About Critical Social Research (1990)



© Lee Harvey 1990, 2011, 2014, 2018, 2019

Page updated 31 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1990] 2011, Critical Social Research, available at, last updated 31 January, 2019, originally published in London by Unwin Hyman, all rights revert to author.


A novel of twists and surpises


Critical Social Research


2.4 C. Wright Mills: The Power Elite
2.4.1 Introduction: social criticism
2.4.2 Verification and validity
2.4.3 The question of power
2.4.4 Holistic approach: biography and history
2.4.5 The empirical data
2.4.6 Interpretation:public and mass
2.3.7 Conclusion  

2.4.1 Introduction: social criticism
C. Wright Mills was a professor of sociology at Columbia University until his death in 1962. Educated at the University of Texas he gained his doctorate at Wisconsin before his first teaching appointment at the University of Maryland in 1941. He moved to Columbia shortly afterwards and, for three years, was director of the Labour Research Division of the Bureau of Applied Social Research. He was a provocative and controversial social critic who did not flinch from addressing contemporary issues. He was disenchanted with American society and politics and berated his sociological colleagues for failing to undertake substantive research. He was the victim of extensive criticism from leading members of the academic establishment for his radical views, was vilified by political opponents, and was turned down by all but one granting organisation after the publication of The Power Elite.

Mills grounded his notion of a critical social science in the re-establishment of the sociological imagination. He argued that the sociological project should be the analysis of biography and history and the interaction of the two (Mills, [1959] 1973, p. 12). Sociological imagination, for Mills, meant an empirical historical analysis of the relationship between the 'personal troubles of milieux' and the public issues of social structure. So an historical perspective is essential, the social system must be analysed as a dynamic historical form. This in itself meant, for Mills, that the enquiry is of necessity critical. A critical historical perspective that grasps the relationship between biography and history involves grounding social structural views in empirical reality. To do this involves asking a myriad of interrelated questions, such as: What is the structure of the society as a whole? What is the interrelationship of its essential components? What are the mechanics by which it is changing? What varieties of people prevail in the society? How are the non-prevailing men and women repressed? How is any particular feature of the society affected by its historical period? What is its place in the wider context of the whole world?

Thus, for Mills, the 'classical' method requires the researcher to be a social scientist, not just a sociologist. Social criticism involves reflection, so the researcher should be both theorist and methodologist not just methodical technicians with an inadequate sociological appreciation


2.4.2 Verification and validity
A key concern for Mills was the nature of evidence. He was writing at a time when validation techniques were of a high order of priority among social scientists in the United States, especially amongst those engaged in microscopic quantitative research, the prevalent style of the time. Thus he explicitly addressed the issue.

How to verify statements, propositions, putative facts does not seem to the classic practitioner as difficult as it is often made out by microscopic workers. The classic practitioner verifies a statement by detailed exposition of whatever empirical materials are relevant (sometimes using the precision of statistical enquiry). For other problems and conceptions, our verification will be like that of the historian; it is the problem of evidence. (Mills, [1959] 1973, p. 140)

For Mills, classic sociology is about attempting to 'improve the chances that our guesses about important matters might be right.' The problem of evidence to some extent resolved itself for the social critic who has a sense of real problems as they arise out of history. In confronting important issues the social critic works carefully and as exactly as possible towards elaborating hypotheses, which are documented at key points by more detailed information. This is not rigid; it requires intellectual craft. Social scientists should be social critics rather than tied up with questions of validation. After all, the prevailing concern with verification procedures was simply a pragmatic interpretation of but one epistemological view of science. If such a view were to prevail absolutely then imaginative thinking would be impeded by a concern with 'proof'.

The social critic should analyse substantive issues and, no matter how intense the search for detail, the study should always be related critically to the social structure as a whole. For Mills this is achieved not through a single grand design for one large empirical study but through a 'continual shuttle between macroscopic conceptions and detailed expositions'. The procedure involves designing a series of smaller-scale empirical studies, each of which seems to be pivotal to some part or another of the solution that is being elaborated. That solution is confirmed, modified, or refuted according to the results of these empirical studies.

Mills, then, was less concerned with the details of empirical than with historical holistic analyses of substantive issues. However, he was rather more concerned with addressing the pragmatic manifestations of problems than in analysing abstract concepts; and this reflects a major epistemological difference from Marx's approach to critical social research.

