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Alfred de Grazia: Discovering National Elites





Thus far, elites have been discussed in terms of their general characteristics. Some illustrations have been given related to their actions and general patterns of operations, but a precise method of locating them has not been revealed. It has been said that there are networks of persons formed into groups and individual relationships that vary in intensity of associations and formality of organization. The task here is to suggest how one can trace these networks of the elite.


XIII-1. Development of lists of influentials, issues, projects, and policy procedures. In every community there are persons who are not top influentials themselves, but are close enough to them to know who they are and something of how they operate. The same may be said for nation or a region. Often, in western society, they are professionals who man the associational posts as executive secretaries. Finding out how a community, or other area, is formally organized is the first step in turning up power leadership. This is done by a chain referral method of interviewing.

In chain referral interviewing, one begins at an arbitrary or what he guesses to be the most likely point, and begins to ask about influential organizations in the community. A hotel manager may be as good a person as any with whom to begin. He may be asked whether or not there is a chamber of commerce, a political party headquarters, a civic association center, a church center, or a social club headquarters that is of top rank in terms of getting things accomplished in the community. The operator will want to know who the executive officer is in each organization and where he may usually be found. The hotel manager in this case is the first link in a chain of referrals. He may steer one correctly or he may not, but if he refers one to others, they in turn may refer one to still others - and so it goes on until one finds himself being referred to the same people, and the chain is closed. By the process one has "covered the field," and has not relied upon the hearsay of a limited number of informants whose views may be biased or erroneous.

As one makes the rounds of the associational chain, he asks other questions and roughly evaluates responses. When he is in touch with associational secretaries he wants to know two important things: (1) Who are the persons of top power in the decision-making processes in the community, and (2) what policies, issues, or projects are currently being worked on by the men of decision?

In the first question, related to policy personnel, the operator is interested in those persons, particularly, who are closely identified with the operations of the association from which he is getting information. He is interested in knowing how active each top power person is in the association and he is also interested in knowing whether or not there are men who may not be extremely active in committee work or board affairs, but who still influence the decisions of the association, or influence the men who make formal decisions within its framework. Many influentials are not joiners. They work through other men, and in the initial stages of survey it is important to get as many of these names as possible.

In moving from one association to another, one may begin to pick up the same names repeatedly, i.e. some men may be active in many different associational groupings and carry different roles in organized life. Such persons will automatically, in a sense, begin to emerge in the operator’s mind as leaders. And here a word of caution on scientific conduct must be inserted.

XIII-2. Interview precautions. The operator allows others to do the talking. He does not assert what he knows at any point, but is interested in what others know. His attitude may be described as dynamically passive. He listens alertly, but makes no overt value statements or judgments. He needs constantly to remind himself that he must wait for all the data to be in before he makes final judgments. He may, for example, hear from others that Mr. Smith is active on this and that. If he immediately says to himself that Smith must be the important influential in the community, he may be quite wrong. If he reveals his impression to his interviewers, he may invite a bias in his data. Many informants have only a part of the picture of power in a community. As a matter of fact, even the top influentials often have only a partial picture of the total operations of a power structure. Although they are generally interested to know what the investigator knows, what he reveals to them will influence the replies elicited by subsequent questions. The operator wants to hear the whole story from others. As he puts the pieces together, and at a much later stage of inquiry, he may recheck his facts with persons whose judgments he has come to trust, with a confidential, informant, or with a group of "judges" (to be discussed at length presently), but in the first blush of inquiry "open ears and closed mouth" is the best rule.

Even so, it is almost impossible to avoid making judgments as one proceeds. The mental tendency is to form Gestalt patterns of thinking. One is constantly trying to put two and two together. One wishes always to see the whole to explain the parts of social patterns, and the desire is normal. Yet, one must say, "This appears to be so, but what else is so?" "What are the gaps in this whole picture?" "What is contradictory in what I am seeing and hearing?" The attitude of open-minded inquiry is thus developed. Nothing can be taken for granted. If something is taken for granted or a dogma accepted without proof, why bother to investigate further. The answer is obvious to one who really wishes to operate on facts rather than fancy.

XIII-3. Records of data. As names of top influentials are given, a careful record of them should be kept. One should know such identifying data about the influential as where he may be found, what his general occupation is, what his interests are - especially his policy, project interests - outside of his occupation, and any other data that are spontaneously given by informants about him. Such data are best kept on cards 5 by 8, and in alphabetical order by names of informant. Data given in interviews should be written up as soon as possible after interviews in journal form and as fully as possible. The card file can be built from data obtained from the journal or diary form of recording. A man’s interest in policy, issues and projects is an especially important cluster of information to the operator.

