Sometimes spelled with an accent, the word has now been anglicized in its sociological usage. The term is often loosely used to refer to any superior or privileged group, but it more properly refers to groups defined by their superior power. An elite is a ruling minority. It was the work of two 19th-century Italians—Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto—that turned the observation that for much of recorded human history the few have ruled the many into an important contribution to modern political sociology. For Mosca, whose Elementi di scienza politica of 1896 (translated as The Ruling Class in 1939) was the first statement of the theory, the distinguishing mark of the rulers and therefore the explanation for their political dominance over the ruled lay in the rulers' superior organization. The dominance so achieved is justified through a set of values (‘the political formula’) that gives it legitimation. The composition of the ruling elite reflects the balance of power among the underlying social forces.
Although he is usually considered to have derived the idea from Mosca, it was Pareto who, by naming the ruling few ‘the elite’, gained much of the credit for the theory's creation. However, Pareto went on to develop the idea as part of his own sociology. Where Mosca related elite composition and circulation to a changing balance of social forces, Pareto saw this as reflecting an underlying distribution of psychological qualities. He held that social action is determined by one or other of six basic ‘sentiments’ or ‘residues’. These are typically rationalized by more intellectual sets of ideas (for example, democracy, nationalism, and liberty) that he terms ‘derivations’ and which correspond to Mosca's idea of the ‘political formula’. Amongst the residues two were far more important than the others: the ‘residue of the persistence of aggregates’, which stimulated courage and strength; and the ‘residue of combinations’, which stimulated cunning and compromise. Borrowing from Machiavelli, Pareto termed those rulers moved by the first of these residues ‘lions’ and those moved by the second ‘foxes’, and then used this distinction to formulate his theory of the ‘circulation of elites’. According to this theory, every society is founded in violence and therefore by lions, but as it settles down the need for their courage and strength declines. Eventually, this need is replaced by an even more compelling one for the subtler skills of the foxes, who then become the rulers. The rule of the foxes remains in place until the society's identity and sense of direction become so unclear that a need for more leonine qualities once again arises.
The idea of a ruling elite, generally without the psychological assumptions made by Pareto, has been used by those who seek to complement or to avoid the Marxian emphasis on purely economic power. Thus, C. Wright Mills 's The Power Elite (1956) looked at the balance among political, economic, and military leaders in the ruling elite, while ‘democratic elitists’ (see P. Bachrach, The Theory of Democratic Elitism, 1967) point to the competition among elite groups as central to pluralist theories.