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Alfred de Grazia: Discovering National Elites





Informal leaders are those who are influential in informal groups. These groups have been described as having no written constitutions, as being flexible in their value system and requirements of membership and as being regulated in various ways to the formal associations and institutions of the society or community in which they operate.

Such leaders are, even as formal leaders, products of the group process. They usually hold no office since the informal group rarely has a series of offices.* The authority they exercise in most instances, is that of persuasion rather than the sanction of coercion. They have followers and persons within the group who defer to them.


* The exception may be the designation of a person as "chairman" of an informal group.


XI-1. Local and national informal leadership compared. On the national level of affairs there appears to be a patterning of power pyramids similar to that of communities. Certain persons become known as leaders within the larger organizations of society, and while the whole process of decision-making is complicated by a multiplicity of interest groupings, geographical distances, and sub-cultural differences, there is still a set of informal relations extant among men who represent the top echelons of power within the nation. They will act and interact with one another on matters of national policy development. One need only look at the names of top leaders in industry in the American system of organization to begin to list top leaders. Status organizations such as the Industrial Conference Board, the Committee for Economic Development, the Farm Bureau Federation and the Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Commerce carry some of the same names as do church organizations, and a multiplicity of other civil and philanthropic organizations. The men peopling the letterheads of such formal organizational groupings are also found interacting in personal relationships much as men do on the local level of affairs. "Who clears with whom in relation to what policy?" is the basic question here.

XI-2. Identification by sociometric "choices. " Various methods have been employed in identifying top community leadership. Most boil down to elaborations and modifications of sociometric techniques. That is, one finds out within a prescribed circle of people, who knows whom and who is thought of by others as a leader. The persons receiving the greatest number of choices as leaders are considered as top influentials, and are known technically as "star isolates" because of the usual graphic form in which the choices are presented. If the choices are represented as lines between individuals there will be concentration of lines among the top influentials, if they are asked to rate a group and there will be a concentration of lines going towards the top influentials when lower leaders make choices.

Figure 6

Warner in his Yankee City studies, did a dragnet operation of a whole community. While his study of social prestige factors in Yankee City cannot be strictly considered sociometric in design, the whole study represents the desire to get information from a large number of people in relation to their attitudes about others of the community and specifically in relation to their patterns of deference. A major difference between the Warner study and other community studies lies in its scope. Warner had data on almost 100 percent of the population he studied, while others have been content with sampling methods. The latter method is the chosen one here.

XI-3. Developing a first entrance into a sample. It has already been suggested that elite organizations, both formal and informal, may be identified in a community, nation or society. This identification is carried out by asking questions of persons in positions closely identified with the elite groups, and in the process one can begin to identify the formal and nominal leaders of these elite groupings. The next step of identification is that of ascertaining the kinds of things the leaders of the elite organizations are active upon, and getting at patterns of deference, authority, coercion, prestige, influence, and the like. The pyramid of leadership is self-narrowing in a highly integrated society, and the problem of sampling is thereby proportionately narrowed. To know top influentials and power elites in a modern industrial society does not require an embracing dragnet operation of questioning. It does need to be broad enough in scope, however, to bring into view the major characteristics of a given social group.

XI-4 Participant Observation. Participant observation may also be employed as a method of sighting informal groups. If one participates in organized activities, he learns by observation that certain people carry considerable responsibility even though they are not elected officials. They are persons to whom an elected chairman, for example, turns for advice during a formal meeting. They are the persons who "caucus" in the cocktail lounge before and after meetings, or who may be seen at luncheons with officials of an organization.

In many committees there are informal "luncheon circuits." Many of the same persons attend the same luncheons. They tend to sit together, or with those persons with whom they have some business to transact, be it civic or private. Thus in public gatherings of associations and institutions the operator may ask himself why is the seating arrangement as it is? Or why does this group tend to congregate as it does? Who is "talking up" certain projects or issues? Who leaves with whom?

XI-5. Informal committees. Well organized associations usually have a multiplicity of committees. The formal committees are often listed, but to make committees operative, informal subcommittees are often formed. Questions related to the "real" workings of formal committees will often reveal the persons of influence at this work level. Questions can then be asked related to these working leaders. From whom does the individual informal leader get advice? Does he follow organizational channels, or does he go outside the organization to some influential person or group to carry advice to the committees upon which he works?