Mills' intellectual development was rooted in pragmatism (he came across Marx much later in life (Horowitz, 1966, p. 13)) and he was less overtly concerned with the problem of the structural mediation of observation. Marx saw the concrete as theory laden and abstractions as reifications emptied of content that needed to be dialectically deconstructed. Such deconstruction would facilitate the revealing of ideological manifestations thus assisting the process of digging beneath the surface of appearances. Mills' focus on revealing the bare wires of the system was much more pragmatic in that it directed attention to questions of who does what and in whose interest, rather than attempting to analyse generalised structural issues. Mills was concerned with historical processes from a social perspective rather than structural issues as historically specific manifestations. This approach is evident in his analysis of power. He sees power as the crucial concern of social research, yet is not concerned to analyse it as an abstract concept but to investigate its manifestations. Ideology becomes the manipulative process, implemented through the mass media, which ensures voluntary obedience to the powerful.


2.4.3 The question of power
In The Power Elite, Mills (1956) brings together his earlier researches into the nature of power in the United States (Mills, 1948, 1951, 1953) and it serves as a useful classic example of the social critical approach. Mills was not happy with the trend in American sociology that manifested itself in theories that effectively sublimated the problem of power as of little consequence within 'Liberal Democracy'. In Character and Social Structure (Gerth & Mills, 1953) Mills had considered the implications of immense power concentrated in the hands of the few. He showed how people are socialised into a political society where important decisions are remote but tacitly accepted as inevitably remote. From his studies of the American Trade Union movement and white collar groups, Mills was convinced of the political impotence of both type of collective organisation. He thus looked amongst the upper reaches of American society and from this analysis, and in conjunction with his earlier studies, he produced The Power Elite (1956).

Like Marx, Mills style of exposition differs from his style of research. In The Power Elite Mills tends to assert his main points and then illustrate them with general, sometimes anecdotal, examples framed as though the content were self-evident. He follows this up with more detailed data. What he claims he is doing in working up the text is deliberating upon three kinds of 'conversations'. These were, first, with himself and imaginary persons. Such reflection is underpinned by a second conversation between influential thinkers whose ideas have filtered the mind of the author and of the readers. Third is the conversation readers have with themselves in which they relate what they read to their own experiences. The incorporation of the latter two conversations involves reasoning along with the reader and this involves more than merely setting forth views but also clarifying them.

Mills argues, from the outset, that in America in the mid 20th century important decisions of national importance are made by powerful people whom he calls the elite. This does not necessarily mean that the powerful are united, that they 'fully know what they do, or that they are consciously joined in conspiracy' (Mills, 1956, p. 18). Picking up the tentative ideas in Character and Social Structure Mills provides the following working definition of 'important and continuous' power.

By the powerful we mean, of course, those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it. No one, accordingly, can be truly powerful unless he[10] has access to the command of major institutions, for it is over these institutional means of power that the powerful are, in the first instance, powerful. Higher politicians and key officials of government command such institutional power; so do admirals and generals, and so do the major owners and executives of the larger corporations. (Mills, 1956, p. 9)

These three areas of power he calls the 'big three' and refers to those at the top of these hierarchies as 'the elite of the command posts'. The aim of his enquiry is to find out who this elite are, how they operate, whether they derive from a clear and distinct social class, and whether they are self-consciously members of an upper class, status group or elite.

Emphasising his pragmatic approach, Mills (1956, p. 9) notes of his subject group that all biographies and memoirs of the wealthy, powerful and eminent agree that those operating in 'higher circles' do so within 'overlapping crowds' and 'intricately connected cliques'. Thus, to examine the elite as a social class, Mills (1956, p. 15) argues it is necessary to examine a whole series of 'smaller face-to-face milieux', the most obvious of which, historically, has been the upper-class family; but the most important of which today are the 'proper secondary school and the metropolitan club'.


2.4.4 Holistic approach: biography and history
Mills' holistic approach is reflected in his view of the interrelationship of biography and history. In The Power Elite he argues that while the personal awareness of the powerful is useful material for understanding the 'higher circles' it is not satisfactory on its own. Nor is it satisfactory simply to consider historical events. Linking the two are the institutions of modern society, the state, economic corporations and the military, which constitute the means to power.

Mills then takes as generic the idea that the elite is defined by institutional position. This seems to Mills to have the practical advantage of being the most concrete way into the whole problem, not least because a good deal of information is available for sociological reflection about such circles and institutions. More importantly, the institutional or structural definition does not prejudge what is to be investigated. Further, the structural approach underpins the other elements. The institutional positions determine people's chances to get and to hold selected values, which in large part determines the kinds of psychological beings they become. All of this tends to influence the extent to which they see themselves as part of select social class. Prestige, status, wealth and power are interrelated and dependent upon access to major institutions independently of individual personality.

