OBITUARY: BARRINGTON MOORE - Author of a Daring Sociological Classic

By Smith, Dennis | The Independent (London, England), November 17, 2005 | Go to article overview
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OBITUARY: BARRINGTON MOORE - Author of a Daring Sociological Classic


Smith, Dennis, The Independent (London, England)


Barrington Moore was one of the greatest American sociologists of the 20th century. He did not found an intellectual school, although he had many successful students. Nor did he establish a paradigmatic concept or theory, although he was a prime exemplar of model scholarship. He did something much more difficult. He showed that detailed historical and comparative analysis of specific societies such as Britain, China and the United States could produce important testable generalisations about how societies change. These generalisations focus on the question that guided his work: which historical circumstances favour, and which inhibit, the making of modern societies that are decent and worth living in?

Moore's most important book was Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, which appeared in 1966, when he was 53. It stands alongside Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in 1904-05) and Emile Durkheim's Suicide (1897) as a sociological classic.

In Social Origins, Moore showed that declining social interests and political structures play a crucial part in shaping the new socio-political orders that replace them. Historically, great landowners and rural peasantry throughout Europe and Asia have been threatened by the growth of large cities, and the rise of strong, centralising states. Moore looked at how these threatened classes responded in Britain, France, the US, China, Japan and India.

He investigated the alliances landed aristocracy and gentry (including the samurai of Japan) made with rising interests such as urban business and central government. He looked at the social structures of the peasantry and whether it was gradually eliminated (as in England) or became a revolutionary force (as in France and China). Moore showed how different class-based responses to similar economic pressures produced very different political outcomes in different countries: democracy, Fascism or Communism.

Social Origins was daring for its time. It kicked aside the preoccupation with the role of values as the basis of social order, associated with Talcott Parsons, and put at the centre of its analysis the part played by violence, exploitation and power within socio-political hierarchies. Moore insisted that brutal coercion had been just as important in establishing relatively decent Western liberal democracies as it had been in imposing Fascist and Communist regimes.

Moore was not the first to say this in post-war America. C. Wright Mills, for one, had done so. But Moore made the key breakthrough, creating a cultural and political space for a new breed of historical sociologists including Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, Immanuel Wallerstein, Perry Anderson, Michael Mann and many others. Moore was able to make this breakthrough for two reasons. He had a much wider range as a historical sociologist than Mills. He was also, unlike Mills, unequivocally a man from the top of the American social establishment who not only strongly believed in liberal democracy but also thought capitalism was an important means of achieving it. This made him difficult to dismiss or ignore.

Moore, a keen yachtsman like his father, had an lite education. Between the ages of 14 and 20, he attended St George's School, a private boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island. He then entered Williams College in Massachusetts, where Ivy League-trained teachers aimed to give their students, all organised socially into fraternities, a liberal education with a strong emphasis on the Greek and Latin classics. Moore majored in Latin, took eight courses in Attic Greek, and got a thorough grounding in classical and medieval history.

He also took a political science course that introduced him to the work of W.G. Sumner and A.G. Keller. Moore credited these two very different scholars for his own abiding interest in problems relating to inequality, authority, ideological obscurantism, totalitarian regimes and the causes of human misery.

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