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  • Writer's pictureSorina I. Crisan, PhD

Analyzing the Swiss & U.S. Financial, Political & Academic Elites: Interview with Felix Bühlmann

What does it look like to research and analyze the Swiss and U.S. elites? If you are curious to learn about some of the specific characteristics of the financial, political, and academic elites living in Switzerland vs. the U.S., then the work of Felix Bühlmann will greatly intrigue you. Dr. Bühlmann is an Associate Professor of Social and Political Sciences and a Coordinator of the Swiss Elite Observatory (Obelis), at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland. In this interview you will learn about Dr. Bühlmann’s: professional journey to co-create and organically scale-up a research center; his current projects that focus on better understanding the Swiss and the U.S. financial elites; his valuable research findings that help describe the latest financial “masters of the universe;” unavoidable challenges linked to data construction; exciting upcoming opportunities linked to studying the elites; and much more. The article concludes with the interviewee’s valuable advice to junior scholars who are interested in following a similar line of research and work as the one discussed in this interview.

Interview with Cristina Teleki, PhD, Persuasive Discourse. Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD.

Felix Bühlmann is an Associate Professor of Social and Political Sciences and a Coordinator of the Swiss Elite Observatory (Obelis), headquartered at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland.

Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. Currently, you are an Associate Professor of Social and Political Sciences and one of the Coordinators of the Swiss Elite Observatory (Obelis), at the University of Lausanne. According to the website, the main purpose of Obelis is to “document and study the men and women in positions of power in the Swiss political, economic, administrative and academic spheres in the 20th and 21st centuries, and to better understand the power relations that structure the Swiss society. In addition, Obelis develops research projects on transnational elites, particularly in the economic sphere.” For those unfamiliar with your line of work, could you please briefly explain: When and why was the Observatory created? What does it mean to be a part of an interdisciplinary team? And, what have been some of the most noteworthy accomplishments of the Observatory to date?

Answer: OBELIS was founded in 2015 by Thomas David, Stéphanie Ginalski, André Mach, and myself. Everything started in 2003 when Thomas and André received funding for a first FNS (“Fonds national suisse” or Swiss National Science Foundation) project on the topic of corporate governance in Switzerland. Stéphanie was one of the first PhD students to work on the project. And I joined a bit by accident because, I was looking for data for a new method (called: multiple correspondence analysis) that I was learning about and utilizing in my own research during a post-doc stay at the University of Manchester.

Over time, more FNS projects on the economic and academic elites followed, we created a database which became increasingly large and complex, and then in 2015 we thought we should give a more institutional foundation to our project.

It is important to note that we all come from different disciplines: Thomas and Stéphanie are historians, André is a political scientist, and I am a sociologist. Since each of us is affiliated with a different institute at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, we concluded that creating an Observatory would be one of the best options because it could allow us to build a common platform for our diverse research interests which are all linked to the study of the ‘elites.’

As of today, more than 20 master theses and 15 PhDs have been carried out in relation to these projects and we have become quite a big and diverse community with different research questions around the topic of ‘elites.’

Q2. As you clearly states above, Obelis hosts several research projects funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, which are related to one another as they are all based on the “same cumulative database, the Swiss Elite Database, which contains more than 30,000 entries on political, economic, administrative and academic elites since the beginning of the 20th century.” Given that one of your main research topics is the study of economic, political, and academic elites, you are currently also leading one of these projects, called: The Rise of the Financial Elite – Access, Integration and Spread of Power. When and why did you become interested in researching the topic of the ‘Swiss financial elites’? And, what are some of the details behind creating the aforementioned project?

Answer: Many of us were interested in explaining Swiss politics from a historical perspective – meaning, from the assumption that business interests and “quiet politics” play an important role in Swiss politics. The different projects sprung from our continuous efforts to answer our own research questions and, many of the new projects emerged from open or even new questions that were raised by the previous projects.

Most of the projects housed at Obelis make use of the same cumulative database that we built over the years. For instance, when we studied the academic elites in Switzerland, we were also able to gather a lot of additional information regarding the economic and/or political networks of these professors. Or, when our most recent project – the Sinergia project focused on the local elites in Switzerland – investigated the local connections of the urban elites in Switzerland, we already had a lot of the information we needed in our national database.

The project on the financial elites has a bit of a different focus because it is mainly analyzing the U.S. elites, but it relies on very similar forms of prosopographical data collection. We systematically collect information on individuals who occupy the most influential positions in our society, by using biographical dictionaries, directories,or the world wide web. And then we use this data to analyze the social backgrounds, the careers, and/or the networks of these individuals.

Q3. The “rise of the financial elite”-project is scheduled to be conducted from 2018 to 2022 and your team is composed of Fabien Foureault (Post-doc), Lena Ajdacic (PhD student), Steven Piguet (Informatician). Since you are in the last year of the project, it would be interesting to know: What stage are you at now in the research project? What have been some of the biggest research challenges you encountered? And, what are some of the project’s major findings and outcomes thus far?

Answer: The project on the financial elites is now in its last months. We were able to construct a large database (n=5400) of top executives from mostly U.S. financial intermediaries, which means the top managers of hedge funds, investment banks, private equity firms, or large asset managers.

It is important to mention that data collection and construction was quite challenging because we were not always able to collect all the data that we were looking for (i.e., notably regarding the social class and/or the social origin/background of the elites).