Within this holistic perspective he designs a series of related studies. He looks first at the elements that 'people know best: the new and the old upper classes of local society and the metropolitan 400' (Mills, 1956, p. 27). Then examines the nature of 'celebrity' and the 'national' system of prestige. Then the 'very rich' are examined in relation to corporate wealth. An historical analysis of the 'American statesman' is followed by an assessment of the 'invisible government' that operates at a higher level than visible democratic manoeuvring. The historical ascendency of the military is scrutinised and the powerful positions assumed by admirals and generals revealed. Coincident interests with the corporate rich and political directorate are pointed out.

In each case he attempts to identify the actors, examine their institutional affiliations, discover what they have, what they belong to, and what sort of personality types they appear to be. He uses empirical data to help in this endeavour but notes that:

We neither take the world for granted nor believe it to be a simple fact. Our business is with facts only in so far as we need them to upset or clinch our ideas. Facts and figures are only the beginning of the proper study. Our main interest is in making sense of the facts we know or can readily find out. We do not want merely to take an inventory, we want to discover meanings, for most of our important questions are questions of meaning (Mills, 1956, p. 364).


2.4.5 The empirical data
The empirical data Mills makes use of in the study derives from a multitude of sources. Prominent are his own researches, some of which had been previously published. He made considerable use throughout of newspaper and magazine articles in helping him identify powerful Americans and in assessing trends in the shift of power. Extensive literary reviews of scholarly work were undertaken, and official data was also consulted. Mills obtained a considerable insight and first hand empirical data from 'several individuals who know at first hand the Federal government, the military, or large corporations' (Mills, 1956, p. 364) who at their own request Mills was unable to acknowledge.

In analysing local society, for example, Mills draws mainly from his own observation and interviews in 'some dozen middle-sized cities' in the Northeast, the Midwest and the South. Some results of this work had already been published (Mills & Ulmer 1946; Mills 1946, 1951). Field notes made in 1945 during 'the course of an intensive study of a city of 60,000 in Illinois' were also used. In addition he used a memorandum (prepared by J. W. Harless) based on a literature search of sixteen local community studies (published between 1929 and 1950). The whole is augmented by literary works on local communities that, Mills claims, reached similar conclusions to sociological analyses. The problem, for him, in both is that there is a tendency to be concerned with status rather than power.

Material on metropolitan 'high society' came from a number of published sources, the primary one being The Social Register that since the 1890s had been published listing the top families (with considerable detail of education, etc.) in New York, Boston and Philadelphia and this was expanded to include nine other cities by 1910, with each supporting a regular annual volume from 1928. Similarly, the 'celebrated', epitomised by 'cafe society' Mills determined again through literature search, principally, listings in Fortune and by reference to, and further investigation upon, Igor Cassini's 'The New 400' in Esquire, June 1953.

The investigation of the rich, Mills acknowledges, is tricky because little by way of precise figures on great fortunes is available. On the nineteenth century he used a few relatively recently published works plus the methodical listings of Moses Yale Beach of the Sun Office in the 1840s and 1850s. Reviewing the dozen or so histories of great fortunes and the biographies of the wealthy, making careful use of data published in newspapers in 1924 and 1925 when a temporary law allowed the reporting of income tax payments, and using share ownership published in the Temporary National Economic Committee's (TNEC) monograph, No. 29, Mills devised a list of all those born since 1800 identified as having $30 million or more.[11] The research was as systematic as the scattered evidence would allow and it was checked as far as possible in the case of those now deceased by reference to probate of will. While the list may not be exhaustive, without doubt, Mills reckons that all 302 on it are among America's richest people. In the same way he assembled empirical evidence on the corporate rich and military personnel. [12]


2.4.6 Interpretation: public and mass
Mills then had to make sense of all this material. He could not have coped with all his data inductively. This, however, had never been his intention. His historical approach was guided by an holistic view that, as has been illustrated, generated a series of interrelated questions. The studies provided some evidence germane to these questions. At one level he was able to trace the institutional affiliations and cross linkages of the wealthy, the corporate executives, the military and the political leaders and thus indicate that power was rooted in corporate, military, and political hierarchies and no longer in local society, family, education or the church. Having provided evidence on these aspects, Mills returns to the 'master problem of the power elite' and its complement, mass society. The real substantive issue was whether these powerful people operated as an elite. Do the corporate chief executives, the members of the political directorate and the soldier-statesmen clustered around the Joint Chiefs of Staff come together to form the power elite of America?

While he shows that the unification of the elite can be seen in their coincident institutional affiliations, common schooling, socialising, intermarriage, and even similar personalities, he argues that there is a more explicit co-ordination. This is not to say that the power elite has emerged as a realization of a plan.

