Historical Sociology

Authored by: Sandra Halperin

Routledge Handbook of International Political Sociology

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  December  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415732253
eBook ISBN: 9781315446486
Adobe ISBN: 9781315446479

10.4324/9781315446486.ch3

 

Abstract

The perception of large-scale changes and the struggle of scholars to grasp its nature and direction has animated efforts to recast contemporary scholarship in ways that challenge and transcend disciplinary boundaries and the frameworks and concepts that have developed within them. The engagement of sociology with International Relations (IR), as represented by the emerging field of international political sociology and strands of historical sociology, are contributing to this effort. As an emerging field, international political sociology has thus far employed cultural and critical perspectives to problematize and de-naturalize conventional categories and understandings and challenge them in light of non-Western ‘others’, voices and experiences. Historical sociology for its part has begun to develop an empirical challenge to the Eurocentric historical premises underlying extant theories of many important dimensions of modern society. However, while both have extended the spatial domain of international studies by ‘bringing in’ other regions of the world, both have, at the same time, tended to reinforce national modes of thought and an Eurocentric historiography. Both thus remain intrinsically statist and Eurocentric and this limits not only their challenge to conventional social science categories and frameworks, but also their ability to develop analytically productive approaches to understanding global politics. This chapter first reflects on the tendency of international political sociology and historical sociology to reinforce, rather than unsettle, conventional social scientific understandings and categories. It then highlights an emerging body of work by historians and historical sociologists that suggest avenues of inquiry which break decisively with the ontology and historiography of conventional social science scholarship. This work can be shown to provide a basis for a non-statist, non-Eurocentric political and historical sociological analysis of current trends of change.

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Historical Sociology

The perception of large-scale changes and the struggle of scholars to grasp its nature and direction has animated efforts to recast contemporary scholarship in ways that challenge and transcend disciplinary boundaries and the frameworks and concepts that have developed within them. The engagement of sociology with International Relations (IR), as represented by the emerging field of international political sociology and strands of historical sociology, are contributing to this effort. As an emerging field, international political sociology has thus far employed cultural and critical perspectives to problematize and de-naturalize conventional categories and understandings and challenge them in light of non-Western ‘others’, voices and experiences. Historical sociology for its part has begun to develop an empirical challenge to the Eurocentric historical premises underlying extant theories of many important dimensions of modern society. However, while both have extended the spatial domain of international studies by ‘bringing in’ other regions of the world, both have, at the same time, tended to reinforce national modes of thought and an Eurocentric historiography. Both thus remain intrinsically statist and Eurocentric and this limits not only their challenge to conventional social science categories and frameworks, but also their ability to develop analytically productive approaches to understanding global politics. This chapter first reflects on the tendency of international political sociology and historical sociology to reinforce, rather than unsettle, conventional social scientific understandings and categories. It then highlights an emerging body of work by historians and historical sociologists that suggest avenues of inquiry which break decisively with the ontology and historiography of conventional social science scholarship. This work can be shown to provide a basis for a non-statist, non-Eurocentric political and historical sociological analysis of current trends of change.

International political sociology and historical sociology: different strengths, common weaknesses

The aim of both international political sociology and historical sociology is to understand how societies work and how they change. Both have pursued this aim through inquiry into the international and, increasingly, the global domain, yet each approach brings different strengths to the task.

International political sociology is a field of inquiry that encompasses at least three avenues of inquiry. The first focuses on exploring relations between the political and the sociological in the context of ‘the international’ as it is conceptualized by mainstream IR. The second and third avenues of inquiry attempt to move away from this conception. The first of these explicitly draws on Bourdieu’s sociology to conceptualize ‘the international’ in terms of multiple fields of power (e.g. Bigo 2007) and to empirically visualize the international by applying Bourdieu’s ideas of reflexivity in sociological practice to studies of international objects (e.g. human rights, Madsen 2007, 2013; and transnational elites, Kauppi and Madsen 2013). A third strand of international political sociology, represented by many of the contributions to this volume, is concerned with exploring relations and connections that are delimited by a specific issue or question. All of these avenues of inquiry are centrally concerned with questions of theory and method and with interrogating deeply Eurocentric practices of research and concepts. However, they tend to focus on the present. This leaves unexplored the question of how past structures and relations have constrained and enabled the present, and prevents us from understanding what, in emerging trends, represents elements of continuity and change.

