C. Wright Mills posits the existence of a 'power elite,' an interconnected group of powerful men who are responsible for all of society's major decisions. How do we explain distribution (creation, perpetuation, maintenance, etc.) of power in society? Answer the question using Mills and two other theorists.


In this answer, I would like to analyze the case of the power elite described by Mills from three points of view. The first is Mills' own account, the second is Merton's functionalist point of view, and the third is Blau's exchange theoretical point of view.

2.1 Mills' analysis of the power elite

Mills conducted a detailed analysis on 'power elite.' Power elite is composed of those who are "in positions to make decisions having major consequences" (Mills 1956, 4). Sometimes the decisions are even "historical" (5). In modern America, three institutional units, namely the economy, the political order, and the military order have the power (7). Of course only those at the top of each field, chief executives, members of the political directorate, and elite of the soldier-statesmen (8-9) are in the circle. There are a "structural coincidence of interest" (19), social similarities, and psychological affinities (296) among these people, so they tend cooperate with each other. Actually the people at the top of these three fields often interchange their positions. So they form "overlapping cliques" (18). Below the level of the power elite, there are "middle level of powers" (4), like the Congress, pressure groups, and the old and new upper classes.

Mills made several interesting observations on the power elite. First, the power of these people does not belong to a person, but to a position: "to have power requires access to major institutions, for the institutional position determines in large part their chances to have and to hold these valued experiences" (11). Another interesting observation is the denial of the view that these people represent the interests of the nation as a whole (284-287). These are honorable people, but their codes of honor are the codes of their circles. When they become a member of the power elite, they are too old to change the code of conduct they have acquired in their life. Their duty cannot confine them, because they are the ones who determine their duty. So members of the power elite make historical decisions for their own sake by virtue of their position.

According to Mills, the rise of the power elite rests upon the transformation of the publics into a mass society (Mills 1956, 297). On the one hand, publics are defined as those who live in milieux but sometimes transcend them by intellectual effort (321). They have the sense of social structure and make decisions to change the structure. On the other hand, the members of a mass society does not have such sense of structure, and are in powerless milieux (ibid.). Their experiences are guided by mass media (311). They do not compare different media to know what is really going on (313). Their identities, aspirations and so on are also provided by mass media (314). Finally, they cannot connect their daily life with larger scale reality, because mass media does not provide such insights (ibid.). In short, the members of a mass society are manipulated by mass media. Manipulation is a secret exercise of power, and it is distinguished from authority, which needs voluntary obedience to the power (316). Therefore, the growth of mass society is good for the power elite, because formally the authority resides not in the power elite, but in the publics.

I think that some comments on the theoretical background of Mills' analysis are in order. His theoretical position is the conflict theory. In Dahrendorf's version, conflict theory deals with imperatively coordinated association (ICA), namely ordered society by authority relationship (Dahrendorf 1959, 236-240). Authority is legitimated power, and power is control over other positions. In an ICA, those who are excluded from authority share latent interests. A quasi group is a group of subjugated people who do not have the awareness of conflict, and when they get aware of it, the group becomes a conflict group. The conflict changes the order of the society. Mills' analysis has much in common with Dahrendorf's theory. We can understand the power elite and the mass are two conflicting groups, and since the mass has no awareness of the conflict, this is a quasi group. One of the differences between Mills and Dahrendorf is the notion of manipulation. By the manipulation the power elite can rule without authority, so the definition of ICA does not apply to this case. This is not a major difference, anyway, and we can deal with the difference between them as a little different versions of the same theory.

2.2 Merton's functional analysis

Merton is a functionalist like Parsons, but there are significant differences between their approaches. First, Merton does not commit to abstract scheme like AGIL. Merton talks in more general terms like 'needs.' Another significant difference is that Merton admits the existence of negative contribution of a sociological item to the system, or 'dysfunction' of it. Merton distinguishes three kinds of consequences, i.e. functions, dysfunctions, and nonfunctional consequences (Merton 1968, 105). Functions are the consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system. Dysfunctions lessen the adaptation or adjustment of the system. Nonfunctional consequences are consequences simply irrelevant to the system. So when we assess a social structure, we should look at the "net balance of an aggregate of consequences" (ibid.). This task is difficult because there are functions (and dysfunctions) neither intended nor recognized by the participants in the system. These functions are called 'latent' functions and distinguished from 'manifest' functions which are intended and recognized. From this point of view, a functionalist ordinarily expects that persistent social patterns and social structures perform positive functions which are not adequately fulfilled by other existing patterns and structures (125-126). If manifest functions are not enough to account for the persistence, there should be some latent positive functions. This heuristics has another more practical implication. That is, "any attempt to eliminate an existing social structure without providing adequate alternative structures for fulfilling the functions ... is doomed to failure" (135).

