Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why haven't you read Blanton & Fargher (2008)?

The book, Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States, by Richard Blanton and Lane Fargher, is the most important work published on ancient and premodern political dynamics for several decades. I just realized that I have yet to write a post on the book. I have mentioned it often in this blog since its publication in 2008, but now it is time to focus on it more directly. I will give just two reasons why all archaeologists concerned with states need to read the book and take its findings into account; there are lots of subsidiary reasons (such as, it is full of great historical details on 30 premodern states).

1. Blanton and Fargher have come up with a new and rigorous analysis of key dynamics of ancient state governments.

They start with a branch of collective action theory associated with political scientist Margaret Levi that she has labeled the "predatory theory of rule" (Levi 1981, 1988). Levi argues that state revenues (a crucial part of state dynamics that is seriously undertheorized in archaeology) are determined by three factors: the bargaining powers of rulers and subjects; transaction costs; and the discount rate of rulers (i.e., how long a ruler expects to stay in power). She assembles empirical data and theory to support her model, which started a productive line of research in political science and historical sociology. Blanton and Fargher build on Levi’s insights, but they approach the topic from a different direction. They take fiscal organization as their starting point and examine its effects on key political and social variables. They come up with a scale of popular participation in government that runs from autocratic regimes to more collective or democratic regimes. In their causal model the internal or external origin of state revenues causes or determines the scores on the governance scale (see the diagram). In short, reliance on internal revenue sources leads to greater bureaucratization, greater popular control over rulers, and more provisioning of public goods. Rulers rely on their subjects for taxation, so they must treat them better. External revenue leads to the opposite pattern. Rulers get their revenue from elsewhere, so they have no incentive to treat their subjects well by providing public goods or giving them any say in governance.
Blanton & Fargher 2008: 254

Blanton and Fargher's scale of rulership, which runs from autocratic to democratic or collective, is a major advance in understanding ancient states. Not all states were the same. Some rulers were despotic and seriously exploited their subjects, but other states had more collective forms of rule, which means that commoner subjects had some say in governance. They analyze the thirty polities in their sample on a host of variables, which are scored in various ways to produce three numerical scales: public goods provision; bureaucratization; and control of the ruler. The scores for these scales are summed to produce their governance scale, which runs from a low of 23.5 (Bakitara; Aceh, Nupe, and 12th century England are near the bottom) to a high of 52 (Classical Athens; also near the top: Republican Rome, Ming China and Lozi in Africa).

2. Blanton and Fargher come up with some fascinating counter-intuitive results.

The standard archaeological view of ancient states is that they had powerful despotic rulers who stomped all over their subjects. People's lives were strongly controlled and dominated by rulers and the state, and ordinary households had few options to succeed. This image of powerful autocratic rulers dominates archaeological writing on states; Yul Brenner as Ramses in the film The Ten Commandments comes to mind here. I know this was my view prior to reading Blanton and Fargher. Few of us used language as stark as this, but we have fancier ways of saying the same thing.

But in their model, it turns out that the most despotic rulers (who ran the least collective states) generally left their subjects alone. Taxes were not very high, and while few public goods were provided, people had a lot of autonomy to do things as they like. A classical formulation of this kind of state is Max Weber's concept of the "patrimonial state." In the more collective states, on the other hand, rulers had many bureaucrats and they kept track of people by counting, measuring, recording, and generally watching the population. Taxes were much higher, and they were harder to shirk. So in this sense, commoner subjects had LESS autonomy from state interference, and they were far more subject to state surveillance, in the more collective states.  Hmmmm, does this sound odd? It certainly did to me when I first read Blanton and Fargher.

