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Elitism is the belief or attitude that individuals who form an elite—a select group of people with an intrinsic quality, high intellect, wealth, special skills, or experience—are more likely to be constructive to society as a whole, and therefore deserve influence or authority greater than that of others. The term elitism may be used to describe a situation in which power is concentrated in the hands of a limited number of people. Oppositions of elitism include anti-elitism, egalitarianism, populism, and political theory of pluralism.
Elite theory is the sociological or political science analysis of elite influence in society: elite theorists regard pluralism as a utopian ideal.
Elitism is closely related to social class and what sociologists call social stratification, which in the Anglo Saxon tradition have long been anchored in the "blue blood" claims of hereditary nobility. Members of the upper classes are sometimes known as the social elite.
The term elitism is also sometimes used to denote situations in which a group of people claiming to possess high abilities or simply an in-group or cadre grant themselves extra privileges at the expense of others. This form of elitism may be described as discrimination.
Some synonyms for "elite" might be "upper-class" or "aristocratic", indicating that the individual in question has a relatively large degree of control over a society's means of production. This includes those who gain this position due to socioeconomic means and not personal achievement. However, these terms are misleading when discussing elitism as a political theory, because they are often associated with negative "class" connotations and fail to appreciate a more unbiased exploration of the philosophy.
Attributes that identify an elite vary; personal achievement may not be essential. Elitist status can be based on personal achievement, such as degrees from top-rate universities or impressive internships and job offers, it can (in archaic societies) be based on lineage or passed-on fame from parents or grandparents.
As a term, "elite" usually describes a person or group of people who are members of the uppermost class of society, and wealth can contribute to that class determination. Personal attributes commonly purported by elitist theorists to be characteristic of the elite include: rigorous study of, or great accomplishment within, a particular field; a long track record of competence in a demanding field; an extensive history of dedication and effort in service to a specific discipline (e.g., medicine or law) or a high degree of accomplishment, training or wisdom within a given field; a high degree of physical discipline, such as for administration of public service, maintaining and improving infrastructure, addressing extreme poverty, adherence to, individual or on a group level, the commonly used techniques which have tangible and/or spiritual benefits which improves the well-being of many of a societies members or contributes to the common good.
Elitists tend to favor social systems such as meritocracy, technocracy and plutocracy as opposed to political egalitarianism and populism. Elitists believe only a few "shakers and movers" truly change society, rather than the majority of people who only vote and elect the elites into power.
Elitism in the context of education is the practice of concentrating attention on or allocating funding to the best students, or those students who rank highest in a particular field of endeavour. For example, a politician who promotes advanced classes for students deemed to be highly intelligent might be accused of elitism, even if this were argued to promote an egalitarian goal, such as curing disease. Elitism in education could be based on conventional assessment of learning ability, knowledge, or other abilities. However, an "elite" school can also mean a school for the wealthy or one that is hard to enter.
In politics, the terms elitism and elitist are often used to disparage a politician's views as out of touch with the interests of the "average Joe". The implication is that the alleged elitist person or group thinks they are better than everyone else, and put themselves before others as a result. The definition of elitist is similar to that of the word "snob".
An elitist is not always seen as truly elite, but only privileged. The definition may have different appreciations depending on the political contexts. Since elitism may be viewed as something necessary for creating patterns of good intellectual or professional performance, it can be used also for maintaining conditions of lack of competition and privilege.
Elitism endorses the exclusion of large numbers of people from positions of privilege or power. Thus, anti-elitism may seek the (perceived, if not present in practice) social equality of egalitarianism, populism, socialism, or communism. They may also support affirmative action, social security, luxury taxes, and highly progressive taxes for the wealthiest members of society. All of these measures seek to reduce the difference of power between the elite and the ordinary. However, these measures to reduce difference could be seen as anti-meritocratic in that they avoid rewarding or promoting those who are the most productive or provide the most effort in their endeavors.
The terms elitism and meritocracy are not equivalent in meaning. Professor Kenneth Paul Tan at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy asserts that "Meritocracy, in trying to 'isolate' merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination."