The Swiss Power Elite and Field of Power. Tensions between Elite Coordination and Differentiation since the 1950s


Requérant : Thierry Rossier 

This project starts from Savage’s (2016) argument in Nature that elites can be seen either as a coordinated homogenous “class” or as a differentiated heterogeneous and conflictual group. It follows Savage & Nichols’ (2018) call for a study of elites in a historical perspective. I rely on two competing and complementary theories: Mills’ (1956) conceptualization of a homogenous power elite allows focusing on elites through organizational networks; Bourdieu’s (1989) account of the field of power allows shedding light on elites through oppositions of capitals. There have been many socio-historical studies on Swiss elites during the last ten years, but none has focused on networks between elite groups, has tried to identify and analyse the characteristics of a cohesive power elite or has analysed capitals oppositions within the Swiss field of power. Such studies have been realised on other national cases (Denmark, Norway, France), but none has compared the evolution of these tensions historically

This project focuses on the various transformations that Swiss elites witnessed since the 1950s and on the tensions between elite coordination and differentiation implied by these transformations. To do so I ask three research questions on how (Q1) the size, density and composition of Swiss elite networks have evolved; (Q2) the sociological profile of the Swiss power elite has changed; (Q3) the structure of the capitals in the Swiss field of power has transformed. I will compare historically the networks, power elite properties and capitals oppositions of economic, political, administrative and academic elites at four dates (1957, 1980, 2000, 2015). 

Building on a Swiss biographical elite database with currently entries on 34’800 individuals I establish first a longitudinal analysis of these networks and look at the evolution of their structure. Second I identify the most central individuals within these different types of power institutions through a k-cores method developed by C. Ellersgaard and A. Larsen at the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) and investigate the profile of this power elite. Third I study the evolution of the Swiss field of power by running multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) and class-specific MCA, of which Larsen and Ellersgaard are specialists. This study will be held in the frame of a close collaboration at the CBS with skilled methodologists who have published original studies in prestigious journals. 

This collaboration will result in new theoretical perspectives on elite studies by focusing on concepts developed in the study of elite coordination and differentiation. It will also lead to reflexions on using innovative social network and geometrical methods in a more decentralised and internationalised case than Denmark. It will help strengthening collaboration between Swiss and Danish scholars working on elites and networks with the idea of connecting researchers on this topic at the European level. In particular our research will enhance the international visibility of the “Swiss elite database”. More importantly it will allow an in-depth study of the relations between a small number of individuals who are probably the most influent in the whole Swiss society. 

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