“A new political science is needed for a totally new world.” Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835
“The most compelling reason for the existence of historical sociology is embarrassingly obvious, embarrassingly because so often ignored. This is the importance of studying social change.” Craig Calhoun
History, Durkheim remarked, should be sociology’s microscope. Not that it should magnify the tiny, he meant, but that it should be the instrument by which structures are discovered invisible to the unaided eye. Durkheim’s program in the Année Sociologique did not go far with this research, sketching static structures more than the dynamics of structural change. The charge still remains.
Whatever is large and widely connected can be brought into focus within no perspective but one larger still. Political and economic patterns, especially as they encompass states and the strains of war, property systems and markets, can best be seen in the study of many interconnected histories over a long period of time. What Durkheim wanted for sociological theory was not a microscope, but might well be called a macroscope.
Two opposing views on history have dominated the twentieth century of the Christian calender still in use in the post-Christian West. On one hand, this has been the century of macro history par excellence, the first in which a comprehensive history of the world has become possible. Hegel, writing in the generation when professional historiography was being established, had known just enough about the cycle of Chinese dynasties to posit that only the West had a history. By the time of the First World War, Spengler, Weber, and a little later Toynbee were surveying the civilizations of China and India, Egypt and Mesopotamia, Persia and the Arab world, sometimes Mexico, Peru and Polynesia, along with the more familiar comparison of Greco-Roman antiquity with medieval and modern Europe.
The opposing view of 20th century intellectuals has been to recoil from these global vistas in favor of the argument that history shows us no more than ourselves hopelessly contextualized in patternlessness. In the epistemological version of a familiar phrase, all that we learn from history is that it is impossible to learn from history. Let us briefly explore the two sides of this century of historical consciousness.
Cumulating Strands of Analytical Macro-History
Early recognition of patterns crystalized in the ambiguous insight “history repeats itself”. Toynbee began his search for the pattern of all civilizations because the world wars of Britain and Germany reminded him of the death struggle of liberal Athens and authoritarian Sparta. Spengler collated evidence of repeated sequences of cultural efflorescence and decadence throughout the world, each distinguished by its unique mentality, like a melody played in different keys. Marx, whose knowledge of non European history was not so far beyond Hegel’s, depicted its static nature in materialist form as Oriental despotism, a model elaborated in the 1950s by Wittfogel. Bracketing the non-Western world, Marx started from the insight that the class conflict of the Roman world was repeated by analogous classes in medieval feudalism and in modern capitalism.
The Marxian school of historical scholarship is largely an intellectual movement of the 20th century; it presents a materialist parallel to Spengler, discerning abstract sequences repeated in distinctive modalities for each run-through. Instances of history repeating do not necessarily imply cycles like the turning of a wheel; later generations of scholars began to see that what repeats can be treated more analytically, and that multiple processes can combine to weave a series of historical tapestries each peculiar in its details.
Of all the macro-historians of the pioneering period, Weber has survived best. In part this has been because it has taken most of the twentieth century to appreciate the scope of his work. His Protestant Ethic argument was famous by the 1930s, while only in the 1950s and 60s was there much recognition of his comparisons among the world religions designed to show why Christianity, continuing certain patterns of ancient Judaism, gave rise to the dynamism of modern capitalism whereas the civilizations of Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam did not.
Weber’s method of showing how multiple dimensions of social causality intertwine has also grown gradually influential. It is now conceded by scholars almost everywhere that the three dimensions of politics, economics and culture must be taken into account in every analysis, although, as structuralist Marxists of the 1970s argued, one of them may be given primacy “in the last instance”.
There is a negative side as well to Weber’s preeminence. Peeling the layers of Weber’s concepts has provided a field rich in scholarly niches, and the opportunities for developing Weberian ideas in one direction after another have given him the great classic reputation of sociological macro-history. The very process of uncovering Weber as an multi-sided icon has made it difficult for many decades to see just what it takes to go beyond him. Only now as we are becoming able to see Weber’s full achievements are we able as well to see his limits in full daylight. These limits are not so much in his analytical apparatus as in his view of world history. For all his disagreement with Hegel and Marx, Weber shares with them a Eurocentric view: for all important purposes, the histories of what lies eastwards of Palestine and Greece are taken as analytically static repetitions, while the only dynamic historical transformations are those of the West. In some of the papers collected here, I will suggest how Weber’s analytical tools can be used to take us beyond Weber’s Eurocentrism.
The period of scholarship from the mid-1960s onward, continuing into the present, can appropriately be called the Golden Age of macrohistory. The crudities of the generation of pioneers has been passed; fruitful leads have been taken up, and a generation of scholars have done the work to build a set of new paradigms. Analytically, the principal style of this period is an interplay of Weberian and Marxian ideas. Although dogmatic loyalty to one or another of the classics exists in some scholarly camps, across the creative core of this Golden Age the attitude has been pragmatic. The Marx/Weber blend has earned its prominence because a series of key ideas from these traditions have proven fruitful in unanticipated directions.
The most striking accumulation of knowledge has taken place on Marx’s favorite topic, revolution. Beginning by broadening the focus on economic causality, the result has been a paradigm revolution in the theory of revolution. Barrington Moore and Arthur Stinchcombe, followed by Jeffrey Paige and Theda Skocpol, noted that the epoch of revolutions was not so much industrial capitalism but the preceeding period of agrarian capitalism. Agricultural production for the market has been the locus of class conflicts from the English revolution to the Vietnam revolution, and the varying work relations and property patterns of agricultural capitalism have set modern political transformations on paths to left, right or center.
