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American Sociological Association: Richard Lachmann Award Statement
This award is presented annually for a single book or monograph published in the three preceding calendar years. The winner gives the Sorokin Lecture at a regional or state sociological association.
Swimming against the tide of hyper-specialization, atheoreticism and the focus on ever-narrower stretches of human social experience, Richard Lachmann’s publication of Capitalists in Spite of Themselves in 2000 stood out as an extraordinary piece of work eminently deserving of the ASA Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award for 2003. A century ago, sociology was founded as a distinct discipline by the debate over the “great transformation” question: What led to the rise of modern industrial capitalism in the West? Marx, Weber, Spencer, Durkheim and many others advanced various explanations in terms of class conflict, religiously inspired cultural transformation, population growth, and evolutionary change. Refurbishing these theories, contemporaries have pointed to imperial conquest, cultural modernization, state-building, and ecological advantages. None of these, however, have proved satisfactory.
By drawing on a fine-grained historical comparative analysis of the major social formations of early modern Europe, Lachmann pokes holes in all of these answers and provides impressive support for his own elite conflict theory of transformative social change. An elite is “a group of rulers with the capacity to appropriate resources from non-elites and who inhabit a distinct organizational apparatus.” Lachmann argues that the institutional foundations for the breakthrough to modern capitalism were first created in post-Reformation England as an indirect by-product of elite conflict. Defending their interests against rival elites (i.e., the crown and aristocracy) as well as subordinant classes, the English gentry used their autonomy in local county government to transform traditional land rights, creating a new form of alienable landed property combined with a growing pool of “free” wage labor that made capitalist agriculture possible.
Through a series of political struggles, including support for the Puritans in the English revolution, this autonomous gentry was able to transform feudal agriculture and institute the features of modern capitalist agriculture. Lachmann shows that this configuration of elite power and conflict was unique and created unintended outcomes in terms of the rise of modern capitalism. Lachmann’s is a rich groundbreaking analysis, which will inspire new research and better answers on what remains the central sociological question.