AskDefine | Define elite

Dictionary Definition

elite adj : selected as the best; "an elect circle of artists"; "elite colleges" [syn: elect] n : a group or class of persons enjoying superior intellectual or social or economic status [syn: elite group]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings


  • IPA: /əˈliːt/ or /ɛˈliːt/
  • Rhymes: -iːt


Of high birth or social position


  1. A special group or social class of people which have a superior intellectual, social or economic status as, the elite of society.
  2. Someone who is among the best at certain task.
    • 1964, "France's Culture Corps," Time, 7 Aug.,
      Is there a nobler or more disinterested aim than to educate the cadres, the elites of tomorrow?

Related terms


group with higher status
person who is among the best at certain task

Extensive Definition

Elite (also spelled Élite) is taken originally from the Latin, eligere, "to elect". In sociology as in general usage, the élite is a relatively small dominant group within a large society, which enjoys a privileged status envied by individuals of lower social status.

Social elite

In society, the elite are a small collection of people, such as the upper class.

Religious elite

In religion the Latin form "elect" is preferred over the French form "elite" in discussing Cathar or Calvinist theology, for examples, and the social structure that is theologically driven. Other religious groups may use expressions like "the saints" to describe the elect.
Perhaps the most globally recognized of all religious elite reside in Rome: the Pope and the Vatican Assembly. While it is true that the Pope is elected by the college of Cardinals, the cardinals who vote for him are appointed by prior papal decrees. The Pope is himself chosen from among the college of Cardinals. Once elected, the Pope is in "office" for the remainder of his life.

Linguistic elite

Some elite groups speak a language that is not shared by the commonality: in Tsarist Russia and in Vietnam the elite spoke French, in the Philippines the elite spoke, and in many cases still speak, Spanish. In Plantagenet England the elite spoke Anglo-Norman, while Finland was ruled by a Swedish-speaking elite up to the beginning of the 20th century and in Ptolemaic Egypt the elite spoke Koine Greek. In ancient India Sanskrit was spoken by elite class. (See linguistic imperialism.) Elites establish correct usage for the language when they share one with the commonality. Elite usage is reflected in "prescriptive" dictionaries; common usage is reflected in "descriptive" dictionaries. Elites establish cultural canons, which are more widely agreed-upon within the elite and more generally ignored or resented among the non-elite. In the 1950s, the British elite spoke what linguists of the time called U English.

Business elite

Elite advantages are the usual ones of a dominant social class: easier access to capital and political power, more rigorous education largely free of indoctrination, resulting in cultural influence, and leadership.
Elites may justify their existence based on claims of inherited position; with the rise in authority of science, certain 19th and 20th century elites have embraced pseudoscientific justifications of genetic or racial superiority. In Nazi Germany, genetic superiority was used as the basis of an imagined "Aryan" elite. Elite classes headed by monarchies have traditionally employed religious sanctions for their position.
Meritocracy is a facet of society that tries to promote merit as a route to the elite. Societies such as that of the United States have it in their culture to promote such a facet [see Horatio Alger]. However, while it tends to be imperfect it sheds light as to what many believe to be the "ideal" elite: an elite that is porous and whose members have earned their position as society's top class.
Aristocracy and oligarchy are social systems which feature an elite as the ruling class. An elite group, ranged round the alpha male, is a distinct feature of other closely-related social primates.

Educational elite

Elites are educated to govern. While common public education is often designed to educate the general population to produce knowledgeable and skilled citizens, the elite approach to education is often presented at a more intellectual and demanding level, and is geared to produce leaders of a sort. It can be idealized as an education geared to producing an individual capable of thinking at an intellectual level more advanced than the general population, consisting of diverse philosophical ideals and theories in order to enable the elite to logically evaluate situations.
However in some systems, such as that of the Scholar-bureaucrats that administered China for 1300 years, elite education is used to select and skim off the most able students regardless of class or financial background. In order to pass these Imperial examinations, students had to be versed in the Confucian classics and neo-Confucian commentaries, creating a cohesive and socially homogeneous scholar-gentry. This co-opted into its service those who would have potentially been the most dangerous to the state and left would be malcontents either leaderless or those it did have uneducated. As an avenue to political power, the examination system became increasingly corrupted, with political connections and loyalty to the regime becoming as important as outright ability. The cultural legacy of this policy can still be found in the selection for the elite Chinese Universities to this day. Elite universities, through a process of indoctrination of a common heritage, ethos and promise of preferred advancement, create a loyal administrative/ruling elite for the service of the state. Such a system of selection for elite education can be seen even in the Western tradition, for example in Napoleon's Grandes écoles.

