Shmuel N. Eisenstadt and the Comparative Political History of Pre-Eighteenth-Century Empires

Asian Review of World Histories
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  • 1 Leiden University

This essay critically analyses the legacy of Eisenstadt’s The Political Systems of Empires for the comparative political history of preindustrial empires. It argues that Eisenstadt has given us a rich toolkit to conceptualize the formation, maintenance, and dissolution of empires by theorizing the structural relationships between social groups in large-scale polities and among such polities, and by analysing global patterns of development in the distribution of the sources of social power. The Political Systems of Empires provides an inventory of key questions and dynamics that a comparative history of power relationships in empires cannot ignore. This essay, furthermore, discusses three methodological problems in Eisenstadt’s work which have had a significant impact on comparative empire studies between the 1980s and the 2000s. The essay argues that certain shared features of comparative studies of pre-industrial empires help perpetuate Eurocentric analyses: the foregrounding of select empires and periods as ideal types (typicality), the focus on macro-historical structures and dynamics without the integration of social relationships and actions in historical conjunctures (the lack of scalability), and the search for convergence and divergence. These features need to be overcome to make Eisenstadt’s legacy viable for comparative political history.

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