The flexible and fluid structure of committee operations provide leads to the "prime movers" of many formal organizations - those groupings which, in the final analysis, have the power to move the larger body politics. The leaders in informal groups may be potential, if not actual leaders, in the formal associations. At least, one may begin with this assumption, and weight the evidence.

XI-6. Informal decision-making networks. A basic distinction that must be made here is that contained in the concepts of "real" and "nominal" leaders. Real leaders are those who have actual power. They may or may not hold office, but it is generally recognized that they hold the power to move or stop movement in any given organization. Many such persons may have been actively identified with a formal organization and through long identification with it gradually become persons respected for their judgements and looked to in matters of decision. Their position is such that they command the obedience and respect of officeholders and rank and file personnel of the organization. Such persons are often described as "behind the scenes operators." The description is not always accurate.

"Behind the scenes" operations are often thought of as being clandestine and manipulatory action in favor of narrow-interest groups. What may appear to the casual observer as "behind the scenes" machinations or conspiratorial actions may in reality be the normal workings of the informal decision-making and opinion-forming network. In the long run, most behind-the-scenes decisions have to run the test of acceptance of larger groups. The opinion leaders behind the scenes are liable to be real leaders whose opinions are more nearly in accord with the interest of the larger body politic than may be readily apparent. One might cite examples of dysfunctional decisions on the part of the "quiet operators" in the power realm, but in the main these leaders must conform to a standard of acceptability within the ongoing associations and institutions - otherwise they lose influence.

XI-7. Invisibleness usually short range. Nominal leaders are those who may hold office or be in the public eye, but who do not actually direct the power inherent in their position. They have title without actual power. These leaders are often controlled or manipulated by the real leaders who are hidden from public view. The "power behind the throne" in such situations must be known and such power may reside in the informal and "behind the scenes" leaders. Identifying nominal leaders and those who stand behind them must be done in terms of watching activities and asking questions related to "who really put this or that project across?"

In large scale organizations the presence of informal decision making groups may be of functional necessity. The sum total of decisions in a large organization might be a very large number. Widespread discussion or discussion in formal meetings of every detail of every proposal before the large organization might be an unwieldy and time-consuming operation. The informal discussions within a narrower range of persons who know the inner workings of the large group may be imperative for the survival of the organization. Observation of organizational operations dealing with day to day and practical problems may also reveal a network of informal decision-making and decision-makers to whom one must address himself to get favorable organizational response.

Even though "invisible" or "behind the scenes," such influentials are not completely hidden, for the very nature of power means that to use it they must have relations with other men. And to be members of the elite, they must have some interrelationships with the "visible" influentials. These relations eventually become known - if not broadcast wholesale. Thus there should not be a literal stress on their "invisibility." In point of time, one can say with assurance that as they exercise power they will become more and more visible.

America has a great folklore of the "secret political boss" and such an influential does represent a possible member of the class of influentials being discussed. America also has a folklore of the secret criminal influential. Nor is this a peculiarity of the American culture. Behind the folklore there is some fact and the possibility that the operator may find influentials whose power is based upon clandestine or criminal operations must be considered. But it should not be dwelt upon overlong.

XI-8 Informants on unofficial networks. Professional persons who are called upon for advice, as the occasion demands, by informal leaders for "off the record" and informal opinions (off the cuff, horseback opinions) are good informants in locating those whom they serve. Even those professionals (city planners, social workers, chamber of commerce executives) who do not participate in every informal decision-making group, may know another professional who is related to this or that project and would be willing to steer the investigator to him. Professionals, being marginal persons in the power scheme and dependent upon their own advice being purchased, keep a practiced eye out for others who may be called upon by the informal leaders for consultation. They must know the informal channels of communications and operations within their area and they usually keep well informed on this subject. Consequently they are good informants. Their information, of course, must stand the test of comparison.

As one becomes familiar with the formal associations and their operations, he may also begin to read between the lines of news accounts and other written materials and find references to status persons who do not hold official positions but who lend their names to specific projects. A line in a news release suggesting that, besides the officers of a formal association, "Mr. Smith also has an interest in this project," should alert the operator to look into Mr. Smith’s connections with the project in question.

