Michael Mann - Tha Sources of Social Power

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Canadian Journal of Sociology Online November-December 2006

John A. Hall and Ralph Schroeder, eds.
An Anatomy of Power: The Social Theory of Michael Mann.
Cambridge University Press, 2006, 409 pp.
$US 34.99 paper (0-521-61518-6), $US 80.00 hardcover (0-521-85000-2) In an endnote buried deep in his own contribution to this volume editor John Hall questions: “[I]s it the case that Mann has been so overwhelmed by historical material that he has in fact ceased to be a sociological theorist, becoming an analytic historian instead?” The best reply, it would seem, comes in the form of this collection of high-powered and sustained reflections on the social theory of Michael Mann. Certainly before Hall and Ralph Schroeder pulled these fifteen chapters from leading sociologists, historians, and political scientists, the question was far from far-fetched. Adding the theory sections of three of the five books mentioned in this collection (The Sources of Social Power Volumes I and II (1983 and 1993) and The Dark Side of Democracy (2005)) Mann had devoted no more than 153 pages of “social theory” to a total of 1,734 pages of detailed historical analyses. Clearly Hall and Schroeder have rendered those who take seriously the study of historical sociology and social theory – in the best tradition of Weber and Marx – an invaluable service. This review will attempt to serve a single purpose while largely disregarding the editors’ separation of chapters into thematic sections; namely, Mann’s theory and method, his analysis of power, his explanation for the rise of the West and his examination of modernity. The editors have done well to collate in this way, although in practice several of the contributors address more than one of these issues in their chapter. Instead I will distill the fundamental challenges authors pose to Mann’s work around a number of themes. Mann’s response, which comes at the end of the volume, will have to wait purchase of the book. Here I offer only a teaser: Do read Mann’s response to Daniel Gordon’s review of his Dark Side of Democracy in the Canadian Journal of Sociology Online for a sense of his adept skill as a defender.

Several contributors focus on what they see as Mann’s limited analysis of ideological power. While Joseph Bryant spends much effort defending Mann’s methodology of historically grounded “sociological theorizing”, especially against John Goldthorpe’s famous critique, he eventually argues that Mann pays insufficient attention to the actual content of ideologies. Taking Christianity as his example, he demonstrates that this world religion did not play the role that Mann thinks during ancient times. In order to fully understand the dynamics of ideologies, Bryant maintains, Mann needs a stronger, more fully worked out sociology of knowledge. Philip Gorski reinforces this very point. He directs us to Mann’s inattention – “interpretational blindspot” he calls it – to the real importance of ideological power. Gorski levels three critiques at Mann’s use of religion, specifically Catholicism, to help explain the rise of modern capitalism: first, Mann gets the periodization wrong (the take off was not during the Middle Ages but during the early modern period (1500-1750)), he gets the conceptualization wrong (infrastructural power was largely ideological not political) and he gets the explanation wrong (it was Protestantism, namely Calvinism, that impacted state administrations more than Catholicism). He concludes by challenging Mann’s analysis of the decline of ideology in the modern world, maintaining instead that there has been a great growth and diffusion of ideological power today.

John Hobson reports that during the conference to discuss the present volume, Mann admitted to him that the 20th century, perhaps more than any other, had been about ideology. He finds this strange because by his account Mann’s work contains an essential tension between materialism – “organizational materialism” as labeled by...
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