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Elitism is a belief or attitude that an elite— a selected group of persons whose personal abilities, specialized training or other attributes place them at the top of any field (see below)— are the people whose views on a matter are to be taken most seriously, or who are alone fit to govern. Thus elitism sees an elite as occupying a special position of authority or privilege in a group, set apart from the majority of people who do not match up with their abilities or attributes. Thus this selected elite is treated with favoritism. Members of an inherited elite are aristocrats.

For the converse of "elitism" see "populism".

Abilities or attributes that identify an elite vary. They include:

Commonly, large amount of personal wealth, often assessed as the reward of elite qualities by those who are impressed by it, are insufficient on their own, as every nouveau riche can attest.

Elitism takes many forms, some of which are positive and some negative.

Positive forms of elitism are formed in situations in which members of a community with special abilities or special qualifications are afforded greater respect in honour of their abilities or qualifications. Their position in the top of their field is used in order to benefit everybody.

Negative forms of elitism are formed when a group of people with high abilities or attributes conspire to give themselves extra privileges at the expense of all other people. This form of elitism may be described as discrimination.

At times elitism is closely related to social class and stratification. People with a higher social class are usually known as the "social elite".



The term "elitism" or the title "elitist" can be used resentfully by a person who is not a member of an elite, or is a member but resents their position or uses it in a condescending or cynical manner in order to ridicule or criticise practices which discriminate on the basis of ability or attributes. Elitism can be seen as encouraging the exclusion of large numbers of people from positions of privilege or power.

Elitism and education

Elitism in the context of education is the practice of concentrating attention on or allocating funding to the students who rank highest in a particular field of endeavour, the other students being deemed less worthy of attention.

Elitism in education could be based upon learning ability, knowledge, or other abilities.

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In sociology as in general usage, the elite (the "elect"; sometimes the French form "Úlite" is used) refers to a relatively small dominant group within a larger society, which enjoys privileged status and, almost invariantly, exploits individuals of lower social status. When applied to an individual, as in the phrase "many elites come to this restaurant," the usage quite economically both refers to an individual within that class and establishes the speaker as non-elite.

In religion the Latin form "elect" is preferred over the French form "Úlite" in discussing Cathar or Calvinist theology, for examples, and the social structure that is theologically driven. Other religious groups may use expressions like "the saints" to describe the elect.

Some elites speak a language that is not shared by the commonality: today in Finland the elite speaks an archaic dialect of Swedish, in Tsarist Russia the elite spoke French; in Plantagenet England the elite spoke Norman French; in Ptolemaic Egypt the elite spoke koine Greek. (See linguistic imperialism.) Elites establish correct usage for the language when they share one with the commonality. Elite usage is reflected in "prescriptive" dictionaries; common usage is reflected in "descriptive" dictionaries. Elites establish cultural canons, which are more widely agreed-upon within the elite and more generally ignored or resented among the non-elite. In the 1950s, the British elite spoke what linguists of the time called U English.

Elite advantages are the usual ones of a dominant social class: easier access to capital and political power, more rigorous education largely free of indoctrination, resulting in cultural influence, and leadership.

Elites may justify their existence based on claims of inherited position, among insecure elites sometimes given pseudoscientific justifications of genetic or racial superiority. American conservatives, usually of the elite, often claim that the American system is a meritocracy, its elite consisting of America's hardest-working and most talented individuals (who are, therefore, deserving of their privilege). While hard-working and talented individuals do enjoy an advantage in American society (as in all societies) this theory has been, for the most part, repeatedly debunked. Elites are both envied and resented.

Elites are educated to govern. Elite education is sceptical and inquiring, hard-headed, intolerant of sham, demanding and unsentimental. Common education is designed to produce large numbers of useful and loyal citizens at low cost. Publicly financed elite education is a symptom of a successful and confident society that is prepared for self-criticism.

Wealth is not a sure sign of elite status. Neither does an elite necessarily show a sense of public obligation.

Aristocracy and oligarchy are social systems which feature an elite. An elite group, ranged round the alpha male, is a distinct feature of other closely-related social primates.

In elite theory as developed by Marxist political scientists like Michael Parenti, all sufficiently large social groups will have some kind of elite group within them that actively participates in the group's political dynamics. When a group is arbitrarily excluded from the larger society, such as in the case of the racism that was widespread in the United States prior to the success of the civil rights movement, then elite members of the excluded group may form a counterelite to fight for their group's interests (although they may be fighting for those interests only to the extent they mesh with the counterelite's interests). Of course, the dominant elite can neutralize the counterelite through the classic divide-and-conquer strategy of admitting key members of the counterelite into the elite.

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04