Elite (Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

, electus - "chosen") refers to an exceptional or privileged group that wields considerable power within its sphere of influence. Depending on the context, this power might be physical, spiritual, intellectual or financial.

Political elite

In sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

, an elite is a group
Group (sociology)
In the social sciences a social group can be defined as two or more humans who interact with one another, share similar characteristics and collectively have a sense of unity...

 of relatively small size, that is dominant within a large society, having a privileged status perceived as being envied by others of a lower line of order. If such an elite wields political power
Political power
Political power is a type of power held by a group in a society which allows administration of some or all of public resources, including labour, and wealth. There are many ways to obtain possession of such power. At the nation-state level political legitimacy for political power is held by the...

, it almost invariably puts itself in a position of leadership, whether it be expected or volunteered, and often subjects the holders of elite status to pressure to maintain that leadership position as part of status.

Religious elite

During the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 (including the Dark Ages and parts of the Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

), religious elites wielded considerable influence and power. Clergymen were often the only educated men, and frequently held seats of government power (see: Theocracy
Theocracy is a form of organization in which the official policy is to be governed by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided, or simply pursuant to the doctrine of a particular religious sect or religion....

). Anyone disobeying the edicts of the church were branded heretic
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion...

s and persecuted.

In modern times, a religious elite still exists in the Pope
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, a position that makes him the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church . In the Catholic Church, the Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the Apostle...

 and the Vatican Assembly. The Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals
College of Cardinals
The College of Cardinals is the body of all cardinals of the Catholic Church.A function of the college is to advise the pope about church matters when he summons them to an ordinary consistory. It also convenes on the death or abdication of a pope as a papal conclave to elect a successor...

, while the cardinals themselves are appointed by prior papal decrees. Once elected, the Pope is in "office" for the remainder of his life (unless he resigns).

Linguistic elite

Some elite groups speak a language that is not shared by the commonality: in Tsarist Russia and in Vietnam
Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

, the elite spoke French, in the Philippines
The Philippines , officially known as the Republic of the Philippines , is a country in Southeast Asia in the western Pacific Ocean. To its north across the Luzon Strait lies Taiwan. West across the South China Sea sits Vietnam...

 the elite spoke, and in many cases still speak, Spanish. In Plantagenet England, the elite spoke Anglo-Norman
Anglo-Norman language
Anglo-Norman is the name traditionally given to the kind of Old Norman used in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles during the Anglo-Norman period....

, while Finland
History of Finland
The land area that now makes up Finland was settled immediately after the Ice Age, beginning from around 8500 BCE. Most of the region was part of the Kingdom of Sweden from the 13th century to 1809, when it was ceded to the Russian Empire, becoming the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. The...

 was ruled by a Swedish-speaking elite up to the beginning of the 20th century and in Ptolemaic Egypt
Ptolemaic Egypt
Ptolemaic Egypt began when Ptolemy I Soter invaded Egypt and declared himself Pharaoh of Egypt in 305 BC and ended with the death of queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and the Roman conquest in 30 BC. The Ptolemaic Kingdom was a powerful Hellenistic state, extending from southern Syria in the east, to...

 the elite spoke Koine Greek. In ancient India, Sanskrit was spoken by the elite class.

Even when the elite nominally speak the same language as the majority, their dialect and accent may have a higher status. Their usage may be reflected in "prescriptive" dictionaries; common usage is reflected in "descriptive" dictionaries. For example, in the 1950s, the British elite spoke what linguists of the time called U English
U and non-U English
U and non-U English usage, with U standing for upper class, and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes, were part of the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects in 1950s Britain and New England. The debate did not concern itself with the speech of the working classes, which in...

 or Received Standard English
Received Pronunciation
Received Pronunciation , also called the Queen's English, Oxford English or BBC English, is the accent of Standard English in England, with a relationship to regional accents similar to the relationship in other European languages between their standard varieties and their regional forms...


Elites may also establish cultural canons, which are more widely agreed-upon within the elite and more generally ignored or resented among the non-elite.

It can be argued that English is becoming the global elitist language of today, since understanding it opens the door to many lucrative jobs in business and communicaitons. However, others claim that the use of English is an uncontroversial issue and that the linguistic elitists are actually more concerned with shutting out local variations (such as Indian English
Indian English
Indian English is an umbrella term used to describe dialects of the English language spoken primarily in the Republic of India.As a result of British colonial rule until Indian independence in 1947 English is an official language of India and is widely used in both spoken and literary contexts...

, or Afro-American English) than with the language itself.

Educational elite

Societies educate elites to govern
Government refers to the legislators, administrators, and arbitrators in the administrative bureaucracy who control a state at a given time, and to the system of government by which they are organized...

