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The classic work on elites was done in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the Italians Vilfredo Pareto and his contemporary Gaetano Mosca. To them, the circulation of elites was paramount.
A seminal study in this tradition is C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956), which shows that the United States governmental, military, and business elites are highly interconnected. Today, the degree of openness of institutions and the chance that a particular person with certain characteristics will occupy an elite position are at the top of the research agenda. Thus, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu emphasizes the process of reproduction of elites through scholarly and cultural capital. In the German educational system, for example, while openness has increased, this is not true for the chances of obtaining an elite position (Hartmann 2002). While such groups have been studied, little data are available on how these elites make decisions in (in)formal settings.
Members of families sometimes show a great ability to stay in top positions, creating an almost dynastic continuity. For instance, the ability to obtain an elite position in the Dutch nobility, a characteristic based on birth, has not declined much during the twentieth century (Schijf et al. 2004). During the twentieth century local elites were incorporated into national elites. Today, one can see the rapid development of a global economy. Nevertheless, there are few indications of an international business elite. In the boards of executives in countries like France, Germany, Great Britain, and the US, the overwhelming majority of the executives have the same nationality as the countries where the corporations are located.
- Hartmann, M. (2002) Der Mythos von den Leistungseliten. Spitzenkarrieren und soziale Herkunft in Wirtschaft. Politik, Justiz und Wissenschaft. Campus, Frankfurt.
- Schijf, H., Dronkers, J., & van den Broeke-George, J. (2004) Recruitment of members of Dutch noble and high-bourgeois families to elite positions in the 20th century. Social Science Information 43 (3): 435-77.