Bodley, John H. The Power of Scale: A Global History Approach (M.
E. Sharpe, 2002). 320 pp, $26.95 (paper).
After seeing "Fahrenheit 9/11" this past summer
I stopped in at my local independent bookseller and picked up a copy of
Craig Unger's book House of Bush, House of Saud.1 Unger examines the development
of the close personal, political and economic relationship between the Bush
family and the clan of King Fahd. Their cooperation has changed the course
of world history, leaving many to wonder about the implications for that
which we call "democracy," for the autonomy of world nations, and for the
well-being of the world's people. These troubling questions go right to
the heart of the approach developed by John H. Bodley in The Power of
Bodley introduces a "scale and power perspective"
to world history (3). He takes as his focus what he calls "imperia" or "personal
power network[s] and elite organizational structure[s]" (4). He explains,
"[i]mperia exist wherever control is permanently exercised by an individual
or an elite minority who are fewer than half the members of any social group"
(4). Imperia may be as small as households, where a limited number of adults
control resources and decisions. They may be as extensive as the network
of relationships that links the King of Saudi Arabia, his sons and business
partners with present and former U.S. presidents, CEOs in manufacturing,
construction, and finance, and intelligence chiefs. Imperia may be leveraged
to facilitate the acquisition of assets ranging in value from a few hundred
dollars to a few billion, and they may be used to control the destinies
of a handful of people, or millions.
Having defined imperia, the author examines
the impact on ordinary folk (peasants, workers, the hoi polloi) of
the growth of imperia and the resulting elite consolidation of assets and
power. The concepts of lognormal distribution and Pareto's law are central
to this approach. In other words, as societies grow, elite imperia become
proportionally (on a logarithmic scale) more extensive than those of the
masses, and their power becomes proportionally greater. The consistency
of lognormal distributions across many fields such as income and assets
is called Pareto's law. For example, when one looks at the distribution
of income in the United States one finds that a very small percentage of
the population collects almost incomprehensible sums while majority earns
maintenance or below-maintenance amounts. As Bodley explains, "[a] lognormal
distribution is skewed far to the right by a small number of cases with
very high values" (57).
Thus when households organize into tribes
or when tribes organize into kingdoms and empires, the proportional inequality
between elites and commoners remains constant on a lognormal scale. However,
the amount of power and the value of assets held by elites explode while
the poor experience increasingly vast inequalities. The power of scale also
explains the greater degree of stratification in more complex societies.
Bodley does not conceal his socio-political agenda in this volume. He argues
that in order to create a world of justice and equality we must create optimal-scale
societies which have a limited gap between poor and rich (236-241).
The Power of Scale is divided into
nine chapters. The first four chapters introduce the author's concept of
imperia, describe the basic workings of imperia at different scales (from
tribe to commercial empire), illuminate the significance of scale analysis,
and present a historical perspective on the processes through which elites
seized power in different societies in different historical contexts. Chapters
five and six apply a power and scale perspective to the rise of commercial
elites in Europe in the medieval and early modern periods (e.g., the Medici
family), and in America's 19th century commercial revolution.
Chapter seven takes as its focus debates over politics, society, and the
economy—Bodley's discussion spans the course of history from Plato
to John Maynard Keynes. In chapters eight and nine the book concludes with
a summary of scale and power issues in the United States after 1945 and
in the future.
One of the book's weaknesses lies in the author's
ambition. Bodley covers so much historical territory that many discussions
are, inevitably, superficial. For example, after reading several interesting
pages on the connection between the fur trade and the development of financier
John Jacob Astor's personal imperium, I turned ahead hoping for a comparable
discussion of John D. Rockefeller Sr., only to find a disappointingly brief
summary of well-known history. (The Rockefellers do make several other appearances
in the text as Bodley describes the mid-twentieth century political influence
of family-funded think tanks and policy groups).
A second weakness is surprising, given the
author's credentials as an anthropologist with years of field research behind
him. Presently Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at
Washington State University, Bodley has published research on the Campa
people of eastern Peru since the late 1960s. Still, his discussions of tribes
and tribal people are over-generalized and lack ethnographic detail.
Finally, while Bodley clearly has read widely
in his subject area and includes a variety of both recent and classic sources,
there are passages throughout the book where references are sorely lacking.
For example, chapter eight includes a discussion of the changing role of
the nation-state in the face of powerful supra-national forces, but there
are places in which facts and figures are recounted without any citations
at all (ie. 234). Such omissions detract from the credibility of Bodley's
Despite these shortcomings, The Power of
Scale presents a powerful idea and an intriguing approach to world history.
The monograph would be suitable for graduate students, for social studies
teachers engaged in professional development and, possibly, for a selection
of advanced undergraduates. This study easily invites essential questions
that could be asked of any time and place in history, for example "Through
what kinds of networks are powerful individuals linked with one another?"
"What kinds of resources, capital, or power do these elites wield?" "As
these individuals expand their wealth and power to new scales, what is the
larger impact on society and history?" Clearly, as events of the second
Bush administration show, these questions are crucially relevant to all
histories—ancient, modern, and contemporary.
Elizabeth A. Ten Dyke
Kingston High School