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Alfred de Grazia: Discovering National Elites





After one has identified the elite institutions and informal associations of the target area, it would be convenient if he could study them independently, identifying the personnel of each institution and of each informal group, and consider the task done. But such is not the case. The complexity of modern society warns against separating an organization from its total social context, except with great caution. Having done so, one must recognize that this separation is an artificial, laboratory kind of operation. Even though useful and necessary, it has meaning only as the ties between the artificially separated organization and the total social network are identified and understood. Figure 4 examples a ramifying network of formal-informal leadership in the American Revolutionary and Constitutional Period.

Figure 4

Charts of social structures and of organizations give some help in finding where power is and how it is exercised. Yet an organizational chart is aptly described as a "still picture" of what is essentially a moving scene (refer back to VII 4, 5). At its best, it is an accurate picture of an organization at an instant of time. At its worst, it reveals little more about the organization than does a formal family portrait reveal about the family. But perhaps a "word chart" can be presented here which will be flexible enough to help show the interrelationships among formal and informal elite organizations.

The notion of power "pyramid" has been referred to several times. When one thinks of the formal institution, the pyramid most often serves to give graphic form to the idea. If the total social entity can be thought of as a number of pyramids with a common base, and with inter-mingled lower (and sometimes even upper) portions, there begins to be a picture of the institutional complexity of a society. If one thinks then of the pyramids being of various heights and perhaps several of them rising to fairly equal heights, the notion of variations of power also is made graphic. Then, if one will go a step further, and imagine the apexes of these pyramids being flexible and moving towards a common central area of power, we will arrive at a graphic notion of a complex power structure in a community.

The entire arrangement next should be thought of as in movement, with pyramids building up into the zone of power, with others declining; with the apexes twisting about so that now three or four are inter-related and two or three others are not involved, now all of the top level are interrelated, now another different partial set move together.

If one could imagine this interrelationship as being signified by a relatively impermanent, plastic material, which would tie three or four of the apexes together for a time, then stretch or dissolve to permit them to come together in a different order, he would additionally have placed the informal elite organization in this schematic structure.

Within this moving representation of the power structure of a society, the operator is interested in those twisting apexes of the individual power pyramids when they are associated in making policy affecting the U.S. He is interested in the informal organizations which also serve to make policy. It may be helpful to think of one of these arrangements as roughly vertical, i.e. the apexes of the several interrelated institutional power pyramids; the other as roughly horizontal, i.e. the plastic, informal organizations, which tie the apexes together from time to time.

If this has tended to depersonalize the power structure, one should remember that this schematic representation is made up of people who are moving up and down, indulging their whims and using their abilities, hating and loving, seeking, gaining and exercising power. Moreover, the emphasis upon "separate" pyramids should not obscure the fact that often an influential will wear "several hats," i.e. he will have a position in the education pyramid, another in the business, and yet another in a political party. In addition, he will probably have position in the power structure not only by virtue of such institutional roles, but by virtue of his membership in informal elite groups.. One can expect to fine that influentials will have power based upon such a combination of formal and informal roles. And this very multiplicity of roles provides an important part of the interrelationships among formal and informal elite organizations.


IX-1. Formal-informal transformation. To begin with a simple example, this kind of relationship may exist entirely within a given institutional pyramid, as when a board or council or other official elite group may have an informal, private existence, as well as its public, official, institutionalized existence. When a city council, for example, meets informally at the mayor’s home or gathers for a drink at the bar, it sheds its institutional character in part and becomes an informal organization; Yet the power comes along, and the decision-making ability may be enhanced rather than impaired. Issues are talked out personally on a first-name basis and often the decision may be made for the next council meeting to ratify in its institutional role.

There is a kind of interrelationship here, difficult to perceive because, after all, the groups are identical in membership; at the same time, it does exist and the activities of the informal organization have an effect upon those of the institutionalized organization.

IX-2. Informal groups representing combinations of formal. The relationship becomes more apparent when one considers the informal organization within the single institution that is less than an exact duplication of the latter, as when one or more members of the official group is left out of the informal group. The next step is the introduction of other influentials, not members of the institutional group, who come in to the luncheon, dinner, or gathering of "friends" and play a part in policy making. The interrelationship begins to be more complex, yet the suggestion of the informal organization influencing the institution or actually wielding its power remains apparent.