Financial elite

Financial elite refers to the wealthiest members of a society.


A military elite is a unit of soldiers or recruits picked for their competence and put in a special elite unit. Elite units enjoy some benefits as compared to other units, at least in the form of higher status, but often also higher pay and better equipment. Napoléon's Imperial Guard would be a good example. Note that the word elite in the military sense is fundamentally different from most other uses of the term. A social or societal elite has usually not been picked by anyone except themselves and do not necessarily make part of the elite due to their competence. Military elite units do not exercise any special leadership over other units. In the societal and social sense of the word, the elite of the army is the officer corps, not the elite units.

Elite military

In the military community, it is not considered good resource management to create elite units that are expected to do the same things as a regular military unit only better, as opposed to special forces that are expected to do other things than regular soldiers. Critics argue that it creates a negative "second class soldier" feeling among the regular units; for example the grenadier and light infantry companies of the 18th and 19th century British Army. Such companies had both a weakening and demoralising effect on the other soldiers of their parent battalions, especially when these companies were detached from a number of battalions and grouped together to form ad hoc grenadier and light infantry battalions. It is also argued that an especially competent soldier does more good as an NCO (non-commissioned officer) or as just the man who sets a good inspiring example for his comrades . Conversely, some theorists point out that a more powerful unit has a disciplinary effect on the general military core.
However, most nations will maintain elite military forces for the purposes of Power projection and for the purposes of expeditionary warfare. The limiting factor in such operations is usually the availability of airlift and sealift assets, rather than manpower, first to get forces in theatre and then to sustain these forces with stores and supplies e.g. Britain in the Falklands War. Such amphibious and airborne forces, usually operating with minimal armor, artillery and logistics support will normally face enemies with superior numbers, prepared positions and interior lines of communications. Under such circumstances the additional effort and cost needed for the selection, training, indoctrination and equipping of elite formations is not only worthwhile, but essential for success.
In the narrowest sense of the word, elite units refer only to units of soldiers picked from ordinary troops or recruits to form an elite unit. However, superior units can also be created by other means than picking the most promising soldiers and recruits from regular forces. Such forces can also be created by having a completely different, parallel recruitment process with higher standards than the normal troops. Sometimes a completely different recruitment pool is used such as recruiting internationally or recruiting from a people that is thought to have superiour soldier qualities. The French Foreign Legion recruits professionals internationally and British Gurkha troops are recruited from the Nepales -a people that impressed the British with their soldier qualities. In the very strictest sense of the word these are not elite units since the soldiers are not chosen from regular soldiers or recruits but they are usually called elite units nonetheless.
In Commonwealth Militaries, some regiments may be thought of as "elite" for a number of reasons; a particularly distinguished combat record (like the Rifles), great media exposure (the Highland Regiments and the Frontier Force in British India now Pakistan) or being an "old" regiment with a long history (and often thus greater support in Headquarters since these regiments have naturally a higher numbers of senior officers), examples would include the Coldstream Guards (UK), and the Punjab Regiment in India and Pakistan. While again not strictly speaking elites, they often become superior units, since due to their reputation they attract the best and brightest recruits and cadets (who in many armies have a choice of assignment)which results in a correspondingly better performance.
Historically at times of military and technological change it would have been impossible financially to re-equip the entire army with new weapons at the same time. To maximize the benefit of new weapons, elite units may be formed, who would be superior to the regular troops because of both the new weapons and additional training and expectations. For example, in the British Army the Rifle Regiments were armed with rifles when the rest of the army was equipped with muskets; before them the Fusiliers were the first to be armed with flintlocks when the line units had matchlocks. Armies going through change may need formations familiar with new concepts and doctrines to act in the familiarization and adversary training roles. Such units will naturally perform better than their students; e.g. historically the Panzerlehrdivision and currently the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Occasionally a military formation rises quite unplanned to become an especially competent military unit. While raised, organized, equipped and using the same operational procedures as its peers a confluence of events, personalities and circumstances create traditions, reputations and an esprit de corps that reinforce each other to lift such units above those peers. Such formations include the original 51st Highland division and the original Desert rats and the Pakistani 25th Cavalry.
Elites within an army can also arise unexpectedly, when only a few units and formations of a army are involved in combat operations while the rest of the army is on peacetime duties, the resulting combat skills make them stand out from their peers, examples would include the 25th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Div in Vietnam, and the Indian Northern Command and Pakistani Force Command Northern Areas in Kashmir.
In these two cases it can be argued that units with more modern weapons or units that just happen to be better than others are strictly speaking not elite units since they do not consist of individuals picked for especially high competence but are recruited just like other units. However, sometimes the words "elite unit" are somewhat sloppily used to simply imply "unit that is better than other".
US military use "elite" forces for covert missions which require better trained soldiers who are more disciplined and mentally and emotionally stronger.

