20 January 2012

Definitions matter, so please provide them

Immerman, An Empire for Liberty (2010, Princeton UP):
Empire, as a noun, was value-free at the time the United States gained its independence. While its precise definition is elusive because of the problem of translation, it derived from the Latin imperium, which in English approximates the words rule and sovereignty. Hence its definition was functional or instrumental. Greeks used it to describe the relationship between the city-states that united to oppose the Persians (who also comprised an entity called an empire). But Athens exercised leadership over its fellow city-states; it did not really rule them.
I am not trying to be difficult here, but I find this paragraph difficult to follow in a way that I rarely find (empirical) political science hard to understand. Why are we talking about imperium to describe the Athenians' relationship with the Delian League, when there are perfectly good words like hegemony to do that work instead? In what way was Athenian "leadership" different from Persian "rule"?

And why does the "Augustan" invention of bureaucracy (which, to readers of S.E. Finer's History of Government from the Earliest Times or, I don't know, Weber, would come as a surprise) that Zimmerman attributes to Michael Doyle's work two sentences later represent a phase change in "empire"? (Does that mean that we should call the "Augustan Threshold" the "Qin Revolution"?)

Some of my friends often claim they find historians hard to read because so many concepts are rendered informally or, worse, idiographically. I used to disagree with them. But the more I encounter academic historians seeking to make grand theoretical (or grand-theoretical) claims, the more I sympathize with their complaints.


  1. Immerman doesn't in the quoted paragraph use 'imperium' to describe the Athenians' relation w the Delian League. He says the Greeks themselves used the word (or a Greek equivalent I guess) to describe that relationship.

    Informal or otherwise 'inadequate' definition of concepts should not make someone "hard to read". Annoying maybe, but not hard. I feel a little sorry for your friends who find historians "hard to read" for this reason. You know what I find "hard to read"? An APSR article that has two paragraphs of English and 100 paragraphs of equations. But of course that's b/c my grad-school training was deficient. Which I can't really blame for my not getting a job after finishing my degree, though it probably, on balance, didn't help.

  2. My objection is mostly that "imperium" is Latin and that "hegemony" is both more accurate and also, you know, Greek. So why confuse the issue?

    And Immerman is using this discussion to set up an investigation of AMERICAN empire. This places a much higher burden on him to be theoretically sound in his use of terms, since informality in definition makes comparisons among Greek, Roman, and American "empires" difficult at best.