Merton's analysis of political machines and bossism is especially illuminative for the purposes of this paper (Merton 1968, 125-134). Under the constitutional framework of American political organization, political power is dispersed and the growth of leadership is discouraged. There are several subgroups, however, the needs of which cannot be served sufficiently by such a system, and require strong leadership. For example, there are people who need personal assistance. The official system provides only impersonal assistance, so it does not meet the need. a political machine fills the gap. Second subgroup benefited by the political machine is that of business. They want to avoid uncontrolled competition, but 'governmental control' is a taboo for them. The political machine provides the necessary control. Those who need personal advancement but have little access to conventional and legitimate way of success form another group benefited by the political machine. Finally, the rackets and crimes meet the needs of clienteles.

Now, let us turn to the power elite. How would Merton analyze it? From Merton's point of view, if the power elite exists just for its own sake, it should wither away. Thus we can expect that there are some latent functions fulfilled by the power elite. A couple of aspects in the analysis of the political machine would help us. First, what Merton said about the subgroup of business applies to this case. In oligopoly enterprises are not benefited by competitions. If the top of these enterprises form a cooperative group, they can avoid such meaningless competitions. The important thing here is that those who are benefited by this cooperation are not only the power elite but also everyone in those oligopoly companies. Cooperation between economy and military also benefit many people. In general, I think that the existence of the power elite can benefit most of the middle level of powers by the same reason. Most of them are not benefited by chaos of uncontrolled conflict with one another, and the power elite provides the necessary leadership for the order. Merton's fourth point on the political machine is also applicable to the power elite. There are people whose needs cannot be met by democratic decision procedure. If those people have some way to reach members of the power elite, they can attain the goal through non-democratic way, just like clientele of the political machine. Apparently the number of people who are benefited in this way is not large, but still the group should be bigger than the power elite itself.

What about mass media? Mills' descriptions of mass media seem to show that mass media do nothing good for people (except for those who are manipulating, i.e. the power elite). But, of course, if Merton is right, there should be positive functions of mass media. If we assume that people were publics before they adopt mass media, and became members of mass society by adopting mass media, then the situation is puzzling. However, if we assume that the mass society precedes the development of mass media, we can understand the role of mass media in terms of needs of the mass society. Mills points out that the division of labor and the complicated political system are crucial factors for the emergence of a mass society (Mills 1956, 321-322). If so, people lose the power to decide regardless of the existence of mass media. Once a mass society has developed, there is a clear demand for mass media. As Mills points out, people tend to choose those media which carry contents with which they already agree (Mills 1956, 313). In this sense, mass media convey exactly what people want to know. Mass media also guides their experience, tell them who they are and what they want and so on, as we saw above. It is true that, through mass media, people increasingly loose their power for decision-making. If they are not in the position to make decisions, however, such powers are nonfunctional, and naturally die out from functionalist's point of view. Such power can be even dysfunctional, because if people behave like publics even though they are not in the position to make decisions, the behavior leads to futile conflicts between the power elite and would-be publics. In short, if the mass society is inevitable from economic and politic reasons, manipulation of the mass is better for society than the futile conflicts. I think this is enough to explain the function of mass media.

2.3 Blau's exchange theoretical analysis

According to Blau, the basic unit of the social relationship are social associations, namely various forms of social units developed by individuals for the exchange of rewards (Farganis 1996, 303, 305). People form social associations because they have expectations that the rewards from the exchange will be greater than the cost of the exchange. Reciprocity, a situation where both of the parties obtain satisfactory rewards from the association, is a necessary condition for the formation and expansion of the association (Turner, 332). The expectations about the reciprocity and appropriate rewards soon become normative, and Blau calls them norms of fair exchange (332). There are four general classes of rewards, namely money, social approval, esteem or respect, and compliance (333-334). The fourth class of rewards is particularly interesting for the purposes of this paper, because in Blau's theory people have power when they can extract compliance in an exchange relationship (334). The differentiation of power occurs because of competitions among actors. In the situation in which many actors can offer the same resources, actors manipulate their presentation of self and rewards they offer, and try to force others to reciprocate with even more valuable rewards (333). Sometimes some actors just have more to offer than others. The differentiation of power causes two kinds of strains in the association. First, strains toward integration are people's tendencies to get approval as a reward by legitimizing power as authority and subordinating themselves to it. The other is strains toward opposition namely the factors which increase the intensity of people's opposition to the power, e.g. ideological codification of deprivations, the formation of group solidarity, and emergence of conflict as a way of life.

Macroscopic phenomena are also explained in terms of exchange. Mediating values are shared values which provide a common set of standards for conducting a complex chains of indirect exchanges. These mediating values grow into social norms. Institutions are historical products whose norms and underlying mediating values are handed down from one generation to another. As a result, an institution exerts a kind of external constraints on individuals and various collective units.

