The term “elite” was introduced in the seventeenth century to describe commodities of an exceptional standard and the usage was later extended to designate social groups at the apex of societies. The study of these groups was established as part of the social sciences in the late nineteenth century, mainly as a result of the work of three sociologists: Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Roberto Michels. The core of their doctrine is that at the top of every society lies, inevitably, a small minority which holds power, controls the key resources and makes the major decisions. Since then, the concept of elite(s) has been used in several disciplines such as anthropology, history or political science, but not necessarily in reference to this “classical elite theory.” The concept is strongly rejected, however, by many “progressive” scholars—precisely because of its elitist denotation.
This article is an extension of my book on The Sociology of Elite Distinction. In this work, I sought to offer a discussion on the merits and limits of the major models of interpretation dealing with social distinction when confronted with empirical realities in a large number of environments. Here, I propose some reflections about the way historians have been using these sociological models. Although universalistic propositions were often developed, I argue that most grand theories were typical products of their time and also of the societies respectively taken into consideration. The question therefore arises as to what extent their (retrospective) use by historians seeking a conceptual apparatus is always pertinent. It is concluded that many theoretical models are valuable providing we do not see them as “reading grids” that could be systematically applied but rather as analytical tools which are more or less operational according to the contexts studied.