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Elitism is the belief or attitude that individuals who form an elite—a select group of people with a certain ancestry, intrinsic quality or worth, high intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes—are those whose influence or authority is greater than that of others; whose views on a matter are to be taken more seriously or carry more weight; whose views or actions are more likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities, or wisdom render them especially fit to govern. In America, the term "elitism" often refers to the concentration of power on the Northeast Corridor and West Coast, where the typical American elite - a gaggle of lawyers, doctors, high-level civil servants (such as White House aides), businesspeople, university lecturers, entrepreneurs and financial advisors in the quarternary sector - reside, often in the university towns they graduated from.
Alternatively, the term elitism may be used to describe a situation in which power is concentrated in the hands of a limited number of people. Oppositions of elitism include anti-elitism, egalitarianism, populism and political theory of pluralism. Elite theory is the sociological or political science analysis of elite influence in society: elite theorists regard pluralism as a utopian ideal.
'Elitism' also refers to situations in which an individual assumes special 'privileges' and responsibilities in the hope that this arrangement will benefit humanity or themselves. Elitism is closely related to social class and what sociologists call social stratification. Members of the upper classes are sometimes known as the social elite. The term elitism is also sometimes used to denote situations in which a group of people claiming to possess high abilities or simply an in-group or cadre grant themselves extra privileges at the expense of others. This form of elitism may be described as discrimination.
Attributes that identify an elite vary; personal achievement may not be essential. Elitist status can be based on personal achievement, such as degrees from top-rate universities or impressive internships and job offers, it can (in archaic societies) be based on lineage or passed-on fame from parents or grandparents. As a term "Elite" usually describes a person or group of people who are members of the uppermost class of society, and wealth can contribute to that class determination. Personal attributes commonly purported by elitist theorists to be characteristic of the elite include: rigorous study of, or great accomplishment within, a particular field; a long track record of competence in a demanding field; an extensive history of dedication and effort in service to a specific discipline (e.g., medicine or law) or a high degree of accomplishment, training or wisdom within a given field. Elitists tend to favor social systems such as meritocracy, technocracy and plutocracy as opposed to radical democracy, political egalitarianism and populism. Elitists also believe only a few "shakers and movers" truly change society rather than society being changed by the majority of people who only vote and elect the elites into power. To elitists, the public is abjectly powerless and can be manipulated only by the top group of elites.
Some synonyms for "elite" might be "upper-class" or "aristocratic", indicating that the individual in question has a relatively large degree of control over a society's means of production. This includes those who gain this position due to socioeconomic means and not personal achievement. However, these terms are misleading when discussing elitism as a political theory, because they are often associated with negative "class" connotations and fail to appreciate a more unbiased exploration of the philosophy.
Elitism in the context of education is the practice of concentrating attention on or allocating funding to the best students, or those students who rank highest in a particular field of endeavour. For example, a politician who promotes advanced classes for students deemed to be highly intelligent might be accused of elitism, even if this were argued to promote an egalitarian goal, such as curing disease. Elitism in education could be based on conventional assessment of learning ability, knowledge, or other abilities. However, an "elite" school can also mean a school for the wealthy or hard to enter.
The term elitism and the pejorative title elitist are sometimes used by people who aren't (or, who claim not to be) members of elite organizations. In politics, such terms are often used to disparage a politician's views as out of touch with the interests of the "average Joe". The implication is that the alleged elitist person or group thinks they are better than everyone else, and put themselves before others as a result. Its definition is therefore similar to that of the word "snob". An elitist is not always seen as truly elite, but only privileged. The definition may have different appreciations depending on the political contexts. Since elitism may be viewed as something necessary for creating patterns of good intellectual or professional performance, it can be used also for maintaining conditions of lack of competition and privilege. Notably, elitism may often be confused or mistakenly conflated with meritocracy, either intentionally as an aspect of political rhetoric, or due to a popular misunderstanding of meritocratic systems as elitist.
Elitism endorses the exclusion of large numbers of people from positions of privilege or power. Thus, many populists seek the (perceived, if not present in practice) social equality of egalitarianism, populism, socialism, or communism. They may also support affirmative action, social security, luxury taxes, and highly progressive taxes for the wealthiest members of society. All of these measures seek to reduce the difference of power between the elite and the ordinary. However, these measures to reduce difference could be seen as anti-meritocratic in that they avoid rewarding or promoting those who are the most competitive or provide the most effort in their endeavors.
In contrast, it is also worth noting that the argument for meritocracy is not without its own problems, not to mention the fact that "elitism" and "meritocracy" are not equivalent in meaning. Professor Kenneth Paul Tan at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy asserts that "Meritocracy, in trying to 'isolate' merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination."
To restate this in a slightly different light, it may also be worth considering that just highlighting the competitiveness and the efforts of a single individual obscures the social networks upon which those individuals depend for their success. Thus, prior to any competitiveness or effort by an individual, their success is always predicated upon the existence of vast networks of social relations, and hence never exists in a mere vacuum or in mere dependence upon individual activity. From this perspective, it should be understood that an individual's capacity to be maximally competitive and maximally rewarded for their efforts depends not merely upon the meritoriousness of their activities, but also upon the happenstance of their social position, as well as the competitiveness and efforts of many other individuals working in common. Thus, their success depends to a large extent on the activities of other people.
Thus, egalitarians draw three conclusions from these perspectives: 1) the argument that the differences between individuals are based solely on the meritoriousness of the activities of those individuals fails to recognize the uneven distribution of advantages and disadvantages in society that allow some individuals greater opportunity than others, 2) the argument for a just and impartial meritocracy depends, at the very least, upon the pre-existence of some form of equality of opportunity, and 3) individual success is always predicated upon collective success; hence, individual success is not merely the product of individual activity, but is also simultaneously the product of collective activity—individual success is thus a manifestation of collective success.
Based on these conclusions, egalitarians argue that any claim that an individual has to a success is only ever partial and that some of the rewards of their success therefore belong not merely to them but also to everyone else as well.
While familial elitism might be undemocratic, such as power passed on down through the line of a successful family, until the original blood is heavily watered down but the individual still holds the same concentration of power, many elites argue that personal elitism, based on achievement and independence, is the epitome of democracy. When the judging system is fair and unbiased (such as no friends or relatives of competitors being allowed to sit on panels), elite schools and universities level the playing field, making it equally as hard for the rich child of an Ivy League professor to get into, say, Juilliard School of Music, as it is for a poor child from a public school.
Failure to recognize the interdependence of human activity allows one to falsely attribute individual success to the mere activities of that individual. This position further leads to the consequent belief that all of the fruit of that activity belongs solely to that individual and that all outside claims on that fruit are therefore erroneous.
The question then becomes how to fairly reward individuals who are the most competitive and who provide the most effort in their endeavors, while simultaneously recognizing that any individual’s success is always built upon and is also mutually dependent on the success of everyone else’s activities.
- elitism: Definition and Much More from Answers.com
- "Elite (elitist) theory". auburn.edu. Auburn University. Retrieved 13 August 2014.
- Tan, Kenneth Paul (January 2008). "Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore". International Political Science Review. 29 (7-27). doi:10.1177/0192512107083445.
- Deresiewicz, William (June 2008). The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. "Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers." The American Scholar. Review of William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (April 2015), Foreign Affairs
- The dictionary definition of elitism at Wiktionary