Historical sociology is also concerned with political institutions and, in particular, with the state. Much scholarship associated with it has also been concerned with the international domain. Historical sociologists however tend to work within a far broader temporal domain. Classical sociology originated in response to a historical transformation – the emergence of capitalist commercialization and industrialization in Europe, and so understood society as always changing, and the study of society as, therefore, involving a temporal dimension. This temporal dimension was analytically central to classical sociology as represented, for instance, by the classical sociologies of Marx and Weber. Within historical sociology – “the study of the past to find out how societies work and change” (Smith 1991: 3) – two broad avenues of research can be identified. The first, which reflects the macro-sociological aims and scope of classical (pre–social science) sociological research, is concerned with large-scale changes in social structures and broad structural transformations. The second is more ethnographic; it focuses on the details of everyday lives in past societies and the way that people have created meaning and viewed their worlds.

Like an international political sociology, historical sociology has been, from the start, as well as in the renewal of both its strands in recent decades, animated by theoretical issues (Calhoun 1998). The renewal of ‘macro’ historical sociology in the 1970s and 1980s (see, among many others Wallerstein 1974; Tilly 1984; Mann 1986; or Abu-Lughod 1989) was animated by increasing concern with the theorizations of large-scale social change and power relations. The resurgence of the more ethnographic strand in the ‘cultural turn’ of the 1990s (for a discussion see, for instance, Bonnell and Hunt 1999) was inspired by, and has had much in common with, various strands of critical theory (see Ginzburg 1989). But while international political sociology has been concerned with interrogating situated and localized practices, historical sociology for its part, in its concern with ‘big questions’ and broad macro-sociological developments, has tended to apply concepts across time and place without sufficient sensitivity to their situatedness within a specific historical context and attention to the power relations that come into play when they are invoked to explain processes in the non-Western world. Brought together, these two sociological fields have much to contribute to the study of international relations (as well as to each other). Yet, sociological enquiries about the international that combines these strengths will, because of their common weaknesses, be limited in their ability to contribute to an understanding of current trends of change, such as the ‘deterritorialization’ of national states and the yielding of national spaces to sub- and cross-national structures and flows (see, among many others, Castells 1996; Pries 2001; Brenner 2004); and the emergence of new global cities (Sassen 1994), new forms of power, or a ‘new’ transnational power elite (Kauppi and Madsen 2014).

These limitations bear the imprint of three legacies stemming from traditions constitutive of all social science disciplines. Both remain not only embedded in a fragmented conception of social relations; they are also situated in a Eurocentric historiography and in a national ontology. 1 As has been often noted (see e.g. Wolf 1982; Manicas 1987), the construction of social science disciplines conceived of social, political and international phenomena as each taking place within a specifically defined domain of social interactions which could be studied without reference to an overarching or more fundamental field of social relations. Sociology was defined as the study of social relations understood as distinctly separate from political and economic ones. The new field of politics studied a discrete sphere of social activity concerned with government and how, through its institutions, demands are aggregated and translated into decisions. A specifically international political sphere of social activity was defined in which states, rather than individuals, classes, or social groups, were the primary actors. Study of the social world was further fragmented by assigning historical and contemporary, as well as Western and non-Western phenomena, to separate academic disciplines. History developed the story of how European modernity and human progress produced the modern (Western) world; while ‘the rest’ of the world (the non-modern world) became the focus of a separate social science discipline, anthropology. Following from this, we can identify a second legacy of the construction of social science disciplines as the durable Eurocentric historiographic tradition on which they are based.

