Changing elites: how social and institutional change has altered the processes of elite formation over time?

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Funded by: European Research Council - Starting Grant

End date: August 2025

Project outline

Elites today are not like elites of the past; but how have they changed and why?

It has been difficult to answer these questions because of limited longitudinal data on elites.

CHANGINGELITES will address these questions by creating an unprecedented catalogue of the elite that is without equal in its empirical and temporal scope.

This data set will combine information on education (both schools and universities), membership of private clubs, parental wealth, economic capital, and family structure over the last 200 years.

Alongside this vast quantitative exercise, we will also conduct 100 interviews with elites from different birth cohorts that will illuminate the variety of elite trajectories that underpin this massive historical database.

With this new data set, CHANGINGELITES will explore who elites are, investigating the rise of female elites, the degree of cultural cohesion among the elite factions, and the overlap between economic and social elites over time.

But, this project seeks to go beyond description by exploring how key institutional or policy changes have affected the shape and structure of the elite.

Here, I will examine how policy change (such as changing entrance exams to elite universities or increasing top tax rates) may constrain and enable processes of elite reproduction through these institutions. This study is ambitious and interdisciplinary and will radically alter our understanding of elite (re)production.

Elites reveal the nature of inequality, allowing us to see the underlying structure of society. But, elites are also the engines of inequality, with the power to remake society according to their interests. Only when communities understand who elites are and how they have acquired their influence can they deliberate about whether elites reflect the kind of society they want. This project seeks to make that conversation possible.