Practice Question: Discuss the concept of circulation of elite. (10 Marks) (Socio 2019)

Approach: Introduction; Mention Pareto, Types of Elites, Mechanism of circulation of elites; Criticism as conclusion



Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. 



Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

Pareto further divided the elite class into two categories:

1. A governing elite

2. A non-governing elite.



1. The individuals not belonging to either of the governing elite or non-governing elite are called non-elite.

2. The class of elite is universal and continuous process.

3. The elite manipulate overtly or covertly the political power.

4. The elite has the capacity to establish superiority over others.

5. The members of the elite class will always try that the non- elites should not influence social, economic and political processes in any manner.

6. The non-elites respect only such elites who are liberal in outlook and approach because they alone can help them to come nearer to each other. Bogardus has described, “The theory of elite is that in every society there are people who possess in a marked degree, the qualities of intelligence, character, skill, capacity, whatever kind, that there are two classes of elite, that the two groups are disjunctive at any given time, that there is an up and down circulation of elite.”

7. Circulation or upward and downward circulation amongst the members of the elite and non-elite is a typical characteristic of the elite.



According to Pareto the work and the role of the elites are influenced by two types of factors which are always operative in every society. One type which is constant is called residues, the other type is derivations. According to Pareto social change comes because of residues of combination and residue of persistence of aggregates. Cycle of social change is a continuous process. Political, economic and ideological factors are responsible for continuing this process.

Pareto concerns himself with a simple distinction between those having power called the elite and those having none called the non-elite. He sees the history of every human society as the history of the relations between its elite who rules and its non-elites who are just ruled. Circulation of Elite is between elite and non-elite, and between governing elite and non-governing elite. According to Pareto, there can be also a circulation of elites in the sense of being a process by which individuals circulate between the elite and the non-elite. This process of replacement takes place in two ways. It is either by a gradual process of infiltration or by a violent revolution.

Pareto explains all this in terms of changes in the psychological characteristics of the members of the elite on the one hand, and those of the lower strata, on the other. Thus when the elite no longer possesses the residues necessary for keeping it in power and at the same time at the lower strata of society, the necessary residues are sufficiently manifest then the declining elite recruits new elements from the lower strata of society and thereby restores its vitality. Or it may so happen that an elite decaying in the necessary residues is violently overthrown by the lower classes strong in the requisite residues necessary for keeping them in power.

The general mechanism of society according to Pareto, can be understood by interest, residues, derivations and social heterogeneity. These four major variables are in a state of mutual dependence on which the movement of society depends. These are the four clear components in all the activities which had to assume some sort of equilibrium in any social system.



Pareto fails to provide a method of measuring and distinguishing between the supposedly superior qualities of the elite. He simply assumes that the qualities of the elite are superior to those of the mass. His criterion for distinguishing between “lion and foxes” is merely his own interpretation of the style of the elite rule. Moreover, Pareto fails to provide a way of measuring the process of elite decadence. He suggests that, if elite is closed to recruitment from below, it is likely to rapidly lose its vigour and vitality and have a short life. Pareto’s concept of residues and their part in the social change is not clearly defined. But in-spite of these criticisms his circulation of elites is a very important contribution to study of sociology.



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