What is Power Structure Research?

Power structure research is an approach to the study of power that highlights the unequal distribution of resources upon which power is based (e.g., wealth, political office, control of the mass media) and the importance of formal and informal social networks as the means by which power is concentrated and institutionalized. (Val Burris)

discussion and meetings

Val Burris

“Modern power structure research has its roots in the radical social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Building upon the pioneering work of sociologists like Floyd Hunter and C. Wright Mills … they took up the tools of empirical social science and used them to document the domination of big corporations and the upper class over American political life and to analyze the mechanisms by which that domination was maintained.” (whorules)


  • research the backgrounds, economic interests, and social connections of individual members of the power elite
  • disclose the internal power structure of major corporations and the political activities in which they are engaged
  • trace the flow of money from corporations and wealthy capitalists to political candidates and parties
  • monitor the role of special interests in lobbying congress and shaping legislation
  • investigate the role of foundations, think tanks, and business associations in creating public policy


  • Interviews and archival research are used to reconstruct the process by which important political decisions are made.
  • Content analysis of speeches and written documents is used to clarify the political ideologies and issue positions of different fractions of the power elite.
  • Survey research is used to estimate the objective social characteristics or subjective attitudes of elite populations.
  • There is one method, however, that is widely used in power structure research but is less common in most other areas of social research. This method is network analysis.
    • John Scott, Social Network Analysis: A Handbook
  1. First, the researcher identifies a population of “nodes” (actors, organizations, or events) that comprise a social network.
  2. Then he or she gathers data on all the ties or links of a certain kind among these nodes, for example, transfers of resources, common memberships, interpersonal connections, joint participation in events, etc.
  3. These data are arranged in an NxN matrix, which contains one row and one column for each node within the network and whose cells indicate the presence or absence of links from each node to each other node within the network (adjacency matrix, “sociogram”)
  4. In an actual study of the power structure, links of this kind might represent ties between corporations created when a single individual sits simultaneously on the boards of directors of both companies. Such “interlocking directorates” have been shown to serve important functions as channels of communication and lines of cohesion and coordination within the power elite
  5. Or they might represent ties among individual members of the upper class created through intermarriage, common schooling, or common membership in exclusive clubs.
  6. Or they might represent the flow of money from corporations to political candidates or from private foundations to policy planning organizations.

For more complex networks, software is needed, to manipulate the underlying matrix with specialized software to reveal such properties as the overall density of links, the division of the network into relatively distinct cliques or clusters, the degree of connectedness or centrality of specific nodes, and so forth.
Muckety.com, where you can create interactive maps of linkages among powerful elites and organizations from politics, business, and the media.

more readings

William Domhoff

  • Who Rules America?, published by G. William Domhoff in 1967. The book has gone through five subsequent editions and the current edition, Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominance (6th ed.), remains the best and most complete introduction to power structure research available today.

Michael Allen

  • detailed look at the American upper class The Founding Fortunes: An Anatomy of the Super-Rich Families in America.

Michael Useem

  • introduction to the politics of corporations and corporate elites: The Inner Circle: Large Corporations and the Rise of Political Activity in the U.S. and U.K.

others readings