Power Elite Theory is a sociological theory that explores how power is distributed among a small number of individuals in a given society.
The theory suggests that a select few people are in control of a large amount of wealth and resources, allowing them to influence the decisions and policies of their society.
The power elite theory also suggests that the holders of power are usually from the same social class.
Origins of Power Elite Theory
The theory was popularized by sociologist, C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), through his publication work, The Power Elite, a book released in 1956.
The book argued that the elite had disproportionate influence over the decision-making processes in the United States and by default in the world. Researcher and sociologist, Professor Emeritus G. William Domhoff, would further develop and support Mill’s power elite theory during his nearly 40-year career in academia.
These sociologists argued that the power elite are able to influence public opinion, manipulate the government and the economy, and make decisions that benefit their interests rather than those of the general public.
Although conspiratorial in its nature, according to the power elite theory, this disproportionate influence in the hands of the few, directly contributes to the unequal distribution of power in societies. Mills (1956) writes:
“The way to understand the power of the American elite lies neither solely in recognizing the historic scale of events nor in accepting the personal awareness reported by men of apparent decision. Behind such men and behind the events of history, linking the two, are the major institutions of modern society. These hierarchies of state and corporation and army constitute the means of power; as such they are now of a consequence not before equaled in human history—and at their summits, there are now those command posts of modern society which offer us the sociological key to an understanding of the role of the higher circles in America.”
10 Examples of Power Elite Theory
- Corporate elites are typically the owners and executives of large corporations. They have the power to influence policies, decisions, and laws that benefit their companies.
- The Media Elites are those who control what and how information is shared with the public. They include the owners and executives of major media outlets, such as television, radio, newspapers, and social media platforms.
- Academic elites have influence over educational systems and the academic culture of institutions. This can include university professors who have achieved world fame for their publications or public speaking appearances, and administrators of curriculums.
- Religious elites, such as prominent priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, or religious political advisors. They have the power to shape the beliefs and practices of believers, and sway public opinion in political races or world affairs.
- Government elites include elected officials, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. They have the power to shape public policy and influence laws.
- Cultural elites, icons, influencers, and famous people in the entertainment industry(art, film, music, literature, podcasts, social media, comedy etc.). This category can include actors, directors, writers, and producers, Tik-Tok influencers, podcasters, or any number of “platformed” individuals with fame, who have the power to shape values, beliefs, and norms in a society.
- Financial Elites and financial influencers are mainly bankers, investors, and hedge fund managers. They have a certain degree of power in shaping the economy, and the sentiment of investment markets.
- Medical Science elites: Prominent scientists that represent government organizations, pharmaceutical companies, or governing health organizations. Top members in these groups can influence public health policy, or enforce restrictions that influence the public.
- Military elites include generals, officers, and other high-ranking personnel. They have the power to shape the policies and decisions in their country’s military, propagate war narratives, and sculpt public opinions to support or criticize war time efforts.
- Clubs, organizations, or social circles of wealthy individuals are another form of the power elite. Examples of elite social networks include the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, or even the secretive Skull and Bones society present at Yale university.
Power Elite Theory Case Studies
1. Corporate elites
Corporate elites are typically the owners and executives of large corporations. They have the power to influence policies, decisions, and laws that benefit their companies.
Corporate elites are not only CEOs of large companies, but influential members of the board of directors, and powerful business associations that have the final say on standards within an industry.
Domhoff (2021) explains in great detail the “interlocking” nature of corporations, and reveals that prominent directors often serve across several large corporation boards; creating a close-knit corporate community.
These board of director communities have cemented ideals, similar profit motives, and targeted philosophies that are shared across the most powerful individual corporate enterprises in the world.
In turn, they try appeal to overarching industry associations like the “American Petroleum Institute, the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Home Builders, and hundreds of similar organizations that focus on the narrow interests of their members and bring their concerns to government through the special-interest process”(p.16-17).
