Janet L. Nelson
“If historians eschew theory of how societies operate, they imprison themselves in the commonsense notions of their own society.… Comte was right in his claim that sociology is the queen of the social and human sciences. But no queen ever worked as hard as the sociologist with pretensions needs to!”1
The contributors to this book would not dispute Michael Mann's claims for sociology. Nor would the historians among us wish to endorse the annalistes' counterclaim (and riposte to Comte) that history is queen and mistress of the social sciences. Though some of us might want to take up the cudgels for early medieval queens, who worked extremely hard ex officio; our collective interests, in queens, mistresses, social theory, and much else, have nothing to do with disciplinary machismo. We are committed interdisciplinarians: archaeologists and historians alike have borrowed insights from each other, and from various social and human sciences. All of us, more or less willingly, have used some theory (Mann also talks about “theoretical hunches” which may be as far as our pretensions go) to interpret our material, to help in generalising from it, and in comparing our findings, and to point to priorities.
Seeing “societies” as “constituted of multiple overlapping and intersecting [sociospatial] networks of power”, Mann explains how the intersections work by bringing in Max Weber's notion of ideas which can function as switchmen or pointsmen, that is, the men who change the points on railway lines and so determine on which track the train will run thereafter.2 In our discussions, and in preparing our
1 M. Mann, The Structures of Social Power (London, 1986), preface, pp. vii–viii.
2 Mann, Structures, pp. 22–8, though Mann suggests amending the metaphor to
sources of social power as “tracklaying vehicles”, which at “the 'moments' of track-
laying” produce “an autonomy of social concentration, organization, and direction
that is lacking in more institutionalized times”. The particular relevance of Mann's
insight to the collective project of the present book is that the phases, even the cen-
turies-long process, of the Roman World's transformation can be understood as
such tracklaying moments.