The process of inquiry occasionally exhibits a dialectical pattern in which a series of assertions is advanced and then attacked. A third phase, which consists of an attempt to salvage the first set of assertions, often ensues. The study of American community power has followed this sequence almost classically, and today we find ourselves in the third phase of the dialectic. The first period marked the contemporary emergence of community power as a distinct field of study, mainly through the investigations of Hunter, Mills and their followers. These observers contended that communities were controlled by “elites,” usually economic, who imposed their will, often covertly, on non-elites. The second phase was marked by the challenge of another group of observers, the “pluralists.” Pluralists contended that the methods and premises of the “elitists” predisposed them to conclusions about community power which were unjustified. Elitists commonly reached their conclusions either by investigating the reputations for power of various members of the community or merely by assuming that all who possessed certain presumed sources of power were in fact powerful. The pluralists claimed that reputations did not guarantee control and demanded evidence that community decisions on political issues, major and minor, were controlled by a reputed elite. The pluralists, after studying community decisions on a variety of subjects, concluded that shifting coalitions of participants drawn from all areas of community life actually controlled local politics. Rarely could a single elite be discovered imposing itself in each area of decision, policy, and conflict.
Many observers felt that the pluralists had won the day. Their methodology studied actual behavior, stressed operational definitions, and turned up evidence. Most important, it seemed to produce reliable conclusions which met the canons of science. Recently, however, new considerations have been introduced which intend to prop up the elitist Humpty Dumpty on a more substantial wall of theory than the one from which it had previously tumbled. The beginnings of a new position on community power appear in the work of those responsible for the third phase, the “neo-elitists,” as I shall call them. That position forms the subject of this analysis.