The Old Question

W.G. Runciman

  • The Sources of Social Power. Vol I: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 by Michael Mann
    Cambridge, 549 pp, £37.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 521 30851 8

Books on the theme of society-down-the-ages generally fall into one of two kinds. Either they are a narrative synthesis organised according to some preconceived criterion of historical significance, or they are an attempt to test against the historical evidence some would-be general theory to the effect that demography, class struggle, national psychology or whatever it may be is the master key to the explanation of the whole long story. Michael Mann, however, deliberately places himself mid-way in-between. As a result, he risks being simultaneously attacked by one set of readers for writing potted history at a safe distance from the sources, and by another for theorising at an insufficiently high and abstract level. But this is, in a sense, the point of the exercise. ‘Historical sociology’, so called, needs to vivify the higher theory with the right infusion of historical detail and vice versa, and it is by this that its success or failure requires to be judged.

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