Local power structures and transnational connections. New perspectives on elites in Switzerland, 1890-2020


Project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation

André Mach (UniL) - Stéphanie Ginalski (UniL) - Eric Davoine (UniFr) - Matthieu Leimgruber (UniZh)

Recent literature on elites has provided, at first sight, contradictory findings. On the one hand, studies in sociology, management, political science and economic history have underscored the central importance of local elite and governance structures for a successful economic and political development. Such an observation is particularly relevant for the Swiss case; because of the political and economic decentralization of the country, local elites have played a crucial role in local development. On the other hand, recent research has shown that elites, and especially business ones, have become increasingly internationalized. In Switzerland, foreigners now constitute a significant part of business and academic elites while both groups are characterized by the internationalization of their educational and career trajectories. Elites are thus often considered as increasingly disconnected from their local social background.

These contrasting results, stressing both the growing internationalization of elites and the importance of their local rootedness, raise multiple questions concerning the scales of activities and roles of local elites. While recent research has investigated Swiss national elites, this project starts from a local perspective that will allow us to go beyond methodological nationalism and to analyze how elites have been active beyond their involvement in local power structures. Already at the end of the 19th century, Swiss elites were characterized by their multi-level implication at the local, national and transnational levels. However, following long-term shifts in the scale of political and economic life (such as the centralization of the national state or economic globalization), their spheres of activities have undergone profound changes. The project will focus on local elites in the three main Swiss cities (Zurich, Geneva and Basel) and will address two research axes: a) the transformations of local power structures; b) the multi-level implication of local elites: from local to transnational connections. On the basis of a long-term comparison of the three local trajectories, these two research axes will be developed in four subprojects focused on specific local elites and institutions: 1) economic elites active in local chambers of commerce; 2) business elites of leading economic sectors and companies; 3) leading members of local art societies and their role in the promotion of cultural institutions; 4) universities and academic elites between local rootedness and international reputation.

Building on previous research and notably a pathbreaking data collection on national elites by the Swiss Elites Observatory (OBELIS), this project aims at developing innovative perspectives on local elites thanks to our longitudinal long-term perspective and the focus on the multi-level activities of elites. Such a framing will allow us to go beyond existing knowledge and bring to light a new understanding of the transformation of local elites, occupying leading positions in central and enduring local institutions, from 1890 to 2020, for seven benchmark years (1890, 1910, 1937, 1957, 1980, 2000 and 2020) following the Swiss Elites database of OBELIS. By bringing together specialists from different disciplines (history, political science, sociology and management studies), the project develops a truly interdisciplinary and integrated perspective in terms of conceptual approach, empirical investigation, and combination of complementary methods. It also includes innovative digital humanities instruments to improve access on data regarding elites in Switzerland.


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