Power elite(s) in question: Sociological imagination, methods, and the study of those who run the country

Power elite(s) in question: Sociological imagination, methods, and the study of those who run the country

Troels Krarup

The academic study of the national power elite has only relatively recently grown to become a research discipline in itself in Denmark. To be sure, political science has studied political power and the state apparatus since its first institutionalization as a scholarly discipline at Aarhus University in 1959. Similarly, the two Sociology programmes, at the University of Copenhagen, were heavily influenced by Marxist currents of thought up till the late 1980s. However, the study of the Power Elite in C. Wright Mill’s sense – not just powerful institutions but the structural configuration of the specific men and women that run the country – was not firmly rooted as a research topic in either discipline.

This changed dramatically when the Danish Parliament decided to commission a large-scale review of power in Denmark, Magtudredningen. Interestingly, it was the political elite itself that turned the tide. Professor Lise Taageby from the Department of Political Science in Aarhus became the project manager. While researchers from other disciplines and institutions also took part in the project, scholars from political science at Aarhus University made up the bulk of the team involved. The result was seemingly impressive. The main report alone (from 2003) is more than 400 pages long (Togeby & et al., 2003). In the early 2000s, at least 60 books were published in Danish on various aspects of power in Danish society, not to mention working papers, international research articles and other publications. When I myself began my studies in political science at Aarhus University in 2004, the academic and institutional pride and prestige was very tangible.

Yet, Magtudredningen was also strongly critiqued, both in the public debate and by sociologists. The problem was that it largely asserted that concentration of power was not a significant issue for Danish society, as social inequality was declining in general, as was access to powerful decision-making positions for women and people from different social backgrounds. The perspective on power that permeated Magtudredningen was whether or not power constituted a conceivable threat to parliamentary democracy as defined in the tradition of political science. The predominant approach was the (usually statistical) ‘testing’ of critical hypotheses about whether democratic decision-making power was being challenged through the way power was structurally and institutionally distributed in Danish society. Often, the researchers behind the various studies concluded that when such inequalities were found they could either be (a) ‘explained’ by the need for technical expertise, efficient decision-making, etc, or (b) relativised in light of the historically decreasing or at least changing structure of those inequalities (e.g., between the sexes, or between different professions in the state apparatus).

To those critical of Magtudredningen, the project was seen as excusing and legitimising existing inequalities in the distribution of power in Danish society. An editor at a major Danish newspaper called it a ‘scandal’ (Jespersen, 2004). Professor Heine Andersen from the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen called it ‘a belly flop in a cheese dish dome’ (a combination of two Danish expressions: a belly flop being a failed attempt and a cheese dish dome being a small isolated cosmos, i.e. Danish political science) (Andersen, 2005). Indeed, the researchers seemed to completely lack the critical edge necessary to study ‘power’ in the first place. Interestingly, to the knowledge of this author, there have been no serious reservations about whether the researchers were autonomous enough from the state, which itself commissioned the review, for the research to be valid. The ‘apologetic’ bias critique made of Magtudredningen was academic, not political, I argue here.

In 2008, I switched to studying Sociology at the University of Copenhagen. By this time, the trauma of Magtudredningen was no less tangible than the pride and prestige felt at Aarhus University after its initial publication. Two Masters students at the time, Christoph Ellersgaard and Anton Grau Larsen, decided to tackle this question again, taking a different approach. They each wrote their Masters thesis on the Danish economic elite (see Ellersgaard, Larsen, & Munk, 2012). Drawing on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (entirely absent from Magtudredningen), Ellersgaard and Larsen argued that ‘power’ by definition creates its own legitimacy in society by making itself indispensable. To Bourdieu, power is by definition a structural concept. If, as a simple thought experiment, power is removed, social order would most likely collapse. The power of the state imposes civil order, the power of large enterprises and unions are the sine qua non of production and hence of wealth and prosperity in a society. The educational system safeguards our knowledge and culture by reproducing it across generations. In a nutshell, I argue, power necessitates itself. Thus, the naïve thought experiments of Magtudredningen were bound to end up as an apology for power: surely, we all prefer order to chaos!

To study power in a serious manner, according to Ellersgaard and Larsen – and many other sociologists, including for instance Mike Savage and colleagues in the UK – we must proceed in ways that suspend – at least for the purpose of analysis – the question as to whether power is legitimate or not? Instead, sociology should focus on describing and analyzing the way power operates. Thus, Ellergaard ‘s and Larsen’s first strategy was to point to the ‘faces’ of power – the actual men and women in powerful positions in Denmark. Gathering the CVs of the CEOs from the 100 largest Danish companies, they were able to draw the structural landscape of economic power. Soon after, in their PhDs, they scoured internet and analogue sources for information on more than 60,000 directorships across public, private and civil boards in Denmark occupied by more than 37,000 persons. Using network analysis, they isolated 423 named persons at the core of this vast network, which, they argued, constituted the Danish power elite. These 423 persons are closely interconnected via their board positions where they partake in decision-making processes of all kinds. Because these persons are all identified, it was possible to analyze not only the structures of power (statistically), but also how each individual member of the power elite behaved and influenced specific cases of decision-making (qualitatively).

