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42. Making elites visible



In the last thirty years, there has been an enormous rise in the wealth and power of the very wealthy (sometimes called ‘the 1%’) but social science has been slow to tackle this phenomenon. Manchester Sociologists (working in the interdisciplinary ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change) challenged this neglect and advanced a new research agenda making elites visible again to social analysis and critique.

In the edited collection ‘Remembering Elites’ (2008) Mike Savage and Karel Williams pointed out that, despite the fact that we live in a renewed age of plutocracy (and with considerable public concern about elites), social theory on elites was moribund. Existing work on inequality had focused on occupational class and used sample surveys to measure it, which meant that ‘given their small size and invisibility within national sample surveys, elites…slipped from view’ (2008: 3).

Another problem was that post-structural theories had increasingly emphasised the dispersed nature of power relations, whilst cultural class analysis had mainly focused on new cultural elites so the very wealthy members of the super elite were largely overlooked. Savage and Wlliams proposed a new research agenda reconnecting elite theory to a social analysis of money, finance and power. Rather than focusing on those in the traditional seats of power (on corporate boards, in ‘old boys’ clubs’ and ‘the establishment’) this new focus drew attention to the spreading logic of financialisation in contemporary society, to the role of money as an active agent of change, as well as to the increasing role of brokers and intermediaries whose power ‘rests on being able to forge connections and bridge gaps’. Financialisation refers to the increasing dominance of the financial sector in the economy, and the growth of financial instruments and derivatives (including the buying and selling of financial debt, credit default and financial ‘futures’). Through a ‘financialisation logic’ with the revaluation of the rewards of executives in the ‘old elite’ (the CEOs of giant firms etc) and an expansion of highly paid intermediaries in banking and corporate financing, Savage and Williams argue that: ‘those who control money are establishing themselves as central social and political agents, who can also embed themselves in wider circuits of power’ (p.9).

In seeking to understand the inexorable rise of elites by ‘following the money’, this new agenda has resulted in research examining how elites have changed and adapted over time, but also indicating how financialisation has led to a diffusion of elite influence across many different spheres of society. Work on elites at Manchester continues through the medium of the Great British Class Survey (Savage et al., 2013), whose unusual methodology and very large sample size (over 390,000 people completed this online survey, via the BBC website) permits a more fine-grained analysis of the ‘elite’  – a group who rarely turn up in other surveys. A forthcoming special edition of the journal The Sociological Review will present the research on elites emerging from this study.

Further reading

Mike Savage and Karel Williams (eds.) (2008) Remembering Elites, Bognor Regis: Blackwell/The Sociological Review.

Mike Savage, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham, Mark Taylor, Yaojun Li, Johannes Hjellbrekke, Brigitte Le Roux, Sam Friedman, Andrew Miles (2013) ‘A new model of social class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class survey experiment.’ Sociology , 47(2): 219-250.


1 Comment

  1. Hegel restored elitism after Kant had done the best anybody ever could to break it down. Fear of power and politics creates hierarchy, as people flock into collectives to avoid the whip. Instead of truth, detected by intra-personal comparison of the strands of recollection and construction, inter-personal role-differentiation of powers determines social order. Equal animals are divided into more and less equal (Orwell 1945) parents|children, leaders|followers and conquerors|conquered.

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