Bruno Cousin, Shamus Khan,and Ashley Mears3
Sciences Po, Department of Sociology and Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics
Department of Sociology, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA; 3
Department of Sociology, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA
In this introductory essay to our special issue on elites, we outline some of the major
challenges to research in this area and propose a series of theoretical and methodological pathways to address them. Theoretically we make four recommendations:
(a) greater attentiveness to and specificity about the relationship between elites and
(b) a clearer articulation of the relationships between elites and the varieties
(c) far more attention to diversity within elites and the use of elites to
understand forms of domination like white supremacy and masculine domination
(d) expanding beyond the orthodox form of Bourdieusian theoretical frameworks.
Methodologically we outline how research using survey instruments, social
network analysis (SNA) (and multiple correspondence analysis), interviews, ethnographic observation, experiments, archival research, administrative data and content analysis can each be deployed, built upon or redirected to help bring elites into
1.2 Elites and capitalism
The need for theoretical precision and attention to the various forms of power relations calls also for an accurate characterization of the different processes directly structuring hierarchies and inequalities within economies and societies, including capitalist societies. Coercion, oppression, exploitation, appropriation, discrimination, domination, etc. are too often confounded with each other. Yet, they are different phenomena well-defined by social sciences. Some analytical approaches focus more specifically on one of them, like Wright (2005) improving our understanding of exploitation by refining the Marxian materialistic perspective or Bruno Latour’s recent conceptualization of ‘geo-social’ classes defined by their ecological footprint and vulnerability (Latour, 2018), and others address combinations and possible modalities of embeddedness between these different power relations.
Different kinds of capitalism are likely to generate different kinds of elites. If we are to believe that social structures influence social entities (and vice versa), then placing elites within the context of the variety of capitalism they participate in and articulating the relation between such elites and the macro-evolutions of capitalism must be a more central project within research on elites. It would also be a way to link such research with the renewal of political economy (Hall and Soskice, 2001), and to explore the space and role of elites within the continuum between liberal egalitarian democracies and authoritarian kleptocracies. Classical accounts of industrial capitalism generally describe contexts where elite managers lived in close physical proximity to their workers—Beckert (2001), for example, reminds us how the founder of Steinway & Sons, Heinrich Steinweg, would walk out of the back of his home, across a yard, and into his factory in Lower Manhattan (on France, see Boltanski, 1987). Yet, as the instruments of capitalism and the organization of production of goods and services have transformed—with increased financialization, automation, offshoring and owners of company stock that may not even be cognizant of what is within their portfolios—so too have the relations between the owners of capital and the labor force. After having successfully dismantled unions in many contexts and massively undermined the basis of worker power (Mizruchi, 2013), and living today more and more often in selfsegregated urban settings reducing the occasions of face-to-face interactions with other social groups, elites seem less interested in the working class, rarely articulating the need to draw symbolic boundaries against them or the unmediated desire to dominate or oppress by Fondation nationale des Sciences Politiques user on 19 April 2018 them (Paugam et al., 2017). This is not to say that their sense of fairness and their policy preferences are aligned with the interests of workers, or that they are empathetic to them. The persistence or increase of inequalities is still supported by a multiform rhetoric of reaction (Hirschman, 1991). But in several countries the kind of hostility between classes has transformed from the days where workers had to face the physical violence of the Pinkerton Agency, while robber barons and political elites were the targets of the Propaganda by the deed. As capitalism has transformed—shifting both the composition and the experience of ‘owners’ and their upper service class and redefining more generally the meaning of work (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2006)—the study of the relevant actors, antagonisms, alignments and orientations requires fresh perspectives. In short, we need a clearer sense of the new ways elites are influenced by particular economic relations, and the ways they impact capitalism in return. Part of this means looking at the range of relations (e.g. gender, race) that make up capitalism, not just at the socio-economic ones like ‘class’ or at the supposedly general spread of individualism fostered by the neoliberal ideology and practices. In the USA, the violence of the Pinkertons against white workers may well