The study of political elites is gaining ground in HPE

Last year, I was chatting with a colleague about US politics and the uncertainty that the Trump presidency was generating domestically and internationally. Institutions, these formal and informal constraints on human behavior that we had learned so much about in graduate school, seemed weaker than anticipated even in the United States, a country that has never endured a dictatorship since independence from British rule. An Americanist, he told me that the study of the presidency as an institution was giving some way to the study of the president. In one of the many instances where labeling “comparative politics” as “non-US domestic politics” seemed superfluous, I explained to him that the study of elites qua elites is gaining ground among political scientists and among historical political economists. (Or, more accurately, I should say “regaining” because elites were once the object of study of leading scholars such as Harold Laswell, Dankwart Rustow, and Robert Putnam, as I explained here).

Since around 1980, the institutional focus of historically inclined social scientists has led to a dearth of research on the most important agents heading political institutions, i.e., political elites. Most historically-inclined political scientists and economists neglected the study of elites in favor of the study of political institutions—exceptions notwithstanding. There are very good reasons for the study of institutions, as Jared Rubin, Pavi Suryanarayan, and others have shown in previous posts. However, there are also shortcomings. For rational choice theorists, including many institutional economists, the key inputs to explain a politician’s actions are the rules of the game (institutions), and sometimes public opinion in democracies, thus leaving little room for elite agency. This critique applies to formal theories of elite decision-making, which have often been ahistorical.

To drive the point home, consider the course offerings in graduate programs, perhaps your own if you finished your PhD after 1980. You were/are likely able to choose one or more courses focused on historical institutionalism, institutional economics, or political institutions that took history seriously. However, courses focused on elites—not to mention the historical study of elites—have long been absent from graduate programs. Even the study of legislators’ behavior (typically American or European) is fitted under “political behavior” or “legislative studies”. Graduate courses on political representation, such as this one by Dan Smith, are the closest I have seen to a syllabus that explicitly studies political elites. (If I missed a relevant syllabus, please write a comment below or email me!)

In spite of the current shortcomings, I anticipate graduate programs to feature courses that explicitly study elites from a historical perspective in the near future.

This is because a new generation of mostly junior scholars are trying to shed some light on both the historical origins of elites (e.g., political elite formation) and on the consequences of elite actions above and beyond those predicted by institutionalists. A number of scholars are leveraging historical transformations to understand how profound and sometimes sudden socioeconomic changes impact political representation, the origins of political elites, and, in turn, how their behavior and policies affect long-run development. (I discussed this recent “historical turn” in the study of political elites in more detail in a 2019 piece.) They are using innovative methodological approaches to try to shed light on two broad questions: how history has shaped political elites and how elites have shaped history. As I see it, these two complementary lines of research are some of the most exciting developments in HPE. I provide an example of each line of research in this post to illustrate my point.

An HPE approach to cabinet formation and to political elite formation

Cabinet formation has historically been decidedly ahistorical. Most researchers conceive of cabinet and even of government formation more broadly as a short-term and highly strategic affair in Africa and elsewhere. Some argue that cabinet formation is the result of regional favoritism and, indeed, such examples abound: Houphouet-Boigny in Cote d’Ivoire favored the Baoulé during his 33-year rule; Museveni in Uganda has favored Western Ugandans since he rose to power in 1986, and so on. Other scholars argue instead that regional balancing is preeminent –  the idea that representation in the cabinet should be equitable to avoid conflict. They also have a point.

However, in a recently published article, I show that sidelining HPE leaves us with incomplete accounts of both political elite formation and of the sources of political representation in 20th century Africa. I made the realization as I was coding the birthplace of post-independence ministers in the 16 former British and French colonies of East and West Africa pictured in the map below.

Birth locations of government ministers in East and West Africa (1960–2010 average)

I found that inequalities in cabinet representation across districts are systematic (see graph below). If regional balancing produced equitable distributions of minister-year shares, then the distribution would be uniform (the left graphs would be flat) or proportional to population (the right graphs would be flat). Neither is the case. Some districts have systematically punched above their weight since independence and others below.

Minister-shares by colonial district of birth (1960–2010 average)

Districts in Western Uganda (e.g., Ankole and Kigezi) have punched above their weight and, in Senegal, 14% of the minister-years were born in Saint Louis—even though it comprises less than 2% of Senegal’s population. Western Uganda is over-represented in part because President Museveni (in power since 1986) was born there, but other districts outside the Western region are also over-represented and, in any case, patronage-type explanations beg the question of why leaders such as Museveni hail from one district or another in the first place. Regional favoritism cannot explain the case of Saint Louis either: no Senegalese president was born there. For all the military coups and regimes changes in East and West Africa since 1960, district representation in the 1960s positively correlates with district representation in the 2000s (ρ = 0.46). This clearly points to persistent inequalities in political representation that neither theory can explain. What does underpin these patterns of political representation?

I provide a historical explanation of political elite formation rooted in the colonial period. I leverage the colonization of East and West Africa to examine instead how colonialism influenced the distribution of political power thereafter (in this way, my research complements a larger research agenda on the consequences of colonialism for economic development). I show that colonial-era investments in education – but not in infrastructure, health, or other measures of development – increase district representation in postcolonial governments. The effect of education, proxied by the number of teachers and missionaries per district, is larger in the 1960-1990 period but persists even after 1990 in spite of regime changes and instability during the Cold War. The effect is also very visible in civilian governments (the majority of country-years) but largely null in military governments. Why?