Similarly, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Conference Board, the Business Council, the Committee for Economic Development, and the Business Roundtable are all organizations that have been influential in the business industry.
For example, The National Association of Manufacturers, which has entrenched state political affiliates as members, has been active since 1903 and has focused primarily on opposing labor unions in the economy.
This organization routinely objects to any increases in the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, Social Security payments, or any other policies that give more power to workers(Domhoff, 2021, p.17).
2. Financial Elites
Financial Elites and financial influencers are mainly bankers, investors, and hedge fund managers. They have a certain degree of power in shaping the economy, and the sentiment of investment markets.
While some individuals on this planet are included in a one or more elite categories(financial, cultural, corporate, etc.), and have significant sway or power over various systems, it is extremely rare that one person is so influential that they can be included in almost all of them.
Elon Musk has become one of the most recognizable figures of the 21st century. His vision for the future of humanity and ambition have made him a cultural icon and a symbol of genius.
In many ways, he has revolutionized the way we think about AI technology, ecological means of transportation, and space exploration. From novel self-driving electric cars to aggressive space exploration goals, to the even more recent takeover of the social media company Twitter, Elon Musk continues to have a profound impact on culture and humanity.
However, with this status of being the wealthiest person on the planet, comes tremendous power over the way people think and act.
In a study by Metta & Madhavan (2022) they show how Elon Musk’s tweets from his twitter account have caused fluctuations in the stock market.
They analyze “the growing phenomenon of herd mentality amongst netizens” while attempting to understand:
“how Elon Musk has historically impacted the short-term value and trading of major companies, including Tesla Inc., Amazon US, Etsy Corp., GameStop, Bitcoin, Shopify Inc., and Sandstorm” (pp. 21-22).
They used market sentiment analysis tools, and successfully identified that Musk’s tweets cause:
“noticeable deviations in the price and trading volumes only for a short period, both positively and negatively” (p.41).
3. Religious Elites
Religious elites, such as prominent priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, or religious political advisors.
As Schoenfeld (1985) explains:
“The support religion provides for the ruling elite is two-fold. First, religious institutions frequently disseminate and justify an ideology which serves the interest of the ruling class. Second, they tend to support and legitimate the power position occupied by the elite” (p. 179).
Schoenfeld goes on to explain that this phenomenon is old as human civilization; in preliterate societies as well as modern society, religious leaders have a heavy hand in guiding policies.
The data from his study also suggests that there is a connection between religion and loyalty to a presidential leader (Schoenfeld, 1985, pp. 180-186).
Similarly, Lindsay (2008) observed many instances of evangelical religious figures from middle-class backgrounds who achieved success and were elevated to high-ranking positions, bringing their evangelical beliefs along with them.
This occurred not only in the business world but also in the political sphere, where elected representatives and their staff have the potential to attain social advancement due to the support of their dedicated followers (p. 68).
Lindsay (2008) states that:
“Evangelicalism, as a movement grounded in religious conviction, has been particularly effective in generating cohesion among elite actors. Moreover, its flexible institutional structure enabled it to spawn initiatives and organizational forms that have brought the movement into the corridors of elite power”(p. 80).
Domhoff, W. G. (2021). Who Rules America? (8th ed.). Routledge.
Lindsay, D. M. (2008). Evangelicals in the Power Elite: Elite Cohesion Advancing a Movement. American Sociological Review, 73(1), 60–82. https://doi.org/10.1177/000312240807300104
Metta, S., & Madhavan, N. (2022). Power of 280: Measuring the Impact of Elon Musk’s Tweets on the Stock Market. Ushus-Journal of Business Management, 21(1), ISS0975-3311 doi: https://doi:10.12725/ujbm.58.2
Mills, W. L. T. C. (1956). The Power Elite (First Edition). Oxford University Press.
Schoenfeld, E. (1985). Religion and Loyalty to the Political Elite: The Case of the Presidency. Review of Religious Research, 27(2), 178. https://doi.org/10.2307/3511672