Our main discovery is the importance of alternative finance (i.e., private equity and hedge funds) where we find the highest earning professionals, who were educated at the most prestigious universities and who come from the highest social backgrounds. As a result, the so-called “masters of the universe” are no longer the investment bankers, but rather those who are working in smaller, more secretive partnerships, found in the alternative finance bracket.

For those who are interested to learn more about this project, our doctoral student, Lena Ajdacic, has already published an article on the compensation norms in alternative finance in the Socio-Economic Review, which is called: Status hierarchies and norm diffusion: the increase of top incomes in high finance. Further, we recently also published a paper in the British Journal of Sociology on the educational trajectories of financial elites, called: Elite recruitment in US finance: How university prestige is used to secure top executive positions.

Q4. From 2013 to 2016, you were leading another Obelis supported project called: Academic Elites in Switzerland 1910 – 2000: Between Autonomy and Power. Based on this research, how are Swiss academic elites different and/or similar to the Swiss financial elites?

Answer: First, academic elites in Switzerland are quite interesting to analyze particularly because two of the most important trends that we can notice during the 20th century are those of internationalization and feminization. In this respect, the Swiss academic elites are comparable to the economic elites, while they are very different from the political elites (whom, for evident reasons, are Swiss nationals and thus national/local).

Second, while working on the aforementioned project, it was also interesting to see: (1) the interaction between political and academic elites and (2) the big influence that academic elites have on the Swiss economy. For instance, those who are interested to learn more about these topics and are also curious about the fields of chemistry or biology, they should consider consulting the work of Pierre Benz, PhD. And, for those interested in the field of economy, they should consult the work of Thierry Rossier, PhD.

And third, in a nutshell, with the help of this research we could not really confirm the idea of the ivory tower…

Q5. Looking forward, what are some of the projects that the Obelis team is excited about further developing?

Answer: Recently, Obelis joined an international network that is studying the elites, called: The World Elite Database (WED). This network is overseen by Prof. Mike Savage, from the London School of Economics, and several other colleagues from France, Norway, Germany, Denmark, the U.K., Poland, Italy, Finland, Russia, Chile, and South Africa. In this exciting project we aim to create a transnational database on elites in Europe and beyond (which will have a comparable sample and the same variable).

And, this year, we also organized the first summer school on “Elites, Power and Inequalities,” in which we had 30 participants from over 12 countries. We were positively surprised by the quality and the diversity of the research projects of the PhD students. Overall, it was a very nice experience, which we hope to repeat.

Q6. Would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for junior scholars interested in following a similar line of work such as yours?

Answer: I think the best advice is to reach out to other young scholars who are doing research within this line of work because today, there are so many excellent young scholars interested in better understanding the ‘elites.’ I think there is a vibrant and growing community of researchers around the topics of elites, power, and inequality.

Further, many of us are active on social media platforms such as twitter, and that can offer a good place from where to obtain the most recent information regarding publications, conferences, and a variety of research meetings that are linked to this field of study.

Thank you for reading.

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Cristina Teleki, PhD. Interview for Persuasive Discourse, by Sorina I. Crisan PhD.

Felix Bühlmann, PhD

Associate Professor


University of Lausanne (UNIL) | Switzerland

Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Dr. Bühlmann’s work?

You may follow Dr. Bühlmann’s work on his University of Lausanne profile page and Twitter (@ObElitesSuisses).

To learn more about the topics covered in this interview, please consult the following publications.

The transformation of professors’ careers: standardization, hybridization, and acceleration?

Pierre Benz, Felix Bühlmann, André Mach, 2020/07/09. Higher Education. Peer-reviewed.

How to Study Elites’ “International Capital”? Some Methodological Reflections

Bühlmann Felix, 2020. pp. 241-251 dans Researching Elites and Power, Springer International Publishing.

The Internationalisation of Economics and Business Studies: Import of Excellence, Cosmopolitan Capital, or American Dominance?

Rossier Thierry, Bühlmann Felix, 2018. Historical Social Research, 3 (43) pp. 189-215. Peer-reviewed.

Elites in Switzerland: the rise and fall of a model of elite coordination

Bühlmann Felix, Beetschen Marion, David Thomas, Ginalski Stéphanie, Mach André, 2017/12/17. Tempo social, 29 (3) pp. 181-199. Peer-reviewed.

New Direction in Elite Studies

Korsnes Olav, Heilbron Johan, Hjellbrekke Johs, Bühlmann Felix, Savage Mike, 2017/12/13. Advances in Sociology 322, Routledge.

Cosmopolitan Capital and the Internationalization of the Field of Business Elites: Evidence from the Swiss Case

Bühlmann Felix, David Thomas, Mach André, 2013/06. Cultural Sociology, 7 (2) pp. 211-229. Peer-reviewed.

Political and Economic Elites in Switzerland: Personal Interchange, Interactional Relations and Structural Homology

Bühlmann Felix, David Thomas, Mach André, 2012/12. European Societies, 14 (5) pp. 727-754. Peer-reviewed.

For Dr. Bühlmann’s complete list of publications, please access this link.

Illustrations by: The main article photo is by Markus Winkler, made available on the Unsplash photo gallery. The profile photo included on this page is made available on the interviewee's University of Lausanne profile page.

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