But it is to say that as the institutional mechanics of our time have opened up avenues to men pursuing their several interests, many of them have come to see that these several interests could be realized more easily if they worked together, in informal as well as more formal ways, and accordingly they have done so. (Mills, 1956, pp. 19–20)

This more explicit co-ordination can be seen superficially when it occurs rather openly at times of national crisis. However, there is a more subtle coincidence of interests that can only be seen to make sense when seen in relation to the notion of mass society.

Thus while the coincident data are promising, their meaning really only derives from an holistic perspective which sees the power elite in relation to mass society. If the elite is truly responsible to a community of publics it carries a very different meaning than if such a public is being transformed into a society of masses.

Mills undertakes an historical analysis, at a structural level, of the transformation of American society from something close to 'public' to something close to 'mass'. He uses four pragmatic criteria to distinguish public from mass. A public is characterised by numbers of opinion givers equalling receivers; communications allow effective and immediate feedback; direct and effective action based on opinion is possible; and authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public. The mass is the converse of this with authoritative institutions controlling opinion, communications and channels of action.

Mass democracy is manifested in the organised struggle of large-scale interest groups, which are located between the individual and the powerful decision-making elite. This gap, Mills shows, is getting wider and is epitomised in the steady growth of metropolitan society that segregates people into specialisms and destroys any sense of being an integral public. In this situation, mass media manipulation is sovereign. Mills thus proposes a 'manipulative model' of advanced societies.

Mills analysis is historically specific and he is not intending a general theory of history, viz. that all historical events are shaped by an omnipotent elite. Nor is his investigation directed at the process of decision making as such but is an attempt to delimit the social areas within which that process, whatever its character, goes on.


2.4.7 Conclusion
Mills is overtly critical of the American social system in his Power Elite but also raises epistemological questions that he elaborates in his subsequent critique of the sociological enterprise in Sociological Imagination. In The Power Elite Mills dug beneath the surface of apparent democracy to expose the real nature of power relations in America. His concern is not specifically with class relations, [13] and how they relate to a materially grounded structure of power, but with the nature of power itself and how it is exercised in the interests of the powerful. Mills takes the abstract concept of power and defines it as the exercise of the will of one person or group of persons over another or others. The exercise of power is essentially located within an institutional structure. His analysis thus moves from the abstract concept to historically specific concrete structural manifestations.

His deconstructive analysis is enabled by the holistic interaction of history and biography. Mills is circumspect in following through the political implications of his analysis and tends only to point to the anti-democratic nature of the exercise of power in the United States of America. There is no overt critique of ideology but an implied censure of the democratic sham. This is clearly evident in his analysis of public and mass, which hinges on the fundamental disjunction between the power elite and those in the middle layer of power. The latter are elected by the powerless and fragmented mass of the population and are tenuously accountable to them. However, this middle layer is powerless in the last resort and real power lies with the elite who has no public to whom they are accountable, only a mass whom it manipulates.

Mills' approach, guided by pragmatism, involves a less rigorous approach to critical deconstruction than Marx. It is an approach guided by holistic concerns but one in which elements of critical analysis (abstraction, essence, ideology and praxis) are held together in a loose confederation within an historical and structural critique rather than as a tightly interlocked analytic framework.




[10] Mills' references to social researchers and to members of the power elite in America are almost always to men. When directly quoting Mills, his own words are used without amendment despite their sexist implications. return

[11] The cut-off figure was guided by pragmatic concerns about available resources; it produced a list of 371 names. No biographical details could be found on 69 who were excluded. Mills reckons that these were transitory fortunes, mainly accumulated in the speculative 1920s.. return

[12] Mills' analysis of the chief executives and interconnected directorates was based on his own research, some of it previously published (Mills, 1945, 1948, 1951), supported by other published material including TNEC monographs, Taussig & Joslyn (1932) and Keller's (1954) analysis of Miller (1952). Similarly, information on the corporate rich came from official data from the Bureau of the Census and the Treasury Department along with Kuznes & Jenk's (1953) analysis of tax data, various newspaper articles, and TNEC monographs. The generals and admirals selected for detailed study in his analysis of the warlords were taken from official army, airforce and navy registers, augmented by Barbera's dissertation (1954), for wjich he provides no full reference, simply noting that he he 'wishes to thank Henry Barbera for use of material from his M.A. thesis at Columbia University, 1954' (Mills, 1956, p. 392, footnote 6). return

[13] This has resulted in various of critiques from Marxists (for example, Swingewood, 1975) who argue that Mills develops something close to a conspiracy theory of power and fails to engage in an adequate dialectical analysis. return



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