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Pathways to Power: Class, Hyper-Agency and the French Corporate Elite

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In this paper, the authors explore pathways to power from the perspective of the French corporate elite and compare those who enter the 'field of power' with those who fail to reach this final tier.
Abstract
This paper explores pathways to power from the perspective of the French corporate elite. It compares those who enter the 'field of power' with those who fail to reach this final tier. Adopting an innovative econometric approach, we develop and test three hypotheses. These underline the pivotal role of external networks and the strategic advantage of hyper-agency in maintaining power; and indicate that social origin remains a powerful driver in determining success. Birthright and meritocracy emerge as two competing institutional logics which influence life chances. Higher-status agents benefit from mutual recognition which enhances their likelihood of co-option to the extra-corporate networks that facilitate hyper-agency. The objectification of class-based differences conceals their arbitrary nature while institutionalizing the principles informing stratification. We re-connect class analysis with organizational theory, arguing that social origin exerts an enduring influence on selection dynamics which inform processes of hierarchical reproduction in the corporate elite and society at large.

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This is the version of the article accepted for publication in Organization Studies published by SAGE
https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840613509919
Accepted version downloaded from SOAS Research Online: https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/17823/
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Pathways to power: Class, hyper-agency and the French corporate elite
Mairi Maclean
University of Exeter Business School, Exeter, UK
k.m.maclean@exeter.ac.uk
Charles Harvey
Newcastle University Business School, Newcastle, UK
charles.harvey@newcastle.ac.uk
Gerhard Kling
SOAS, London, UK gk17@soas.ac.uk
Published as: Maclean, M., Harvey, C. and Kling, G. (2014). Pathways to power: Class,
hyper-agency and the French corporate elite. Organization Studies, 35(6).
Corresponding author: Professor Mairi Maclean, University of Exeter Business School,
Streatham Court, Rennes Drive, Exeter EX4 4PU, UK. Email: k.m.maclean@exeter.ac.uk Pathways to
power: Class, hyper-agency and the French corporate elite
Abstract
This paper explores pathways to power from the perspective of the French corporate elite. It
compares those who enter the ‘field of power’ with those who fail to reach this final tier.
Adopting an innovative econometric approach, we develop and test three hypotheses. These
underline the pivotal role of external networks and the strategic advantage of hyper-agency in
maintaining power; and indicate that social origin remains a powerful driver in determining
success. Birthright and meritocracy emerge as two competing institutional logics which
influence life chances. Higher-status agents benefit from mutual recognition which enhances
their likelihood of co-option to the extra-corporate networks that facilitate hyper-agency. The
objectification of class-based differences conceals their arbitrary nature while
institutionalizing the principles informing stratification. We re-connect class analysis with
organizational theory; arguing that social origin exerts an enduring influence on selection
dynamics which inform processes of hierarchical reproduction in the corporate elite and
society-at-large.
.
Keywords
Bourdieu, elite careers, field of power, French corporate elite, hyper-agency, institutional
logics, social class, social mobility

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Introduction
Zald and Lounsbury (2010, p. 983) recently called for a re-engagement with key issues
concerning elites and their ‘strategic command posts’ (Mills, 1956, p. 4), focusing on the
structures they exploit to extend their influence and agency. Their call echoes the exhortation
by Courpasson, Arellano-Gault, Brown and Lounsbury (2008) for organization theorists to
address issues relating to the dynamics of status and stratification in society. This paper
contributes to research on this important topic. It focuses on the French corporate elite and
the pathways pursued by the most powerful amongst them – hyper-agents, the elite within the
elite – into what Bourdieu (1993; 1996) terms the ‘field of power’ (FoP). This is the
integrative social domain that transcends individual fields and organizations, serving as a
metafield of contestation for dominant agents – individuals holding a controlling position
within an organizational field – from different walks of life. We follow Bottomore (1966, p.
14) in defining elites as ‘functional, mainly occupational, groups that have high status … in a society’.
This leads us, for the purposes of this study, to identify members of the French corporate elite as the board
members of the top 100 French companies.
Extant research, with notable exceptions (Cappelli & Hamori, 2005; Clegg,
Courpasson & Philips, 2006; Courpasson, 2000; Courpasson & Clegg, 2006; Hartmann,
2000; 2002; Reed, 2012; Zald & Lounsbury, 2010), tells us relatively little about the making
and activities of hyper-agents whose power and networks extend beyond corporate
boundaries into society-at-large (Savage & Williams, 2008). Studies connecting the
lifeworlds of business elites to other worlds in the FoP are rare (Mills, 1956; Useem, 1984).
This is regrettable, given the growing importance of elites in contemporary society, as ‘state
power’ recedes in favour of those who run global corporations (Beck, 2008). Given the
disproportionate exercise of power by a small number of players, there is a need to
investigate further the ‘contemporary dynamics of elite production’ (Clegg et al., 2006, p.