. While conventional education often aims to produce knowledgeable and skilled citizens, the elitist approach to education is geared towards producing leaders of some sort. It can be idealized as an education geared to producing an individual capable of thinking at a sophisticated
Sophistication is the quality of refinement — displaying good taste, wisdom and subtlety rather than crudeness, stupidity and vulgarity.In the perception of social class, sophistication can link with concepts such as status, privilege and superiority....

 intellectual level more advanced than the general population, consisting of diverse philosophical ideals and theories in order to rationalize the status quo
Status quo
Statu quo, a commonly used form of the original Latin "statu quo" – literally "the state in which" – is a Latin term meaning the current or existing state of affairs. To maintain the status quo is to keep the things the way they presently are...


In some systems, such as that of the scholar-bureaucrats
Scholar-officials or Scholar-bureaucrats were civil servants appointed by the emperor of China to perform day-to-day governance from the Sui Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, China's last imperial dynasty. These officials mostly came from the well-educated men known as the...

 who administered China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 for 1300 years, elite education selects and skims off the most able students regardless of class or financial background. To pass Imperial examinations, students had to be versed in the Confucian classics and neo-Confucian commentaries, in literature and fine calligraphy
Calligraphy is a type of visual art. It is often called the art of fancy lettering . A contemporary definition of calligraphic practice is "the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious and skillful manner"...

 - creating a cohesive and socially homogeneous scholar-gentry. This system co-opted into its service those who would have potentially been the most dangerous to the state; it left would-be malcontents either leaderless or uneducated. As an avenue to political power, the examination system became increasingly corrupted, with political connections and loyalty to the regime becoming as important as outright ability. The cultural legacy of this policy survives in the selection
Education in the People's Republic of China
Education in the People's Republic of China is a state-run system of public education run by the Ministry of Education. All citizens must attend school for at least nine years. The government provides primary education for six years, starting at age six or seven, followed by six years of secondary...

 for the elite Chinese universities. Elite universities, through a process of indoctrination of a common heritage, ethos and promise of preferred advancement, create a loyal administrative/ruling elite for the service of the state. Such a system of selection for elite education can operate in the Western tradition as well, for example in France's Grandes écoles
Grandes écoles
The grandes écoles of France are higher education establishments outside the main framework of the French university system. The grandes écoles select students for admission based chiefly on national ranking in competitive written and oral exams...


Military elite

A military elite is a unit of soldiers or recruits picked for their competence and put in a special elite unit. Elite units enjoy some benefits as compared to other units, at least in the form of higher status, but often also higher pay and better equipment. Examples of military elites includes Napoleon's Imperial Guard
Imperial Guard
The Imperial Guard was originally a small group of elite soldiers of the French Army under the direct command of Napoleon I, but grew considerably over time. It acted as his bodyguard and tactical reserve, and he was careful of its use in battle...

, Nazi Germany's SS as well the various special forces
Special forces
Special forces, or special operations forces are terms used to describe elite military tactical teams trained to perform high-risk dangerous missions that conventional units cannot perform...

 of today.


Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who form an elite, are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.

Further reading

  • Daniel Golden
    Daniel Golden
    Daniel Golden is an American journalist, working as an editor at large for Bloomberg News. He was previously senior editor at Conde Nast's now-defunct Portfolio magazine....

    , The Price of Admission
    The Price of Admission
    The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges - and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates is a 2005 book by Daniel Golden, a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. The book criticizes admissions at elite American universities, including preferences given to...

    : How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges—And Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
    , Crown Publishers, 2006, ISBN 1400097967
  • R. S. Rose, The Unpast: Elite Violence and Social Control in Brazil, 1954-2000, Ohio University Press 2006, ISBN 0896802434
  • Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
    Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
    Plinio Correa de Oliveira was a Brazilian intellectual, politician and Catholic activist....

    , Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History, Hamilton Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8191-9310-0

  • Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Worse Than War: Genocide, Elimination-ism, and the Ongoing Assault On Humanity, and Hitler's Willing Executioners': An Exchange, elites targeting for elimination, Public Affairs, 2009 and 1996, ISBN 978-1-58648-769-0; ISBN 978-0679772682
  • Judge Robert H. Bork, Slouching into Gomorrah, Modern Liberalism and American Decline, the ideological triumph of liberalism among American elites, Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1996, ISBN 0-06-039163-4
  • David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World, a searing indictment of elites creating an unjust economic order, Kuimarian Press Inc., and Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1995, 1996, ISBN 1-887208-00-3 and ISBN 1-887208-01-1
  • Who Really Matters, The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege and Success, the rational elite often act in seemingly irrational ways within the confines of an institution, 2003, ISBN 0-385-48448-8
  • Christopher Williams
    Christopher Williams (academic)
    Christopher Williams is an English academic based at the Centre for ‎International Education and Research, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. He has also ‎held posts at the universities of Bristol, Cairo, Cambridge, London and the United ‎Nations...

    , Researching power, elites and leadership. London: Sage, 2012
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