XIII-4. Relating issues to names. Peripheral informants, those outside the circle of the policy-making group but close enough to know much of its working, know what is being done communitywise or nationwise, as the case may be. Questions should be asked, at the same time top influential names are gathered on major policy developments in the community. "If you were to name two major issues in the community," one might ask, "what would they be?" "Are any of the men whose names you have given to me related to these issues in a policy-making capacity?" "What is their general way of conducting themselves in relation to these issues?" Also, "What are the two major projects of civic, industrial, or governmental nature that involved the whole community?" "Who makes policy in relation to these projects?" "Who are the men who keep the projects going?" "What are the roles of some of the men mentioned?" "How do they work together?"

In this phase of inquiry, certain projects will be mentioned repeatedly. If one gets a good correlation of opinion on what projects and issues are important, and who are important in formulating and executing policy in relation to them, he may be assured that he is getting somewhere near the center of a power nucleus of the community. If he has a limited amount of time at his disposal, the operator may take steps to limit his inquiry to manageable proportions without thwarting objective considerations of investigation.

XIII-5. Problems of abundant data. In any community or larger power center there are thousands of activities going on daily. As has been pointed out earlier, and as is perfectly obvious now, some activities are more important than others in an elite power sense. The big issues and big projects, in terms of money, time, and energy, are the activities that attract the elite power-wielders. By getting a listing of influentials from peripheral leaders and a cross section of opinion correlated, as to major issues and broad scale projects, one can begin to "strain out" the persons of lesser influence and eliminate the projects and issues of lesser importance.

After both lists mentioned are compiled, they may represent a sizeable array of names and projects. If this be true, it would be impractical, perhaps to try to interview all of the persons named. In such a broad scale survey, one should have picked up names of persons related to business, industrial, financial, labor, political, religious, government, and social prestige groupings. (The functional view of the target area established earlier may indicate additions to or deletions from such a list as this.) If any of the basic groupings of this target have been missed or overlooked, effort must be made to find such leaders. Then, all names can be classified by these major categories, that is, business, labor, political, and the like. It may be that more names appear in one category than another. This will not be surprising since one group is often more dominant in power matters than another, but for the purposes of getting a cross section sample of community activities, it is important that names and projects from all groupings be represented in as large numbers as possible in the initial stages of inquiry. With this data in hand, one may begin to proceed to reduce the numbers for interviewing purposes . A "judging" procedure is one of the most effective and objective means that may be employed.

XIII-6. Use of a panel of judges. Within groups interviewed there will probably be some persons who seem to know great numbers of people and a great deal about community affairs and to make judgements about them readily. Since one must begin to shorten the interviewing task somewhere, he may pick persons as he proceeds whom he thinks would be adequate to the task of helping to judge the power and leadership capacities of the persons named on the omnibus list he is acquiring He begins to build a judging panel. Such a panel will be as much of a cross section of opinion as he can secure; older persons, younger ones, large business, small business, labor, men, women, ethnics, professionals, politicians, churchmen, and any other representatives of elite groupings and peripheral elites should be utilized as judges. The technique is a modification of a scheme used with success by Harold Kaufman in examining prestige classes in a rural New York community, differing in that here one is sampling associational leaders rather than community members at large.

The fact that the original selection of judges is arbitrary and subjective on the part of the operator or investigator need not be a troublesome fact. The panel selected will be interviewed individually and asked to select from the large lists developed those names that appear to be, in their estimation, top influential elites in terms of policy development. Some of the judges will have already given some names to the investigator on initial contact, but often enough the judge will see names on the final compilation of names that had not occurred to him at the time of the first interview. At all events, one must get a sample of opinion from those who are presumed to know their community well. Fifteen or twenty such judges should be chosen, dependent upon the size of the community.

They should be asked to choose from different lists a sample number of top influentials. Let this be specified concretely. Depending on the functional groupings, names will be listed, as business, political, church, civic "society," or other categories. Here the functional importance of man’s power position will determine the category into which his name falls. For example, a man may be a small business man, but a powerful political leader. The fact that he has a business defines a social role for him, but the source of his power and the area in which he exercises it is in the field of politics. He would then be listed under the category of politics. Another person may be minor civic leader, but influential as a lay member of a powerful church organization. Here, again, the souci of power determines the listing under which the names would be put.