Historical sociologists have tended to assume not only that “the development of capitalism and the formation of powerful, connected national states dominated all other social processes and shaped all social structures” (Tilly 1984: 15), but that these originated in Europe, and that their development throughout the rest of the world was profoundly shaped by Europeans as well as by European ideas and models (e.g. Skocpol 1979; Tilly 1990, among many others). While international political sociologists have used postcolonial theory to ‘provincialize Europe’ (Chakrabarty 2000), their own analyses remain paradoxically Eurocentric. For instance, Sankaran Krishna (this volume) suggests that we can provincialize Eurocentrism as a discourse by “constantly foregrounding the contrapuntal, global and intertwined histories that inscribed the world”. However, his own analysis starts with “the ‘discovery’ of the New World of the Americas by Europeans”. It assumes that capitalism begins in Europe, and that “global, inter-related and contrapuntal processes that suffused the entire planet” unfolded “with the West at its center”. It focuses on nations and on the binary of “a developed, affluent, and civilized west and an impoverished, underdeveloped and uncivilized third world”.

This separation between separate, culturally distinctive, nationally bounded societies (Wolf 1982: 13) is what characterizes the third legacy. For instance, cultural anthropology, which had sought to develop a global culture history, started to divide its subject matter “into distinctive cases, each conceived of as an integrated and bounded system set off against other equally bounded and culturally distinctive systems” (Wolf 1982: 13). If analysis begins with these fragments of the social world then, irrespective of what else we analytically ‘bring in’, it will be difficult to produce an analysis that remains consistent with it. Consider Immanuel Wallerstein’s attempt to develop a non-national ontology for understanding the development and operation of capitalism. Wallerstein (1974) treats the entire world since the sixteenth century as a single capitalist world economy characterized by an international division of labour among a core, periphery and semi-periphery. As Neil Brenner (2004: 51) points out, however, his analysis ultimately gives greatest weight to the functionally specific ways that states act as a result of their location in the international system and fails to explain outcomes with reference to a unit of analysis at the supra-state level.

Within international political sociology, scholars have attempted to challenge national ontologies by drawing on Bourdieu’s sociology, or on conceptions of transnational domains and world society. Bourdieusian-informed studies explore the notion that a plurality of arenas operate within and across nation states. But they do not seek to ground and develop this notion by exploring the history of these arenas. Explorations of transnational phenomena tend to treat these as newly emerging, rather than to rethink history in terms of them (e.g. Dezalay and Garth 2002; Bigo 2005; Kauppi and Madsen 2013, 2014). Kauppi and Madsen examine “the emergence of new forms of power” and “new transnational power elites” (2014: 324; my emphasis), who are “agents of new post-national constellations” (2014: 325; my emphasis; see also Dezalay and Garth 2002; Dezalay 2004). Oliver Kessler (this volume) suggests that we conceptualize “spaces, temporalities and identities” as “internal borders of world society instead of ‘external’ relations of states and non-state actors”. With this, he says, “we do not deal with a world of a pre-social other or outside where states ‘reach out’, but [one in which] all selves and the other, the foreign and all levels, spaces and temporalities are social products.” The task, as he rightly points out, “is to reconstruct how they are produced, reproduced and changed”, yet he does not suggest how we might go about achieving this reconstruction. The general point is that, while suggesting ways to reread ‘the international’ as plural arenas, transnational fields or world society, international political sociologists do not attempt to, or suggest ways in which we might, rethink history in terms of them. For them, as for historical sociologists, history remains a history of nation states.

Towards a political and historical sociology of the global domain

This section suggests a conceptualization of the domain of the ‘social’ that can be used to construct a non-Eurocentric and non-national, interconnected and global history as a starting point for rereadings of the international being elaborated by international political sociologists.

Many works of historical sociology have challenged the notion that modernity began in Europe and then spread to the rest of the world (see, among others, Amin 1989; Goody 1996; Hobson 2004). They suggest that the “birth of the modern world” was an interconnected process, and that accounts of modern history should be centred on interactions and encounters in which all regions of the world participated (see also Abu-Lughod 1989; Bin Wong 1997; Pomeranz 2000). Supporting this view is the work of a growing number of world historians and regional specialists which provides abundant evidence of cross-setting similarities in processes and outcomes of growth in modern history. When combined, this evidence makes increasingly unsustainable distinctions between ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ and ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds. Instead, it brings into focus a multicentric, interconnected world in which similar rhythms and patterns have, historically, produced roughly contemporaneous similar developments across different societies (see, among others, Bin Wong 1997; Frank 1998; Pomeranz 2000; Goldstone 2002). It suggests that global development proceeds neither through common phases or stages, nor by the diffusion or contagion processes favoured by core-periphery perspectives. Instead, a process which seems more apt is one which Andrew Sherratt (2000) suggests, in which many different impulses interact to produce change on a global scale. Sherrett invokes the image of a calyx to describe this process (see Figure 3.1).