Going further, Skocpol and Jack Goldstone have shown class conflict alone is insufficient for revolution, and must be accompanied by a fiscal crisis of the state and an accompanying split between state elite and property owners over the repair of state finances. Skocpol marks the paradigm shift to what might be called the state breakdown theory of revolution. Skocpol and Goldstone elaborate a common model of state breakdown into alternate chains of causes further back, focussing respective upon geopolitical strains and population-induced price changes.
Another direction of research has continued a purer Marxian line. Here the premise of economic primacy has been preserved by shifting the arena of application from the traditional focus upon a nation state to a capitalist world system. This resuscitation of Marxism has been helped by a diplomatic marriage with the Annales school. Braudel’s 1949 work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip ll, built up a grand historical tapestry out of the patient accumulation of scholarship on the material conditions of everyday life and the flows of trade and finance. Braudel depicted the first of the European world-system hegemonies, the Spanish/Mediterreanean world of the 16th century. Wallerstein, in a multi-volume series beginning in 1974 and still in progress, theorized Braudel’s world in a Marxian direction. Wallerstein has spear-headed a world-system school describing successive expansions of the European world-system around the globe, through successive crises and transfers of hegemony.
World-system scholarship has served as a central clearing house for the scholarship of the world, giving a theoretical resonance to work by regional specialists ranging from the trade of the Malacca Straits to commodity chains in Latin America. Like the Annales School, the world-system camp is a strategic alliance of detailed and specialized histories; the Golden Age of grand historical vision has come about by putting together researches by a century of professional historians. The expanding mass population of universities and historians within them has been the base for the Marxian revival in mid-20th century scholarship; world-system Marxism has provided the vehicle by which otherwise obscure specialities could join in a grand march towards paradigm revolution.
All active intellectual movements have their inner conflicts and unexpected lines of innovation. The world-system camp has not remained conceptually static. The earliest period, epitomized by André Gunder Frank’s dependency theory, stressed that underdevelopment, the world-system equivalent of the immiseration of the proletariat, is created by and grows apace with the penetration of world capitalism. This assertion has been attacked on factual grounds, and dependency theory has retreated to the stance of dependent development, that development can occur under capitalist dependency although the relative gap between metropole and periphery continually widens.
Moreover, there are cases of upward mobility in the world-system, from periphery to semi-periphery into the core, sometimes (like the North American region which eventually became the United States) even into hegemony within the core. On a structuralist interpretation, a capitalist world-system is a set of positions that can be filled by different geograpical regions. There is room only for a small hegemonic zone surrounded by a limited core region where capital, entrepreneurial innovation and the most privileged workers are concentrated; there are always relative gaps in wealth between this region and the semiperiphery and periphery subservient to the capital flows and technical and labor relations shaped at the center. The structuralist version of world-system theory holds that social mobility may occur upwards and downwards within the svstem but the relative privilege or subordination of the several zones always remains.
As I write in the late 1990s, this remains a hypothesis without conclusive evidence one way or the other; on similar grounds are suggestive theorizing about the dynamics of expansive and contractive waves of the world economy, and the pattern of hegemonic wars and shifts in hegemony. (Sanderson 1995, Arrighi 1994 and Chase-Dunn 1989 provide useful overviews.) Even more speculative remains the old Marxian prediction recast in world-system guise, that the future holds a crisis of such proportions that the capitalist system itself will be transformed into world socialism.
For all these uncertainties, world-system research contributes energy and vividness to the activity of this Golden Age of macro-history; it broadens and integrates the many strands of specialized and regional histories, even if the conceptual model is not on as firm a grounds as the developments which have taken place within the narrower compass of the state-breakdown model of revolutions.
Another direction of creative development from the world-system model have come from questioning its Eurocentric starting point. Wallerstein, like Marx, conceptually distinguished large regional structures which are structurally static and incapable of selfdriven economic growth (referred to as worldempires) from capitalist world-systems, balance-of-power regions among contending states which allow a manuevering space in which capitalism becomes dominant. in practice, the latter category is European capitalism, while the structural stasis of worldempires brackets the ancient Mediterrean and the non-Western world.
Wallerstein‘s starting point for the capitalist world-system is the same as Weber’s, Europe in the 16th century. Other scholars have taken the model of a capitalist world-system and applied it backwards in time, or further afield to zones of trade independent at least initially of the European world system. Janet Abu-Lughod depicts a superordinate world system of the Middle Ages, linkages among a series of world system trading zones, strung together like sausages from China through Indonesia; thence to India; to the Arab world centered on Egypt; and finally connecting to the European zone at the tail end of the chain. AbuLughod reverses the analytical question, asking how we can explain not so much the rise of the West as v the fall of the East. Braudel, too, in his later work, describes a series of separate world systems in the period 1400-1800, including not only those in AbuLudghod’s medieval network but also Turkey and Russia. Braudel suggests there was a rough parallel in economic level among all of them before the industrialism revolution until they were upset by a late European intrusion.
Other scholars have applied the logic of world system models further back in time. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1991, 1997) argue that even in regions of state-less tribes, and the period of earliest states known through the archeological record, there was never a question of isolated units undergoing their own development through local circumstances, but regional world systems with cores and peripheral trading zones.
The analytical emphasis of world systems has shifted in these various efforts to extend the model backwards in time. For some, the specifically capitalist character of world systems becomes unessential; for others, trade relations become the crucial feature rather than property, labor relations, or modes roduction. What has become seen increasingly as central in the model has been its dynamic properties: the Kondratieff-like waves of expansion and contraction over periods of approximately one-to-two centuries, punctuated by hegemonic crises and shifts in core dominance. Gills and Frank (1991) have schematized such cycles from 3000 BC. to the present. Generalizing world system models to all times and places defocusses other questions, above all what causes changes in the character of economic and political systems as different as stateless kin-based tribal networks, agrarian production coerced by military elites, and the several kinds of capitalism. This recent phase of omni-world-system theorizing is bound to be supplemented by other models.