XIII-7. Sampling for network interviewing. Having categorized and listed all names alphabetically, a sample of the names will be utilized in interviewing. The judges can then be asked to pick names from each category of those persons considered top influentials compared with all others on each list. If a list is 100 names in length and a 25 percent sample seems possible in terms of interview time, the judge will be asked to select 25 names that represent top power. If one wishes to spend less time in interviewing, a 10 per cent sample will suffice to draw off the top influentials. There is usually a good correlation of opinion on top leaders, and those who know their community well will have less trouble in selecting a few names than many.

Those persons receiving the highest number of votes as top leaders from the judges, from all categories, can then be alphabetized on one master list and utilized for interviewing purposes. The list is a select one. It should be, and has proven to be, a nuclear group from which a great deal of data can be gathered relative to power operations in a given area. The process of investigation from this point on is that of serial interviewing of the persons within the power nucleus that has been systematically isolated.

XIII-8. Length of interview. Each man on the list of influentials should be interviewed. Specific information is necessary from each to work out a complete pattern of inter-personal relations. A schedule of questions may be prepared. This schedule should be brief to allow plenty of time for the interviewee to expand on certain topics related to power processes within his area. The question schedule is a starting point of discussion. One should allow about an hour for each interview and take more time if a man is able and willing to discuss power relations. The question schedule should take about fifteen or twenty minutes of that time.

XIII-9. Entree to respondent. The question is often asked, " How do you get in to see these men?" "Are they loath to talk about so touchy a subject as power?" The answers to these questions run something like this: Men of power like to talk about it. It is their stocking-trade. They are more interested in its processes than almost anything else. They are familiar with power projects and issues, and if one is not out to muckrake them, they talk freely. Depending upon the culture, the best methods of gaining entrance to see them are usually direct, normal ones; phoning the secretary, going to see her, writing a letter to the man. Working through other people may sometimes be necessary if a man is interview-shy, but such persons are rare. Most men of power are busy, but they most often delegate much of the detail work to others and their desks are relatively clear. They have time to talk about that which interests them.

XIII-10. Contents of interview. In order to have comparable identifying information, one may ask each man for such information as age, birthplace, occupation, kinds of property owned, number of employees supervised or directed, education, place of residence, and length of residence in the community. If any of this information can be obtained from written documents or other sources, such as Who’s Who it will save time in the interview.

The interviewee can then be shown a list of the names of influentials that have been gathered. He may be asked to name the ten or twenty top influentials on the list, in his opinion, and indicate various ways in which he has known or worked with those persons he knows on the list. He may be asked to indicate how well he knows each, and especially he should be asked to name any persons who are not on the list that should be there. The questions at all points should be open-ended to allow for omissions in the name-gathering process.

The interviewee should be asked to name projects he considers to be top priority in the community and upon which he has worked with others. The same should be asked in relation to public or quasi-public issues. Here one should inquire as to the top decision-makers in relation to the project in question, and how they delegated responsibilities to make the project go. Who clears with whom? How was an issue settled? And so on.

XIII-11. Recording and analysis of interviews. Notes may be taken during the interview, but stopped when the interviewee indicates that a subject is off the record or confidential. Such items should be remembered, of course. A journal account should be recorded as soon as possible, probably at the end of each day of interviews. The sooner one writes down the information gathered the more accurate it is.

Through this process, one begins to piece together items related to the major decisions and their execution in a given community. The pattern begins to unfold, and seemingly isolated activities on the part of power-holders take on functional meaning in relation to the whole system of power. The method is simple in its outline and manageable for operators who may be pressed for times.

One may make call-back interviews to clear up points that may not be self-evident, or one may use a confidential informant to help measure the accuracy of the materials that may be in question.

XIII-12. Strangeness to area often helpful. It must be said here that the operator who has been in a community for some time may be hesitant to make such a study. If he is already involved in the power structure on an operating level, some may question why he is going about the task, and rightly so. In such cases, a better procedure would be to assign a new employee to the task, or to engage a social scientist to do the work. A newcomer or pure "staff" person is often expected to ask an abundance of the "silliest" questions. The principle of utilizing the "sociological stranger" operates in power examinations as it does elsewhere. People are often willing to tell things to a stranger that they will not discuss with persons known to them in their home communities. This factor must be considered, and operations modified accordingly.

XIII-13. Modifications of methodology. While the process outlined above gives best results when every step has been performed, the operator may find that exigencies of time make it difficult for him to complete it. Or he may be studying a target in which the top elite is not available for interviewing of this nature. In such event, the use of parts of the system just described will still produce valuable information. The only necessary caution is to recognize the strength of the full system and the weakness of information based on parts of it. Though not as reliable, the partial information may be very helpful, and in combination with data obtained in other ways, may tell the operator much about the elite network.

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