Let us look at the power elite from this Blau's point of view. Apparently members of the power elite and members of the mass society do not exchange directly, so we should assume some mediating values. The compliance of the mass to the power elite seems to show that the power elite offer something very valuable in the exchange. What the members of the power elite offer, then? Here we should recall the fact that the power of the power elite does not come from their personalities, but from their positions. So the compliance of the mass is to the positions as chief executives, as members of the political directorate, and as elite of the soldier-statesmen. People comply to whomever occupy these positions. It is not difficult to make sense of this kind of compliance by the strains toward integration. People get approval from fellows by accepting the authority of these positions. Therefore, even though the members of the power elite themselves offer nothing to the mass, by virtue of mediating values people's expectations are satisfied by approvals from other people.

However, this is not enough for the description of the situation, if Mills is right. Mills argues that the power elite acquire the power by manipulating the mass through mass media. Can Blau make sense of this? It depends on what kind of manipulation we are talking about. As we saw above, for Blau, impression management is a legitimate means for competition. For example, if the power elite minimizes the appearance of its power and maximizes the appearance of its contribution to the people through mass media, this is an impression management and a part of exchange. However, if the manipulation leaves people in a total ignorance about the power elite, then this is not an exchange at all. For it is obvious from Blau's definition of social associations that an exchange involves conscious participations of all parties. Thus, if the mass does not know that they are complying to someone, there cannot be an exchange between the power elite and the mass. Since Blau allows 'macroexchange,' i.e. exchange between organizations (Turner, 349), maybe consciousness of each individual in an organization is not necessary in the case of macroexchange. But I am not sure how an organization can have interests and expectations without the consciousness of members. So, for now, my conclusion is that, if the manipulation by mass media leave people in a total ignorance about the power elite, something more than (less than?) exchange is going on here. Maybe this means that the norms of fair exchange is violated by the manipulation, so we should fight against the power elite.

2.4 Comparisons of the three perspectives

There are several differences between the three analyses. First, they have different normative implications. Mills is obviously against the power elite (the very choice of this word and other words like 'manipulation' tells us about his position). From conflict theory's point of view, first thing we should do to change the situation is to become aware of the latent interests of the members of mass society, and form a conflict group. My Mertonian analysis may seem very conservative, but this is not necessary so. From radical point of view, Mertonian analysis tells us that just trying to abolish the power elite does not solve the problem at all. The power elite serves many functions, so we should find alternative ways of serving the needs. Or, for a more radical solution, we should change the needs themselves by changing economic and political structure. More detailed functional analysis will tell us exactly which part we should change. From Blau's point of view, the normative implication of the analysis depends on the understanding of manipulation. If the manipulation violates the norms of fair exchange, it is appropriate for the people to resist the rule of the power elite. It seems to me that the conflict theory and the exchange theory give us reasons to reform the system, and the functionalist analysis gives us the means of reformation. We need both of them, if we want to reform the society.

Are these analyses compatible with one another? As for conflict theory and functionalism, it seems to me that the difference is just a matter of emphasis, as Dahrendorf says (Dahrendorf 1959, 164). It may sound a little strange that the power elite which makes decision for its own sake also serve social functions, but here we can recycle the 'invisible hand explanation' in free-market economy. When each conflict group act for its own interest, if it does not support functions for the majority of the society at the same time, another conflict group which supports that function would take up the position of the former group in the long run. This can be interpreted also as a kind of macroexchange theory, namely, if several groups are functional to one another, we can say that these groups are exchanging rewards. This macroexchange theory does not appeal to conscious exchange between organizations, but appeals to the adjustment of exchange relationships by invisible hand. From this point of view, it is natural that such a persistent conflict group like the power elite also serves social functions.

Can we incorporate Blau's microexchange analysis into this 'invisible hand' scheme? I see no reason we cannot. A conflict group has an interest when the members of the group are aware of the interest. A structure serves a function when it meets some needs of people. When people are aware of a macroexchange between interest groups, the exchange can be translated into microexchange between people through mediating values. If people are not aware of the existence of a macroexchange, we should appeal to some kind of invisible hand. Maybe this latter case is also translatable into microscopic exchange, but I am not sure, as I said above.

This is just a sketch of a possible integration of the three approaches, but it seems to me promising enough as a program. 'Invisible hand explanation' and Blau's exchange theory play an important role in the integration. Especially in the latter point, I think my attempt of integration is in accord with Turner's analysis and evaluation of Blau's program (Turner, 347-351).


Dahrendorf, R. (1959), Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Farganis, J. ed. (1996), Readings in Social Theory second edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Merton, R.K. (1968), Social Theories and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

Mills, C. W. (1956), The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ritzer, G. (1996), Classical Sociological Theory Second Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Turner, J. (19??), The Structure of Sociological Theory. ??