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The round table of Frederick II in Sanssouci
Voltaire (3rd from left) speaks to Frederick (center); Oil painting by Adolph von Menzel , 1850 ( burned in 1945 in the Friedrichshain flak tower)

Elite (originally from the Latin eligere or exlegere , "to select ") sociologically refers to a grouping (actual or presumed) above-average qualified persons ( functional elites , performance elites) or the ruling or influential circles ( power elites , economic, legal elites) of a society . Specifically, the term mostly refers to more precisely defined groups of people, such as B. the position elite , CEOs or the educational elite . According to Michael Hartmann , the elite tends to create their own values that ignore the morality of society as a whole, which is shown, for example, in the unwillingness to pay appropriate taxes and to question democratic structures.

The structure of elites can be very different in different countries. For example, access from below (e.g. from working-class families) is currently easier in Great Britain than in France, for example. This is also due to the changes in the English elite due to immigration and the acquisition of property by outside capital in recent decades. The structures of elites in a given country are i. W. determined by a privileged (e.g. extremely expensive) education system in the non-public sector and by the type of selection of candidates (applicants for management positions) by representatives of the elite. The privileged educational system is much less developed in Germany than in France, the USA or England; therefore, acceptance into elitist circles in Germany mostly follows in the first few years of work (says Michael Hartmann).

At the same time, the structures of the elites are usually nationally oriented. The background for this is above all the study locations and national orientations of the top managers who, despite the reputation of the international interdependence of capital, are strongly nationally orientated. Michael Kaufmann ebbs the tale of the cosmopolitan elite .

Opposite the elite are the " masses " or the " average " ("ordinary citizens").

As elitism is called the ideology that is supported by the awareness of belonging to an elite.

Concept use and concept history

The word "elite" appeared for the first time in the 17th century and was initially used to denote high-quality and expensive goods, especially fabrics ("elite yarn"). Only gradually did the term begin to be applied to social contexts. At the time of the French Revolution were élite means persons who (unlike himself nobility and clergy had earned) their position in society itself. In the course of industrialization , the term was then used in the bourgeoisie to distinguish it from the mass of the uneducated and dependent (the workers and employees).

Its use in the military sector is well documented . Elite units were and are considered to be particularly well trained and equipped troop units (" guards ").

In everyday life and in the mass media , the term “elite” is generally understood to mean people who are in top political, economic, sporting, artistic, academic or similar positions. While a profound skepticism towards these people was opportune up to the 1970s (" establishment "), today a more substantial understanding of the elite dominates, according to which top positions with alternative morals and personal integrity are to be expected ( e.g. "socio-ethical" demands ) than in of the mass of the population. Correspondingly, such a substantiated understanding is also applied to organized social systems , so that, for example, an “ elite university ” or an “elite institute” can attest to above-average research achievements, requirements and selection criteria.

Elite as a sociological term

In sociology , the term is used in a neutral descriptive or explanatory manner as well as with a socially critical intention. As the "real" elite z. B. in structural functionalism seen more the functional and performance elite; the sociology of conflict puts the power elite at the center of their interests.

Both aspects apply both to empirical approaches in elite research (e.g. power structure research ) and to elite theory .

“Elite” is different from the term “ upper class ”, although there are often overlaps. However, an elite does not necessarily have to consist of members of privileged social classes. Concepts such as class and class emphasize the economic dimension of social structures , while the “elite” concept emphasizes their political dimension. In addition, the term “stratum” is aimed at industrial societies, while the term “elite” has found application to all possible forms of social differentiation, back to prehistory and early history, insofar as a fixed division of labor or legitimized forms of rule are already being developed there could.

Elite as a subject of sociological research

Sociological research on the elite describes the processes of ascent into the elite, of staying or not staying in it, of the permeability of demarcation from their environment and the replacement of entire elites. The composition of the elite, for example according to denomination, ethnicity, social origin, etc. is also the subject of sociological research. In the USA, for example, B. for a long time, the rule of thumb that the members of the guide layer "WASP" had to be ( WASP = w hite , a ngel s ächsisch , p red stan table ). John F. Kennedy was the first US - President , who - as a Catholic - did not belong to this group.

It also examines the privileges or privileges associated with belonging to an elite.

