02 June 2007

Bringing the Empire Back In

'Empire' is a classical category in the study of politics that has been neglected or even derided for several decades. The current world, however, is organized in a number of very large empires. In alphabetical order, which may coincide with the order of their relative strength, the most powerful ones are: America, China, Europe, Japan, and Russia; and, for the size and variety of their population, and, in most cases, the multilevel federal-type of their internal organization, we can also include India, closely linked to Pakistan and Bangladesh, Indonesia and Brazil. In all ten units together live more than two-thirds of the world’s populations. As this list already suggests, an empire can be democratic or dictatorial, as well as a mixed regime, and it can be in expansion or in contraction, as has happened with a number of empires in other historical periods.

An empire can be defined as a very large size polity with not a priori fixed borders, which is organized with multiple institutional levels of governance and overlapping jurisdictions. In this sense, 'empire' is an alternative formula to 'state', which can also be dictatorial or democratic or something in between, but, in contrast to empires, is founded on fixed boundaries, external sovereignty and the aim of internal homogenization. Empires typically encompass a high number of small political units, including states, but also regions, cities and other communities, with different institutional formulas across the territory.

Empire-wide political and institutional processes disappeared from the field of academic political studies after the Second World War. A search in the American Political Science Review (APSR) since its foundation gives the following results. In the first period, from 1903 to 1949, as many as seven articles and 74 books reviewed included the words 'empire' or 'imperial' in the title. Most of them dealt with the "problems and possibilities" (as titled in one of the reviews) of the British empire, followed by the German empire, as well as the American, Chinese, Japanese and Ottoman empires. Articles and books approached such suggestive subjects as empire's unity, nationalism, federalism, government and politics, political system, governance, constitution and laws, legislative jurisdiction, administrative system, civil service or civil code --that is, the same kind of subjects that can be studied under the alternative framework of 'state'. In contrast, not a single piece of work published in the APSR between 1950 and 1967 included the words 'empire' or 'imperial' in the title. Since 1968, the words 'empire' or 'imperial' reappear, but only in book reviews, not in the titles of full-fledged articles, focusing on history of past colonial empires and imperial relations in the current world, mainly regarding American foreign affairs.

A few works dealing more directly with political and governmental processes in empires must be mentioned. The size and evolution of empires have been studied in a series of illuminating articles by Rein Taagepera (1978, 1979, 1997). In the long term there has been an ever-continuing historical trend toward larger empires. Another historical trend is towards an increasing number of simultaneous empires, so that the imperial form of government includes increasingly higher proportions of the world’s population. But a world’s single-government is not foreseeable from historical developments.

The “concept of empire" and its potential in the analysis of long term historical periods was also discussed in an excellent book co-authored by an outstanding selection of historians and political scientists at the initiative of Maurice Duverger and published only in French (Duverger 1980).

More recently, Samuel E. Finer provided the only political science-oriented history of government in the world that goes beyond the last 200 years (Finer 1997). Finer states at the very first page of his impressive, indispensable and irregular three volume study that his "concern is with states". However, he immediately acknowledges that most "pre-modern" polities did not fulfill the basic characteristics of 'state', namely the notion of territorial sovereignty (and far less that of "a self-consciousness of nationality"). Actually in his own "conceptual prologue", Finer goes to provide a three-fold typology of structures of government based on the distinction between city, state and empire. In fact, most of Finer's extensive survey deals with empires, using regularly and explicitly the word. Specifically his analysis includes Assyria, "the first empire in our modern sense"; Persia, "the first secular-minded empire"; China, in fact a series of "multi-state empires"; Rome, which ruled through "imperial agents" like the provincial governors; the Byzantine empire; the Arab empire of the Caliphate; the Ottoman empire; and the Indian empires. Finer's work provides, thus, highly valuable material for political science analysis of polities or structures of government through history, although his initial emphasis on 'states' is dismissed by his own substantive analysis of really existing governments.

In contrast to the potential fruitfulness of the analytical category of 'empire', 'state' is a category that has become decreasingly able to account for many collective processes and decisions in the current world. Yet political science is strongly state-centered. Political studies could take benefit from a more diversified categorization of polities or structures of governments --by distinguishing empires, states and small communities. Given the spread and importance of all those experiences and challenges, we may gain understanding and knowledge by calling empires 'empires'.


The title of this post is, of course, an allusion to the claim to "bringing the state back in" which was made about a generation ago, especially by Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschmeyer, and Theda Skocpol eds. 1985. Bringing the State Back In. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The other works mentioned are:
Duverger, Maurice ed. 1980. Le concept d’empire, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Finer, Samuel E. 1997. The History of Government from the Earliest Times, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3 vol.
For discussion:
Von der Muhll, George E. 2003. 'Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Study of Government', Annual Review of Political Science, 6: 345-376.

Rein Taagepera’s articles:
- ‘Size and Duration of Empires: Systematics of Size’, ‘Size and Duration of Empires: Growth-Decline Curves, 3000 to 600 BC’, Social Science Research, 7, 1978: 108-127, 180-196.
- ‘Size and Duration of Empires: Growth-Decline Curves, 600 BC to 600 AD’, Social Science History, 3-4, 1979: 115-138.
- ‘Expansion and Contraction Patterns of Large Polities: Context for Russia’, International Studies Quarterly, 41, 1997.: 475-504.

More discussion in my fortcoming book, already cited in this Blog:
Great Empires, Small nations (Routledge)


Rein Taagepera said...

Yes, Finer's work is "impressive, indispensable and irregular "-- inevitably the latter, given his death before he could tidy it up. I have tried to get students on two continents interested but in vain. In California, students just do not have the world history background that goes beyond 1492. The last time I offered the course, I found no takers.
Yet it would be a superbe challenge to turn Finer into something more systematic, preferably with a quantitative backbone, for which he has bits and pieces. The parts to be added from scratch are the pre-Assyrian polities that he dismisses along with the Mongol empire (the latter as a developmental dead end). In my course notes, dating back to the 1980s, I started with chimpanzee politics but have not gotten beyond the early Roman Republic.

Greetings, Rein


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6:31 PM  

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