These controversies occupy the immediate foreground of attention. More significant for the trend of contemporary thought has been a permanent gestalt switch in the way we do macrohistory. The subject of analysis can no longer be taken as the isolated unit, whether it is the isolated tribe of structural-functionalist anthropology, the isolated civilizations of Spengler’s era, or the nationstates beloved of national historians. These units exist in a world of like and unlike units; their pattern of relations with each other makes each of them what they are. This is not to say that for analytical purposes we cannot focus upon a single tribe, or cultural region, or national state. But explanations of what happens inside these units, abstracted from their world-system context are not only incomplete; that might be of relatively small consequence, since explanations always abstract out of a mass of detail in order to focus on what is most important.
The world-system viewpoint makes a stronger theoretical claim: to abstract away from this external context is to miss the most important determinants of their political and economic structures. In crucial respects, all social units are constituted from the outside in.
This gestalt switch to an outside-in causality, pionneered by contemporary neo-Marxism, has been paralleled on the neo-Weberian side. This is my way of referring to the primacy which has been given, during the contemporary Golden Age of macrohistory, to explaining states by their interstate relations, which is to say, by geopolitics. Here too there is a pre-history. The concept of geopolitics began at the turn of the 20th century, in an atmosphere associated with nationalistic military policies. Mackinder in Britain, Mahan in the US, Ratzel and Haushofer in Germany argued over the importance of land or sea power, and about the location of strategic heartlands upon the globe whose possession gave dominance over other states. The topic of geopolitics acquired a bad odour with the Nazis, and still more in the period of postwar decolonization. But gradually the historical sociology of the state made it apparent that geopolitics cannot be analytically overlooked. The old confusion has dissolved between recognizing geopolitical processes and advocating military aggrandizement; contemporary analytical geopolitics is more like to emphasize the costs and liabilities of geopolitical overextension.
The old geopoliticians tended to particularize their subject, as in Mackinder’s assertion that hegemony depends upon controlling a geographical heartland lying at the center of Eurasia. Contemporary geopolitics shows instead that the expansion and contraction of state borders is determined by the relations among the geopolitical advantages and disadvantages of neighbouring states, wherever they might lie upon the globe.
One influence in the revival of geopolitical theory has been the world history of William McNeill. McNeill’s The Rise of the West (a deliberately anti-Spenglerian title), appearing in 1963, represents the maturity of world historiography, the point at which enough scholarship had been accumulated so that the history of the globe could be written in conventional narrative form, without resort to metaphor.
In comparison to the flamboyant efforts of the generation of pioneers, McNeill’s world history is that of the professional historian, extending routine techniques and building on knowledge that had accumulated to the point where a world history was no longer a miraculous glimpse. This maturing of world historiography can be seen too in the contemporaneous appearance of other monumental works covering huge swaths of non-Western history: Joseph Needham’s multi-volumed Science and Civilization in China (1954-present), and Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam (1974).
McNeill succeeds in decentering world history from a European standpoint, giving pride of place to the process by which “ecumenes” of inter-civilizational contact have been gradually widening for several thousand years. McNeill shows the significance of geopolitical relationships in the expansion of empires, their clashes and crises; he presents a wealth of instances ranging from the far east to the far west of states undergoing invasions from their marchlands, overextending their logistics to distant frontiers, or disintegrating in internal fragmentation. The military side of the state may have been a passing concern in McNeill’s early work, but it grows into explicit importance in his later works, especially The Pursuit of Power (1982) which documents the world history of the social organization of armaments and their impact upon society.
Another type of compendium, alongside McNeill’s world history, has fostered the modern scholarship on geopolitics. This is the development of comprehensive historical atlases, such as the series edited by McEvedy [1961,1967,1972,1978,1982]. This too is an indication of the synthesis now possible by the accumulation of historical scholarship. The endless complexities of state histories come into a visual focus when we can examine them as a series of maps allowing us to see the changing territories of states in relation to one another. The difficulty of comprehending all this material in purely verbal form is one reason why older narrative histories either fragmented into specialized narratives or glossed over the general pattern by reference to a unrealistically small number of great empires. Historical atlases appearing in the 1960s and 70s marked the phase of consolidating information upon which more explicit theorizing could take place.
The geopoliticaIIy-oriented or military-centered view of the state has become increasingly important through the convergence of three areas of scholarship: geopolitical theory; the state-breakdown theory of revolution; and the historical sociology of the modern state as a expanding apparatus of military organization and tax extraction.
In the 1960s through the 80s, an analytical theory of geopolitics began to take shape. Stinchcombe, Boulding, Modelsky, van Creveld, Paul Kennedy and others developed a coherent set of geopolitical principles. In my synthetic account, these comprise a set of causes concerning the dynamics of relative economic and material resources of contending states; geographical configurations affecting the number of potential enemies upon their borders; and the logistical costs and strains of exercizing the threat of force at a varying distances from resource centers. In contrast to the older geopolitical theories of the pioneering age, contemporary geopolitical theory has become multi-dimensional: there is no single overriding cause of state expansion or decline, but a combination of a processes which can produce a wide range of outcomes. Although there remains a natural tendency to concentrate on the fate of the great hegemonic states, geopolitics applies analytically not merely to single states but to regions of state interrelations, and encompasses times and places where small states and balances of power exist as well as hegemonies and major wars. Since war and peace are analytically part of the same question, geopolitics implies a theory of peace as well as its opposite.
A second strand of research elevating the importance of geopolitics is the state breakdown theory of revolutions, especially in Skocpol’s formulation. The fiscal crisis at the heart of major revolutionary situations has most commonly been brought about by the accumulation of debts through the largest item of state expense, the military. The next step back in the chain of causes is the geopolitical conditions which determine how much a state has been fighting, with what costs, what destruction and what recouping of resources through military success. I have argued that the Skocpolian model of state breakdown not only meshes with geopolitical theory, but with a neoWeberian theory of legitimacy. The state breakdown theory is resolutely material, emphasizing hardnosed military and economic conditions.