Politically elite military

Historically many elite forces have been created and maintained as much for political reasons as for military ones. The leaders feel they need something more politically reliable than ordinary units and create elite units, hoping that the privileges, the extra political indoctrination that such elite forces are typically given and the pride in belonging to an elite will make them more loyal. The German Waffen-SS is an atypical example of such a force evolving as it did into a war fighting force.
Typically since the days before the Roman Praetorian Guards such forces have been used as a loyal and militarily competent counterweight to the nations' other military forces, to protect the incumbent leadership from coups and putches. For example Saddam Hussein had the Iraqi Republican Guard to keep the normal military in check and the Iraqi Special Republican Guard to keep an eye on the Republican Guard. In Moscow the old Soviet Union used a trinity of elite formations, each carefully balanced with strengths and weaknesses compared to the others, to keep each other in check and to prevent the others from seizing power, MVD Internal Troops (lightly equipped, but experienced from internal security missions, with a reputation of ruthlessness and brutality), KGB Kremlin Guard Force (well trained, led and disciplined but lacking in supporting arms), and elite Red Army Guards units (best equipped, but reliant on conscripts). Such arrangements, though not to the same paranoid extremes shown by the Soviets, are common in non democratic regimes, especially those where the leadership's rise to power relied on military force.
The following description of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or Pasdaran, can be seen as typical of the formation, evolution and continued raison d'Êtres of such organizations.
...From the beginning of the new Islamic regime, the Pasdaran functioned as a corps of the faithful. Its role in national security evolved from securing the regime and eliminating opposition forces to becoming a branch of the military establishment...[and its] independent military power acted as a check on any possible coup attempts by the armed forces....
....the Pasdaran, under the guidance of such clerics as Lahuti and Hashemi-Rafsanjani, was also "to act as the eyes and ears of the Islamic Revolution" and "as a special task force of the Imam Khomeini to crush any counterrevolutionary activities within the government or any political usurper against the Islamic Government." Over the years the IRP's leadership used the Pasdaran to eliminate opposition figures and to enhance its own position. Using the Pasdaran as a springboard to more important positions, Pasdaran leaders could always obtain access to the Revolutionary Council and Khomeini. For example, President Khamenehi and Majlis speaker Hashemi-Rafsanjani were both former commanders of the Pasdaran. Library of Congress Country Studies, Iran, Special and Irregular Armed Forces.
At times such forces become so powerful that they are completely beyond control of the government, or can even become kingmakers who control the head of state. The Praetorians infamously auctioned off the Empire to the highest bidder; the Streltsy first supported and then tried to depose Peter the Great, and the Janissaries repeatedly deposed and installed Ottoman sultans in the 18th Century.
In other instances, e.g. Iraq's Republican Guard, such forces have become little more than social clubs for the societal elites and those seeking advancement through the political system, capable only of bullying unarmed civilians and intimidating the regular military, often failing militarily when tested.

Elites in the military



In elite theory as developed by Marxist political scientists like Michael Parenti, all sufficiently large social groups will have some kind of elite group within them that actively participates in the group's political dynamics. When a group is arbitrarily excluded from the larger society, such as in the case of the racism that was widespread in the United States prior to the success of the American Civil Rights Movement, then elite members of the excluded group may form a counter-elite to fight for their group's interests (although they may be fighting for those interests only to the extent they mesh with the counter-elite's interests). Of course, the dominant elite can neutralize the counter-elite through the classic divide-and-conquer strategy of admitting key members of the counter-elite into the elite.
Elitism usually draws envy and resentment from the lower classes and the counter-elite. There are cases where elites arguably use this resentment of an elite to maintain their position. See Communism.


Further reading

  • Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges--And Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, Crown Publishers, 2006, ISBN 1400097967
  • R. S. Rose, The Unpast: Elite Violence and Social Control in Brazil, 1954-2000, Ohio University Press 2006, ISBN 0896802434

External links

elite in Czech: Elita
elite in Danish: Elite
elite in German: Elite
elite in Estonian: Eliit
elite in Spanish: Elite
elite in French: Élite
elite in Galician: Elite
elite in Hebrew: אליטה
elite in Lithuanian: Elitas
elite in Japanese: エリート
elite in Polish: Elita
elite in Portuguese: Elite (sociologia)
elite in Russian: Элита
elite in Slovak: Elita
elite in Finnish: Eliitti
elite in Swedish: Elit
elite in Ukrainian: Еліта

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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