Structuring financial elites: Conservative banking and the local sources of reputation in Italy and the United States, 1850--1914

Simone Polillo, University of Pennsylvania


The main thesis of this dissertation is that (1) the power of elites derives from their ability to operate in specialized domains, or fields. (2) Fields are characterized by internal dynamics of struggle, and (3) these conflicts are never solved, but reproduce themselves over time. Thus a dominant elite will always be challenged by an invader elite; if the move is successful, the invader elite will consolidate itself, but only until further notice. Thus fields have local orders, but also “local” positions to subvert those orders.^ The specific focus of this dissertation is on the structuring of the financial field/banking system in two cases: Italy and the United States, between 1850 and the outbreak of the First World War. This comparison is motivated by the fact that both countries were late developers, and faced strong decentralized political forces which affected the process of state building. Whereas the United States remained a decentralized polity, Italy, on the other hand, centralized both its fiscal and financial power.^ As Weber classically argued, to the extent that we conceptualize classes as life chances deriving from positions in markets, three types of markets become relevant: labor, commodities, credit. We have Marxism as a theory of the first dimension, cultural theory for the analysis of struggles over consumption, but we lack a sociological theory of the third dimension—money and credit. This dissertation contributes to the sociology of money by showing that monetary exchanges take place in specific, restricted social circuits, which are created by the specialized activities of bankers as they assess the reputations of local elites, and are oriented towards the local context or the national arena depending on the fiscal structures of the state. Bankers create durable circuits with political actors to the extent that they enter into a conservative coalition, in which fiscal restraint fosters financial restraint and thus the professional closure of banking.^

Subject Area

History, European|History, United States|Economics, History|Sociology, Social Structure and Development|Business Administration, Banking

Recommended Citation

Polillo, Simone, "Structuring financial elites: Conservative banking and the local sources of reputation in Italy and the United States, 1850--1914" (2008). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3328636.