There remains the realm of belief and emotion, the cultural and social realities which many sociologists argue are primary in human experience, a realm of lived meanings through which material conditions are filtered in affecting human action. In my argument, the theoretical circle is closed by taking up the Weberian point that the power-prestige of the state in the external arena, above all the experience of mobilization for war, is the most overwhelming of all social experiences.
The legitimacy of state rulers comes in considerable part from their people’s sense of geopolitics as it affects their own state. Militarily expanding states and prestigeful actors on the world scene increase their domestic legitimacy and even help create it out of whole cloth. Conversely, states in geopolitical straits not only go down the slope towards fiscal crisis and state breakdown, but also follow an emotional devolution which brings about delegitimation. Geopolitics leads to revolution by both material and cultural paths.
A third strand of contemporary research has shown that the modern state developed primarily through ramifications of its military organization. Historians and social scientists have documented the “military revolution”, the huge increase in scale of armies that began in the 16th and 17th centuries. In its train came organizational changes; weapons became increasingly supplied centrally by the state instead of through local provision; logistics trains became larger and more expensive; armies converted to close-order drill and bureaucratic regimentation.
Two summary works may be singled out: Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power, shows how prominently military spending, along with debts incurred from previous wars, has loomed in the budgets of modern states. Mann goes on to show that a series of increases in the scale of military expense, first at the time of the military revolution and the second around the Napoleonic wars, have successively motivated the penetration of the state into civil society: in part to secure funding, in part to mobilize economic resources and military manpower. This distinctively modern penetration of society by the state has proven a two-edged sword, creating national identities and loyalties, but also mobilizing classes to participate with full weight of their numbers in an overarching arena and to struggle for political representation and other concessions in response to fiscal demands.
Mann plays a neo-Weberian trump card upon the Marxist theory of class mobilization; in the state-centered model, the development of the state, through the expansion of its own specific resource, the organization of military power, determines whether classes can be mobilized at all as political and cultural actors. The same process of state penetration into society simultaneously mobilizes nationalist movements. We could add here another Weberian point: once the military-instigated penetration of society has occurred, processes of bureaucratization and interest mobilization are both set in motion; the organizational resources of the modern state now becomes an instrument to be turned to uses far removed from the original military ones, ranging from the welfare state to experiments in socialism or cultural reform.
The other modern classic summarizing the military centered theory of state development is Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital and European States, 990-1990. Marshalling the wealth of scholarship now available, Tilly shows how the pathways of states diverged as they underwent the military revolution. Depending upon which kinds of economic organization were in range of their forces, states relied upon extraction from urban merchants or from the conquest of agrarian territories; these several bases determined the difficulty of the fiscal task and the kinds of opposition rulers faced in raising funds for their armies.
As the large number of small medieval states winnowed down to a few through geopolitical processes, modern states crystalized into a range of democratic or autocratic polities, shaped by these differing fiscal bases. The historical pathways of state military organization mesh with their external geopolitical experiences and their internal struggles over taxation and representation; the result has been to instigate revolutions, and to shape the constitution of the various kinds of modern states.
The areas of scholarship I have just reviewed are prime evidence for my claim that we are living in a Golden Age of macro-history. Obviously not all problems have been solved; but no period of creative work ever solves all its problems, to do so would bring innovation to a standstill, and creative scholars always generate new issues as they go along. What we can say is that the range and depth of our vision of world history has permanently widened. Analytically, I believe we have the firm outlines of some important features the state breakdown theory of revolutions, the world-system gestalt in the most generic sense of looking for causal processes from the outside in, the elements of geopolitical processes, the military-resource trajectory of the development of the modern state.
I have given pride of place to political and economic topics of macrohistorical sociology, because these are the topics which have seen the most sustained research and the most cumulative theorizing. I must neglect, in a discussion of this scale, many other areas in which the maturing of modern social history has reached a critical mass, or at least passed the threshold into works of considerable sophistication. Let me just mention a few of the advances which have been made in the historical study of the family (the Laslett school; the comparative works of Jack Goody); the history of civilizing manners (Elias, Mennell, Goudshloml: the macro-history of diseases and the history of civilizing manners (Elias, Mennell, Goudsblom); the macro-history of diseases and the environment (McNeill again, Alfred Crosby); the macro-history of art (Arnold Hauser; André Malraux).
Other work has been proceeding apace in the history of gender, of sexualities, and of material culture. There is every indication that the Golden Age of macro-history is continuing. Approaches pioneered for European societies are just now being used in depth elsewhere (such as lkegami’s work on the civilizing process in Japan). Durkheim’s sociological microscope on becoming a macroscope has accumulated a first and second round of discoveries; another round surely lies ahead.
Critics of Macro History
Having viewed the side of the 20th century’s love affair with macro history, let us turn back now to the opposing side. Alongside the developing vistas of world-encompassing and analytically illuminating history, there has been a persistent countertheme attacking its misuses and denouncing its epistemology. Here too we can schematize the account into two waves, corresponding to the pioneering generation of macro-historians, and the late 20th century wave of sophisticated reflexivity.
In the 1930s and 40s, grand historical visions were repudiated on many grounds. Spengler’s vague poetic metaphors and Toynbee’s religious pronouncements were taken as the sort of flaws that are inevitable in works of this pretentious scope. Popper, in revulsion to Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism, claimed that what his idiosyncratic terminology labelled the “historicist” mentality (i.e. the search for historical laws) was at the roots of anti-democratic movements. In a narrower professional sphere, anthropologists reacted against the earlier generation which had approached ethnographic materials in a comparative and historical light, construing items of culture against the template of what kind of ”survival” they represented from the earlier track of evolutionary development. Against this approach, the structural functional program held that an entire society must be studied in depth as a kind of living organism, revealing how its various institutions meshed with one another as an integrated system operating in the present.
