Power Elites: Ruling Groups across Space and Time (HIH3618)

30 credits

In an age of democracy, we still complain that those in power have similar social backgrounds, education and experience, and we talk about the emergence of ‘oligarchs’ in different parts of the world. How does this situation compare with earlier periods of history, when more defined ‘aristocracies’ claimed the right to rule? Starting in the early Medieval period and extending to the twentieth century, this module compares power elites across a range of settings, extending from Medieval Spain to the Russian Revolution, or the Norman Conquest to the Welfare State.

It will encourage you to think comparatively across time-periods and countries about the following subject areas:

  • Where do elites come from?
  • What kinds of formal privileges, powers and rights sustained and enforced elite power, and how did these change over time? How far did their formal privileges match their actual sources of wealth and status, and how did they police membership of the group?
  • How did elites justify their powers, and what stories did they tell about their ancestry and status? How did religious beliefs and political ideologies sustain their power?
  • What was the role of gender in shaping elite identities, in educating and authorising male authority, and in enabling women to wield power in a ‘man’s world’?
  • How did elites project their power through art, architecture, literature, patronage, luxuries, clothes and food?
  • How did they take advantage of political change, such as the growth of empires, or the spread of representative politics?
  • How did elites respond to challenges to power, through revolts, rebellions and revolutions? Did they really decline or disappear in the twentieth century?