Conceptual understanding of sociological elite theories

A change of elite can occur comparatively slowly (inconspicuously) or suddenly ( revolutionary ). The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto was one of the first to recognize this and, with a wealth of historical illustrative material, developed a theory of the inevitable cycle of the elites : “ History is the cemetery of the aristocracies. “He first makes a static distinction between the“ elite ”that is in power and the“ reserve elite ”that could replace it. His theory gains dynamism in the time dimension. The reserve elite opposed to the old elite gathers in itself characteristics that the former structurally neglects and is able to become the new elite by mobilizing the “ masses ”. The masses themselves never take control. According to Pareto, both the ruling elite and the non-ruling counter-elite use promising derivatives (“political formulas” in Gaetano Mosca ) to deceive and ideologize the masses (e.g. When Adam dug and Eva spun where was the nobleman there? "," Equality, freedom, brotherhood! "," Government for the people and by the people! "," All power to the councilors! " ).

Based on Niccolò Machiavelli , Pareto constructed two extreme types of power , the "lions" and "foxes" , which face each other in the struggle for leadership. The personal, intellectual and moral composition of an elite is an indicator of the level of social integration . According to his theory, all social action is subject to so-called “ residuals ”; In the formation of the elite, two predominate: either rigid structures across society and persistent structures that do not shy away from violence (the residue of the “ persistence of the aggregates ” - elite of the lions) or liberal attitudes, the combinatorial degrees of freedom (“ instinct of combinations ” - elite of the Foxes). The foxes replace the lions in an evolutionary way , the lions in a revolutionary way from the foxes .

Gaetano Mosca and then Robert Michels , as contemporaries of Pareto, demonstrated the inevitability of the development of a “ political class ” (Mosca) or an internal organizational “ oligarchy ” (Michels). From their considerations it follows that elite education is necessary even in democratically constituted systems.

The strukturfunktionalistische theory school to Talcott Parsons emphasizes the benefits ( achievements ), which are provided by persons in economic, political, legal, military, artistic and intellectual leadership positions, etc. for the company. Accordingly, structural functionalism uses the concept of the “ functional elite ” (achievement elite), each of which represents “their” institutions in an ideal way. Committed to the good of the whole and dependent on it, the social top performers unite to form a “strategic elite” whose task is to establish consensus on central questions of life and survival.

A theoretician of the “power elite” like Charles Wright Mills criticizes this sociological and the politological pluralism- theoretical approach and accuses the structural functionalists and pluralism theorists of painting an overly harmonious picture of social power relations. In reality, a manipulated mass would be faced with an overpowering " military-industrial complex " ( Dwight D. Eisenhower ) who knows how to enforce its interests in rule in a regime of "organized irresponsibility ". The non-decision-making approach in American political science expands this perspective by using case studies to show that the elite do not even allow certain questions, such as ecological problems and minorities, to become an object of the political agenda through conscious concealment and omission .

Elite as a group psychological phenomenon

Within an elite that sees itself as such in its self-confidence , a special habitus is typically established , in which functions such as recognizability, demarcation , identity creation , togetherness , self-declaration, and the like are embodied. This habitus is predominantly denoted negatively with the adjective elitist when these functions are only incompletely or contradictingly fulfilled, for example arrogance with regard to the demarcation towards "below" or untimely identity-creating myths (for example belief in chosenness ).

Social ethical demands

In times of crisis , the established elites are often accused of failure or greater responsibility is sued. Pious wishes, ideologies and polemics are often linked to such demands and protests . In the discussion about moral misconduct by top managers , for example, there was talk of “rivets in pinstripes” ( Günter Ogger ) and “ducking” among executives.

Michael Hartmann extensively demonstrates with data from economic studies that the elite promote social inequality with the help of the respective policies of governments. The middle and lower classes are becoming increasingly impoverished, while the elite are cutting ever larger chunks of the gross national product. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer - the governments were responsible. This is also proof of the destabilization of democratic structures by the elite. Specifically, this means z. For example, according to the business magazine Bilanz , the number of billionaires almost doubled between 2010 and 2017 (from 102 to 187), while at the same time the number of homeless people also doubled (between 2010 and 2016 from 248,000 to 420,000). The same applies to different periods of time, depending on the decisions of the respective governments, of England and the USA.

Examples of socio-ethical demands are omnipresent in the public debate . For example, Daniel F. Pinnow (2007) called for a “new” elite that no longer recruits solely through origin , level of education or positions of power, but primarily through their own performance based on values ​​and through personal trustworthiness.