The first wave of objections to macro-history proved ephemeral, and a newer generation of historians and comparative sociologists began to publish the works that I have referred to as the Golden Age.
On the anthropological side, the tide turned again as well. Beginning already in 1949, and with increasingly prominence in a series of works in the 1950s and 60s, Lévi-Strauss took a new approach to writing the history of “peoples without histories”, i.e. tribal societies without written records and hence without the explicit consciousness of an historical frame of reference. Levi-Strauss proposed to read their implicit historical memory by cracking the symbolic code in which mythologies are recollected. The method led him to reconstruct events of epochmaking importance such as the practice of cooking which divides human from the animals that they eat. Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques parallels his earlier work on the structural patterns of kinship, in which he attempted to reconstruct the pattern of a kinship revolution by which some family lineages constituted themselves as an elite, breaking with primitive reciprocity and leading towards to the stratification of the state. Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism had an ambiguous relation to history; its affinities to structural-functionalism and to other static structuralist theories like Chomskyian linguistics gave the impression that it too dealt with unchanging structural relationships. At the same time, structures were depicted as dynamic relations, systems in disequilibrium, which both motivated historical changes, and left symbolic residues by which we can memorialize them. Lévi-Straussian structures are both historical and supra-historical in much the same way language is.
Via this ambiguity, the receding wave of enthusiasm for structuralism flowed directly into a wave of or post-structuralism. Lévi-Strauss had shown no reliable way either to decode symbolic history or to correlate symbols in a straightforward Durkheimian way with social structures. In the French intellectual world, the failure of Lévi-Strauss’s project was taken as a warrant for historicizing all the codes. The notion was retained that we live in a world structured by codes, and that we see the world only through the lenses of our codes. But what we see through them is shifting and unreliable, like using eyeglasses made of flowing water.
The movement attacking macro-history, and along with it any substantive sociological theorizing of wide analytical scope, has been fed by several streams. These include the influence of later generations of phenomenological philosophy; the extension of Hegelian reflexivity in Foucault’s expansion of the history of psychiatry contextualizing and relativizing Freud; the 1960s’ generation combining mind-blowing psychedelic “cultural revolution” with political radicalism tied no longer to industrial workers but to movements of student intellectuals; the anti-westernism of ethnic insurgencies; rebellion by feminist intellectuals against the dominance of male textual canons. The result has been a formidable alliance of political and intellectual interests. To these we might add an implicit rivalry inside the world of scholars, between specialists concerned with their own niches, and synthesizers drawing specialized researches into broader statements.
A common denominator of this contemporary wave of attack upon macro-history is the priority of contextuality and particularism. This anti-historical consciousness nevertheless arises from the same circumstances as its opposite. Today’s antihistorians arise from a surfeit of history. Postmodernist thinking might perhaps be described as a kind of vomiting up history, a choking fIt that began in disillusionment with Marxism and to some extent with Freudianism which in certain fashionable circles had been considered the only Grand Narratives worth knowing about.
Both the macro-historians of the current Golden Age, and the anti-grand-historians who are their contemporaries, are products of a rising tide of consciousness of our location within history. All of us, those who write history and those who write against it, exist and think within history; a future intellectual history will doubtless be written about the late 20th century, just like everything else. Our ideas, our very language, are part of history. There is no standard outside of history by which anything can be judged. Does this recognition weigh in favor of macro-historians, or condemn them? There is no escape from the prison of contextuality. What follows?
Theory and Analytical Particularism
Let us bring the two positions into close confrontation. I have emphasized that the Golden Age of macro-history in which we are living rests upon the accumulation of scholarly work by generations of historians. In today’s fashionable philosophies, is this not warrant from dismissing macro-history as nothing but naive empiricism? My response would be simply: we are intellectually constituted by the brute fact that a community comprising thousands of historians and social scientists have been working for several centuries, and that their accumulated archives have been tapped by McNeill, Wallerstein, Mann, Tilly, and others, just as the spottier archives were tapped years ago by Weber and Toynbee. It is a polemical simplification to suppose that attending to empirical research makes one guilty of obliviousness to theoretical activity.
It is equally arbitrary to assume that the development of theoretical interpretations proceeds by reference to nothing but other ideas, much less by mysterious ruptures in the history of consciousness. In the social reality of the intellectual world, today’s hyper-reflexive philosophies and advocates of narrow contextuality are products of the same accumulation of historical archives as the macro-historians; the only difference is that one group specializes in the history of intellectual disciplines, of literary criticism and linguistics, whereas the other has drawn upon the histories of economies, polities and religions.
The answer to conceptual embeddedness in historical contexts is not less theory, but more. Falling back on local contextuality is often a way of begging questions, leaving us not with greater sophistication but with implicit dependence upon unexamined theories encoded in the very language one uses. All history is theory-laden. The effort to disguise this fact results in bad history and bad theory.
There is no such thing as purely narrative history. It is impossible to recount particulars without reference to general concepts. Nouns and verbs contain implicit generalizations (“another one of those again”). Even proper names are not as particularistic as they might seem, for they pick out some entity assumed to have enduring contours over time, and contain an implicit theory of what holds that “thing” together: an innocuous reference to “France” or to “Paris” is laden with assumptions. To impose a name, whether abstract or particular, is to impose a scheme of what hangs together and what is separated from what; by this route, rhetorical devices become reified, and multi-dimensional processes are construed as unitary. And narrative is always selection; from the various things that could be told, some are focussed upon as significant, and their sequence implies what is supposed to cause what consequences.
