An academic conference to study elites

“Elites” have been in the news lately and recently, Columbia University hosted a conference about elites. This is not as normal as one might think:

In the academic world, this was remarkable. As several of the scholars acknowledged, there has traditionally been some unease in talking about the elite, let alone researching them.

“When we study the poor, it’s relatively easy,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia and the author of “Gang Leader for a Day” (Penguin Press, 2008). “The poor don’t have the power to say no. Elites don’t grant us interviews. They don’t let us hang out at their country clubs.”

But Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia, said the increasing concentration of wealth, moving from the top 10 percent of Americans to the top 1 percent, has made this the right time to look more closely at the group. “We have to understand what’s going on at the top,” Mr. Warren said.

This is an interesting topic: so why don’t academics study elites more? A few reasons (from what I know about sociology):

1. As noted above, elites can be hard to access.

2. Sociologists have often focused on deviants and the poor are often considered more outside society’s norms.

3. Could it be that many sociologists, with higher levels of education and decent incomes, might themselves be part of or are closer to the elite? If so, then there might be less interest in studying themselves or drawing attention to the class they participate in.

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