July 13th, 2020

Through The Fields


Michael Mann's four volume magnum opus, The Sources of Social Power, analyzes the history of human societies from antiquity to the present. Theoretically, the work's major contribution is the so-called IEMP model, which examines historical shifts through the relations between ideological, economic, military, and political power. In Mann's work, no single source of power takes analytical precedence over any other.

From the third volume:

"We may distinguish distributive from collective power—that is, power exercised over others, and power secured jointly through cooperation with others. Power may also be authoritative or diffuse. The former involves commands by an individual or collective actor and conscious obedience by subordinates, and the latter spreads in a relatively spontaneous and decentered way. Finally, it can be extensive, organizing large numbers of people over far-flung territories, or intensive, mobilizing a high level of commitment from a limited group of participants. The most effective exercise of power is collective and distributive, extensive and intensive, authoritative and diffuse. That is why a single source—say, the economy or the military—cannot alone determine the overall structure of societies.

The four power sources offer distinct organizational networks and means for humans to pursue their goals. But which means are chosen, and in which combinations, depends on interaction between what power configurations are historically-given and what emerge interstitially within and between them. This is the main mechanism of social change in human societies, preventing any single power elite from clinging indefinitely onto power. The sources of social power and the organizations embodying them are promiscuous. They weave in and out of each other in a complex interplay between institutionalized and emergent, interstitial forces."

Link to the introduction.

  • "The expansion of global networks seems to weaken local interaction networks more than national ones." In a 2011 paper, Mann complicates popular analyses of globalization. Link.
  • Collected reflections on Mann's work, with commentary from Robert Brenner, John Hobson, and David Laitin, among many others. Link.
  • "The oligarchic regime of the Roman conquest state was maintained as long as political, military, and ideological power were controlled by the same aristocratic collective. Once military power broke from political and ideological constraints, the rule of the collective was replaced by warlords and monarchs." Walter Scheidel draws on Mann's framework in his comparative history of ancient Rome and China. Link.
  • "Michael Mann can confidently say that the relationship between revolutions and geopolitical pressures is 'as consistent a relationship as we can find in macrosociology.' Yet no such correlation exists in Latin America." Miguel Angel Centeno challenges Mann's conclusions with a history of Latin American nation-states. Link.
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