Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Re-reading Barrington Moore

Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, published in 1966, is a modern classic of historical sociology that has been assigned to generations of students. I read large parts of it in college and again in grad school, but it was not until the other day, when I had occasion to take it down from the shelf and look at the first chapter, that it fully dawned on me why the book is so famous. At the same time, I realized that the kind of social-scientific writing on display in Social Origins is an endangered species.

The first chapter, "England and the Contributions of Violence to Gradualism," shows Moore's remarkable ability to outline a centuries-spanning argument in less than 40 pages, and to do it in prose of such clarity and directness that it can be understood by virtually any interested reader. The chapter's main question is why England/Britain's route to capitalist modernity culminated in parliamentary democracy (as opposed to dictatorship of right or left) and why it took the relatively peaceful and gradualist form that it did from the eighteenth century on. Compressed into a few sentences, the basic argument runs as follows: The
key social-political development in early modern England was the destruction of the peasantry. This was the result of the enclosure (i.e., the seizure for private use) of common lands by landlords and their richer tenants. The enclosures were under way in the sixteenth century but accelerated in the seventeenth century, after the Civil War severely weakened the power of the monarchy, which had served as a brake on enclosing landlords and a protection for the peasants. The destruction of the peasantry effectively removed from "the historical agenda" two possibilities: the reactionary/conservative route to capitalist modernity (as in Germany, e.g.) and the social-revolutionary route (as in Russia and China). (p.30) There's a whole lot more there, but in highly oversimplified form that is the core of the argument in the first chapter.

For the moment I'm not interested in how much validity this argument has; to be blunt, I don't care whether it's right or not, at least not here. I'm certain it's been challenged and debated many times since Social Origins was published (and indeed, several of Moore's students produced major works bearing on the themes of the book). Rather, what I want to emphasize is the lucid way the argument is presented and Moore's mastery in handling multiple strands without ever losing sight of the central thread. Moreover, I don't think this clarity is entirely accidental (it's no accident, as a Marxist would say).

Although Social Origins (SO) was published in 1966, Moore began working on it years earlier, before the so-called behavioral revolution in the social sciences became so influential that even some Marxists felt they had to wrap their writing in the language of variables and falsifiability. As Theda Skocpol observed in a critical review-essay on SO published in 1973, the book "is not organized or written in the style of a scientist trying to elaborate clearly and minutely justify a falsifiable theory of comparative modernization. It is, rather, like a giant mural painted in words, in which a man who has contemplated the modern histories of eight major nations seeks to convey in broad strokes the moral and factual discoveries that he personally has made, about the various routes to the 'world of modern industry' traveled by his 'subject' countries, about the role of landed upper classes and peasantries in the politics of that transformation, and about the consequences of each route for human freedom and societal rationality." (T. Skocpol, Review of SO, reprinted in her Social Revolutions in the Modern World [1994], p.26)

That SO is not written "in the style of a scientist" is no doubt one of the reasons I was struck so forcefully by the lucidity of the opening chapter when I looked at it the other day. My reaction, at a gut level, was something like: "My God, they're not writing like this anymore, are they?" In other words, Moore stands in contrast, it seems to me, to much of the historically-oriented social science being published today, which tends to be preoccupied with methodology, weighed down with references to 'causal mechanisms' and the like, and generally no fun to read. Perhaps that is academic 'progress'. Perhaps there has been a gain in scientific precision and cumulative knowledge. Indeed, as I have written in earlier posts, I think causal explanation is an entirely legitimate goal of social science.

Nonetheless, a growing methodological and theoretical sophistication has come at a cost. With one or two possible exceptions, I know of no work of historically-oriented social science (not history, but social science) published in the last 20 years that I could put into the hands of an intelligent, curious high school student and say: "Here, you will enjoy this and find it fascinating and your life will be changed and you will see the historical sweep of human sufferings and occasional triumphs and you will want to become a historical sociologist." No. Uh-huh. Not happening.

Well, look on the bright side: Social Origins is still in print.

P.S. (added 1/5): If you think the reference to methodological sophistication in this post is a throwaway, track down the Fall 2010 issue of the newsletter of the Am.Pol.Sci.Assn. Section for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research and look at the essays published under the heading "Symposium: Causal Mechanisms, Process Tracing, and Causal Inference."


Anonymous said...

Social Origins was and remains of one of my favorite books.

LFC said...

Hi N,
Nice to hear from you. Hope things are o.k. :)