Thu Nov 14, 2002

Political Sociology

I thought I’d make a contribution to the small buzz about reading in political philosophy set off by Josh Chafetz. Matthew Yglesias gave his list, and Chris Bertram and Armed Liberal made some useful suggestions too (as did I). Overall you get a very good list from these three—- a solid introduction to political theory in the Western tradition.

But, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Huh! In theory*—- *Communism works ‘in theory.’” What about in practice? Political sociology aims to tell you about the state you’re actually in, as opposed to the one you ought to be in. I thought I’d give a parallel list for that field, but it rapidly got much, much too big. Instead, here’s a short, non-definitive (almost arbitrary) list of good stuff worth reading in political sociology. I’ve edited it so as to minimise overlap with the stuff that others have already come up with (even though a lot of the writers on the other lists—- Marx, Toqueville, others—- are as much brilliant political sociologists as political philosophers). And of course my biases are easily shown by what I’ve left out.

Concepts Max Weber. “Politics as a Vocation,” “Class, Status and Party,” and “Bureaucracy,” all in From Max Weber, H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, ed. Also well worth it: “The Pure Types of Legitimate Authority” in Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building, ed. S.N. Eisenstadt, and “The Nature of Charismatic Domination” in Weber: Selections in Translation, W.G. Runciman, ed.

Weber gives us many of the key concepts (bureaucracy, charisma, legitimacy, status, domination), and sets much of the agenda in political soc. Once you’ve got the concepts down, you can read the historical chapters in Economy and Society that deal with feudalism and the patrimonial state.

The Community Power Debate Start with C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, then read Robert Dahl’s Who Governs?. Then Peter Bachratz and Morton Baratz’s Two Faces of Power [pdf], together with Matthew Crenson’s The Unpolitics of Air Pollution, for an illustration. Steven Lukes’ Power: A Radical View introduces a “third face” of power, and John Gaventa’s Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley shows how to apply Lukes’ ideas and brings the argument full circle back to Mills. This was my first Undergraduate term of sociology reading at UCC, with John Maguire (who, incidentally, wrote one of the best books available on Marx’s theory of Politics). Reading a debate like this is a good way to get a feel for a set of questions.

The State (Sorry Chris.) The literature is vast, of course. Some fun places to jump in include: Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book, which argues that when a society generates a surplus it gets two new classes of people—- thugs and humbugs. The thugs (the politico-military class) do the ruling and the humbugs (the religious elite) help out with legitimating them. Volume I of Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power, which makes a similar argument about how societies “cage” their occupants in an important way, and how economic, military, ideological and political power interact. Joseph Strayer’s little book On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State is great, as is Gianfranco Poggi’s The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction. Chuck Tilly’s Coercion, Capital and European States sees the process of statemaking as organized crime. And James Scott’s Seeing Like a State will make you want to go back and read your Hayek.

Collective Action and Revolution Mancur Olson showed everyone the harsh Logic of Collective Action. Doug McAdam, in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, showed it can happen all the same in some contexts. Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions argues that social structure matters most. Bob Wuthnow’s Communities of Discourse is the best attempt to show how culture and social structure mesh to produce large-scale social change.

Varia Other random good stuff, focusing more on contemporary questions. Gosta Esping-Andersen’s The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism is a rich framework for understanding the Welfare State. Paul Pierson’s Dismantling the Welfare State is a very smart book on the politics of retrenchment. Adam Przeworski’s Democracy and the Market is sharp enough to cut careless readers.

And Finally If you don’t read any of the above, then at least read Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, because you’ll find almost every major theme of political and economic sociology in there somewhere.