have been replaced by the one of the state against Black men (which of course is also the result of the long history of race in the country): a state violence which is validated by countless local and national elites. The issues of Socio-Economic Review are rich with descriptions of the changing nature of capitalisms— their historical contingencies, local instantiations and global dynamics—yet such work is rarely reflected within ‘elite research’, which similarly rarely integrates insights from such research. Historical sociology, which has been crucial in the study of capitalism during the past decades, and the sociology of elites could be better integrated with each other. This emphasis on the relationship between elites and different kinds of capitalism points also to the essential expansion of elite research into different geographic regions. While we know a lot about elites and (some) European nations, as well as elites and the USA, the forms of capitalism within these contexts does not reflect its forms in others. As several recent works suggest (Mendras, 2012; Filiu, 2018; Chauvin et al., 2018), elite research would benefit from expanding internationally. Such international variation would provide three things. First, it would develop further our capacity to evaluate institutional dimensions related to elite positions and power, and to identify relations of causality, insofar as there would be increased institutional variation for comparison. Secondly, it would make clearer the parameters for theoretical frameworks of elites—allowing us to better understand the conditionality of some of our generalizations, primarily generated by particular case studies (e.g. Bourdieu’s Distinction and State Nobility reflect a specific moment in time and place, and some of their implications may be limited to that context or exist elsewhere in another variant). Finally, international comparison would greatly enrich our general knowledge of the world, in a descriptive way (Besbris and Khan 2017), giving us a sense of the vast array of configurations of the relationship between elites and capitalism which coexist globally at a given moment. This last point is also linked with the analysis of the transnational dynamics currently affecting elites all around the world and with the question of the possible emergence of a global super-bourgeoisie. The argument of the ongoing formation of such a globalized class is generally sustained by the analysis of four main processes: the fact that the last decades have allowed the economic elites of many countries to achieve increasingly exceptional levels of wealth; the growing of interconnections and cross-holdings between national (and regional) economies (Heemskerk and Takes, 2016); the development of shared cultural and ideological references, stemming from increasingly similar socializations and the common valuing of international openness (Wagner, 2007) and the role of several organizations in facilitating the political and/or economic coordination between elites across borders, either in name of the common good, like, for instance, when they meet in Davos for the World Economic Forum, or in defense of some particular interest (Harrington, 2016). The study of the varieties of capitalisms is an invitation to consider, not only the possible convergence between different national elites, but their geopolitical and geoeconomic complementarity, which allows us to resituate their roles in the current world-system. Finally, on the relationship between elites and capitalism, we point to both a substantive and methodological challenge. Elite research, in general, can commit the fundamental attribution error—which is to say we often rely too much on the attributes or agency of people within a category to explain that category. While scholars are careful not to overemphasize the traits of poor people when explaining poverty, they are less so when looking at elites and wealth. In particular, people who are successful under capitalism should not be thought of as necessarily doing things that explain such success. In addition, while most capitalists spend some time competing within markets, their main pursuit is often state supported protections from markets—which is to say they act in ways opposed to the idealized neoliberal logic of capitalism. Those who are most advantaged by capitalism may actually be very bad ‘capitalists’, in the sense that their aims are often to limit competition, augment their own governmental support and limit the potential free actions of workers (and this could potentially explain their advantages). These lessons are known well to socio-economic scholars: that capitalism is not the same thing as market liberalism or market fundamentalism. Similarly, elite scholars have pointed out, time and again, that liberalism may well be a discursive form rather than an elite practice (Khan and Jerolmack, 2013). These two assessments need to be combined and pushed further within elite scholarship. The implication is that while elite research needs a clearer articulation of the relationship between elites and varieties of capitalism, such an impulse should not result in strictly using elites to explain such capitalisms. 