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357). This entails a re-examination of the social struggles which inform stratification
(Dudouet & Grémont, 2007). The role of social origin in determining which individuals come
to occupy command posts in business and society is neglected in organization theory
(Dezalay, 1995; Scott, 2002). The language of class has lost much of its currency, displaced
by rhetoric based on age, gender and ethnicity (Bennett et al., 2009; Bottero, 2004; Skeggs,
2004). Yet the battle to ‘unmask domination’ (Golsorkhi, Leca, Lounsbury & Ramirez, 2009)
demands examining afresh the role of social class in the acquisition and maintenance of
power at the highest level (Denord, Lagneau-Ymonet & Thine, 2011; François, 2010).
It is this research gap that the present paper addresses. In what follows, we develop
and test three hypotheses relating to the logic and operation of the FoP, applying advanced
statistical modelling techniques to extensive data on French corporate elites. Our objective is
to better understand the role of external networks, hyper-agency and social class in
determining who becomes an actor in the FoP. The static and dynamic models we develop
help explain how a minority of business leaders establish and maintain positions of authority
within the FoP (Dezalay, 1995). Others have recognized the importance of dependencies in
social networks, such as how appointment as CEO will likely open other doors (Yeo, Pochet
& Alcouffe, 2003); but here we move beyond the limitations of standard single-equation
models that fail to capture the complex interrelationships that shape career paths (Useem &
Karabel, 1986). Rather, we incorporate the inherent endogeneity of career pathways through
application of a generalised linear model, differentiating between variables of fate, given at
birth and outside agents’ control, and variables of choice, where actions and attitudes matter.
This approach enables us to identify more precisely direct and indirect relationships between
critical variables, and to test more robustly the three hypotheses we advance.
In the following section, we review the literature on French elites and establish the
context of our research. We then elaborate Bourdieu’s concept of the FoP in terms of purpose,

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modus operandi and domination by hyper-agents, explaining how this fits within his
framework of capital and field theory. The three hypotheses around which the paper is framed
are then articulated and explained. Details of our sources and methods follow before testing
of hypotheses and presentation of our findings. The enduring importance of social class as a
master variable is highlighted, establishing the focus for theorization in our discussion and
conclusion.
The French Corporate Elite
It is some time since Lévy-Leboyer (1979, p. 181, cited in François, 2010, p. 11) predicted
the ‘equalization of conditions of access to the business elite’.
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Yet neither mass education
nor three decades of globalization have undermined the French corporate elite’s grip on
power. Power-brokers require ‘a solid baggage of expertise’ (Dezalay, 1995, p. 342), but the
meritocratic ethos of the French Republic is at odds with the ‘elitist conceptualization of
power’ which prevails (Genieys, 2005, p. 414); resulting in on-going tensions between
‘nostalgia for the ruling class… unified by a bloc of traditions and internal alliances, and the
promise of a permanent democratic openness, the justification of any Republican
meritocracy’ (Charle, 1987, p. 455). Bourdieu (1996) contends that education reinforces
existing social structures by strengthening disparities in culture, status and wealth. The
outward appearance of equal opportunity, however, is sustained by the notion of a
‘meritocratic society which rewards effort and … selects the best’ (Pinçon & Pinçon-Charlot,
2007, p. 103). Elite training has become the preserve of the grandes écoles, which foster ‘the
belief of the dominant class in their own legitimacy and … the belief of the other classes in
that legitimacy’ (Wacquant, 1993, p. 39). The Ecole Polytechnique was founded in 1794 by
revolutionaries who failed to anticipate the ‘entrenchment’ of French elites along class lines

