Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Does It Matter If Women, Minorities and Gays Govern?: New Data concerning an Old Question

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Does It Matter If Women, Minorities and Gays Govern?: New Data concerning an Old Question

Article excerpt

Abstract: Elite studies in general, and elite social characteristics in particular, used to be a focus of intense interest in Canadian Sociology. The interest in elite social characteristics has since declined, apparently in part because it is believed that the topic is of no substantive significance. Nonetheless, a considerable body of research in Political Science and Women's Studies over the past two decades has shown that social characteristics such as gender, race, and sexual orientation have a meaningful impact on the decisions made by those in authority positions. This paper calls for renewed study of elite social characteristics in Canadian Sociology.

Resume: Les etudes elitaires en general et les caracteristiques sociales elitaires en particulier, representaient autrefois un point d'interet intense dans la sociologie canadienne. L'interet manifeste pour les caracteristiques sociales elitaires a diminue depuis, apparemment en partie parce que l'on croit que le sujet n'est pas vraiment significatif. Quoi qu'il en soit, un important organisme de recherche en sciences politiques et en etudes de la condition feminine a demontre qu'au cours des deux dernieres decennies les caracteristiques sociales telles que le sexe, la race et l'orientation sexuelle avaient un impact considerable sur les decisions prises par les autorites du moment. Cet article est un appel pour une nouvelle etude sur les caracteristiques sociales elites dans la sociologie canadienne.


Elite social characteristics used to be a matter of burning interest in Canadian Sociology. The famous Vertical Mosaic Thesis argued that the social characteristics of elites were of central importance if one wished to understand their behaviour (Porter, 1965). For whatever reason, this interest has declined (Ornstein, 1998). One contributing factor has to have been the belief that elite social characteristics do not influence the attitudes and behaviour of the powerful in any systematic way (e.g. Williams, 1989).

In other literatures, however, the topic has continued to be a matter of extensive study and discussion. Of special interest has been the question of whether the presence of women and racial minorities in positions of political power was at all helpful to their constituencies. Most often, the discussion has been framed in terms of whether "descriptive" or "passive" representation (i.e. the presence of elite members from a given sociological category) could be expected to lead to "substantive" or "active" representation (i.e. political action intended to benefit said category). For the most part, theoretical discussion has tended to the view that it probably does, although predictions as to the likely magnitude of substantive representation have varied greatly (e.g. Pitkin, 1967; Sapiro, 1981; Phillips, 1995; Mansbridge, 1999). Extensive empirical study over the past two decades has found that gender, race, and sexual orientation do have some influence on the attitudes and behaviours of those in key decision-making positions. The cumulating data demand serious attention. It is the purpose of this paper to report on some of that literature and to suggest that the question be re-opened within the context of Canadian Sociology.

New Data Concerning an Old Question

Elite social characteristics tell us a great deal about stratification and mobility at the highest levels of the authority hierarchy. They can also be used as an indicator of group power, social stability, and the likely degree of integration among those with high levels of authority in a given social setting (Putnam, 1976: 41-44). Furthermore, the symbolic value of elite social characteristics has long been recognized. Contemporary research has confirmed the traditional view that people feel better if they see authority figures with social characteristics similar to their own in the cases of gender (e.g. High-Pippert et al, 1998), race (e. …

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