looking for a counterexample


Claim: The oldest surviving formal organization in the world is the Catholic Church.

Rebuttal, anyone? I’m more interested in actual organization that beat it or run it close rather than ship-of-Theseus puzzles about whether the Church was a continuously existing entity.

Written by Kieran

January 11, 2007 at 3:36 am

Posted in sociology

7 Responses

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  1. Does the Chinese state count? I know next to nothing about China, but I know its culture is very, very old.


    Fabio Rojas

    January 11, 2007 at 4:14 am

  2. I don’t know, but I know who does. Ryon Lancaster (now at U Chicago) did his dissertation on the creation of bureaucratic organization of the Catholic Church..



    January 11, 2007 at 4:21 am

  3. The Chinese State was my other main contender, too. But I don’t know enough about Chinese history to say whether it’s been a continuously-existining organization for as long.



    January 11, 2007 at 4:03 pm

  4. It’s a tough question because as you go back in time, it gets difficult to map our modern concept of a formal organization on to ancient cultural practices. Hinduism and Juadism predate Christianity (not to mention the Catholic Church) by a long shot, but does, for example, the early organization of Hebrew religion represent a formal organization and is that continuous enough with, say, current Orthodox Judaism to be considered a single formal organization? What about “tribal” societies that has been practicing customs of hierarchy and leadership for longer than any one knows? etc. etc…..

    Dan Brown, of course, will tell you of secret societies that easily beat the Catholics!


    Dan Myers

    January 11, 2007 at 4:05 pm

  5. Hmm, according to Edgar Kiser’s stuff on China, the Chinese state bureaucracy is certainly the *oldest* bureaucratic aministrative apparatus, issues of continuity aside:

    CENTRALIZED bureaucratic administration did not develop in most states until the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries (Brewer 1989; Ertman 1997; Kiser and Schneider 1994, Mann 1993; Weber [1921/ 1922] 1978).1 Prior to that time, state administration was usually characterized by a mix of patrimonial elements, including tax farming, liturgical systems, and prebendalism. The Chinese case is a notable exception. At a time when Republican Rome was administered by publican tax farmers and several centuries before European states developed bureaucracies, China “was administered by a centralized bureaucratic government” (Creel 1964:155; also see Finer 1997:13, 87, 90; Fu 1993:27; Kautsky 1982:133).

    The Qin state (897?-222 B.C.) developed into the Qin Empire (221-206 B.c.)2 that unified China and consolidated the administrative advances that began in the Warring States period (481-221 B.C.).3 This development is a fascinating empirical outlier in administrative history, and more generally for the history of state formation. It also appears to be anomalous from the perspective of theories of bureaucratization. Exploring anomalies like this one is one of the best ways to develop theory and broaden our understanding of history (Emigh 1997; Kiser and Hechter 1998; Kuhn 1962; Lakatos 1978).

    The Qin case is important not only for its precocious bureaucratization, but because it shaped the course of Chinese political history. Although the Qin dynasty itself lasted less than two decades, many of its administrative innovations lasted more than two millennia (Bodde 1986:90; Finer 1997; Watson 1999:207-208)

    It’s probably right to say that “complex organization” is too general a concept, because e.g. a large patrimonial state is a complex organization even though it’s run like a giant household. “Formal bureaucracy” is better.



    January 11, 2007 at 4:29 pm

  6. Great, thanks for picking out that information. Perfect timing too. Next week my orgs. class is reading and discussing Weber on bureaucracy.



    January 11, 2007 at 5:06 pm

  7. I would think that the longest standing formal organization is the military.

    In tardiness



    January 20, 2007 at 8:48 pm

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