You don't have to take their word for this, however. The key concepts (which they mention but do not employ as extensively as I would have thought) are from Michael Mann: despotic and infrastructural power (Mann 1984, 1986, 2008). Despotic power is the ability of the ruler to do what he wants,
unconstrained by other political actors. Infrastructural power is the ability of the state to penetrate civil society and carry out its wishes. Mann uses this to contrast modern states (very high on infrastructural power) with ancient states (very low infrastructural power). Think of President Obama's inability to carry out his desired policies and actions; like most modern rulers, he has very low despotic power. But think of the ability of the IRS to keep track of our incomes, or of the NSA to spy on us; these are examples of high infrastructural power. The key insight of Blanton and Fargher here is the variation in both kinds of power among premodern states. Their scale runs approximately from the top left of Mann's scheme (autocracatic regimes) to the middle right area (collective states). If you work on states, you really need to read Mann's works also.

This is just a quick taste of Blanton and Fargher's model. The first reaction of an archaeologist, however, is that these are all historical case studies. How can we do this kind of analysis archaeologically? Blanton and Fargher have produced a series of journal articles since 2008 that begin to extend their insights to archaeology, but they have so far not come up with a rigorous method to apply their model to archaeological data. This is a big need, and if they won't do it, then some enterprising Ph.D. student should take this on. 

If you deal with states at all, you have no excuse not to read Blanton and Fargher, and you really should start using their concepts in your work. This is really ground-breaking stuff, a major contribution to knowledge. Six years after publication, however, I am surprised that more of us aren't citing and using this work.


Levi, Margaret  (1981)  The Predatory Theory of Rule. Politics and Society 10:431-466.
Levi, Margaret  (1988)  Of Rule and Revenue. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Mann, Michael  (1984)  The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results. European Journal of Sociology / Archives Europ√©ennes de Sociologie 25:185-213.
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.
Mann, Michael  (2008)  Infrastructural Power Revisited. Studies in Comparative International Development 43:355-365.

The basic model:

Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2008)  Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.
Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2009)  Collective Action in the Evolution of Pre-Modern States. Social Evolution and History 8(2):133-166.
Fargher, Lane F. and Richard E. Blanton  (2007)  Revenue, Voice, and Public Goods in three Pre-Modern States. Comparative Studies in Society and History 49:848-882.

Recent articles:

Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2011)  The Collective Logic of Pre-Modern Cities. World Archaeology 43(3):505-522.
Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2012)  Neighborhoods and the Civic Constitutions of Pre-Modern Cities as Seen from the Perspective of Collective Action. In The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities, edited by Marie Charlotte Arnauld, Linda Manzanilla and Michael E. Smith, pp. 27-52. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Fargher, Lane F., Richard E. Blanton and Verenice Y. Heredia Expinoza  (2010)  Egalitarian Ideology and Political Power in Prehispanic Central Mexico: The Case of Tlascallan. Latin American Antiquity 21:227-251.
Fargher, Lane F., Verenice Y. Heredia Expinoza and Richard E. Blanton  (2011)  Alternative Pathways to Power in Late Postclassic Highland Mesoamerica. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 30:306-326.


Anonymous said...

...Because it currently costs $147 on amazon. Why are volumes from Springer so much more expensive? This does sound like a fascinating volume though.

Michael E. Smith said...

Yeah, very good point. These Springer books are a real rip-off. You can get the basic argument from articles, and then try to find the book in a library to check the details.

Mark Collard said...

Great post. You've convinced me to buy the book.

Marcus said...

Perhaps one reason is because their method bridges the small-n and large-n sampling strategies. People either compare a few societies or a great many (well, most don't compare at all, I guess). Blanton & Fargher have both a qualitative grasp of data and a sample sufficiently large to do some statistics. I think that is a very good idea, but it's also a very rare breed so far.

One thing I didn't like is their theory, which I felt is too heavy-handed. Given that I do not valuate their models as much as they do, this diminishes the interest in their research somewhat for me. I like their method and data much more than their models.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous: "Why are volumes from Springer so much more expensive?"

I would guess that a) they don't really intend to sell any to individuals, and b) the high price is meant to encourage libraries to subscribe to SpringerLink. I like that I can download most Springer books for free through our library here, but I would imagine it's really a pain for scholars who don't have access to a big university library to get most of these Springer books.

Anonymous said...

