American social worker and administrator, community worker, professor, and author, Floyd Hunter (born 1912) was an originator of the "power structure" or elite concept in contemporary sociology.
Floyd Hunter was born on February 26, 1912, in Richmond, Kentucky, son of Jesse Hunter, a farmer, and Dovie Benton. He attended Richmond public schools and received both his B.A. (1939) in social science and his M.A. (1941) in social service administration from the University of Chicago. He married Ester Araya Rojas on December 23, 1937, and the couple had four children.
Hunter's mother and father were divorced when he was four and he lived at different times with each parent; with his mother in Bloomington, Illinois, and with his father on a Richmond tobacco farm. Both parents had been descended from British Isle ancestors who had placed great value upon political liberty and independence. This political heritage, along with Hunter's life experiences and intellectual development, formed the bone and sinew out of which he would fashion his controversial theory of "elite" social power.
Hunter's early life experiences were molded by two main influences: both familial and social "marginality" and the effects of the Great Depression on the American economy and polity. His marginality stemmed first from the transitory, shifting role he played in two families. Because both families suffered economic losses, Hunter's social status was unstable, allowing him an "observer's" eye on community status and family systems.
Meanwhile, his experiences in the Depression strengthened an already wary eye toward business interests and the government. He was shocked at the "petty and shoddy" practices of businessmen (the "ownership establishment") as they exploited the "dispossessed" customers. Unemployed and often famished during school breaks, Hunter hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., where he broke bread with the the Bonus Marchers two days before they were routed by General MacArthur's armed troops. Disenchanted by the use of military force in this and in other potentially disruptive occurrences, such as bank closings, he began to question the "relationship between our representative government and the people it was supposed to 'represent."' Local political leaders who exploited New Deal policies for their own benefit, and thereby took a "root hog or die" attitude toward the poor, only alienated the young Hunter even further. "No milk of human kindness seemed to course through the political sieve," he felt. Economic and political injustice, then, formed a theme in Hunter's thought even before he had developed the intellectual tools necessary to craft an academic argument.
Hunter began his career as a social worker in Texas in the 1930s, moved to Chicago, and then to Indianapolis around 1940 as a social work administrator. From there he went to Atlanta in 1943 to head the southeastern regional office of the U.S.O. From 1946 to 1948 he headed the Atlanta Community Council, an experience which only provided real-life fodder for the growth of his power scheme. Following a political dispute with business leaders over the use of public property for a Henry Wallace campaign rally in the 1948 election (which had been allowed in the case of the Republican campaign), Hunter was fired from his position. With his wife and four children, he then moved to the University of North Carolina (U.N.C.), where he received his Ph.D. (1951) in sociology and anthropology. His doctoral dissertation, Community Power Structure (1953), became his most famous published work. A penetrating look at the power of business elites in Atlanta, it was followed up by his 1979 Community Power Succession.
These two works, more than any others, established Hunter as a leading progenitor of the power elite model of political sociology, a theme later picked up by C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff. In broad terms, Hunter and his intellectual descendants represented a crystallization of a 20th-century American paradigm which followed the earlier "conflict" model of economic domination established by Marx in 19th-century Europe. The main assumption of this model—that society was dominated by a relatively small group of social, economic, and political elites who make self-interested decisions in the absence of significant countervailing power—represented a challenge to the more consensually-oriented theory of structural functionalism that had held sway on American sociology for decades. Both of Hunter's studies on Atlanta held firmly to his basic theme.
Hunter was a professor at U.N.C. until 1960. Through the 1960s he headed two research firms, Social Science Research and Development Corporation and Decision Data, both based in the San Francisco area, where Hunter continued to reside in 1990. He was a Fulbright research professor at the University of Chile in 1964, and from the early through the late 1970s he was a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of California, the University of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, and Harvard.
Meanwhile, Hunter wrote many books and articles, both fiction and nonfiction. Aside from the 1953 and 1979 works already mentioned, he published The Big Rich and the Little Rich (1965), Top Leadership, U.S.A. (1959), and Community Organization: Action and Inaction (1956). His unpublished efforts as of the 1990s included several works of fiction and a 1989 attempt to combine the natural and social sciences into a "social physics" or "social relativity." Even his unpublished fiction works, however, such as Chilean Rooms (1964), were often attempts to weave himself "autobiographically into materials of social observation."
His detached, critical viewpoint was finely honed in his other nonfiction work as well. The Big Rich and the Little Rich, which asked, "What is the community function of great personal wealth?" essentially argued the "dysfunctions" of both large and small wealth. Both groups, Hunter believed, "do nothing that others could not do as well and much less expensively." Top Leadership, U.S.A. continued his methodological use of the "reputational" model of power he had developed in Community Power Structures, whereby leading organizations and individuals were asked to weigh the relative influence of others on them. In Radical Democracy: One Man, One Vote; One Man, One Share, a 1972 unpublished manuscript, Hunter broadened his critical view of elitism in society to include communist as well as capitalist states and unabashedly called for "complete trust in the people." Another unpublished work, The Unrepresented (1965), applied the elite model to the particular American context of communities and government.
Hunter's influence on theoretical developments in sociology and other disciplines that utilize the concept of "power" was substantial. Likewise, his methodology, which consisted of the "reputational" approach, also had a profound influence on the debate over how scholars should conduct "power" studies.
Hunter was cited in connection with the power elite theory and/ or the reputational method in almost any standard sociology text. His Community Power Structure is favorably reviewed by C. Wright Mills (whose 1956 The Power Elite had a profound influence on American sociology) in Social Forces (October 1953). Community Power Succession was reviewed, among many other places, in the American Journal of Sociology (July 1982). For versions of the power elite theory, see such works by G. William Domhoff as The Higher Circles: The Governing Class in America (1970), Who Rules America (1967), and Power Structure Research (1980). A work that utilized Hunter's work was Domhoff and Thomas, editors, Power Elites and Organizations (1987). The leading competitive model with elite theory was represented by the "pluralist" school. See Robert Dahl's Who Governs? (1962) and David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (1953). For a critique of the reputational approach see Martin's The Sociology of Power (1977). Both critiques and extensions of the elite model may be found in Domhoff's and Ballard Hoyt's 1968 C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite.
The Special Collections Department of Emory University's Woodruff Library was the repository for Hunter's papers. These papers (47 boxes, 19.50 linear feet) consisted primarily of Hunter's notes, drafts, writings, and related materials from 1933 to 1989. Also included was a correspondence file and sets of autobiographical materials. The Hunter Papers were used extensively for this biographical sketch.