From Challengers to Elites: Exploring the Notion of Civil Society Elites

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    Civil society and elite research have largely been kept apart, yet there is increasing evidence that they could benefit from closer integration. On the one hand, civil society theorists have traditionally neglected the role of elites in civil society, as civil society has been identified with 'bottom up' processes and ideals of egalitarianism. Studies tend to stress civil society’s diversity with regards to the issues promoted, its limited internal coordination, and weak modes of recognised authority. On the other hand, elite studies have mainly analysed civil society (and their leaders) as lacking resources, authority, and the capacity associated with the notion of elite. This paper argues that there are good reasons for both strands of research to revise these theoretical assumptions and explore the notion of a “civil society elite”.
    Recent civil society research points to the growing concentration of power and resources into the hands of a few major civil society organisations that tend to dominate others. These organizations are recognised public brands, have privileged access to decision makers and can act as shapers of public opinion. With limited formal authority to decide overs, they nonetheless dominate by the means of setting norms, shaping agendas and governing debates, with regard to other civil society actors as well as beyond. Similarly, there is preliminary evidence from several national contexts of a high degree of prosopographical homogeneity among leaders of civil society organizations. Such concentration of resources has not remained unchallenged, as new mobilizations not only target political and business elites, but also civil society leaders for having traded their democratic function as watchdogs of state and market for prestige and status. Authoritarian populists, too, challenge the civil society establishment for not representing the true people. Even so, civil society elites as well as their challengers remain understudied.
    This paper seeks to explore this blind spot in current civil society theory and elite research, where existing theories are unable to grasp non-egalitarian processes taking place in civil society. Through a close reading of classic elite theorists (Robert Michels, C Wright Mills, and Pierre Bourdieu in particular), we offer a conceptual approximation of 'civil society elites', identifying 1) mechanisms leading to civil society elite status, 2) relations between elite groups, 3) counter concepts of non-elite groups, 4) elite positions, and 5) position taking.
    The paper offers a novel approach to key debates in civil society research concerning issues such as representation, recruitment, integration, and challengers. The notion of civil society elites also has relevance for debates on political elites as the current trend of authoritarian populism leads political leaders to imitate the role of the civil society leader, as the authentic, representative spokesperson for the people acting against a perceived establishment.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication date2021
    Publication statusPublished - 2021
    EventECPR Joint Sessions Virtual Event 2021 - , WWW
    Duration: 17 May 202128 May 2021


    ConferenceECPR Joint Sessions Virtual Event 2021
    Internet address


    • Civil society
    • Democracy
    • Elites
    • Political theory
    • Populism
    • Representation
    • NGOs
    • Power

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