Ellersgaard’s and Larsen’s PhD research was published in academic journals as well as a more widely accessible book Magteliten (Larsen, Ellersgaard, & Bernsen, 2015). It sold astonishingly well – I once came across a whole pile of them in front of a bookshop in an airport side-by-side with crime novels and management books. Ellersgaard and Larsen also founded the Association for Power Elite Studies (FEM), made available all their gathered data on the association’s website and have helped a number of BA and MA students exploit the data for their theses. I have supervised two such projects myself, which are indeed unique enquiries into almost entirely un-researched questions: the history and structural power of the financial sector CEOs, and the engagement in public debate by members of the power elite. More recently, Ellersgaard and Larsen have had their own programme on national radio (Radio 24/7) where they interview members of the power elite about their positions in Danish society. Far from traditional celebrity portraits, these interviews have at least occasionally turned into lively debates about how to conceptualize and study power in the first place.

My own contribution to this literature focuses on the study of the bureaucratic elite in Denmark (Krarup, 2012). Having identified and gathered CV data on the top 122 civil servants in Danish state ministries and directorates, I identified two dimensions of variation within this part of the power elite: 1) between ‘modern’ careers characterized by swift advancements and trans-institutional shifts, with ‘traditional’ ones that demonstrated slower career progressions within a single organization; 2) between positions ’ internal’ and ‘external’ to the field of bureaucracy. I then formulated four ‘ideal types’ to illustrate the landscape of bureaucratic power in Denmark: the classical bureaucrat, the modern manager, the specialist, and the political advisor. Certainly, a strong process of social reproduction of the elite is clearly visible (children of members of the elite are overrepresented among the bureaucratic elite), while at the same time there is a certain ‘democratization’ taking place in so far as more women and those with different educational backgrounds are beginning to populate the bureaucratic elite today, more so than just a few decades ago.

But my analysis also went beyond such schematic questions. Putting the four ideal types into historical perspective it was clear that traditional forms of bureaucratic professionalism (legal and technical expertise, bureaucratic autonomy) have come under pressure from political and economic forms of expertise. This confirms the general impression that many observers of Danish politics have made that (a) the Ministry of Finance with its advanced economic models has risen to hitherto unseen prominence in Parliamentary decision-making processes and (b) the bureaucratic institutions have increasingly become politicized organs serving the government of the day. For example, the Danish Public Administration Act is, since its recent revision in 2013, publicly known as the ‘blackout law’, does indeed set limits to public and even parliamentary oversight into executive administration, if we compare it to legislation of this nature in the UK and US.

Studying ‘power’ and the ‘power elite’ is no simple ambition. Indeed, there is still, today, no consensus in the discipline of Sociology – let alone between Sociology and Political Science – about how exactly to go about it. Debates go as deep as to question whether ‘power’ is even a conducive concept for producing insights about the decision making structures of the modern Western Polis. Power certainly remains an important topic of sociological and public debate in Denmark despite certain trends of seeming democratization. In the spirit of C. Wright Mills, the task of Sociology is to enable the broader public to see power in society more clearly so that the debate about its legitimacy will not be one that is held by political scientists and sociologists alone, but a vital public and democratic debate.

Andersen, H. (2005). Den danske magtudredning: Maveplasker i en osteklokke. Dansk Sociologi, 15(1), 115–123.
Ellersgaard, C. H., Larsen, A. G., & Munk, M. D. (2012). A Very Economic Elite: The Case of the Danish Top CEOs. Sociology, 47(6), 1051–1070.
Jespersen, P. M. (2004, March 13). Den store skuffelse. Politiken. Retrieved from https://politiken.dk/kultur/boger/faglitteratur_boger/art5684337/Den-store-skuffelse
Krarup, T. M. (2012). Den bureaukratiske elite – karriereveje og topposter i centraladministrationen. Dansk Sociologi, 23(2), 41–63.
Larsen, A. G., Ellersgaard, C., & Bernsen, M. (2015). Magteliten: Hvordan 423 danskere styrer landet. Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag.
Togeby, L., & et al. (2003). Magt og demokrati i Danmark, Hovedresultater fra Magtudredningen. In Magtudredningen. Århus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag.


Troels Krarup is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen. He presently works on the politics of civic urban greenspace engagements. He completed his PhD on European financial market integration at Sciences Po Paris in 2016.