Why Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ is not an iron law – and how democratic organisations can stay ‘oligarchy-free’

Thomas Diefenbach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

More than 100 years ago, Robert Michels laid out his theory of the ‘iron law of oligarchy’. The main, and crucial, point Michels made is that oligarchy will always emerge; even in the case of genuine attempts to organise and run organisations in non-oligarchic or non-hierarchical ways, the iron law allegedly holds sway. This paper critically examines, and refutes, Michels’ theory on theoretical and methodological grounds. It argues that his theory is in many ways insufficient and that his dictum of the unavoidability of oligarchisation is not as compelling and cogent as stereotypical references to it might imply. Moreover, the paper shows that alternative/democratic organisations actually have a whole range of means to avoid oligarchisation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)545-562
Number of pages18
JournalOrganization Studies
Volume40
Issue number4
Early online date5 Feb 2018
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019

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