Let us take an example from what is usually regarded as the most mindlessly event-driven of particularistic narrative, traditional military diplomatic history. “Napoleon marched his battle hardened veterans all day, surprising the Austrians in the late afternoon with 6000 men; by the end of the battle, Austrian control of Italy had been lost.” This has the sound of a narrative in which history is made by heroic individuals, but its effects are achieved by abstracting the individual from the organizational context. It assumes a world in which troops are organized into disciplined armies, and in such a fashion that a commander can exercise centralized control over rapid organizational response; it further assumes a theory of combat, such that the sheer number of troops amassed at certain kinds of terrain win victories; that previous combat experience makes troops more capable of such manoeuvers; that the speed and timing of troop movements determine battlefield outcomes. These assumptions may or may not be generally true; there now exists an extensive military sociology which explains the social and historical conditions under which such things do or do not come about. Napoleon’s organizational preconditions would not have existed at the time of the Gauls, and they would fail again in several particulars by World War I. The narrative also assumes a theory of the state, in which decisions are driven straightforwardly by military outcomes; again this may be true under certain conditions, but only if we specify the organizational context, victory by Visigothic armies in 410 did not result in a Visigothic empire taking control of Italy, unlike the way Napoleon’s victory in 1800 resulted in building a French empire.
The extent to which the narrated sequence of events makes a coherent story, an adequate explanation cannot be judged merely from examining one single narrative. My point is not that narrative histories of the Napoleonic type are inherently wrong; but that we only know why and to what extent they are right in the light of our more general theoretical knowledge. Such knowledge does not come out of thin air. It comes in part from having studied a wide enough range of other histories so that we can tell what are the central conditions, and which are local concomitants with no important effect upon the particular outcome.
What sociological theory does is to cumulate what we have learned from histories.
Specialized, locally contextual histories are not immune to theory; their atheoretical assertions mean that the theories they implicitly assume are only those old enough to have passed into common assumptions. Histories of democracy are particularly vitiated by unconsciously accepting popular ideological categories. Sociological macro-historians have the advantage of consciously checking whether their models of large-scale processes in time and space are coherent with what we have learned from any other areas of sociological research. The battlefield processes, mentioned above, are more securely understood to the extent that we find them consistent with analysis of organizations and their breakdowns, of face-to-face violence, of emotional solidarity within groups. The sociologist devoted to bringing out the explicit dynamics underlying historical narratives generates more confidence in being on the right track to the extent that s/he can cross-integrate historical patterns with other parts of sociology.
The end product need not be theory as a concern in itself. In the light of such cumulation of sociological knowledge via explicit theory, we are better able to produce new histories. These are not necessarily new comparisons or new cases (which is fortunate, since the amount of history is finite and the distinct cases of macro-phenomena are soon exhausted), but studies which select new facets of our previously studied narratives for analysis with greater depth and fresh insight. [For instance, there is considerable overlap among the cases studied by Moore 1966, Skocpol 1979, Goldstone 1991 and Downing 1993.] It is an old story that theory and research recycle through each other; but true nevertheless, and indispensible advice even when fashionable metatheories hold that one or the other pole is irreducibly autonomous. When history or general theory goes its own way without the other, it is really shadowed by what it has vaguely and unconsciously accepted from the other. The result is bad history and bad theory.
Let Fernand Braudel have the last word on the relation between the deeper currrents of abstract theory charted by macro-history, and the details that fill the eyes of contemporaries in the form of:
“l’histoire événementielle, the history of events: surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs. A history of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultrasensitive; the least tremor sets all the antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours…
A dangerous world, but one whose spells and enchantments we shall have exorcised by making sure first to chart those underlying currents, often noiseless, whose direction can only be discerned over long periods of time. Resounding events are often only momentary outburts, surface manifestations of these larger movements and explicable only in terms of them.” (Braudel, 1949/1972: 21, Preface to the First Edition).
Deeper currents, for today’s sociological macrohistorians, are analytically deep, not merely descriptively broad. Metaphor should not lead us to conclude that they are far beneath the surface, but rather that they mesh together to generate the endless array of patterns which are what we mean by the surface of events.
What is Historical Sociology?
The Sense of a Beginning
Sociology was created to explain historical change. Sociology’s founders were convinced they were living through a social transformation that was unprecedented in human history, and that a new discipline was needed to describe and analyze that change, explain its origins, and explore its implications for human existence. As Tocqueville ( 2003, p. 16) put it, “A new political science is needed for a totally new world.”
The founders disagreed over the nature of that change and over how their discipline should go about studying it. They also were not sure if the theories they developed to explain their own epoch of change could be used to develop a general “science of society.” Nevertheless, they all Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and their less illustrious contemporaries saw the new discipline of sociology as historical. Sociology at its beginning was historical because of the questions its founders asked.
For Marx the key questions were: What is capitalism, why did it supplant other social systems, and how is it transforming the ways in which people work, reproduce themselves biologically and socially, and gain knowledge and exploit the natural world? What effect do those changes have on relations of power, domination, and exploitation?
Weber also asked about epochal historical shifts. He sought to explain the origins of world religions, of capitalism, and of rational action, and to see how that species of rationality affected the exercise of power, the development of science (including social science), religion, and the humanities, the organization of work, government, markets and families, and pretty much everything else humans did.
Durkheim asked how the division of labor, and the historical shift from mechanical to organic solidarity, changed the organization of workplaces, schools, families, communities, and entire societies, and affected nations’ capacities to wage wars.