A calyx

Figure 3.1   A calyx

Regions interconnected by urban-based networks of trade and exchange created what Kenneth Pomeranz (2000: 29) has described as “surprising resemblances” across what are usually treated as sharply different regional contexts. Scholars, for instance, have noted that by the sixteenth century, patterns of transnational elite connections and exchanges linked together political societies from around the Mediterranean through the Middle East and India to China (Abu-Lughod 1989). Within this vast area the dynamics of expansion and contraction of power, shifting balances of population and resources followed similar rhythms and patterns, and shaped the direction of social change in broadly similar ways. The balances of population and resources, of elite mobility and administrative stability, of price inflation and its effect on state finances, were basically similar from England to the Ottoman Empire to China (Goldstone 2002: 330). Shifting our analytical focus from whole nations or regions to these networks – that is, to an essentially transnational set of connections, relations and processes – might be seen as acting to produce a ‘Gestalt shift’. What this term implies can be illustrated with reference to the famous sketch devised by Edgar Rubin (1915) (see Figure 3.2). Many see this as a figure of a vase, but by drawing attention to how the picture’s contours might be viewed differently, the picture reconstitutes itself as a pair of facial profiles.

Findings drawn from recent historical research might be seen as producing the same Gestalt shift (see, among others, Bin Wong 1997; Frank 1998; Lieberman 1999; Pomeranz 2000; Goldstone 2002). By emphasizing different elements than are usually stressed in the standard picture of global development – vast urban-based regional and global trade networks, rather than national economies; the similarities, rather than radical contrast, between Europe (the ‘West’) and Asia (the ‘East’) – a different picture merges than the one we usually see. The grid of political boundaries imposed on our mental picture of the globe dissolves, making national societies appear, not as the ontologically primary locus of social relations, but as secondary phenomena arising from and reflecting the properties of networks – the trans-local social interests and political projects, material and cultural exchanges they embody and sustain – that predated, and for centuries survived, the rise and decline of different types of states and state systems (see Sherratt 2000: 116). These networks spread technology, institutions, consumption practices, cultural ideas and values not across broad national terrains, but ‘horizontally’ along routes linking pockets of wealth and processes of elite exchange.

Gestalt shift

Figure 3.2   Gestalt shift

Elements of a political and historical sociology of the global domain

As previously observed, much sociological research and writing on transnational political phenomena tends to assume that these have recently emerged from, and are dissolving and superseding, national states (or social processes originating within them). This implies that, until recently, national states have been the ontologically primary locus of social relations, and that the history of the contemporary order has been largely the history of national states. This reinforces the national historiography that has shaped so much sociological thinking over the past two centuries, and obscures the essentially transnational structure of social power that has shaped capitalist development and other key aspects of the contemporary world order.

The historical accounts previously discussed suggest that transnational structures and processes are not recent phenomena, but actually have characterized global development for many centuries. This section constructs an analytic optic that shifting the axis from the vertical (states, regions) to the horizontal (trans-local interactions, networks) offers an avenue for investigating transnational spaces in history. Its aim is not only to make visible a horizontal set of connections, relations and processes that national historiography tends to obscure. By building on historical accounts previously discussed, it also suggests that more or less similar social changes across large areas of the world might be seen as flowing from broadly similar causal foundations: the supra-local (transnational) dynamics, processes and relations that evolved and were organized to sustain the material and cultural resources needed to reproduce elites as elites.

The transnational elite

Elites are groups that command certain resources (political support, economic power, communication, knowledge) that give them the ability to affect the behaviour and beliefs of others. They inhabit organizational apparatuses that enable them to extract resources from non-elites “and to protect themselves from encroachments by other elites” (Lachman 1990: 406). Multiple elites may coexist when different groups develop the capacity to extract resources from non-elites. In this case, the existence of different groups of elites within a given social domain requires that they cooperate, or at least tolerate each other, in order to preserve their own access to non-elite resources (Lachman 1990: 401).