Elites in Germany

Extent of the elite in Germany

In 1965 Ralf Dahrendorf took the term elite very broadly, according to which the elite made up one percent of the German population. The Mannheim elite study of 1992 and the Potsdam study of 1997, on the other hand, only included around 4,000 people in the inner circle of the elite. In 2002, Michael Hartmann attempted in his much-noticed study The Myth of the Achievement Elites to solve the problem by specifying a narrower and more comprehensive circle of people who, in his opinion, belonged to the elite (e.g. the top managers of the 400 largest German companies or top politicians). In addition, Hartmann assumes that the elite in Germany is strongly nationally oriented.

Performance elite

The term “performance elite” characterizes the formation of elites, regardless of the respective social origin, only linked to excellent professional or school and university performance.

Historically , individual members of the elite from the lower classes who were outstanding in terms of priestly and ecclesiastical politics were found in the high clergy ; In competition with the clergy, the universities also allowed a rise in performance up to the elite. Since the wars that followed the French Revolution in 1789, Napoleon's principle worked in many armies : Every soldier has a marshal's baton in my knapsack ; and especially in the admiralty of the navy, the bourgeoisie was able to successfully compete with the nobility. Up until the 1950s, commercially capable entrepreneurs without a high school diploma could rise to the elite in the economy, as could skilled workers leaders in the trade unions; also in politics thanks to the labor movement . However, these were always fundamental possibilities, but difficult to perceive in practice. Ralf Dahrendorf has described most of these ascent as " fake mobility ", as a disguised co-optation from above, as they could rarely be brought about other than by completely adopting the values ​​of the respective ruling sub-elite.

In the mid-1960s to around the mid-1980s, gifted students from the lower classes in Germany were able to advance more easily, albeit to a lesser extent, since business, administration and politics needed highly qualified workers; However, there was no real equality of opportunities for elite access; rather, the aspect of educational disadvantage has to be taken into account in different ways over the decades .

Studies of elite theory showed recently that increasing the effect of habit rather than about individual criteria, quantifiable performance is conducive to a career in the business elite. The situation is different in politics, where even people with low social origins have little chance of making a career, a phenomenon that is less common in France , for example , where almost the entire political ruling class comes from special elite universities .

Studies by Michael Hartmann and Klaus Schubert criticize the term performance elite . Hartmann speaks of the " myth of the performance elite ". These studies have not yet been able to take into account the latest developments, such as the increasing reduction in the freedom to use teaching materials in schools and the introduction of tuition fees at universities in some federal states. Hartmann referred to the tuition fee model in the USA and explicitly warned against a takeover in Germany, as this could lead to the already existing tendency towards social closure being increased considerably in the future and, in extreme cases, the elite reproducing itself exclusively.

From a feminist perspective, too, the concept of the performance elite is increasingly being criticized. Empirical studies on gender relations in science show that performance does not have to be an objective criterion, but is constructed as a social fact . The social processes that are associated with the construction of the concept of performance unfold their effect particularly on the level of gender relations and lead to the extensive exclusion of women from scientific and economic management positions (“ glass ceiling ”).

See also


Basic studies

  • Gaetano Mosca ([1896], 1950). The ruling class . Munich.
  • Vilfredo Pareto (1916). Trattato di sociologia generale (German, abbreviated as General Sociology . 1955, ISBN 3-89879-144-0 ).
  • Robert Michels (1911). On the sociology of the party system in modern democracy. Studies on the oligarchic tendencies of group life . Stuttgart.
  • Gottfried Eisermann (1962). Vilfredo Pareto's system of general sociology . Stuttgart.
  • Wolfgang Schluchter (1963). The elite concept as a sociological category . In: Cologne Journal for Sociology and Social Psychology , Vol. 15, pp. 233-256.
  • Heinz Hartmann (1964). Functional authority . Stuttgart: Enke.
  • Ralf Dahrendorf (1965). Society and freedom . Munich.
  • Peter Bachrach (1970). The theory of democratic elite rule . Frankfurt am Main.
  • George Lowell Field / John Higley (1983). Elites and Liberalism . Opladen.
  • K. Wanner, Origin and Return of the Elite Myth, in: Theoretical Conference “Marxism and Student Movement”. 9. u. February 10, 1985, Marburg, Ed .: Bundesvorstand des MSB Spartakus, Bonn 1985, pp. 216–227, p. 220.
  • Günter Endruweit (1986). Elite and development . Frankfurt am Main.
  • Michael Hartmann (2008). Elite sociology. An introduction . Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 3-593-37439-0 .
  • Michael Hartmann (2016). The global business elite: a legend . Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 3593506106 .


