Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Social science quiz: sociology vs. political science

Today's quiz: which discipline--sociology or political science--has a better understanding of ancient states?

You would think political science would have better things to say about ancient state-level societies than sociology. After all, political science focuses on power, governments, and political phenomena. But no, sociology has a MUCH BETTER understanding of ancient states, except perhaps in the area of empires.

I have been reading up in these two disciplines, trying to link up their concepts with those used by archaeologists and anthropologists on ancient states and cities. That was not too hard for sociology. The field of historical sociology, starting with Max Weber, has a big literature on how ancient states work, from tax collection in the Roman Empire to state power in China and the Ottoman Empire. It was not too hard to relate that literature to our understanding of ancient states. There are problems, of course. The biggest one is that historical sociologists rarely look beyond the literate societies of the Mediterranean, except for China, and this gives them a very biased sample of societies. But works like these are very insightful, and very relevant to the concerns of archaeologists working on political and social issues in ancient states: Weber (1978), Eisenstadt (1963), Tilly (1992), or Kiser (1994).

I have used some good work in political science in my work on empires and imperialism (Doyle 1986, Gerring et al. 2011), and so I assumed that political science would have good things to say about other kinds of early states. But I was not finding much information. I originally thought Michael Mann (1986)  was a political scientist, but, no, he is a sociologist. Then yesterday I found this statement in a paper in the Annual Review of Political Science: "Political scientists have, however, rarely ventured into world history before the eighteenth century" (von der Muhl 2003:345). I guess that is true.

Then I found a paper in that series that contrasts modern states with premodern states (Spruyt 2002). Aha, maybe this is what I was looking for! Nope. That paper shows an embarrassing level of ignorance of "premodern states." The discussion is highly generalized ("all premodern states are like this..."), it cites only a few examples (such as the Merovingian king Clovis), and contains some whoppers: "Early states had only weakly defined market economies and property rights" (p.130). Well, some had NO markets at all, and some had pretty "strongly defined" market economies. "Taxation hardly existed" (p.130). Well, I wonder how those states supported themselves. I wrote a paper on Aztec taxation, and found they had a ridiculously complicated system of taxation. The same is probably true of other ancient states (this is an area in need of research). And what about the Roman Empire: no taxes? Think again. And,  "early states only tangentially affected their societies" (p.131). OK, tell those Egyptian peasants lugging stones up the side of the pyramid that they are not affected by the government. Or what about some Roman merchants trying to get a contract to supply the military garrisons? Or Inca peasants forced to build roads and bridges for the king. Not affected by the government? I don't think so.

I don't think this this level of scholarship would be acceptable in historical sociology (and certainly not in anthropology or archaeology), but I perhaps political scientists can get away with it.

This has been a very disappointing search through the literature. I think political science offers many concepts and approaches that are very promising for understanding early states. Archaeologists have picked up on only a few of these, and we really should be exploring these and other topics in political science. They include the predatory theory of rule and the role of popular participation in governance (Levi 1998; see Blanton and Farther 2008), collective action approaches to the commons (Ostrom 1990), research on empires (see above), and concepts of urban and regional governance (Sellers 2002). And, as I have posted about on several occasions, there is an excellent strand of methodological work by political scientists that is relevant to other disciplines, including archaeology (Gerring 2012; Mahoney et al 2009).

Just don't look to the published literature in political science for useful analyses of ancient states.


Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2008)  Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.
Doyle, Michael W.  (1986)  Empires. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
Eisenstadt, S. N.  (1963)  The Political Systems of Empires. The Free Press, New York.
Gerring, John  (2012)  Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Gerring, John, Daniel Ziblatt, Johan van Gorp and Julián Arévalo  (2011)  An Institutional Theory of Direct and Indirect Rule. World Politics 63(3):377-433.
Kiser, Edgar  (1994)  Markets and Hierarchies in Early Modern Tax Systems: A Principal-Agent Analysis. Politics and Society 22:284-315.
Levi, Margaret  (1988)  Of Rule and Revenue. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Mahoney, James, Erin Kimball and Kendra L. Koivu  (2009)  The Logic of Historical Explanation in the Social Sciences. Comparative Political Studies 42(1):114-146.
Ostrom, Elinor  (1990)  Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Sellers, Jefferey M.  (2002)  Governing from Below: Urban Regions and the Global Economy. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Spruyt, Hendrick  (2002)  The Origins, Development, and Possible Decline of the Modern State. Annual Review of Political Science 5:127-149.
Tilly, Charles  (1992)  Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990. Blackwell, Oxford.
Von der Muhll, George E.  (2003)  Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Study of Government. Annual Review of Political Science 6:345-376.
Weber, Max  (1978)  Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 2 vols. University of California Press, Berkeley.

1 comment:

David said...

Interesting observations, Mike. I'd agree that sociologists have traditionally done better with the sort of diachronic analysis that articulates with archaeological concerns. Yet possibly political scientists have done better with individual and small-group decision making (along with economists and psychologists, but within political contexts). A recent exception from poli sci could be Fukuyama's "The Origins of Political Order," which I think is more nuanced in its consideration of early states than other such works (earlier political views of the author be damned).