Michael Mann Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Incoherent Empire: Conversation with Michael Mann, Professor of Sociology, UCLA, February 27, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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Comparative Historical Sociology

I guess we would classify you as a comparative sociologist, who works with historical materials. Is that the best characterization of your work?

Yes, for the last twenty years that's what I've been doing -- very broad-scale historical and comparative work.

What are the skills and prerequisites for doing that kind of work?

You have to read very widely. You have to go on a "pillaging and looting" raid into the work of archeologists, historians, anthropologists, economists, and political scientists who are studying groups around the world. You have to learn analytical skills of deciding what is the crucial information you need to know in order to test a broader hypothesis, and collect materials on that and advance the argument forward. You're always zigzagging between empirical data, very precise evidence, and more general explanations. You're refining one in relation to the other. You can go first in collecting a body of data, then you get some new ideas and you go back towards theory, and then you realize you need new evidence because you're raising questions that you didn't know existed, and you go back towards that.

It's a continuous solving of intellectual puzzles: How do things work, how do societies work? Human beings have lived in very different ways in different periods and across the world, and trying to figure out how things work is something that is very satisfying when you think you have some answers. It enables you to cast light on your own society, because rather than taking your own society as completely natural and for granted, you say, "Why do we do things like that?" It makes problematic things that most people take for granted.

Where does your predilection for comparative work come from, seeing where you're from in a wider context?

Well, I'm not entirely sure, but I think that having been a provincial, lower-middle-class boy at that age with a strong Northern accent, and going to Oxford, which was a different world, and not my world; as a student I was already comparing these ways of life and thinking about them. Politically, I've always been a bit of an independent, though with what in the U.S. you call "liberal tendencies."

I don't take things for granted, so what made an impact on me was the Cold War and the nuclear threat. Whereas my leftist friends tended to see this as just yet another part of the massive capitalist plot around the world, I came to the conclusion that it was a separate issue, a geopolitical struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and its Western allies. It couldn't be reduced to that analysis; these were different parts of modern social structure. So that tendency to disaggregate problems into different parts of an explanation has been there for a long time.

People say that I am a Weberian, following Max Weber, who was someone who accepted the power of the economy, as Marx did, but also added political-military-religious phenomena as tremendously important. For the last twenty years I have been [asking] what are the relations between these very important aspects of social structure; what is their relationship to each other and why do some become more important at times than others?

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