ideas that make up the conscience of the masses.


All these theories of power and elites attempt to answer one major question: how does the unequal distribution of resources between types of elites and elites and masses affect democracy – and society? Except for some forms of Marxist theorizing, answers have been sought at the level of the nation-state. The challenge today is to further develop both theoretically and empirically approaches that concentrate on power but this time in a much broader context. Inequalities are produced at the global level and competition for institutional political power cannot be confined to nation-states.


  1. Bourdieu P (1996a) Foreword. In: Dezalay Y, Garth BG (eds) Dealing in virtue: international commercial arbitration and the construction of a transnational legal order. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp vii–viiiGoogle Scholar
  2. Bourdieu P (1996b) The state nobility: elite schools in the field of power. Stanford University Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
  3. Dahl RA (1961) Who governs? Power and democracy in an American city. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  4. Dezalay Y (2004) Les courtiers de l’international: Héritiers cosmopolites, mercenaires de l’impérialisme et missionnaires de l’universel. Actes Recherche Sci Soc 151–152:5–34Google Scholar
  5. Dezalay Y, Garth B (2002) The internationalization of palace wars: lawyers, economists, and the contest to transform Latin American states. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dezalay Y, Madsen MR (2009) Espaces de pouvoir nationaux, espaces de pouvoir internationaux. In: Cohen A, Lacroix B, Riutort P (eds) Nouveau manuel de science politique. La Découverte, Paris, pp 681–693Google Scholar
  7. Domhoff GW (1970) The higher circles: the governing class in America. Random House, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  8. Haas PM (1992) Introduction: epistemic communities and international policy coordination. Int Organ 46(01):1–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Huntington SP (2005) Who are we?: America’s great debate. Free Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Jackson JT (2005) The globalizers: development Workers in Action. The Johns Hopkins University Press, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  11. Kauppi N (2005) Democracy, social resources and political power in the European Union. Manchester University Press, ManchesterGoogle Scholar
  12. Kauppi N, Madsen MR (eds) (2013a) Transnational power elites: the new professionals of governance, law and security. Abingdon, RoutledgeGoogle Scholar
  13. Kauppi N, Madsen MR (2013b) Transnational power elites: the new professionals of governance, law and Security. In: Kauppi N, Madsen MR (eds) Transnational power elites: the new professionals of governance, law and security. Routledge, Abingdon, pp 1–16Google Scholar
  14. Kauppi N, Madsen MR (2014) Fields of global governance: how transnational power elites can make global governance intelligible. Int Polit Sociol 8(3):324–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kauppi N, Madsen MR (2016) Global elites. In: Guillaume X, Bilgin P, Salter MB (eds) Routledge handbook of international political sociology. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  16. Meyer JW, Boli J, Thomas GM, Ramirez FO (1997) World society and the nation-state. Am J Sociol 103(1):144–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Miliband R (1982) Capitalist democracy in Britain. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  18. Rothkopf D (2008) Superclass: the global power elite and the world they are making. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  19. Schumpeter JA (2013) Capitalism, socialism and democracy. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  20. Sklair L (2001) The transnational capitalist class. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  21. Tocqueville Ad (1842) De la démocratie en Amérique, Ch. GosselinGoogle Scholar
  22. Weber M (1978) Economy and society: an outline of interpretive sociology. Univ of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  23. Wright Mills C (1956) The power elite. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of JyväskyläJyväskyläFinland
  2. 2.iCourts, Centre of Excellence for International CourtsUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagen KDenmark