Today there is a debate on whether the United States is an empire, and if so whether it will endure or is in crisis. We can contribute to that debate if we carefully compare the U.S. to past empires.
Similarly, there is discussion on whether states are losing power to markets and to new global or localized institutions. In the long sweep of history, states are relatively new institutions. They have displaced empires, city-states, aristocratic fiefs, tribes and other overlapping power centers only in the past few hundred years, and it is only in the last century that states have become the main source of social benefits in much of the world. States’ past trajectories can offer insights into the seriousness of current challenges to state power and the fates of social welfare systems.
My book, What is Historical Sociology?, makes the case for the importance of bringing historical perspective and analysis to the issues of concern to contemporary sociologists. Our understanding of contemporary capitalism and its crises can and should be clarified by knowledge of the origins of capitalism and the dynamics of capitalist development, global expansion and crises of the past five centuries.
If we want to explain why revolutions and social movements occur, and especially what long-term effects they have, and why more often than not they fail and leave few permanent traces, we need to look systematically at variations in the causes and courses of such events in the past. What is Historical Sociology? seeks to identify works of historical sociology that are most useful in addressing these questions as well as work in the history of inequality, family and gender, and culture. I hope the book will both provoke debate and show how issues of current controversy can be clarified through historical analysis. Sociology and political dispute can benefit from historical perspective. My book shows ways in which that can be done.
Richard Lachmann is professor of the sociology of culture and comparative/historical sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is author of States and Power and Capitalists in Spite of Themselves, winner of the 2003 American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award, the 2002 Barrington Moore Best Book Award Honorable Mention from the American Sociological Association’s Comparative Historical Sociology Section, and 2001 Distinguished Publication Award from the American Sociological Association’s Political Sociology Section.