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ENG.Elite Symbolic Superiority


									Elite Symbolic Superiority: Multidisciplinary Perspectives
Convenors: Jean-Pascal DALOZ (CNRS/MFO, Oxford & University of Oslo) and Muriel LE
ROUX (CNRS/MFO, Linacre College Oxford)
Chairs: Eric Godelier (Ecole Polytechnique, CRG, Paris) and Christophe Charle (University
of Paris 1/IHMC-CNRS-ENS)
Thursday 16th October 2008


This was the first in a series of seminars at the Maison Française to deal with the
interdisciplinary study of elites; their formation, perpetuation and representation.

Jean-Pascal Daloz opened up the morning session with some introductory remarks on the
study of elites across various disciplines (history, anthropology, sociology and political
science), and on the different questions posed by researchs on this question (the accumulation
of resources, recruitment, social reproduction and the place of elite in democracy). He traced
the evolution of the concept from its origins in the 17th century to the “classical elitism” of
Pareto, Mosca and Michels, as well discussing different contemporary schools of thought on
the nature of elites, from the homogenous « power elite » (C. Wright Mills) to the pluralist
model defended by Robert Dahl. He outlined the advantages and disadvantages of the
concept, suggesting that on one hand it often carries the negative connotations of elitism and
is moreover imprecise, but that on the other it is a useful concept in situations where the
concept of class would be inappropriate.

Linda Mitchell followed with a presentation dealing with the rhetorical power of castle
building in the British Isles in the Norman period. Focusing on the strategies of two
competing baronets of that period, William Le Marshall and Llewellyn, presented their castles
as texts that were to be read as symbols of their power, directed both at common people and
other members of the elite. They could be read as a source of protection, justice, and
prosperity or as a symbol of oppression and exclusion. Le Marshall’s castles for instance were
a tool of oppression over the local people, who did not live in the villages in which the castles
were situated – thus creating a barrier between the seat of authority and the people.
Llewellyn’s castle’s on the other hand, although sometimes based on reappropriated anglo-
norman constructions, took on more traditional forms. Although they were consequently
considered as archaic by historians, these structures were less exclusive and more protective
of the local inhabitants, thus encouraging a closer relationship with the rural area. Mitchell
thus looked at the way in which different castle designs had different discursive purposes and
aimed to convey different messages about the power and status of their owners.

The question of elite formation was then addressed by Christophe Charle, looking at 19th
century France, Britain and Germany. He argued that despite Arno Mayer’s claim that
European society was a persistent “Old Regime” at the end of the 19th century this was much
more the case for Britain and Germany than for France. In France, he argued, although the
military and the diplomatic sphere were the essential components of the aristocracy, the
bourgeoisie occupied most of the administrative positions and thus held much of the social
economic and political power in this period. He suggested that for the same period, the
parliamentary body in France was more democratic that in Germany, with a lower proportion
of the traditionally elitist groups such as army officers and civil servants. In France access to
these bodies was increasingly a result of education, although he reminded us that this was still
far from being democratic, despite the reforms of 1880. He described France as combining
meritocracy with aristocracy, something that was reversed only in the 5th republic under De

Anne Krogstad and Aagoth Storvik then presented work looking at the gendered
representations of the political elite in France and Norway. They aimed to address the
question of what power looks like in different cultural contexts through an analysis of media
representations of male and female politicians in these two countries. They suggested that
where Norwegian politicians were traditionally seen as demure, modest and connected to the
people, French politicians were seen as elegant, distinguished and seductive. However, this
has changed somewhat over the course of the last 20 years, following the opening up of the
political sphere to women, particularly in Norway. They reminded us that cultural repertories
are gendered as well as cultural. They suggest that more recently Norwegian female
politicians are breaking with the traditional image to portray themselves in a more seductive
fashion. This change that has occurred in the links between femininity and power in the two
countries is apparently for them linked to the rise of women in politics and representative of
an evolution in the political aesthetic of these countries.

Jean-Pascal Daloz then took the stage again to finish the morning with a paper on the
symbolic perspectives on the legitimation of political elites. He focused on the concepts of
proximity and eminence in the notion of representation, looking at different forms of these
two concepts and the way they work to the advantage of political elites. He discussed the
concrete aspects of the construction of eminence and the status elements that are important in
this construction in different contexts – for the masses, for other members of the elite, or for
other elites. He suggested that in reality the tension between proximity and eminence is
overcome by politicians who do both, but that the balance of the two relies on a reciprocal
understanding of the roles of both the representatives and the represented which is why
studies need to be both bottom up and top down. He then commented on his findings in the
cases of France, Nigeria and Scandinavia, concluding that cultural differences mean that elites
in different countries mobilise these two concepts to different extents because of their
differencing cultural significance and the way representation and democracy are perceived in
different countries.