Groups that constitute the transnational elite are not separate but similar groups but a supra-local elite with broadly similar interests, capabilities and policies, constituted and reproduced through interaction and interdependence (see as well Kauppi and Madsen, Dezalay and Garth in this volume). Within this transnational elite, groups of ‘national’ elites are not linked by their formal belonging to a group (e.g. the lawyers), as relations of similarity that exist among them do not explain why and how (i.e. through what connections) they might act similarly. However, if groups whose members “relate to each other structurally or causally” act similarly, it is because the relations themselves are relations of connection and not of formal belonging (Sayer 1992: 244). Groups of elites that are dependent on each other for their reproduction are bound by relations of connection. These are predominantly relations of cooperation in producing surplus rather than inequality and active exploitation, a characteristic of their relations with subordinate classes. Groups of ‘national’ elites can be seen as individuated and differentiated, not hierarchically, but based on different forms of power. This is a beside-each-other differentiation in which elites are not predominantly concerned with vertical inequality (exploitation) but with inclusion in or exclusion from the overall system via their participation in transnational networked elite relations.

Transnational networked elite connections, relations and processes are created and reproduced through networks of trade and exchange that link together, and sometimes create, the top strata of local societies. Technology, institutions, consumption practices, cultural ideas and values are diffused, not vertically – from upper to lower classes or from more advanced to less-advanced countries – but ‘horizontally’ among this strata of elites and wealth-owners. This produces not national development, but dynamic focal points of subnational, urban-based growth. Historically, between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, a network of mercantile-maritime port cities across Afro-Eurasia became tied together in a great interregional commercial system and produced a “vast world market” (Hodgson 1993: 47). By the sixteenth century, these cities had achieved a more or less similar level of development. During that century, they fuelled an interconnected Eurasian expansionism that included the consolidation of Ming absolutism, the Ottoman Empire’s naval expansion into the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and efforts to assert their power in the Indian Ocean; the Safavid unification of ‘Greater Iran’; the expansion of Islam into South East Asia, South East Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa, and the creation of a vast new Islamic Empire in North India; Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese imperial expansion; European incursions into the Indian Ocean and in the Americas; and Japan’s (fifteenth-century) commercial expansion and sixteenth-century boom.

The transnational, urban-based origins and development of industrial capitalism

Afro-Eurasian and global processes of interaction and expansion eventually produced the urban-based system of networks through which capitalism and processes of industrial production developed. Capitalist development is usually seen as beginning with growth within national borders, and then continuing through cross-border expansion. The general view is that domestic economies reach a point of ‘saturation’ and so expansion abroad becomes necessary as a means of securing markets for surplus goods and capital. But capitalism was ‘born global’: it developed from the start across international frontiers rather than within them. This is the view that the French historian Fernand Braudel (1979) advanced, and for which the research and writing by regional experts and world historians, cited in previous sections, provides abundant evidence.

The basic objective of capitalism is not to produce goods and services but to create and concentrate wealth, and the best way to achieve this is through establishing monopolies and maintaining the unequal factor endowment between owners of capital and sellers of labour (which is the basic relation of capital). This, historically, has been accomplished by expanding long-distance, rather than local, exchange. Long-distance exchange can be seen, therefore, as a means of constituting and reproducing elites as elites.

A further evolution of capitalism occurred during what we usually albeit inadequately call the Industrial Revolution, which concentrated production in cities and introduced new forms of dominating and putting to work the lower classes. This reorganization of economic life supported a brutal expansion of production for export that, everywhere, enabled elites and ruling groups to produce and realize the value of a rising mountain of goods (agricultural, mineral or manufactured), without democratizing consumption at home. Goods and services were produced principally for exchange among an expanding network of elites, ruling groups, governments and settler populations in other countries. This obviated the need to develop mass purchasing power at home. As a result, the expansion of production everywhere involved not whole societies but the advanced sectors of dualistic economies in interaction with others in Europe, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere. Similar structures – export platforms, foreign-oriented enclaves – emerged as a result of trans-local relations and the similarities and interdependencies that it created. A global social order emerged constituted by horizontal solidarities among groups of elites in different parts of the world.