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(Suleiman, 1978). The Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), France’s most prestigious
grande école, was established in 1945 following the discrediting of the old elite, yet serves as
a ‘machine for classifying people’ (Suleiman, 1997, p. 21). Tradition, combined with the
rigidity of the examination structure, has militated against its professed democratization
(Bourdieu & Saint-Martin, 1973); its student body remaining predominantly upper-middle
class (Suleiman, 1997).
Viewed in this light, birth and meritocracy appear as two competing society-level or
institutional logics; the espoused Republican logic of egalitarianism and meritocracy at
variance with the underlying but dominant logic of elitism and heredity (Argyris, 1977;
Charle, 1987). According to Thornton and Ocasio (1999), power in organizations is
influenced by higher-order logics which prevail in society-at-large (Davis & Greve, 1997).
Institutional logics ‘define the norms, values, and beliefs that structure the cognition of actors
in organizations and provide a collective understanding of how strategic interests… are
formulated’ (Thornton, 2002, p. 82). The two competing logics of birthright and meritocracy
are reflected in our study by variables of fate and variables of choice respectively.
The French corporate elite are presented in the literature as relatively unified,
characterized by dense, cohesive networks (Wagner, 2010). This derives partly from the
‘strong and homogenous bureaucratic training’ imparted by the grandes écoles (Genieys,
2005, p. 419; Suleiman, 1978), inculcating similar ‘ways of seeing, feeling, thinking and
acting’ (Eymeri, 2001, p. 824). This shared habitus may be reinforced further by membership
of a grand corps (Boltanski, 1973; Hartmann, 2000), the pinnacle of France’s civil service
elite, functioning as extended families (Dudouet & Joly, 2010; Suleiman, 1978). The business
elite comprise a small world characterized by high levels of social closure (Boltanski, 1973;
Davis, Yoo & Baker, 2003). Denord et al. (2011, p. 37) highlight the ‘very strong social
endogamy’ of French directors: a social group ‘particularly closed in on itself’ (Comet &

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Frequently Asked Questions (9)
Q1. What are the future works in "Pathways to power: class, hyper-agency and the french corporate elite" ?

First, the authors add to research which conceptualizes processes of hierarchy and internal differentiation within social strata by elaborating and implementing Bourdieu ’ s concept of the FoP. Most importantly, the authors demonstrate the on-going significance of the social class effect in the selection of hyper-agents who hold sway within the FoP in France. 

This paper explores pathways to power from the perspective of the French corporate elite. 

The disappearance of class from organizational theory is partly due to the absence of more nuanced class categories grounded in contemporary social and organizational realities (Savage et al., 2013). 

What sets the organizational field apart above all is the potential of its field-specific capital (predominately economic as well as cultural) for accumulation and convertibility into other resources, assets and forms of power, potentially resulting in the accrual of a sufficient quantity of capital to dominate the field (Bourdieu, 2011; Savage, Warde & Devine, 2005). 

The institutions of consecration play a vital role in funnelling or filtering opportunities for access, legitimizing forms of power by according (or withholding) recognition. 

The effect of this process of objectification of class-based differences in qualifications, memberships, symbolic and material goods is to conceal the arbitrary nature of their power while institutionalizing the principles which inform stratification (Le Wita, 1994) – such that a particular career path may appear objectively destined, unsettling the divide between logics of choice and fate through the assumption of an ‘objective destiny… imposed by practical reference to the modal trajectory in the class of origin’ (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 110). 

There is an evident need to reduce the number of explanatory variables, otherwise there would be arisk of over-identification from having 16 equations and 51 explanatory variables (Table 5), which would mean 816 coefficients and greatly reduced degrees of freedom. 

An extra-corporate networker who is a member of a grand corps increases his or her chances of entering the FoP by an additional 3%. 

The smallest number (4.5%) qualified by having significant ownership (y4) rights in large companies, of whom 90% entered the FoP.