Following a morning consecrated to the study of political elites, the focus of the afternoon’s
contributions shifted to the formation and representation of elites in the business world and in
different professional circles.

Eric Godelier discussed the constituent elements of the new myth of the global management
elite, the emergence of which is apparently linked to the globalisation of the economy. He
presented the state of the debate on this new globalised category. This new global elite is
perceived as threatening the status of national elites, particularly because it throws into
question the selection processes for the elite schools and the criteria used in the international
rankings of these schools (such as that of Shanghai). However, despite the support of
international networks of alumni, the existence of this global elite can be questioned, for Eric
Godelier underlines the ambiguous nature of human resources management in large groups,
and the difficulty in identifying common values within the management elite. Eric Godelier
presented an inventory of the “mythologies” surrounding the management elite, dealing with
the selection process (self-made men considered as outsiders by the school system), the social
organisation of management (favouring merit and audacity), the concept of innovation (the
isolated genius), and the role of the elite schools (at INSEAD for example a simple
‘maturation’ process is considered necessary between selection and employment). The
speaker concluded by identifying the myths that are maintained by the elites themselves,
particularly managerial rationalism, the resolution of complex problems through hierarchy,
the illusion of the selection of particularly capable individuals, and a Darwinist perspective
that contributes to domination by the elites.

Claire Zalc began by presenting the methodological problems linked to the relative meaning
of the concept of the elite, as applied to immigrant entrepreneurs in France, depending on
whether we consider these specific entrepreneurs in the world of economics or from within
the immigrant community. From an economic perspective, the status of the immigrant elite
has evolved, from the simple possibility of free enterprise at the beginning of the 20th century,
to activity controlled by the administration via various means, a situation which lasted from
the 1930s until the 1980s. Moreover, their status regarding naturalisation suffered over time;
despite initially benefiting from privileged access to citizenship, from the 1930s entrepreneurs
found themselves in a less favourable position than workers in this respect. The immigrant
entrepreneurs well and truly became outsiders in the sense of Howard Becker, within the
business world. However, they did have a higher status in the immigrant community, to the
extent that they had the privilege of being able to employ people close to them. Despite this,
few of them ever attained financial success, most remaining at a level inferior to that of the
symbolic superiority of their status as an employer. In spite of these gains, their careers tended
to be characterised by a high level of instability, owing more to necessity than choice,
especially in cases where the individuals concerned had not found work in the regular labour

Muriel Le Roux then analysed the processes of the formation of elites in the sphere of natural
chemistry in France, a sphere that is recognised for its technological innovation in the
development of medicine, including today’s most widely sold anti-cancer treatment. The
Institut de Chimie de Substances Naturelles, created in 1955 to compensate for the weakness
of French research in this area, has the twin particularities of combining two disciplines,
chemistry and biology, as well as associating French scientists from the CNRS with large
chemical and pharmaceutical companies in France and Switzerland. These partnerships give a
better visibility to the Institute within the scientific community, via the production of
scientific capital, in the bourdieusian sense, which facilitates the recognition of this elite in the
field of chemistry. However, the patenting process leads to a differentiated recognition,
involving two kinds of actors. Although it is the industrial actors who benefit in terms of
career advancement, it is the scientists who control the scientific and economic capital (they
retain scientific authority and royalties on patents) and who therefore maintain symbolic
superiority over their industrial collaborators.

Justine Rogers then concluded the afternoon in presenting the methodological problems
inherent in any form of participant observation, which were posed by her own integration into
her area of research – the lawyers of the Inns of Court. Observing the pupilage system at
work, she analysed a professional environment that is both physically and socially closed and
which has nonetheless been the object of several attempts, since the Thatcher government, to
increase efficiency and recruitment amongst less socially privileged classes. However, within
these circles, behaviour remains dictated by norms that ensure the reproduction of elites, both
via a selection of pupils according to their social background, their university of origin and by
a form of socialisation that makes them attentive to the image they give to their potential
employers, the members of the Courts of Justice. The reactions of lawyers and pupils, suggest
they are fearful of a research method that is perceived as a form of audit, which is translated
into a feeling of distrust. These socialisation practices allow future lawyers to construct their
professional image and to mask their insecurities related to the expectations of civil society
with regards to high status legal professions.

After a brief discussion session with members of the audience, Muriel Le Roux concluded the

Katharine Throssell
Isabelle Flour

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