1.3 Difference and diversity within economic elites Both of our previous two points—that we need to think more clearly about the relationship between elites and power and that we need to better consider the relationship between elites and capitalism—push us toward our third consideration concerning the elite literature. We begin with a rather simple point: elites, particularly in the West, are overwhelmingly white and male. While some might draw the implication that there is little to say about race and gender in relationship to elites, our position is the exact opposite: because they generally occupy dominant and often unmarked gender and racial positions, sharing the same epistemological privilege, elites make for an ideal space within which to understand particular race and gender dynamics, specifically white supremacy and masculine domination. Elites tell us a lot about race and gender, just not in relationship to disadvantage. Whereas race scholars have long been attentive to white supremacy, particularly under conditions where such racial domination was anticipated to be declining, they typically do so by exploring the conditions of the dominated. However, while elite spaces tend to lack diversity, this does not mean they also lack race (or gender). And while important aspects of domination can only be understood by studying the dominated, the dominant are also an essential and perhaps even more important part of these relations; they thereby require far more empirical study. When race scholars turn their attention to privileged classes, for instance, historical accounts of African American elites, they have found distinct hierarchies and competition dynamics based on ancestry and skin color. But ultimately the black bourgeoisie in the USA was and remains dominated within all areas and institutions of the field of power, by anxiously exclusionary whites (Gatewood, 1990; see also Frazier, 1957 and Graham, 2000). As a whole, elite theories have been surprisingly and, we might say, embarrassingly silent on this issue of white supremacy, which is all the more surprising because this is exactly one of the spaces wherein we can best observe such domination. Within the halls of power are walls of whiteness (see Jones, 2017). On gender, scholars of elites have had slightly more to say, though feminist analyses of power at the top of the class hierarchy are scant when compared to analyses of workingclass masculinity. Research on women in the upper classes has identified their prominent role in the domestic realm as they reproduce their social position through educating and socializing their children, as well as in symbolically charged arenas like elite charity, philanthropy (Ostrander 1984; Kendall 2002) and leisurely VIP clubs (Mears, 2015a). In each of these settings, women produce and gain symbolic and social capital, but financial and economic power largely remains in the hands of men, prompting Collins (1992) to observe that women are to status as men are to class. And because of institutionalized racial discrimination, Black and Hispanic elite women are largely excluded from the more visible and prestigious world of white philanthropy, forming instead a separate world of nonwhite elite philanthropy with a parallel circuit of exclusionary competitions for status. In all of these feminized elite worlds, it remains unclear to which extent women’s social networks can be converted into lasting positions of power or fungible assets, like those of their masculine counterparts. It is also unclear why economic and political power remains so centrally concentrated among men: which mechanisms exactly still relegate women to realms of status competition while men accumulate class resources? While this question has been partly taken up in the strong research agenda on gender discrimination in work and occupations, especially in elite professions and upper management (Rennes, 2007), it would surely advance were scholars to consider the more general and largely invisible puzzle of masculine domination among the elites. In particular, there is a need, following the work of Adams (2005), to examine in a more detailed way the modern actualizations of patrimonialism within many social organizations, and the mutations and persistence of the original relation between patrimonialism and patriarchy: see, for instance, the article of Megan Tobias Neely in this issue. Overall, we point to two important questions concerning the relationships between elites and gender and race (one should add, of course, sexuality here, and other dimensions of difference). The first is the importance of taking these relationships seriously within elites, asking, ‘What are the gendered and racialized relations within elites?’ The second is to use findings about elites to expand beyond their case, in short to ask, ‘What do elites tell us about race and gender?’ The first question helps us better understand elites; the second helps us better understand masculine domination and white supremacy. 1.4 Expanding (beyond) Bourdieu These three major points lead to our fourth: that we need to refresh our theoretical frameworks in order to accommodate multiple relations of power, to conceptualize elites within varieties of capitalism, and better account for diversity among elites. Marxian and neoMarxian frameworks do well with varieties of capitalism as well as placing power at the center of their analysis, but have built into their approach an overdetermination of class relations, thereby largely missing the multiplicity of elites, different forms of power and diversity issues.