Since its beginnings as a historical discipline concerned with epochal social transformation, sociology has become increasingly focused on the present day and on trying to explain individual behavior. Like the children’s book All About Me (Kranz 2004), in which pages are set aside for their young owners to write about what they like to do in their “favorite place,” to describe their hobby, or to “name three things that make you feel important,” many sociologists, especially in the United States, look to their personal biographies or their immediate environs to find research topics.
Take a look at the program of the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. It contains sociology’s version of the ages of man. First we are born, and legions of demographers explain why our mothers had us when they were 26.2 instead of 25.8 years old. We become sexually aware and active, and there are sociologists who keep on reliving their teen years in research on losing virginity or coming out of the closet. As adults, we have criminologists to tell us which ghetto youth will mug us and which will become a nerd in his failed urban school. The medical sociologists can tell us why we will be overmedicated and overbilled in our dotage. And most of this research is ahistorical and noncomparative, focused on the United States in the last five minutes.
Meanwhile, in the larger world, fundamental transformations are underway: the world’s population grew to unprecedented levels in the past century, even as those billions of people consumed resources at a pace the global ecosystem cannot sustain. Soon whole countries will run out of water or be submerged under rising seas. Global warming will force mass migrations on a scale never seen in human history. Governments lack the organizational capacity and almost certainly the desire to accommodate those refugees; many, however, will have the military means and popular support to repel needy migrants.
Today service jobs are following manufacturing and agriculture in being replaced by machines, creating the possibility that most human labor will no longer be needed to sustain current or future levels of production. The nature of war also is being transformed. Mass conscription which originated at the end of the eighteenth century, made possible wars between armies with millions of soldiers, and encouraged states to develop weapons capable both of killing thousands of enemy fighters at a time and of targeting the civilian populations that manufactured the weapons and provided the recruits for those armies has over the past half-century been abolished in almost all Western nations, which now either no longer fight wars or attempt to rely on high-tech weaponry.
Inequality within the wealthiest countries of the world has risen rapidly in the last three decades after declining for the previous four decades, while at the same time some of the countries that before World War II had been dominated by the US and Europe and were mired in poverty have achieved high levels of geopolitical autonomy and are rapidly closing the economic gap with the West. Ever fewer people on this planet live in communities that are isolated from the rest of the world, and the population of farmers that dwindled to a tiny fraction of the people living in rich countries is now rapidly declining in most of the rest of the world. For the first time in human history a majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Links of exploitation that were established, as Marx first explained, with the advent of capitalism now are joined with various sorts of communicative links that hold the potential for more egalitarian relations within and among nations.
Sociology is especially equipped, analytically and methodologically, to analyze the implications of these early twenty-first-century transformations, just as it was created to explain the complex of disruptive and unprecedented changes that accompanied the advent of modern capitalist societies. But sociology can help us understand what is most significant and consequential about our contemporary world only when it is historical sociology. As Craig Calhoun rightly notes: “The most compelling reason for the existence of historical sociology is embarrassingly obvious (embarrassingly because so often ignored). This is the importance of studying social change.”
My goal in this book is to turn our attention away from the sort of solipsistic and small-bore research that is presented in sociology textbooks, and which dominates too many of the major academic journals, and focus instead on understanding how sociological analyses of historical change can allow us to understand both the origins of our contemporary world and the scope and consequences of current transformations. Since much of that research is confined today to the subfield of historical sociology, this then has to be a book that examines what is historical sociology. My hope is that historical sociology‘s concerns, methods, and understandings can invigorate the broader discipline of sociology, making it once again a discipline about social change rather than one that confines itself to models and ethnographic descriptions of static social relations.
This book, and historical sociology, will not help you learn all about you. Historical sociology can help you understand the world in which you will live your life. It provides context to determine the magnitude and significance of present-day changes in gender relations, family structure, and demographic patterns, and in the organization and content of work, the economy, culture, politics, and international relations. Because historical sociology is inherently comparative, we can see what is unusual about any particular society, including our own, at each moment in time and to distinguish mere novelties from fundamental social change.
If the sociology envisioned by its founders is very different from much of contemporary sociology, that early sociology was also distinguished from the history written by historians. Since Marx, Weber, and Durkheim were trying to explain a single unprecedented social transformation, they ended up slighting and even ignoring the bulk of the world’s history that occurred before the modern era. They also decided what history to study, and how to understand the historical evidence they examined, deductively in terms of the metatheories and master concepts they advanced. That led them to rummage through the works of numerous historians, often taking the latter’s findings out of context to construct broad arguments about social change. Professional historians, not surprisingly, found it easy to ignore sociological theories that floated above, and failed to engage, the archival evidence and the specific times and places upon which they define themselves and engage with one another. As a result, Weber and Durkheim and their theories have had little influence on historians.
Durkheim has been easy for historians to ignore, since he almost never referred to or engaged specific historical events. Weber, who drew on a vast range of historical research, has suffered because virtually every contemporary historian of the Reformation rejects his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Fernand Braudel (1977) accurately summarizes his profession’s judgment: “All historians have opposed this tenuous theory, although they have not managed to be rid of it once and for all. Yet it is clearly false.” As a result, historians are not inclined to look to Weber for theoretical or empirical guidance on other historical changes.
Marx has faired better among historians, perhaps because they do not regard him as a sociologist. Yet, historians who define themselves as Marxist, or who seek to draw on elements of Marxism, for the most part use Marx to inform their studies of specific historical eras and problems. Few historians see themselves as contributors to Marx’s overarching project of explaining the origins of capitalism or tracing the dynamics of capitalism on a global or even a national scale.