Effect of education on district minister-shares by decade and type of government

I argue that post-colonial ministers are in part a byproduct of education-based recruitment into the colonial state. Europeans administered East and West African colonial states on the cheap, so they recruited educated Africans instead of Europeans as civil servants to reduce costs (by contrast, individuals from districts with little to no education provision often ended up in the military). Thus, districts with more primary education provided a larger pool of potential candidates to join the civil service and colonial-era legislative councils (or assemblées territoriales in French colonies).

Regional political inequality was the partly unintended long-term consequence of this selection criterion whereby limited education conditioned the pool of potential ministers from a region (in extreme cases, such as Uganda’s Karamoja region, there were no secondary schools at independence in 1962). Literacy and numeracy learned in school were transferable to the civil service. In turn, organizational skills acquired in the civil service and in colonial legislatures provided some with an early advantage in post-colonial politics. For example, Saint Louis had ceded much of its early importance to Dakar, the economic and political capital, by 1900. However, Saint Louis remained an important center of primary and secondary education. That helps explain its over-representation after 1960. (In another recent article, I explain why investments in education were so much lower in some colonial districts than others.)

Leveraging legislation to understand how pollical elites react and affect policy

My research above illustrates how history has shaped elites. Vicky Paniagua’s book project, by contrast, is an excellent example of how elites have shaped history. In addition to her work in Argentina, Paniagua collects data on the Chilean economic and political elite (1849-1907) to examine the political effect of land inequality. Local landed elites that perceived a high risk of expropriation strategically diversified their portfolios (finance, manufacturing) following a 1854 corporate law that regulated joint-stock companies and enabled investment diversification. Members of the economic elite who diversified were then more likely to become national (not merely local) politicians in order to “steer state intervention” towards policies that would support broader development and not only narrow rural interests. Subsequently, districts with more diversified elites received more public goods. In short, landed elites and broad development-oriented public goods provision can actually coexist as long as the asset portfolios of these economic and political elites become sufficiently diversified.

These are only two examples of the benefits of placing elites front and center in HPE. Other scholars are also working at the intersection of HPE and elites in Africa, South America, and elsewhere. By considering not just the rules of the game but also paying close attention to the key actors, we can develop much richer answers to the questions that HPE scholars try to answer.

A (partial) reading list on elites in HPE

Ricart-Huguet, Joan. 2019. “The Historical Turn in the Comparative Study of Political Elites.” Newsletter of the APSA Comparative Politics Section: 29(2). See references therein.

Ricart-Huguet, Joan. 2021. “Colonial Education, Political Elites, and Regional Political Inequality in Africa.” Comparative Political Studies.

Paniagua, Victoria. “Protecting Capital: Economic Elites, Asset Portfolio Diversification, and the Politics of Distribution.” (book project)

Van Coppenolle, Brenda. 2020. “How do Political Elites Persist? Political Selection, Political Inequality, and Empirical Historical Research.” French Politics, 18: 175-188. See references therein.

Becker, Sascha O., Yuan Hsiao, Steven Pfaff, and Jared Rubin. 2020. “Multiplex Network Ties and the Spatial Diffusion of Radical Innovations: Martin Luther’s Leadership in the Early Reformation.” American Sociological Review 85(5): 857-894.

Cirone, Alexandra & Brenda Van Coppenolle. 2019. “Bridging the Gap: Lottery-Based Procedures in Early Parliamentarization.” World Politics, 71(2), 197-235.

Garfias, Francisco and Emily Sellars. “When State Building Backfires: Elite Coordination and Popular Grievance in Rebellion.” American Journal of Political Science, forthcoming.

Fresh, Adriane. “Industrial Revolution and Political Change: Evidence from the British Isles.” (working paper)

Hartnett, Allison Spencer. “Selectorate Dynamics in Autocracies: colonial and post-colonial minister appointments in the Middle East and North Africa.” (working paper)

Kroeger, Alex. 2020. “Dominant Party Rule, Elections, and Cabinet Instability in African Autocracies.” British Journal of Political Science, 50(1), 79-101.

Nathan, Noah. “The Scarce State: Inequality and Political Power in the Hinterland.” (book project)

Opalo, Ken Ochieng’. 2019. “Legislative development in Africa: Politics and postcolonial legacies.” Cambridge University Press.

Wang, Yuhua. 2020. “How Elites Connect with Society Might Be Associated with the Rise and Fall of Civilizations.” (Broadstreet blogpost)

Woldense, Josef. 2018. “The Ruler’s Game of Musical Chairs: Shuffling during the Reign of Ethiopia’s last Emperor.Social Networks 52: 154-166.


  • Joan Ricart-Huguet is an Assistant Professor at Loyola University Maryland. He received a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences from Columbia University as a recipient of la Caixa Graduate Fellowship. He was a Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer at the Program on Ethics, Politics, & Economics at Yale University (2018-19) and will return to Yale this coming academic year (2021-22). Ricart-Huguet studies comparative politics and historical political economy. His wide-ranging interests include political elites, colonial investments and legacies, education, and culture, with a regional focus on Africa. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, International Studies Quarterly, Public Choice, and Studies in Comparative International Development. Prior to receiving his PhD, he worked as a consultant for Princeton's Innovations for Successful Societies in Mexico and as a short-term consultant at the World Bank in Poverty Reduction and Economic Management.

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