For such a partially non-institutional informal group, one can move to an even more variegated organization, in which perhaps only the mayor (or the councilman with the most power) meets at luncheon with the top banker, the dominant businessman, the leading contractor and the high-status lawyer. Here the informal group may be made up of individuals located at the peaks of their special institutional power pyramids. But though the luncheon table is surrounded by representatives of the important institutions, they may be sitting in a de-institutionalized way (as was pointed out in Section VIII), participating as persons and not involving their institutions. In spite of this institutional detachment, the luncheon may be a more potent decision-making organization than the subsequent meetings of boards of directors, or executive committees, and council committees which may do little more than implement the decision reached over the luncheon table.

This series of example points up another characteristic of institutional-informal group interrelationships. They may serve as the actual decision-making organization, and at the same time as a means of direct communication between representatives of the institutional elites.

IX-3. Informal Channels to lower formal echelons. The presence of an overpowering institution in the community or state may bring a different kind of interrelationship. In Montana for example, and particularly in past years, a large mining company held predominant power. This single institution, in terms of our diagram, towered above all others, though it was not absolutely independent of them. The informal organizations in such a circumstance would be at a low level of the power pyramids, with decisions moving down until they reached an informal organization which could "pass the word around." Indeed, almost any company town suggests a similar power arrangement, with decisions being mainly reached in the company pyramid and being passed down to the informal group at a lower level which distributes them to the other institutional pyramids. There is also the possibility that within the dominant institution, in this case the company, there is a self-contained informal group which is the seat of real decision making.

IX-4. Combinations of institutions and communication links.
A more complex interrelationship is exemplified by the community which is "run" by a combination of institutional interests, making decisions through informal organizations, and passing them along to a political boss subservient to them, who in turn moves the orders to institutions of government (whose power pyramid would be in the scheme far below those of the others).

With these examples, another characteristic of the interrelationship is demonstrated; informal organizations serve as communication links between dominant institutions and submissive institutions. As was demonstrated in Section VIII, there are informal organizations at all levels of society, some serving to strengthen the institution or institutions in which they operate, others serving to weaken. As one moves down into the institutional pyramids, the informal organizations are more likely to be communication agencies and less likely to be decision-making agencies; as one moves up, the roles are reversed.

IX-5. Discovering overlapping conditions by observation. The problem of discerning the interrelationships among elite institutions and elite informal organizations is a difficult one and will not be solved by mere casual observation. Since in America the Self-contained informal organization (particularly regarding a governmental institution) is regarded as reprehensible by most newspapers, it may be instructive to see how a newspaperman discovers the existence of such an informal group ( as in the case of a city council taking the decision-making process away from its institutionalized self and handing it over to its informal group self).

The reporter would first of all keep a careful check on the decision-making process. Are difficult decisions being made quickly? Are complicated issues resolved with a minimum of discussion. Are known interests in the council going unexpressed in the rush of happy unanimity?

Whenever he found that these questions could be answered in the affirmative, he would suspect the existence of an informal means of thrashing out difficult decisions, or of throttling the minority interest by extra-institutional devices.

Depending upon the sources of information available to him, the reporter would endeavor the verify his suspicion. If there were a council member whose known interests were going unexpressed, he would be a likely choice for an "off-the-record" interview. He might even discover at this point the isolated individual, not a member of the informal group. Possibly, by checking one of the informal organizations (with primarily a communication function) at lower levels in the governmental pyramid, he could gain information about the informal group. If the group met openly, the reporter might join them at the luncheon. If they met secretly at a member’s home, he would not be above checking their whereabouts by a round-robin of telephone calls, and then visiting the home of the member who was present. Or he might follow a councilman at the suspected meeting time, to track down the session.

Such aggressive gathering of information is scarcely possible to the operator. On the other hand, the technique of observing the decision-making process, of observing the informal meeting habits of influentials, and of checking with informal groups at lower levels can be used effectively.

IX-6. Direct interrogation for informal structures. This is not to suggest that the interrelationships among elite institutions and informal groups are conspiratorial or reprehensible. In many political places, they will be the normal method of reaching decision. They will be the normal means of seeing that various institutional interests are represented in the making of decision. They will be the normal means of seeking that informal decisions are communicated to formal agencies where they will be executed.

The operator if he is to be aware of these interrelationships, must be curious as to how influential A is aware of Decision X though he has not institutional connection with the official agency of decision. He must be even more curious about how Institution A’s interests are reflected in Decision X, even though the decision is "made" by Institutions B and C. He must do more than wonder why Businessmen B and Ministers C and D have lunch together regularly. He must discover the interrelationships between this informal group and the institutions which the participants represent.

Some of his answers will be deductive; some will come from informants who are essentially communicators in the power structure. Some may come-and often more than he thinks-from the power persons themselves, who may be willing to explain how they work with other power persons and to reveal the informal organizations which so often are the means of their interrelationships.

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