There are a variety of ways of valorizing individuals and institutions in our society. We can value contribution and productivity; effectiveness; talent and merit; honesty and integrity; and “elite status”. Just watch the credits for Masterpiece Theater, including the promotions for a luxury cruise line and a luxury fashion house, and you will get a pretty good feel for the final category of value mentioned here, elite status. These promotions are clearly aimed at selling the product by selling the marks of elite standing with which they associate themselves. “If you too want to count yourselves among the elite, buy our clothes and travel on our cruise ships.”
Many individuals seem to be motivated by the desire to be perceived as being exceptional, high-status, and, well, elite. This has a connotation of wealth and power, but it also connotes other forms of access and privilege in society — able to gain the ear of elected officials, able to get a corner table at Elaine’s, able to gain membership in exclusive clubs and organizations. So what is “elite”?
To start, “elite” is a social characteristic of meaning attributed to individuals by other individuals. And pretty clearly, it is a socially engineered characteristic. It is the product of specific social actions and institutional arrangements. The fact of a group of families possessing concentrated wealth and power doesn’t automatically create an “elite” in society; rather, features of these individuals and families need to be marketed to the public in ways that lead others to recognize, admire, and respect them. Hierarchy needs to be cultivated.
But “elite” also applies to institutions and practices. Institutions can be perceived as being elite in and of themselves; and they can be perceived as the kinds of places where wannabes can gain the marks of the style and membership that will permit them too to be classified as “elite”. Private schools in New York and Philadelphia compete for both forms of elite status. The New York Yacht Club is elite; the Brooklyn Bowling League is non-elite. Princeton University is elite; LaGuardia Community College is non-elite. Medical school is elite; cosmetology school is non-elite. And, like the cruise line and the fashion house mentioned above, the elite status of the institutions is something that is deliberately cultivated and marketed. Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley are all very concerned about maintaining their elite status and reputation.
Status and privilege are social products; so it is an important task for sociology to decode their workings in contemporary society.
Pierre Bourdieu’s theorizing of various forms of social and cultural capital is directly relevant here. Bourdieu is particularly astute in tracing the markings and features of various kinds of privilege in French society, and the workings of the institutions that reproduce those features. Having elite status is a very tangible form of power and influence, independent from the personal qualities of talent, education, and experience that the individual may possess. Bourdieu traces how this mechanism works in France in The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. The markers of elite status — school, manners, dress, clubs, friendship circles — are forms of social capital that greatly contribute to the influence and power of the young people who are introduced into these practices. Here is a brief statement of Bourdieu’s approach:
One cannot get an accurate picture of the educational institution without completely transforming the image it manages to project of itself through the logic of its operation or, more precisely, through the symbolic violence it commits insofar as it is able to impose the misrecognition of its true logic upon all those who participate in it. Where we are used to seeing a rational educational enterprise, sanctioning the acquisition of multiple specialized competences through certificates of technical qualification, we must also read between the lines to see an authority of consecration that, through the reproduction of the technical competences required by the technical division of labor, plays an ever-increasing role in the reproduction of social competences, that is to say, legally recognized capacities for exercising power, which are absolutely essential if the social division of labor is to endure. (116)
Bourdieu uses the language of “consecration” — the quasi-religious anointment of young men and women into the ranks of the elite holders of power in twentieth-century France.
The processes of social separation that Bourdieu describes for France seem to have close counterparts in North America as well. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality and Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School offer sociological studies of how very different educational institutions work to create the distinction between elite and non-elite. Armstrong and Hamilton study a mid-rank Midwestern research university, and Khan studies the St. Paul’s School, an ultra-elite boarding school in New England. Armstrong and Hamilton’s central finding is that the institution they study embodies institutional arrangements and practices that “track” students into outcomes that are closely correlated with the socioeconomic status of their families. Students from affluent families have a high likelihood of attaining degrees and future opportunities that support their own affluent careers upon graduation, whereas students from mid- and low-socioeconomic status families are led into educational pathways that result in lower rates of completion, less marketable degrees, and less career success. Here is the diagram they provide describing the flow of their argument:
What they mean by “class projects” is a bundle of activities and educational goals that characterize different groups of students. They find three large class projects at work among the women students whom they study: reproduction via social closure; mobility; and reproduction via achievement (table I.1). And they find that the institutional arrangements of the university and the organizational imperatives that embody these arrangements work fairly well to convey different socioeconomic groups onto different outcomes. The pathways that correspond to these projects include the party pathway, the mobility pathway, and the professional pathway; and they find that the class resources and assumptions of the young women they study have a powerful impact on the choices they make across these various pathways.
Khan’s reading of St. Paul’s School emphasizes a different set of processes, at a more elevated level of the American upper crust. And he uncovers an important feature of the past fifty years: the elitist institutions have become simultaneously more diverse and more inegalitarian. It is what he calls a democratic conundrum:
All of this is to say that the ‘new’ inequality is the democratization of inequality. We might call it democratic inequality. The aristocratic marks of class, exclusion, and inheritance have been rejected; the democratic embrace of individuals having their own fair shake is nearly complete. (conclusion)
The fundamental impact of this institution, Khan believes, is to increase the concentration of wealth and power in America, even as a certain number of non-traditional candidates are incorporated.
And so my optimism is heavily tempered. If our economic trends continue, if the spoils produced by the many are increasingly claimed by the few, then the transformations among the elite may be durable. That is, we may have a diverse elite class. And this I imagine will no doubt be trotted out by the elite to suggest that ours is an open society where one can get a fair shake. But diversity does not mean mobility and it certainly does not mean equality. Ours is a more diverse elite within a more unequal world. The result of our democratic inequality is that the production of privilege will continue to reproduce inequality while implying that ours is a just world; the weapons of the weak are removed, and the blame for inequality is placed on the shoulders of those whom our democratic promise has failed. (Conclusion)
These are important features of the contemporary social world. But they raise an important parochial question as well: can public universities truly serve the democratizing role that is so deeply important in our highly unequal world today? Or is there a creeping elitism across many top public universities that undercuts the democratizing effects they ought to have for people on the bottom three or four quintiles of the population?