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Alfred de Grazia: Discovering National Elites





If one defines power as the ability of some men to move other men to move goods and services towards definite objectives, societies are stratified. That is, for an orderly direction of activities, some men are "above" other men in a status scale. This "being above others" may or may not be with the consent of those who "take orders". In any event, those at the top of any power pyramid are considered by most people to be more important than those lower in the scale of authority, deference, and obedience - important, according to the definition of getting things done.

The concept of stratification should not have connotation of some men being "better" than others in the operator’s mind, but should only suggest that societies consider some people more important than others in relation to work or reward. The formulation of policies in relation to social goals and their execution practically always results in a hierarchy of power, prestige, and benefits.

In western society, and in most societies that have been studied by social scientists, stratification exists. Most people consider it a natural and normal thing to ask "stratification questions" of strangers whom they meet. For example, upon meeting a man for the first time, one gets around rather quickly to such questions as: "What do you do for a living?" "Whom do you know that I know?" "Where do you live?"

These questions are concerned with status and social position, the roles that a man fills, the offices that he holds (or does not hold), the prestige that he has, and the deference that one should accord him (or he the questioner). One is asking the man how high he is placed on the status ladder or in what strata of society he places himself by his admissions.

In brief, the questions are those one commonly puts to persons whom he would, for a variety of reasons, place in some juxtaposition to himself. One is always measuring others by prestige and power standards, using his own position in society as the standard of measurement. The psychological process is apparently that of seeing oneself, through the mind’s eye, as holding a position somewhere between the top and bottom rungs of the status ladder, and placing others higher or lower than oneself according to the answers to such questions as have been outlined.


VI-1. Discovery power circles. In order to get things done, social groups form many hierarchical pyramids of power in a whole society. Church, state, and economic groupings are readily visible bureaucratic structures in our own society. Labor organizations, civic groupings, luncheon clubs, fraternal societies represent other power pyramids. There is no single pyramid of power and influence in American society or American communities - not even in the highly integrated mill villages where the mill owners and top operators may hold a balance of power, In the latter community scheme of things, the ministers of the area, the merchant group, and a multiplicity of civic associations may be a part of an informal power structure that "holds things together," or "holds things in line." Around each pyramid of power there may be a clustering of people who attach themselves to the basic group, and the whole grouping may be called a clique, ring, circle, or crowd in the common way of stating this idea. Specifically, a corporation may be of considerable size in a community. In its own power scheme of producing and distributing goods it has a top board of policy-makers, an executive staff, a supervisory foreman group, and a large body of lesser employees. The top men mentioned will not only be in close physical proximity to each other but may also work closely with one another.

In the community configuration, however, the corporate personnel are related in a number of ways to persons external to the corporation work group. Its attorney may have a large number of other clients. The supplier of an important commodity used by the corporation may be an independent producer. A college professor may occasional pieces of research for the corporation. One of the men of the corporation may be interested in local politics. A particular church may attract most of the members of the corporation to its services. The corporation may do its banking and financing through a local concern. The "top and middle brass" of the corporation may engage in a variety of civic projects as representatives of their company. They may become known as the "X Corporation group" in a civic sense, and those working closely with the basic group may become known as the "X Corporation crowd."

VI-2. Intra-circle co-ordered behaviors. The crowd idea usually implies that the persons attached to a particular grouping tend to think alike on matters of policy. There is consensus on most important issue, political, civic, religious, economic and the like. In any such grouping there are men who have contacts with other men in other crowds or groupings. They are liason persons. They carry information from their basic grouping to other groups and relay information back to their primary group. Their role in the general society is that of an intermediary who assumes specific roles in two or more social groupings. Such roles are carried by persons up and down the status, prestige, power hierarchy of the various potent pyramids of power, and the total linkage between such persons can be called a power structure.

VI-3. Power within a single organization. Every organized group may be thought of, then, as a basic power pyramid, and a part of the total power structure. The persons within such groups, as corporate structures, labor organizations, church bureaucracies, civic associations, and the like have power on a continuum. Those at the apex of the individual pyramid may have power that approaches totality over all others below them. The power effect of each individual decreases as one moves down the scale or through the ranks of the same group. The individual who might be said to be at the top of the pyramid would have the ability to influence all others in a given organization. In addition, depending upon the culture, he will have other characteristics associated with power such as wealth, membership in exclusive groups, special rights, etc.

