The dominant feature of advanced industrial societies appears to be an
elitist distribution of power (that is, a small group of people who are very powerful).
Specialisation has given rise to a large number of elites in every walk of life - top
politicians, businessmen, and civil servants. The questions sociologists have tried to answer is whether
these elites form a ruling class governing in their own interests (the Marxist view). Or is it a large number
of elites like a market place competing against each other, so that no one single group has overall power
(the pluralist view)?
The case for the Marxist view:
On the face of it, we (i.e. the British) are a grossly unequal society, with the top ten per cent, for instance, owning 60
per cent of all personal wealth...Our top institutions are dominated by people from privileged social backgrounds,
educated in the main at public schools and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Only about
5 per cent of the population go to public schools, but 47 per cent of MP's did, over 60 per cent
of senior civil servants, over 80 per cent of judges and army officers, as well as 65 per cent of the chairmen
of major companies....
The mass media are controlled by fewer and fewer hands. One man, Murdoch, owns our Fleet Street (now Docklands)
newspapers, for instance. In their studies of television news, the Glasgow University Media Group
have argued that by careful selection it presents a pro-establishment point of view while appearing
to be neutral and objective. Strikes, for example, are given a bad image and controversial topics
The case for the pluralists:
But pluralist writers are not convinced by these arguments. This evidence might prove the existence
of a British establishment, but it fails they say to prove 'that it rules'.
A study by Christopher Hewitt of 24 major policy issues faced by successive British
governments over a 20-year period found that no one significant group managed to get its way on most
issues. Indeed on only one issue did parliament go against public opinion and that was when
it stopped capital punishment for murder.
In a detailed study of the influence of the Confederation of British Industry, the organisation which speaks for
most of the large British companies, Grant and Marsh, found that the CBI's ability to influence events
is limited by the government's need to retain the support of the electorate and by the
activities of other pressure groups.
The debate continues:
But the reply of many those who believe in the idea of a ruling class has been
to develop the idea of 'non-decision making', which is the ability of the powerful to ignore or suppress
all but the safest of issues, and to ensure that threats to their own most important interests (such
as redistribution of private property) are never seriously debated in parliament.
Adapted from New Society, Feb 1985
1. What does the term elite mean?
2. What is the dominant feature of industrial societies according to the extract?
3. What do sociologists mean by the term the ruling class?
4. Briefly summarise the Marxist viewpoint.
5. What evidence do pluralists put forward to refute this?
6. What does the non-decision-making approach argue?