Elites in an egalitarian society (completed)

The project's objective is to undertake an analysis of elite recruitment, elite reproduction and elite circulation in Norway

By focusing on the elites, the project provides further insight into social inequality in general, and knowledge about society's most privileged and powerful strata in particular.

About the project

The correlative image of society is also a society that is divided into and structured by divisions between hierarchically ordered positions, between which people are more or less mobile, and where the elites are the ones located at the top of the relevant hierarchies.

Across Europe, the trajectories that lead individuals to given elite positions, and the degree of intersectorial elite circulation, has proven to be subject to strong variation. Modes of capitalist organization, patterns of societal perceptions and of social mobility do the same. There are therefore good reasons to believe that Mattei Dogan (2003: 2) is correct when he argues that ”..elite configurations in large part [reflect] the social, economic, cultural and political structures of society itself.” However, whereas most European countries are perceived in clearly hierarchical terms by a large majority of their respective citizens, a majority of Norwegians do think of their society as one where social inequalities are relatively small. And when compared to other Scandinavians, Norwegians stand out as far more egalitarian in their societal perceptions. Such perceptions are at odds with the existence of distinct elite figurations, with elevated levels of intergenerational reproduction, elite homogamy and a high degree of positional circulation and multipositionality, and suggest that Norway is indeed a 'special case' when it comes to elite configurations. But if so, what exactly is the particularity of the case? Has it something to do with what the historian Francis Sejersted (1993) has coined the Norwegian “Sonderweg”, i.e. a compensatory state, extended corporatist pluralism and short distances between the various elite formations? And would it still not include the existence of long-lasting dynasties exerting various forms of power over the state?

Against this background, the purpose of this project is to extend our knowledge about the upper echelons of the social hierarchy in Norway with main emphasis on three key aspects:

  • elite recruitment
  • elite reproduction and
  • elite circulation


Firstly, what are the patterns of elite recruitment; does this level consist of separate elites or a common class? Do the different elite groupings vary with respect to degree of openness, i.e. what is the degree of elite mobility? In other words, to what extent does the probability of attaining elite positions depend on social origins, and more specifically, on elite origins? How important are economic, cultural and political resources for elite recruitment? Is there a development towards more openness or do we find trends pointing in the opposite direction? Where does Norway place itself when compared to other European countries on these dimensions?

Secondly, in what parts of the elites is the reproduction, i.e. the inter-generational elite circulation, at its strongest? How are these patterns related to patterns of intra-generational elite circulation? Where are the barriers towards intragenerational elite circulation, and what are the typical trajectories of circulation? Have these patterns changed over time, and if so, in what direction and for what positions? Has the elite-internal positional circulation increased or decreased from one generation to the next? Or from one birth-cohort to the next? Can clear tendencies towards elite homogamy be found, and if so: in what parts of the elites are these patterns at their strongest, and where are they at their weakest? Does Norway differ from other European countries on these issues; i.e. do the results support Sejersted’s Sonderweg-thesis?

Thirdly, and because of the centrality of the state and the state apparatus in a social democratic society like Norway, particular attention will be given to the recruitment to the top bureaucratic positions in the central public administration. These positions will therefore also be the object of an in-depth, comparative analysis. How are these elites selected in Norway, France and Britain? What are the principal recruitment mechanisms, and what are the formative, educational tracks leading to top civil service positions in each of the three countries? On what knowledge or competence bases are the top civil servants in each country defined? What are they supposed to be good at? And what are the mechanisms used to pick the suited candidates and ensure that the top civil service is “professional”?


The senior members of the research group are prof. Marianne Nordli Hansen, University of Oslo, assoc. professor Johs. Hjellbrekke, University of Bergen and prof. Olav Korsnes, University of Bergen. All three are specialists on social stratification, and have published extensively on elites, classes and social mobility in recent years.

The project is financed by the Norwegian Research Council and the project period is January 2009 - June 2012.


University of Bergen

Published Sep. 2, 2010 9:23 AM - Last modified Apr. 25, 2016 12:36 PM


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