National Socialism

German Democratic Republic

  • Heinrich Best / Stefan Hornbostel (eds.), 2003: Functional elites of the GDR. Theoretical controversies and empirical findings / The GDR's Functional Elites. Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Results , Special Issue Historical Social Research - Historical Social Research , Vol. 28, No. 103/104.
  • Stefan Hornbostel (Ed.), 1999: Socialist Elites. Horizontal and vertical differentiation patterns in the GDR. Opladen: Leske + Budrich.
  • Peter Christian Ludz , 1968: Party elite in transition: Functional structure, social structure and ideology of the SED leadership - an empirical-systematic study , Cologne.

Federal Republic of Germany


At least since President Georges Pompidou , at least two thirds of all French ministers have attended the famous Ena administration college . The French elite are now almost exclusively recruited from a milieu that makes up just ten percent of the population. The rate of working-class children at schools such as Ena, Sciences Po or the École polytechnique is still two percent.



  • RS Rose: The Unpast: Elite Violence and Social Control in Brazil, 1954-2000 , Ohio University Press 2006, ISBN 0-89680-243-4 .
  • J. Souza: A Elite do atraso: da escravidão à Lava Jato, Rio de Janeiro: Leya 2017, ISBN 978-85-441-0537-5


  • Olga Kryschtanovskaya (2005). Anatomy of the Russian elite . Cologne.

Socialist systems

United States


Web links

Wiktionary: Elite  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Notes / individual evidence

  1. Michael Hartmann: The lifted off, How the elites endanger democracy, Frankfurt 2018
  2. Michael Hartmann: The lifted off, How the elites endanger democracy, Frankfurt 2018
  3. Michael Hartmann: The lifted off, How the elites endanger democracy, Frankfurt 2018
  4. Michael Hartmann: The lifted off, How the elites endanger democracy, Frankfurt 2018; P. 31 ff
  5. Michael Hartmann: The lifted off, How the elites endanger democracy, Frankfurt 2018; P. 90 ff
  6. Cf. Morus Markard , “Elite” against “Mass” or: Legitimation of Social Inequality , University Day of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, November 18, 2000, TU Berlin.
  7. See Markus Pohlmann: Management and Moral . In: Tobias Blank, Tanja Münch, Sita Schanne and Christiane Staffhorst (eds.): Integrated sociology - perspectives between economy and sociology, practice and science. Festschrift for the 70th birthday of Hansjörg Weitbrecht . Rainer Hampp Verlag, Munich and Mering 2008, ISBN 978-3-86618-255-4 , pp. 161 f .
  8. Mannheim Elite Study 1981
  9. Pohlmann, Markus: At home in the world? Sociology on the trail of the globalized manager.
  10. Michael Hartmann: The Abandoned How the Elites Endanger Democracy, Frankfurt 2018; P. 98 ff; P. 109
  11. Michael Hartmann: The Abandoned How the Elites Endanger Democracy, Frankfurt 2018; P. 154 ff
  12. Michael Hartmann, 2018, p. 114
  13. ^ Daniel F. Pinnow, Elite without ethics? The power of values ​​and self-respect , Frankfurter Allgemeine Buch, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 978-3-89981-137-7 )
  14. see also Michael Hartmann: Die Abgehoben, How the Elites Endanger Democracy, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt 2018
  15. see also: Michael Hartmann: Die Abgehoben, Frankfurt 2018
  16. Lisa Becker: The slightly different elite. In: FAZ.net . June 7, 2012, accessed December 16, 2014 .
  17. See critically: Reinhard Kreckel , [review]. In: Soziologische Revue , 2009, pp. 69–71.
  18. See Klaus Naumann: Review of: Reitmayer, Morten: Elite. Social history of a politico-social idea in the early Federal Republic. Munich 2009 . In: H-Soz-u-Kult , September 18, 2009.
  19. Julia Amalia Heyer, No more merits. Sarkozy wants to give the elite schools a quota system, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung from 23./4. January 2010.
  20. Julia Amalia Heyer: Fight against one's own system - Sarkozy wants to create equality for everyone at the universities; in Süddeutsche Zeitung on January 7, 2010.