Domination, Contention,

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  • 7/29/2019 Domination, Contention,






    Viviane Brachet-Ma rquez


    I propose a theoretical framework that specifies dynamic principles

    involving the generalized and ubiquitous everyday interaction of society

    and state actors alternately in upholding and undermining the rules that

    spell the unequal distribution of power and resources. The framework pro-

    posed brings together a historically specific micro-process contention

    with a general macro-principle of permanence and change in the

    distributive rules the creation, renegotiation, and occasional destruction

    of a generally durable yet continuously contested pact of domination.

    Inequality represents simultaneously a central organizing principle of

    social life and a recurring source of conflict over rights and rules, the

    latter being the practical rules that govern interaction in specific cases of

    contention, giving governing agencies the necessary flexibility to act

    casuistically, giving in here, and throwing its weight there, with new

    formal rules sometimes following that process, or old ones falling in


    Theorizing the Dynamics of Social Processes

    Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Volume 27, 123161

    Copyright r 2010 by Emerald Group Publishing LimitedAll rights of reproduction in any form reserved

    ISSN: 0278-1204/doi:10.1108/S0278-1204(2010)0000027008


  • 7/29/2019 Domination, Contention,


    In this scheme, the state is a historically created organizational andcoercive agent embodying and enforcing the currently valid pact, mostly

    through legal/coercive, but also ideological power over its territory of

    jurisdiction. State forms are specific to each historically constructed pact

    of domination, so that there is no such thing as a state in general, but a

    series of historically constructed states, each with its rules of who should

    get what and peculiar ways of maintaining inequality between dominant

    and dominated.

    Why do people comply unquestioningly, most of the time, with rules that

    define an unequal distribution of access to power and resources? Inequality

    is omnipresent and justified in a variety of institutional arenas, from

    kinship to religion to work environments, so that we are literally trained and

    retrained every day of our lives, to accept that we will take our places, and

    take for granted the places of others, in the hierarchy of power and wealth.

    In doing so, we are also trained to reproduce inequality, enforcing its rules

    on kin and subalterns, while bowing to the authority of our hierarchical

    superiors. Yet we do not always comply. We often bicker, temporize,protest, and drag our feet, and sometimes we simulate compliance while

    quietly sabotaging rules and inventing alternative ones tacitly shared by

    select groups. We also get into disputes over who owns what or should get

    what. In such cases, higher authorities are often called in to help settle the

    dispute: in premodern times, the priests and local lords; today, the police

    and the courts. And here again, in the process of settling the dispute,

    inequality may be either reinforced or weakened in the particular instance.

    In the perspective presented here, inequality is the result of a complex set

    of interactions taking place between agents


    over time in other words, aprocess.2 Inequality is embedded in macro-historical processes, as different

    regions and nations have acquired, through their history, widely different

    levels of inequality, and institutional systems maintaining it.3 But it is also

    present in everyday micro-processes whereby individuals, groups, and

    collectivities either confirm or question one or another aspect of inequality

    through their transactions and, in doing so, alternately validate or transgress

    some rule spelling inequality. These rules are not invariably clearly spelt out,

    and the authorities enforcing them are not always equipped to impose them.

    They evolve over time in societies that are never static: people move up anddown hierarchy ladders, acquire rather than inherit wealth and status,

    higher authorities often mediate disputes rather than impose order from

    above, and courts and cases vary in their interpretation of the law.


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    To understand theoretically how inequality is instituted, reproduced, andtransformed, we must therefore be able to grasp how these everyday

    dynamic processes shape their respective societies historical trajectories.

    To express the workings of these dynamic processes, I propose a

    theoretical framework that brings together contention, a concept designating

    interactive conflictive micro-/meso-processes, with a general transhistorical

    process4 of the renegotiation and occasional destruction of a broad set of

    rules over who should get what or pact of domination. In this framework,

    states5 are continuously engaged in engineering and enforcing rules that

    spell inequality, but these attempts are also continuously being resisted andrenegotiated through contention by societal actors (elite as well as

    subaltern). In short, inequality is seen as representing simultaneously a

    central organizing principle of social life and a perennial source of change

    within society.

    In order to bring together these two conceptions of conflictive interaction,

    I draw from two distinct intellectual traditions with no connecting doors

    between them, and no specific interest in the problem of inequality. One

    views inequality as generated from above as states conquer territories and

    dominate their population, whereas the other focuses on everydayconflictive interactive nexi through which people confront each other in

    the pursuit of what they perceive as their interests. I will briefly review both

    so as to make clear what aspects will be incorporated in the model proposed.



    Although the 1960s saw the birth of crucial pioneering work in the historical

    study of state making (Hintze, 1975; Hobsbawm, 1962; Moore, 1967),

    enduring interest in the subject would take roots from the 1970s on, with

    such landmarks as Perry Andersons Lineages of the Absolutist State

    (1974a), Tillys Formation of National States in Western Europe (1975), and

    Michael Manns (1986, 1993) monumental study of the historical birth and

    shaping of particular civilizations, empires, and nation-states.7 These works,

    which emphasized such activities as war making, taxation, policing, control

    of food supply, and the formation of bureaucratic cadres, which weredifficult, costly, and often unwanted by large parts of the population (Tilly,

    1975, p. 6), opened the way for the systematic study of the history of state

    building in Europe. In many of these studies, Western states were seen to

    Domination, Contention, and the Negotiation of Inequality 125

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    have emerged from the history of territorial conquests and losses betweenmilitarized elites (Hintze, 1975; Finer, 1975; Downing, 1992; Tilly, 1990,

    1993; Tallett, 1992; Porter, 1994). The argument supporting the military

    conception of state making centered on the impact of war making on the

    rationalization of state coercive, fiscal, and organizational capacities (Finer,

    1975). Enduring domination over a conquered territory by a victorious elite

    was therefore seen as inseparable from the creation of an extractive/

    administrative apparatus the state dedicated to securing and enhancing

    the power of the conqueror become sovereign, along with that of his close

    followers, or polity members (Tilly, 2000). In other words, to reap thefruits of conquest, inequality had to be created and enforced via extracting

    resources from the local population. As Tilly later put it, some conquerors

    managed to exert stable control over the populations in substantial

    territories, and to gain routine access to part of the goods and services

    produced in the territory; they became rulers (1990, pp. 1415). States also

    harnessed preconquest inequalities to their own ends by coopting the local

    elite, or simply destroy it, as did Spanish and Portuguese conquerors.

    The thrust of state making (also called state formation) studies that

    flourished from the 1980s onwards was in tracing the growth of statesapparatuses and power over their territories in different periods and

    locations. In antiquity, conquest was said to have generated fiscal revenues

    by producing enough crops to maintain conquering armies through the slave

    labor acquired with conquest, so that battle fields provided the manpower

    for cornfields, and vice-versa (Anderson, 1974b, p. 28).8 In medieval

    Europe, rulers initially extracted surplus resources from agricultural

    laborers on their own (initially appropriated) land, as did their vassals who

    would cofinance the costs of war. In Spanish America, extracting tribute

    from the indigenous population was the first step to consolidating conquest.Even whe