A Controversial Thinker
Vilfredo Pareto was a highly controversial thinker whose contributions left a lasting mark on various fields of study. Born in Paris, he came from an aristocratic family and grew up in Turin, Italy, where he initially pursued a career in engineering, eventually becoming a railway engineer and director of a railway company. However, Pareto's intellectual curiosity led him to become a self-taught economist and, later, a prominent figure in the world of sociology.
Pareto's reputation was marked by his unique terminology, which did not find widespread acceptance in modern sociology. He was often viewed as a solitary scholar with few followers, and his unorthodox views set him apart from the prevailing ideologies of his time. He vocally criticized liberalism, socialism, rationalism, progressivism, and humanitarianism, making him an unconventional figure in the intellectual landscape.
One of Pareto's significant contributions was in the field of economics, where he introduced the concept of the 80/20 "Pareto distribution" and other economic principles. His ideas laid the groundwork for the understanding of income distribution and societal mechanisms. Moreover, his systems theory, which posited that societies are self-regulating mechanisms, anticipated structural functionalism and found a place in the work of Talcott Parsons.
Perhaps Pareto's most famous contribution was his theory of the "circulation of elites." This theory highlighted the constant evolution of elite groups within society and their eventual replacement by new elites. Contemporary empirical researchers owe much to Pareto's insights into power elites. Notably, Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941) and Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962) further developed Pareto's concept of the circulation of elites. Mosca wrote that in every society there is a numerical minority that provides leadership: the political class. This must always be opposed to those who want to belong to that elite and whose threat is sometimes best met by including them in the elite group. There is an ongoing struggle between different competing elites. Each social sector (economy, politics, church) has its own elite group, but at the top these elites come together.
Charles Wright Mills wrote the book The Power Elite (1956): There is a lot of overlap between the directors of the big companies, the top politicians and the military upper class. The masses have no control over this 'power elite'. Even in the democratic United States of America, they are a group that cannot easily be controlled by democratic means.
Despite his scholarly achievements, Pareto's legacy is not without controversy. Toward the end of his life, he became associated with Mussolini's fascist regime, a decision that compromised his standing. However, it's worth noting that he also criticized Mussolini sharply, showcasing his complex and nuanced perspective.
Pareto's works include "Cours d'économie politique," "Les systèmes socialistes," and the extensive "Trattato di sociologia generale," which was later translated into English as "The Mind and Society." These texts offer profound insights into various aspects of society and human behavior.
Pareto's ideas on non-logical behavior, residues, and derivatives, though criticized for their tautological nature, sparked discussions and debates that continue to influence sociological thought today. His classification of human drives and his focus on societal equilibrium laid the groundwork for the development of system theory in sociology.