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Book Review


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 Scale. 1
     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. 2
     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). 3
     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). 4
     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. 5
     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). 6
     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. 7
     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 important arguments. 8
     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. 9
Elizabeth A. Ten Dyke
Kingston High School

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