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Rethinking the Role of Agency in Political Evolution

Part of the Fundamental Issues in Archaeology book series (FIAR)

A basic postulate of collective action theory is that humans find it difficult to build and maintain stable political regimes, given the potential for disorder to be found in their rational but often selfish social actions—their agency. Collective states, that is, those featuring resource sharing among members of the political community, are particularly problematic in this regard. In this case, while shared resources can provide benefits to all, they are allocated according to a social contract representing a consensus arrived at between rulers and taxpayers, differently situated social actors whose interests and goals are often divergent. Given this dilemma, how is it possible to build a state, especially a more collective one? Western social science envisions two solutions to the state-building dilemma. Recent history saw the transition to modernity in the form of Western democratic institutions that brought the potential for consensus and collective action, while, prior to modernization and democracy, state formation depended primarily on the coercive power and absolute divinity of autocratic leaders whose highly centralized rule exploited commoners and largely precluded collective action or social contracts (e.g., Lenski 1966: 317; cf. Haas 1982). This is a scenario that we find implausible and that begs many questions, for example, how is it that pre-modern rulers could avoid consensus politics? Why would people accept exploitation? Are the Western democracies really so different from pre-modern states? To see how anthropologists have answered such questions, we look briefly into the history of ideas about the nature of social action in state building.

Keywords

Collective Action Social Contract Political Evolution Marxist Theory Theoretical Direction 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

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