Power in society is possessed by particular groups by virtue of their control of material resources and the dominant influence this gives them over other social groups. This is exercised not only, or even primarily, through economic relationships but by means of the use of authority on a much broader front through a variety of forms of influence, by means of cultural hegemony and political control. Within every society there exists an élite recognized as such by the possession of certain generally favoured attributes including wealth, life‐ style, social influence and political power. This élite also serves as a reference point for other social groups. Moreover, it enjoys the advantages of small size and relative cohesion which allow it more effectively to impose itself. Although the symbols of status differ over time and between groups, to an important extent those groups which already possess wealth and high status are able to influence definition of the criteria for according rank within a given social system. Systems of social stratification are in this respect to an important degree self-perpetuating.
The objective of this chapter is an analysis of the evolution of the French social élite in the nineteenth century, a period of substantial economic and social change in which those who combined economic, social and political power in the first half of the century, experienced a significant loss of political power, certainly by the 1880s, while still preserving a major share in economic and social power. The obvious place to begin is with a discussion of membership of this élite using in the first instance the criterion of wealth.
It makes sense to begin with wealth because, even if wealth itself did not ensure status, it alone permitted the appropriate life-style, without which status suffered. Moreover, statistics exist which, whatever their shortcomings, provide some kind of a basis for the analysis of social hierarchy. Without statistics we could offer nothing more than an impressionistic survey, but it needs to be stressed that in the definition of social groups, statistics are not enough. A social