Marx, Weber, and Durkheim’s theories also have been challenged by non-European scholars (and by Western scholars aware of the histories and intellectual traditions of the rest of the world) who doubt that the transformation those theories are designed to explain was “anything like a ‘universal human history’ ” (Chakrabarty 2007). Instead, Chakrabarty, like other “post-colonial” scholars, sees those early sociological theories and much of what Europeans and North Americans have written since as “histories that belonged to the multiple pasts of Europe drawn from very particular intellectual and historical traditions that could not claim any universal validity”. Or, as Michael Dutton (2005) puts it, “Why is it that, when it comes to Asian area studies, whenever ‘theory’ is invoked, it is invariably understood to mean ‘applied theory’ and assumed to be of value only insofar as it helps tell the story of the ‘real’ in a more compelling way?” One of my goals in this book is to explore the extent to which “Western” historical sociology can address social change elsewhere in the world, and also to see how theories and research from the “rest” of the world can inform, deepen, and challenge sociology from and about Europe.
Historical sociologists in recent decades have worked to narrow the distance between their scholarship and that of historians. Yet, the two disciplines have not merged. An aspiring academic’s decision to study and pursue a career in historical sociology rather than history still has implications for what sort of intellectual they will become and what sort of research they will undertake. While historical sociologists and historians do interact with each other, they still spend most of their time learning from and seeking to address scholars in their own discipline. That matters because history and sociology have their own histories, and the past intellectual, institutional, and career decisions made by historians and sociologists shape the questions asked, the methods employed, the data analyzed, and the arguments offered within each discipline today. While there are many historians whose work influences sociologists, and some historical sociologists who have won the respect of sociologists, in practice scholars in the two disciplines study history in quite different ways. Often undergraduate and even graduate students are not much aware of those differences and may decide which field to pursue without considering all the implications of their choice. I wrote this book in part to clarify what it means to do historical sociology so that readers who are considering studying that field will have a clear idea of what it is like to pursue an academic career as a historical sociologist.
Charles Tilly offers an apt and accurate generalization of historians: they share an “insistence on time and place as fundamental principles of variation” (1991) e.g., the eighteenth-century French Revolution is very different, because it was earlier and in a different part of the world, from the twentieth-century Chinese Revolution. As a result most historians are recognized and define themselves by the particular time and place they study, and organize their careers around that temporal and geographic specialization. The boundaries of those specializations coincide with and “are firmly embedded in institutional practices that invoke the nation-state at every step witness the organization and politics of teaching, recruitment, promotions, and publication in history departments” worldwide (Chakrabarty 2007).
Today, most academic historians everywhere in the world are hired as historians of nineteenth-century US history, Renaissance Italian history, twentieth-century Chinese history, or some other such temporal-geographic specialization. Usually, history departments will hire more specialists, and make finer distinctions, for the history of their own country than for the rest of the world. Thus a US history department might have a specialist in the military history of the Civil War among a dozen Americanists along with a single historian of China, while in China a department might have one or two Americanists along with a dozen historians who each specialize in a single dynasty.
Historians’ country specializations make sense because they “anchor most of [their] dominant questions in national politics,” which leads historians to use “documentary evidence [for the] identification of crucial actors [and the] imputation of attitudes and motives to those actors” (Tilly 1991). Historians’ country specializations, in turn, influence and limit when and how they go about making comparisons across time periods and geographic spaces. “Historians are not accustomed, or indeed trained, to make grand comparisons or even to work with general concepts, and they often view the whole past through the lens of the particular period in which they have specialized” (Burke 2003).
Immanuel Wallerstein offers a wonderful example of how national categories shape historical thinking in an essay entitled “Does lndia Exist?” (1986). Wallerstein notes that what today is India was an amalgamation of separate territories, created by British colonization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. India’s political, and also cultural, unity is an artifact of Britain’s ability to colonize the entire subcontinent. Wallerstein poses a counterfactual proposition. Suppose the British colonized primarily the old Mughal Empire, calling it Hindustan, and the French had simultaneously colonized the southern (largely Dravidian) zones of the present-day Republic of India, giving it the name Dravidia. Would we today think that Madras was “historically” part of India: Would we even use the word “India”? Instead, probably, scholars from around the world would have written learned tomes, demonstrating from time immemorial “Hindustan” and “Dravidia” were two different cultures, peoples, civilizations, nations, or whatever. India’s present-day unity is a combined creation of British colonization, the nationalist resistance to British rule, and the inability of other imperial powers (such as France, which tried and failed) to grab part of the subcontinent for themselves.
Wallerstein’s point is that a contingent series of events, and non-events that failed to occur, created both a political unit and an academic terrain (the study of India) that affects not just scholarship about the era that began with British colonization but also historical and cultural studies of the centuries before then, when a unified Indian polity or culture did not yet exist. Had the contingencies of the past three centuries played out differently, not only would the present-day reality be different, but so would historians’ retrospective reading of the distant past.
Historical sociologists, in contrast, organize their research and careers around theoretical questions e.g., what are the causes of revolutions, what explains the variation in social benefits offered by governments to their citizens, how and why have family structures changed over time? These questions, like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim’s questions about social change in the modern era, cannot be answered with a focus on a single era in a single nation. History itself, thus, matters in very different ways in historians and sociologists’ explanations. For example, historians are skeptical that knowledge gained about how French people acted during their revolution in 1789 is of much help in understanding how the Chinese acted in 1949 during their revolution. Historical sociologists instead see each revolution as the culmination of a chain of events that open certain opportunities for action while foreclosing others. Thus, to a sociologist, both the French in 1789 and the Chinese in 1949 gained the opportunity to make their revolutions as a result of previous events that created certain social structures and social relations and ended others.
Historical sociologists focus their attention on comparing the structures and events of those, and other, revolutions. What is distinctive about each is secondary, in sociological analysis, to what is similar. Sociologists analyze differences systematically in an effort to find patterns that can account for each outcome. The goal, for sociologists, is to construct theories that can explain ever more cases and account for both similarities and variations.
What is Historical Sociology?
by Richard Lachmann
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