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Response to Review no. 1013

We are grateful to Bronwen Everill for her thorough and thoughtful review of our book Empires in World History. We particularly appreciate the clarity with which she both brings out the themes that we tried to thread throughout the book and summarizes the comparisons and connections we develop chapter by chapter. Here, we only wish to say a few words about what she considers our ‘hasty definition of empire’, not because we wish to carp at criticism, but because she raises important issues that deserve reflection.

How useful are ideal-types as starting points for analysis and comparison? We want the reader to reflect on the relationship of ‘empire’ and ‘nation-state,’ and as Everill rightly observes, this reflection occurs throughout the book, not just on p. 8. Everill has a good point when she argues that all states are so riven by hierarchy and distinction that the image of a nation-state as a single government ruling a single people might well be considered ‘a politically correct name for an empire-state’. This explosion of the myth of the nation-state is in fact one of our goals. We want readers to see that sovereignty has been and still is a more complex, divisible, and uneven phenomenon than most thinking about states and interstate relations allows.

But two problems stand in the way of writing a book about complex sovereignties instead of empires. First, the litany that says history proceeds from empires to nation-states is so deeply entrenched in today’s language – from international relations to cultural studies – that we want to set the reader thinking about the relevance of these two concepts early on. Scholars who otherwise have moved away from notions of ‘stages of development’ or ‘progress’ still stick to a narrative about empire to nation-state, unchanged since our schooldays. For a glimpse of the wider educated community, just type ‘nation-state’ in Google Scholar: 571,000 entries pop up.  More important still, in recent history enough people have believed that the state should correspond to the nation that they have brought about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people – in the Balkans and Rwanda to take two examples from the 1990s. So we felt that we had to engage this concept and narratives about it directly.

Our interest is not to slot each political formation we encounter into one category or the other, but rather to reflect on the dynamic interplay of incorporative and differentiating political forms. That is where setting out ideal-types serves a purpose.

This brings us to a second point about defining and using empire as a category. Any definition has to be capacious because the phenomenon is varied – and that is one of the main themes of our book, as Everill brings out.  One alternative to providing a general definition would be not to write about empire at all, but only about specific political units in specific contexts. This is a perfectly defensible way to proceed. But doing so would make it harder to understand some critical dimensions of world history.

Empires, as distinct from more homogeneous or homogenizing units, indeed set the context for much of world history – marking out trade routes; demanding labor, lives, and loyalty; shaping, combining, and imposing cultural practices across large spaces. If one doesn’t set out a concept that describes the kinds of polities that could have this impact, understanding the conflicts and connections that animate so much of history becomes more difficult. By focusing our attention on state forms that ‘govern different people differently’, we see how empires developed complex repertoires of rule, combining and shifting ways of exercising power through dynastic alliances, colonies of settlement, trade outposts, mobile armed forces, the protection of subordinate rulers, infliction of terror, etc. The multiplicity of strategies and of resources gave empires greater flexibility than other kinds of states; variations among imperial practices invite discussions of the strength, endurance, and limitations of different ways of rule.

A history of a variety of states, each with its particularities, would miss the importance of the intersections of ambitious empires. Their competitions were critical to making new states and undoing old ones, to connecting regions of the world, to producing new societies, new administrative practices, and new ideas. Our selection of a set of empires – with an accent on Eurasia, as our reviewer points out – was made with the goal of understanding conflicts and connections that drove significant changes in lifeways and in political organization over long periods of time.

The danger that under our broad definition empire is everywhere, and hence nowhere, is less serious in practice than it is in theory, for in most parts of the world at most times, few empires were actually in play. Aspirations to empire – to bring diverse places and peoples under some form of political control – are widespread in every era of history. But actually building an empire is difficult, not just due to resistance, but because other empires raise the entry costs of the imperial game. The very diversity of power relations that an empire must deploy both limits the possibilities for generalizing empire everywhere and shapes the networks in which people, commodities, and ideas circulate–including ideas about the nature of power itself.

Hence our principle argument: empire is a useful concept with which to think.