Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2007

The Comparative Study of Elite Symbolic Superiority: Multidisciplinary Approaches

Lecturer: Professor Jean-Pascal Daloz,
CNRS, Bordeaux Institute for Political Studies &
Department of Political Science, University of Oslo,

Main disciplines: Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science

Dates: 23 - 27 July 2007
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants

The main goal of this course is to discuss theoretical traditions, concepts and methodological issues relevant to the comparative study of elites from a symbolic perspective. We will first of all deal with anthropological approaches on theatrical dimensions of power and prestige goods. Analytical models manifesting generalizing ambitions will be examined in relation to the variety of human behaviour reported by ethnographers on the matter.

We will then consider sociological theories related to elite distinction in (post-) modern societies. Again, the main goal here will be to discuss the merits and limits of available analytical grids for comparativists dealing with the realities of the present-day world or with historical enquiries.

Third, we shall consider the special case of political elites’ eminence, from a political science perspective. Clearly, in contemporary political systems, the issue of political actors’ symbolic superiority is raised in rather specific terms. This is especially obvious when the representative dimension of modern democracies is considered: i.e. taking into account the professional politicians’ relative dependence on voters.

Social scientists are increasingly recognizing cultural dimensions. This has important theoretical implications because empirical research paying attention to these dimensions reveals variations that are not easily encompassed within a single systematic vision. The course will aim at suggesting how considerable differences from one society to another challenge universalistic understanding.



Lecture 1: Elites and Symbolic Superiority: an Introduction

In this initial lecture, the elite studies tradition will be introduced. We shall see how current (value free) perspectives have moved away from classical elitism and why it matters to have a symbolic approach in addition to the usual ones (dealing with recruitment, circulation, networks, etc.). We shall also emphasize why multi-disciplinary and comparative approaches are important and how they contribute to theoretical and methodological developments.


Lecture 2: Anthropological Perspectives on Theatrical Dimensions of Power

Here we shall give an overview of major anthropological contributions potentially useful for the study of elites’ public display. The relevance of this kind of literature (ranging from hard structuralism to studies paying attention to the diversity of societies across the globe) will be discussed.


Lecture 3: Elites and Prestige goods: Insights from Anthropology

The ability to dispose of the most costly resources is an essential attribute of status in all stratified societies, and the display of the artefacts made from costly materials has been one of the most conspicuous ways of demonstrating eminence. Referring to the anthropological study of prestige goods systems in ‘traditional’ settings, this lecture will emphasize both similarities and variations in the way in which the display of possessions takes place.


Lecture 4: Classical Approaches to Social Distinction: Limits and Merits

Explicitly or implicitly, several of the founders of the sociological discipline have addressed the issue of social distinction. Needless to say, their arguments have been rooted in dissimilar social theories and have arisen in the context of various research objects. They nonetheless converge around one common topic, namely: the necessity for the dominant groups to display external or internalised signs of superiority that signal their upper social position and differentiate themselves. This lecture will introduce major concepts and tools of analysis available in this literature such as: emulation, style of life, social closure, conspicuous consumption, leisure class perspectives.


Lecture 5: A Critical Look at Major Subsequent Contributions in Sociology

This lecture will offer views on more recent contributions (Functionalist school, Elias, Goffman, Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Analysts of Post-Modernity). Again, this will give the opportunity to introduce some useful concepts such as status symbols, presentation of self, impression management, symbolic capital, mixing of codes, symbolic consistency, etc. The various theories will be considered in relation to the authors’ respective theoretical framework as well as in contrast to competing schools of thought.


Lecture 6: The Sociological Models Confronted with Comparative Research

Most authors dealing with elite distinction have all too often been more interested in finding confirmation for their respective grand theories than in considering the various realities of distinction comparatively. Whenever they have brought empirical evidence to support their position, the main shortcomings have been generalisation and extrapolation. However, it will be shown that the classics’ works as well as later contributions are full of valuable insights, provided one leaves their universalistic theses aside and considers that there is often a partial truth in their respective contributions.


Lecture 7: Political Elites in Representative Democracies: ostentation, modesty and legitimacy

The question of the legitimacy of political power cannot simply be reduced to that of social legitimacy. We are confronted here with the degree of differentiation between the political and social spheres and the extent of the institutionalization of specialized political roles. When one considers the electoral dimension of our contemporary democracies, the question of the elites’ possible ostentation is raised in rather specific terms because relations between politicians and citizens are of a somewhat unprecedented nature. The purpose of this lecture will be to provide an analytical framework for the study of political elites in this perspective.


Lecture 8: Ostentation as a Political Resource: The case of Nigeria

Comparative research reveals how political elite representation (understood as combining cultural perceptions, embodiment and presentation of self) is experienced rather differently from one context to another. The remaining lectures will examine three case studies. In this first one, Nigeria, representative legitimacy is rooted in the display of external signs of power, of which conspicuous flamboyance is key since it is the material proof of the ability to nourish clientelistic networks. So long as clients are placated, the show of wealth is a political virtue, casting as it does a flattering image on the community or faction being ‘represented’. Empirical evidence and interpretations will be given.


Lecture 9: Conspicuous Modesty: Political Elites in the Nordic countries

The situation in Scandinavia, and to a lesser extent Finland, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. There, politicians cultivate an image of modesty which is hardly found in the rest of the world. The effects of Jante lagen (meaning the informal rule that discourages feelings of superiority) can be felt amongst all members of the elite, but they are even more powerful when it comes to politicians who cannot be seen to ignore its application. In this lecture, Nordic singularity will be emphasized in contrast to other settings and interpretations will be proposed.


Lecture 10: Between Majesty and Proximity: On French Political Elites

In contrast to cases where eminence or similitude best serve political representation, there are cultural milieus where the behaviour of political actors is more ambiguous. This is plainly the case in France, where political elites must play on two distinct, and not easily compatible, registers by constantly proving and transcending proximity. In that country, we witness a tension that was never resolved between unpretentiousness – a legacy of the Republican ideals of the French revolution – and the pursuit of distinction – a lasting influence of the Versailles tradition. The lecture will focus on description and interpretations.


The Lecturer
Jean-Pascal DALOZ (Senior CNRS Research Fellow) is Head of the Comparative Politics and European Studies Unit (SPIRIT) at the Bordeaux Institute for Political Studies. He is also Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Oslo, Executive Secretary of the ISA Research Committee for Comparative Sociology and of the IPSA Research Committee on Political Elites. He has a substantial research and publications record in both Comparative Politics and Comparative Sociology (11 books and monographs). He has expertise on African and European countries, and to a lesser extent the Far East. His current research focuses on the sociology of distinction and on political elites’ ostentation and modesty.