VI-4. Top, middle and lower elite. For purposes of analysis one may roughly divide each power pyramid into a relatively small top layer of status, influence, and prestige; into a relatively larger section below the apex, representing the middle men of power; and a lower third section who are policy conformists, who neither consciously formulate, question or change policy or the larger social structure in which they operate.

At the top of a power apex are decision-makers or policy-makers. Power has been defined previously as the ability to move men to move goods and services. It may be added here that this definition specifically implies the charting of the direction of movement; this is decision or policy-making. It might also be added that such decision-making may encompass negative acts or the power to veto such movement as may be proposed or in progress. In a study of comparative elites, it has been noted that the decision process implies "phases of initiation, consideration, enactment, and encorcement," and that "elite power can be defined as sharing in decisions." These phrases are in accord with the materials set down here.

VI-5. Collective form of decision-making. Policy makers do initiate, consider, enact, and enforce courses of action. They may, however, have the advice and guidance of many who do not have final decisive power. A corporate executive of one of the large oil companies once put the matter this way in a discussion of decision-making:

"In using the term decision-making, I usually think of making choices and compromises among decision that came to me ready made. Our stock holder have made a decision that they want greater dividends. Labor has decided that it wants higher wages. The consumer has decided that gasoline is too high. Top management has decided that it should have a greater share in the profit. From all these decisions, the board group and I must make decisions that will partially satisfy all."

Thus, it may be seen that decision-making may not be the completely arbitrary process it is sometimes assumed to be. It must take into account the many factors involved, and if decision are to be operative, must satisfy those upon whom the decision for action falls. All decision-makers have an ear to the ground for "what will go and what will not go." Yet, in the final analysis, in a highly organized society, relatively few men make decisions that affect larger groups of men. These men are charged with consistently upholding past or traditional decisions, and with supervising the initial execution of new decisions.

In order to carry out decisions in western society, a large body of middle men are structured into bureaucratic-like positions below the top layer of policy-makers. Upon them primarily is laid the task of executing policy, reporting policy snarls to those above them, and defining in detail the larger policy matters that have been given over to them. Corporation presidents, vice-presidents, and the like fall into this category. Those below this group conform, as has been suggested, to the decisions made and elaborated upon by those above them.

In the community situation and in national affairs, those at the apex of power pyramids tend to have a wide acquaintance with those in related pyramids of power, and consensus is arrived at on the larger issues of public policy direction, by those in corresponding positions.

VI-6. Differential power of circles. As in a primary, bureaucratic structure in which there are differences in the amount of power and status held by different persons, so are there differences between the various power pyramids in a community or nation. Size, organizational complexity, relation to primary social functions, social policy considerations, and action orientation set one power pyramid higher than others. Thus U.S. Steel carries more weight in certain power decisions than a plant manufacturing brooms. A local chamber of commerce usually outranks a council of church women. One tends to say that the functions of one such group is "more important" in the total scheme of things than the other. Each is, of course, important socially. The question resolves itself to more and less, and men so judge activities.

VI-7. High power of major functional groups. To power pyramids within a nation or community that are concerned with those activities most closely allied with primary regional or community functions, e.g., making autos, producing coffee, waving cotton, manufacturing weapons, engaging in education, producing electrical power, or engaging in governance, have higher power ranks. Persons who are at the apex of power in any one of such social structures are likely to have greater power within the total community or society. This is to say that power gradations within associational, corporate or political groups are reflected in both community and national affairs. Quantitative control over resources and services - no matter what the institutional base of the control - makes a man or group of men powerful per se. Even though the base is not ostensibly related to national or community affairs, there is a power transfer into these areas. This is particularly apparent at those levels of society in which decisions are made, the levels at which top leaders are found.

VI-8. Organization charts as clues to power hierarchy. Some clues to the power structure in a given situation may be provided in the organizational charts which may be available. They present a formalized "portrait" of the power pyramid, showing the rational or legal relationships between individuals, between jobs, and between departments. Usually, an organizational chart which is up to date will delineate actual relationships and will show the power gradations within the organization itself. The force of the organization will be employed to preserve the chart structure to keep the relationships as shown in the chart.

However, there are some limitations in the chart as a clue, primarily relating to the informal groups which also will exist in the organization. This will be taken up in Section VIII. A method for tracing out the configurations of such power structures, as has been touched upon here, will be picked up in the sections to follow which discuss the identifying of various institutional and associatonal elite structures.

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