theories of great social actors

When I visited Millsaps College a few weeks ago, I got into a discussion about international relations theory with my host, political scientist Michael Reinhard. I asked him why we (social scientists) needed to study famous political leaders, like Julius Caesar or Winston Churchill. His argument was intriguing. He said that highly successful social actors have often spent a lot of time understanding their social world. They are good at what they do – international relations in this case – because, at the very least, they have an intuition about the world that is important and correct. Some, like Churchill, will even explain their views to others. In other words, political scientists should study great leaders because great leaders actually understand power fairly well.

In sociology, we have no such argument, but it is worth thinking about. We are resistant to great leader stories and for good reason. Great man stories often devolve into hero worship, or they rely on “Whig” history. But that doesn’t mean Great people scholarship is not without use. For example, what did Steve Jobs understand about markets that management scholars should learn? Or, a more sociological example, what does a great religious leader understand about religion that sociologists of religion should know? Taking a turn from Bourdieu, we could look at any social field, identify the “masters,” and then use them as research sites where we can understand how the field is put together.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 8, 2013 at 12:17 am

7 Responses

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  1. I’m a political scientist who studies international relations. I must say, while recognizing that such general statements are inherently problematic, that Prof Reinhard’s take on this (as you recount it) is not the dominant one in the field. Usually, IR is quick to emphasize structural conditions, institutional biases, cognitive errancies, and almost anything *other* than Great Man stories as being the main drivers of global politics. Actors’ decisions matter, but typically in somewhat-marginal ways. E.g., we do not believe that Obama can “leadership” his way to whatever outcome he desires, no matter what Maureen Dowd says. We do not believe that Ronald Reagan “won” the Cold War. International politics doesn’t follow Aaron Sorkin’s script. Leaders are highly constrained in how they conduct international relations by their domestic polities, and most international relations theories are “leaderless” (i.e. they are systematic rather than idiosyncratic).

    What we do tend to think/assume is that notable political actors are good at being *politicians*, which is distinct from being good at foreign policy or other aspects of international relations. For example, Churchill was not, in fact, all that great at international relations. He wasn’t a very good military commander either. But he was exceptionally good at continually getting himself back into public office even after suffering humiliating political/military defeats. Even this may often be a strong assumption — Julius Caesar’s ability to “understand his social world” left a few things to be desired, or he might not’ve been assassinated by his friends — but it’s difficult to assume that Prime Minister X is *bad* at politics.

    To some extent the ability to maintain political power is likely related to the ability to generate non-disastrous policy outcomes, but even that’s hard to know. Had al-Qaeda attacked New York and DC on September 11, 1999 rather than 2001 what would we think about the respective presidencies of Clinton and Bush (or, probably, Gore)? A Kerry victory in 2004 would almost certainly not have prevented a financial crisis in 2008, which would still have spread to Europe and beyond, so how much did the particular leader really matter during that episode?

    Do politicians understand power better than others? I’m not sure. They make mistakes all the time. They take unnecessary gambles and make plenty of unforced errors. Sometimes they get it right, but they often get it wrong. Steve Jobs almost ruined Apple — several times — before his “genius” transformed the company. Abraham Lincoln went through one battlefield commander after another before settling on attrition as his brute-force “strategy”.

    So I tend to stay away from the “Great Man” stories still.


    W. K. Winecoff

    May 8, 2013 at 1:27 am

  2. One can’t just take it as a given that successful agents understand the world better than other agents, and then investigate their understanding of the world to understand how social success is generated. This method assumes that which is trying to be shown.


    Graham Peterson

    May 8, 2013 at 2:19 am

  3. I think when looking at extremely successful individuals, we not only have to take into account structure but also luck.

    On an somewhat related note, I remember reading an article about a former expert pickpocket who became a performer in Las Vegas, as well as a consultant for police. He even attended an event in which he discussed the science of human attention and cognition with Daniel Kahneman:



    May 8, 2013 at 10:32 am

  4. Whoops, forgot to write: the point is that I think Reinhard’s point is a valid one – people who have some special expertise in some academically relevant field may indeed have unique theoretical insights



    May 8, 2013 at 10:33 am

  5. Interesting post. There are certainly parallels to this in other fields. Take the humanities, where even undergraduate courses require the readings of autobiographical work of those such as Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, etc.

    That said, I would hesitate before putting too much weight into the “mastery” of great men. If we pull from Bourdieu, than we know that the dispositions of any individual must necessarily interact with social structure. As sociologists, I think we rightfully place more of an emphasis on how one’s circumstances and being situated favorably in the social world have more to do with success than any level of individual exceptionality. After all, talent (excellence) is mundane, is it not?

    Lastly, food for thought: it we put weight into individual success, than how does this change how we view individual failures? Are we charting “blame the victim” territory?



    May 8, 2013 at 2:45 pm

  6. It’s pushing it a bit but you could argue that Fligstein’s theory of fields incorporates “social skill.” This formulation includes something about how skilled actors are in navigating fields and the social conditions of the fields themselves. In your example of Steve Jobs he must have had some kind of skill for navigating markets (that we would want to learn about) but that change the conditions.



    May 8, 2013 at 3:02 pm

  7. There is a classical sociological foundation for this kind of research. What about Weber and charisma and charismatic authority?

    And I am sure some org. theorists could point to some of the leadership literature, which can speak to the importance of individual skill. Admittedly, leadership is highly contextual and embedded within many overlapping fields and structures, but there is something to be said about an individual’s ability to navigate within any field.

    And what would social movements theorists say? Surely, how we understand MLK’s role in the civil rights movement has something to do with individual skill and his individual story. His individual role and our role is not completely mythologized.


    Scott Dolan

    May 8, 2013 at 4:49 pm

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