I work on early states and I do have this book. The ideas are interesting but one thing that put me off is one of the regional case studies they provide. I am an specialist in that region and noticed that most of the sources cited in this section are quite outdated and do not reflect the current state of the field at all. That makes me a little skeptical about how well these ideas actually play out.

Michael E. Smith said...

Very good comment. A few relevant observations, based on the fact that I am in the middle of a comparative project, with coding of many societies, that is parallel to Blanton and Fargher's project. The first question is whether their sources provide data that is acceptable for the variables they code, even if they are not using the latest sources or aren't up on the current scholarly approaches. It is easy to get overwhelmed when gathering this kind of data from a region one is not a specialist in, and one always has to strive to stay on track to concentrate on what you need.

A second question is how accessible is the current information for a scholar not part of the actively scholarly community for that region/time period. For many regions, historical and archaeological data are locked up in obscure and hard-to-get sources. A third question, one of the major disappointments of my own comparative study, is whether regional specialists have helped you out. In my project, we almost always reach out to one or more experts in the specific cities we are coding. Typically we look for help early in our work on a city: citations to sources we should check, comments on sources to avoid, etc. Then we have often looked for help later on with specific questions. The disappointment is that we have gotten relatively little expert help. Many times, the regional experts do not bother to respond to inquiries. In other cases, we get a response with perhaps a vague offer to help. But when we send a list of questions (e.g., did Buddhist monasteries in Tang period Chang'an have temples or shires that were visited by neighborhood residents?), we get no reply. So we forge ahead and make a guess based on the textual sources we have, realizing that we may or may not have gotten this particular interpretation correct. At least 3 experts have failed to answer our question about the Chang'an monasteries (and I forget how this was coded).

Getting the best sources is a very difficult task for comparative work, and regional scholars do not always do a good job in making their scholarly literature available and comprehensive to comparative scholars and other outwiders.

That said, if their sources are not good and the data are wrong, then that is a real problem. Their coverage is acceptable for my best-known case (the Aztecs), although I disagree about one coding decision they made.

Anonymous said...

This comment is probably no longer necessary due to the age of this post, but to be honest, I am troubled by this blaming of regional specialists in response to the original question, and I feel that saying it is hard to find good sources is a bit of a cop-out. It can be extremely difficult for scholars working in certain areas to get their work published in major journals, and we are often marginalized at national conferences etc. because there is no interest in what we do UNTIL someone want to use it for something 'comparative'.

I'm sure there is perhaps quite a lot of work that can be done on both sides to remedy this situation. I for one make a point of reaching out and responding to non-specialists even if I feel it will end up being a waste of time - I think some of the problem might be that comparative scholars only bother to contact the one or two big names in the field and leave it at that. Regardless of the reason, this also still does not deal with the fact that these conclusions are being drawn from inaccurate or outdated scholarship. How can I trust such theories knowing this? I feel like this is a classic example of modern colonialism in our discipline, and I am disheartened by it.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Anonynous -There are a lot of issues here. I will reply here to just one, the nature of "outdated scholarhsip." There are archaeologists for whom only the very latest interpretations are of interest. Anything older than a few years is considered "outdated." They are referring to interpretations, not data (and they tend to be social-theory interpretivist scholars, not scientific-epistemology scholars).These people can take a quick look at the bibliography and declare a work "outdated."

For other scholars, publications from a particular region are only interesting or useful to the extent that they contain data that can be used. A 100-year old publication full of data is not outdated from this perspective. But when older data sources are shown to be biased or incomplete or in error by more recent historiographic scholarhsip, then "outdated" is the correct term and this is a problem. This is the case with the Chandler/Modelski data on city sizes (SEE: http://publishingarchaeology.blogspot.com/2016/06/why-would-journal-called-scientific.html ). So, it is hard to talk about concepts like "outdated" when there is so much meethodological and epistemological variation in our field.

Comparative reseasrch is a constant balance between getting sufficient data about each case, and finding enough cases to make the comparison work.

As for blaming regional specialists, that was not meant to be a blanket statement about all such scholars. But in our particular case, we ended up with a number of regional specialists who became non-responsive, and it was very frustrating.