They focus on exploitation (and, if they adopt a Gramscian perspective, on domination), yet also tend to see a priori the top of the social ladder not as a messy ‘network’ of elites or as elite fractions competing with each other (like Marx, 1924), but instead, a` la Mills (1956) or Domhoff (1967), as a self-conscious ruling class. Followers of this broad framework of class relations were among the first to address the underrepresentation of women and ethno-racial minorities among elites (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 1998; though see also Alba and Moore, 1982). But such pioneering work has not been fully taken up by either sociologists researching questions of race—in part because it lacks a developed conceptualization of the latter—and even less so among those working on elites. Veblen, on the other hand, rests on an impoverished view of economic development and class relations, and while it provides a rich terrain and inspirational perspective for the study of elite consumption and for those interested in the intersection of economy, culture and morals (Mears, 2015b), it offers little possibilities for theoretical expansion. Existing theories are often useful to address and solve specific problems, and we should resist the tendency toward theoretical proliferation when unnecessary (Besbris and Khan, 2017). Yet we would suggest that for the broad area of elite research to more fully develop, a common theoretic language would be an important asset; and at the current moment the work of Pierre Bourdieu still seems the richest terrain to build upon to pursue this task. Of course, we do not advocate the adoption of Bourdieu’s approach and theory in an ultraorthodox and repetitive way: it requires refinement, expansion and confrontation with new questions, as many have already highlighted. Concerning elites, several of such questions are derived from our earlier points: the necessity to consider national and historical contingency, i.e. to amend a framework based mainly on the French case with greater international breadth; to consider elites and power relations beyond domination and to develop models of economic capital which have, at their core, a clearer articulation of such power’s relationship to capitalism. Happily, amendments are well underway. By insisting on the existence of different ‘regimes of action’ (Boltanski, 2012), French pragmatic sociology has stressed the fact that, while the Bourdieusian concept of habitus is an extremely useful heuristic to explain what happens within a situation of routine, when individual dispositions and expectations are more or less adjusted to a stabilized world, it is less helpful to account for the regimes of controversy and violence, or the dynamics of love (from Cleopatra and Hu¨ rrem Sultan to contemporary power couples and dynasties), that so often affect elite groups and transform power relations.
Additionally, the pragmatist approach encourages us to identify and analyze more underlying social forms, structures and grammars (see, for instance, De Blic and Lemieux, 2005), instead of relying too systematically on field theory. This kind of approach also helps upon an interactionist perspective which can allow us to more fully understand how power relations are unfolding face-to-face interactions (Sherman, 2007; Latour, 2010; Schnapper, 2010). Finally, during the last years, several authors have been actively working, in various ways, at integrating race and ethnicity with Bourdieu (e.g. Desmond and Emirbayer, 2009; Emirbayer and Desmond, 2012, 2015; Wimmer, 2013; Monk, 2015); this is developed even further within this issue of Socio-Economic Review. More generally, one of the major challenges for the Bourdieusian framework is that— because of often being based on the visualization of the results of multiple correspondence analysis—it tends to overdetermine objects of consideration, suggesting the objective necessity of a (mainly) two-dimensional field of power (where there may be far more types of power operative), insisting on the analytic centrality of habitus (which unifies mental structures and embodied dispositions, yet these two are often inconsistent), and mobilizing a capital(s) paradigm that limits the capacity to explain important relations (it is difficult e.g. to think of race or gender strictly in terms of a kind of ‘capital’). We find such problems particularly acute in a terrain where descriptive work is less fully developed: there is so much we do not know about elites and we should be cautious about imposing frameworks which overdetermine our observations. Therefore, for all our attention to refining the Bourdieusian framework—or at least integrating a fuller sense of power, diversity and relations to capitalism within our research—we maintain that at this point in the development of elite research, describing extensively and accurately what is the case remains invaluable. To develop such a rich descriptive realm of research requires attention not simply to theory, but also to the kinds of methods that allow us to better know elites.