Even as Europeans came to play a more prominent role in world trade, they did not fundamentally change the system of inter-regional trade that had developed over previous centuries. Networks structured by European activities were ‘introduced into contexts’ that already had ‘spatially extensive trading, tribute, diplomatic, intellectual, migration and travelling networks’; and, in most cases, the networks formed by Europeans were layered on top of them to add ‘new levels of complexity’ (Lester 2006: 134). Elites shared with elites everywhere a vision of hierarchy, tradition and social order. They were embedded in broadly similar local relations – grounded in the dynamics of setting masses of labour to produce profit for a small minority. This was the basis for what we call imperialism: an essentially collaborative effort among the networked elites that, everywhere, worked to appropriate resources (Halperin 2013: Chapter 5; see also Bayly 1989 and Cannadine 2001).

The national-state idea

Dualistic, externally oriented industrial capitalist expansion reinforced both transnational linkages among the upper strata of local communities around the world and a separate set of rules, processes and conditions of life for the wider local population. It was in the context of these increasingly different local and trans-local systems that the national idea emerged as a means of providing a new cultural framework for social cohesion and order. Dominant groups began to assert the existence of culturally and politically bounded whole societies locked into a vertical relationship with other similarly bounded organic wholes, and to invest in an apparatus of national culture and national-state ideology that rendered invisible the transnational system that transected national realms and continues, to this day, to shape relations and developmental outcomes across, between and within them (Hindess 1998).

The expansion of industrial production in the nineteenth century brought cities, urban commercial centres and export sectors across the world into closer interdependence, creating dynamic focal points of growth that developed through trans-local interactions and connections. These cities became essentially ‘glocal’ in nature and increasingly powerful both in absolute terms and relative to rural areas. Thus, when the national idea was promulgated, the states to which it was applied resembled far more closely the city state polities of the past 5,000 years than the nationally integrated state form of national cultural imaginaries and nation state ideology (Halperin 2013: Chapter 4). The nation state became the spatial face of capital accumulation only after World War II, only in a few countries and, perhaps, only for a few decades.

Conclusions

This chapter has emphasized the need for historical perspectives to unsettle conventional social scientific understandings and categories. It has highlighted work by historians and historical sociologists that suggest avenues of inquiry which break decisively with the ontology and historiography of conventional social science scholarship. This work provides evidence of a horizontal set of connections, relations and processes among elites and wealth-owners around the world which might serve as a starting point for developing a non-statist, non-Eurocentric political and historical sociological analysis of current trends of change. By conceiving the domain of the ‘social’ as dominated by the interactions of trans-local/cross-regional classes, groups and social networks, rather than by states and regions, a number of key aspects of modern history can be re-envisioned, including the origins and nature of capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, modern forms of state, imperialism, and globalization. Historical accounts can be used as a basis for developing perspectives that displace Europe from the centre of the global system and of its different developmental outcomes, as well as dissolve the various binary divisions of the globe that are usually pictured (core/periphery, colonizer/colonized, West/rest, modern/traditional). They suggest elements that, by replacing the notion of whole, internally undifferentiated societies or states with transnational and local classes, and conceiving of ‘development’ as sub- and transnational change, rather than national growth, can dissolve, as well, the vertical divisions of the globe seen as a multiplicity of bounded whole nations locked into antagonistic relations with each other. What then becomes possible to see is a world horizontally divided into a system of trans-local circuits of capital and commodities, institutions and forms of accumulation, and a multiplicity of partially bounded local domains that are transected by an interrelated interdependent elite based in, and situated across, their ‘open tops’. Once our analytic focus shifts from the fictive systems created by national historiography and national accounting to this horizontally divided world, many hitherto invisible processes and structures become discernible, enabling different questions to be asked and different accounts to be told – thus maybe opening up for a non-Eurocentric historical international political sociology.

Note

The term ‘historiography’ refers here to a body of historical work on a specialized topic. For discussions of, and efforts to debunk, some of these legacies (see, for instance, Halperin 2013).

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