Authors: Bobbio, Matteucci, Pasquino
Summary: The entry defines the term and distinguishes it from aristocracy and democracy. The term means "government by the few," thought its usual sense in classical political theory was "government by the wealthy." In ancient Greece, the term had a negative connotation. Aristotle, for instance, considered it the corrupt form of aristocracy, government by the best.
In modern political theory the concept has acquired renewed relevance due to the elite-based approaches and theories of figures like Mosca, Pareto, and Michels. This perspective emphasizes the elitist feature of all governments, in a sense asserting that oligarchy is the only effectual regime.
Since the Second World War students of Third World regimes have tended to use the term in opposition with democracy. In contemporary political science the distinction between oligarchy and democracy is more commonly made than that between oligarchy and aristocracy, with regard to both the source and the use of power.