XI-9. Charismatic Leaders without Official Status. While many informal group leaders are relatively invisible, there are some whose power is broadly based and publicly known. Such are the influentials who head amorphous movements which give them sufficient power to be associated clandestinely or indirectly with the top elite even though they have no "official position". To a degree, Gandhi was such an influential in India, although his association with the elite was not hidden in any way. General DeGaulle might also be considered as an influential without position or membership in the top elite groups during the height of his Rassemblement du Peuple Francais, which even though it has the characteristics of a political party, is more of a "movement". In both of these instances, the influential persons also failed to participate directly with the remainder of the elite in exercising power. In smaller social units there also may be individuals who serve as spokesmen (and power wielders)for unorganized but important groups which lack organization and which provide these informal leaders with no official status. The leading farmer in a backward agricultural area sometimes has this kind of position.

The operator will have little difficulty in locating these highly visible leaders, who have sometimes been identified as "charismatic"- having a following because of their personal appeal to mass. Normally, they will move from such unofficial or peripheral power position into the organized elite structures. The expectation is that most of them will be in this situation for a relatively short time, either losing their hold on a mass and their power, or keeping it and formalizing their movement into an organization or institution, or joining the elite group through informal channels. In any event, the basic problem here is an assessing the power, in discovering how it is related to the existing structure, rather than in locating the influential.

XI-10. The elder statesman. Another kind of influential who may have low visibility is the "elder Statesman." It is conceivable that an outsider studying the American elite structure by checking officeholders and elite informal groups might have missed such an influential as Bernard Baruch. As if he were particularly lacking in background he might even miss the two ex-presidents because of their lack of official status. The degree to which a culture stresses traditional values will often be a clue to whether there are relatively hidden "elder statesmen" who are members of the top elite. On the other hand, one should not lose sight of the possibility that the lack of visibility of such individuals may also relate to the loss of power once held.

XI-11. The "handy-man" type. Within the elite structure, there may also be individuals who have an unclear relationship. They may seem to be lacking power, yet they will show up in elite groups. Such an individual might stand in the modern power group in the same relationship as the ancient jester to the king. The apparently a-political friends of the power person, the members of his poker game, the handy man in the kitchen cabinet all fall into this grouping. Most will be without offal position, but most should also show up in the analysis of informal groups is thorough. Even though they may actually be non-power persons who have proximity to power but do not posses it, they may often be valuable to the operator as communication links to the power-weilders.

XI-12. The "fixer" type. An important kind of influence with low visibility in many modern, complex states is found in the "fixer". For example, he became important in prewar Italy as the bureaucratization of the Fascist government advanced. He also was important in the U.S. during the war as the "five per center." Studies of Russia have also revealed the role; in the U.S.S.R. there seems to be some effort to institutionalize "fixers" by creating officials offices and titles, such as "expediter" ( a term not unknown elsewhere). Here again, one can see a class of influentials who may not wield power directly, but who may possess it by reason of their ability to serve as links between influentials with different institutional bases. Sometimes the "fixer" may move into a position of real power. The alleged "secret boss of California" was supposed to exemplify such an individual. However, he never gained full membership in the group of prime influentials and as his position became more powerful and more visible he was eventually deprived of most of his power.

XI-13. Identification during study of target area. It is unlikely that the operator in his first brush with the target area can do much to locate informal influentials. On the other hand, even at this early phase of study, he can be alert for signs of community activity of a covert nature. If smuggling, or brigandage is an important activity in the area it will be hidden, to be sure, but if it is extensive, it will not be completely hidden. And if it is extensive it will bring power to those who control the activity. To use an American example, one can assert that if gambling is important enough in a community to give considerable power to the controllers of it, the sophisticated observer will undoubtedly find signs of gambling activity during the very early stages of investigation of the city.

XI-14. Identification through study of power issues and decisions. Disputes over power tend to bring out the existence of hidden or informal power wielders, since usually such an issue forces them to exercise their power more directly. Thus in American cities, the identity of criminal influentials was often brought to light when they clashed among themselves. By extension, when a power issue has been resolved, there may again be provided clues as to the existence or identity of informal influentials. The question to ask is: does the decision seem inexplicable in relationship to the visible members of the decision-making group.

On the whole, one may sum up the discussion of informal leadership by repeating the suggestion alluded to in most of the foregoing material: Informal leadership patterns may be found paralleling formal patterns. The former are functional to the latter and necessary in power operations because of the flexibility provided by their tenuous character.

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