Tue Sep 4, 2012

The Sources of Social Power

I’m teaching Weber next week in my social theory class. This afternoon I uploaded some of the recommended reading to the class website—a longish excerpt from the first volume of Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power, a book which made a big impression on me when I read it as an undergraduate. It didn’t turn me in to a Big Structures/Huge Comparisons guy, if for no other reason than the ambition it entailed seemed so gigantic, but of all the products of the so-called “Golden Age” of macro-sociology, *Sources*—and the first volume in particular—seemed to come closest to fulfilling Weber’s vision for what really big-picture sociology could be. Re-reading the first hundred-odd pages this afternoon I was struck by the directness and accessibility of Mann’s approach, and by how much of his theoretical intuition seemed right, given his aims—in particular his insistence that societies are not totalities or systems, and his determination to avoid the pitfalls that come with thinking they are:

Societies are not unitary. They are not social systems (closed or open); they are not totalities. We can never find a single bounded society in geographical or social space. Because there is no system, no totality, there cannot be “subsystems,” “dimensions,” or “levels” of such a totality. Because there is no whole, social relations cannot be reduced “ultimately, “in the last instance,” to some systemic property of it—like the “mode of material production,” or the “cultural” or “normative system,” or the “form of military organization.” Because there is no bounded totality, it is not helpful to divide social change or conflict into “endogenous” and “exogenous” varieties. Because there is no social system, there is no “evolutionary” process within it. Because humanity is not divided into a series of bounded totalities, “diffusion” of social organization does not occur between them. Because there is no totality, individuals are not constrained in their behavior by “social structure as a whole,” and so it is not helpful to make a disctinction between “social action” and “social structure.” … State, culture, and economy are all important structuring networks, but they almost never coincide. There is no one master concept or basic unit of “society”.

Instead, for Mann, what matters are the overlapping networks of social interaction—ideological, military, economic, and political—that can provide the organizational means of attaining goals.

All of which is to say that, after a bit of idle googling, I was surprised to learn that volumes three and four are scheduled for publication later this year and early next, respectively. Mann published volume I in 1986 and volume II in 1993, and while he has done a lot of other things in the meantime, parts of volume II, in particular, gave the distinct impression that the project had gotten seriously bogged down. I’m very glad to see that he’s pushed the project through. The first two volumes are also set to be reissued, with new Prefaces (and covers). I suppose it is too much to ask that they have proper indexes this time, too.