Thursday, May 3, 2012

Do archaeologists know anything useful about premodern states?

Max Weber
I've been reviewing what sociologists and political scientists have written about premodern states. In the past I have largely avoided this material, perhaps taking a quick look and then dropping it. Much of what they say is clueless and either wrong, or at least very incomplete (e.g., Greece and Rome and medieval Europe exhaust the variation in premodern states, perhaps occasionally considering dynastic China). It turns out that Max Weber was pretty smart about these things, although he did limit his writings to the Old World historical societies. But I found lots of value in Weber when I was working on Aztec taxation; Weber had much more useful comparative and theoretical material than any anthropologist or archaeologist.

Anyway, the reason I have been looking at historical sociology and the like is for an upcoming proposal where a group of us will have to convince other social scientists that archaeological data are valid and  worthwhile. So we'd better not say dumb things in those other disciplines. I have been trying to reconcile the Weber/historical sociology scheme of ancient states with the anthropological and archaeological schemes. I have found that Eisenstadt and Mann are very useful in making the sociological tradition comprehensible to an anthropologist. One of the key issues is the "patrimonial state," first identified by Weber, and cited by many sociologists since. This is basically a despotic centralized state; most authors focus on the label, noting that this is a state where the polity is an extension of the household of the ruler. This concept has recently been revived, and there is a special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science from 2011 with a bunch of papers applying the notion of patrimonialism to historical and modern cases. ((By the way, this is an excellent journal with theme issues, tacking important social science topics)). See Charrad and Adams (2011).

Here are two questions: (1) Why don't archaeologists talk about patrimonial states? and (2) why don't other scholars who discuss patrimonial states cite work by archaelogists on ancient states? After all, we have lots of good data on a wider range to states, and probably a better understanding of many aspects of state dynamics, than Weber had.

(1) I think the answer to the first question is that other archaeologists are like me - they see this stuff by historical sociologists, and either ignore it or leave it alone because it is so limited and outdated. The only case I could find (outside of biblical archaeology) is an article Tim Earle co-authored with a political scientist (Derluguian and Earle 2010).

(2) Why do others ignore archaeology? Well, don't get me started. We don't engage other disciplines. We don't publish in journals they read. We don't bother to relate ideas from other discipline (like the patrimonial state) to our own concepts. We don't explain our concepts in terms others will understand. And so on. I've posted on this before; click on the keyword "archaeology and other disciplines" to see the posts. So while I think Charrad and other authors should probably cite archaeologists like Trigger or Feinman & Marcus, I'm not surprised they don't.

I just published a paper with some high-visibility co-authors on this topic in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (yes, this is the paper rejected by Science. Ha! Who needs the journal Science? We can publish elsewhere!). The paper is:  "Archaeology as a Social Science" (Smith et al 2012). (I'll get it up on my website tomorrow). One colleague (not an archaeologist) said  "Definitely will be surprising for many non-anthropologists to recognize the current impact of archy on the social sciences and the potential future impact.'  I replied to her, skeptically: "Well, surprising perhaps, but only if they read the paper."

So, if archaeologists know useful things about premodern states, but those who write about premodern states for a broad academic (or public) audience don't know about our work, can we still consider it useful knowledge? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?


Charrad, Mounira M. and Julia Adams  (2011)  Introduction: Patrimonialism, Past and Present. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 636(1):6-15.

Derluguian, Georgi and Timothy Earle  (2010)  Strong Chieftaincies Out of Weak States, or Elemental Power Unbound. In Troubled Regions and Failing States: The Clustering and Contagion of Armed Conflicts, edited by Kristian Berg Harpviken, pp. 51-76. Comparative Social Research. vol. 27. Emerald Publishing, London.

Eisenstadt, S. N.  (1963)  The Political Systems of Empires. The Free Press, New York.

Feinman, Gary M. and Joyce Marcus (editors)  (1998)  Archaic States. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, NM.

Mann, Michael  (1986)  The Sources of Social Power, volume 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E., Gary M. Feinman, Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle and Ian Morris  (2012)  Archaeology as a Social Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:(published online).

Trigger, Bruce G.  (2003)  Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Weber, Max  (1976)  The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations. Translated by R. I. Frank. Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

Weber, Max  (1978)  Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 2 vols. University of California Press, Berkeley.


DNak said...

A worthwhile read is David Schloen's The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East (Eisenbrauns 2001).

Michael E. Smith said...

@DNak- Yes, Schloen is very good. I've looked at it and almost purchased it (mainly for ideas on neighborhoods and communities). I should have mentioned it (although as I recall this is more historical than archaeological).

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm no Andeanist (but I did take a class once!), but didn't Alan Kolata argue that Tiwanaku was a patrimonial state? I'm not sure if he cites Weber, but he certainly uses the term.

Whether patrimonialism is a useful concept is another story, of course. . .