How Elites Connect with Society Might Be Associated with the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

The failure to align the incentives of self-interested elites in favor of beneficial political changes is often considered a major cause of persistent underdevelopment around the world. One key issue in historical political economy is to explore mechanisms that align the interests of elites with the broader interests of the society. In this post, I examine several historical examples that point to the importance of what I call “elite social terrain” – how elites connect with society – in conditioning elite incentives in embracing or rejecting progressive changes. I hope to use this new lens to shed light on some of the most time-honored questions in the social sciences, such as the rise of the western world, the fall of the Chinese and Ottoman empires, and state weakness in today’s developing world.

The figure below depicts three ideal types of elite social terrain. In each graph, the central nodes are national-level elites; the peripheral nodes represent local-level social groups, such as tribes, clans, or ethnic groups. The edges denote connections, which can take multiple forms, such as membership, social ties, family ties, or electoral connections. National elites are agents of their connected social groups; their objective is to influence government policies to provide the best services to their groups at the lowest cost.



In a star network, two central nodes (national elites) directly connect every peripheral node (social group) located in different areas. In a bowtie network, each central node is connected to a different set of peripheral nodes, which are linked to their immediate neighbors, but not to any nodes in the other community. In a ring network, each peripheral node is connected to its immediate neighbors, but none is connected to the central nodes.

The Star Network and the Rise of Civilizations

National elites embedded in the star network have the strongest incentive to push for political changes that enhance broad social interests, such as state-strengthening reforms that increase state capacity. Using Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan’s terminology, in the star network, social cleavages are cross-cutting. Tribes, clans, and ethnic groups that are concentrated in a certain locality often care a lot about their local interests but little about national matters. Nevertheless, if national elites can connect multiple social groups that are geographically dispersed, this social network can cross-cut regional cleavages. These cross-cutting cleavages incentivize the national elites to aggregate the interests of multiple localities and groups and scale them up to the national level. The star network, therefore, transcends local interests and fosters a broad state-building coalition.

This scenario approximates medieval China during the Tang era (618–907) and England after the Norman Conquest (1066). During the Tang times, an aristocracy ruled China. This aristocracy was a semi-hereditary caste that consisted of several hundred noble clans. These clans formed a close-knit marriage network, which connected different corners of the empire. The social terrain that formed among the Tang aristocratic families hence resembled a star network: a coherent center connected to the periphery. In England, during the Norman conquest, a team of Norman aristocrats connected by (imaginary) kinship links conquered England and formed a coherent elite. Although these elites had disagreements, they were all centrally oriented because they owned land throughout the country. As Robert Bates argues, their support for the Crown was a key determinant of England’s political and economic success.

The Bowtie Network and the Maintenance of Civilizations

In the bowtie network, each national elite represents only a small number of localities. Social networks in this case reinforce existing regional cleavages. In this scenario, elites prefer to delegate state functions to their social groups so that these groups can provide their own private services at a much lower price than paying taxes to the national government. But the society in the bowtie network still has an interest in keeping the state “afloat.” A state with a moderate level of capacity can help protect society from existential threats from, for example, external enemies or large-scale natural disasters. The bowtie network, however, contributes to absolutism. Although national elites can mobilize some (regionally based) social groups, it is easier for the ruler to quell challenges that are concentrated in certain areas. In addition, the lack of a dense network among elites provides what the sociologist Ronald Burt calls “structural holes” that allow the ruler to divide and conquer. In this scenario, the ruler is more likely to establish absolute rule to dominate the elites.

The bowtie network best describes late imperial China before the Opium Wars (10th to mid-19th century), the Republic of China under the Nationalist Party (early 20th century), sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America under colonial rule (18th to early 20th century), the Islamic World during the Classical Period (7th to 12th century), and the Ottoman Empire (14th to early 20th century). In these cases, a central state assembled different social groups and relied on them to rule. These social groups included lineage organizations (in imperial China), warlords (in republic China), regional elites (in Latin America), and tribes or ethnic groups (in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East). Miguel Centeno, for example, characterizes state structure in colonial-era Latin America as a system in which: “Each part of the empire was connected to the center, but the separate regions were not linked with one another.” Similarly, Christopher Clapham notes that under colonial rule, African chiefs were confined to serving as  “representatives of specified families within each chiefdom” and thus “created a group of local patrons with their own clienteles within the chiefdom.”

The Ring Network and the Fall of Civilizations

In the ring network, social groups are independent of the state. Rather than contributing resources to keep the state alive, social groups prefer to retain resources for themselves. The state is minimal and on the verge of collapse.

This scenario approximates imperial China after the Opium Wars (mid-19th to early 20th century), sub-Saharan Africa in the pre-colonial era (pre-19th century), and part of the Middle East in the post-colonial era (mid-20th century). In China, a weakened central state lost its monopoly over violence during the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). Private-order institutions organized along lineage lines became autonomous from the state and increasingly took over local administration, taxation, and defense. In pre-colonial Africa, as Jeffrey Herbst argues, “power was (quite realistically) conceived of as a series of concentric circles radiating out from the core.” While African leaders could control the core, “beyond the political core, power tended to diminish over distance.” In post-colonial Libya, Lisa Anderson points out, the destruction of the pre-colonial administration by the Italian colonizers eventually led to the revival of relying on kinship as the primary organizational principle in the hinterlands.

Lessons for Today

Many of the policy interventions carried out by the international community, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, focus on strengthening the bureaucracy and building a “Weberian” state. But these historical cases point to the importance of social structure in understanding development. When elites are embedded in local social relations, they are more likely to rely on local, private organizations to provide services and protection and less likely to support a strong central state. The take-away from these experiences is that political development and state building should go beyond a narrow focus to reform the bureaucracy and involve a broader project to shape the social structure to make it incentive-compatible with a strong state.


  • Want is the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of Government (untenured) at Harvard University. He received a B.A. from Peking University and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His research has focused on the emergence and constraints of state institutions, with a regional focus on China. He is the author of Tying the Autocrat’s Hands: The Rise of the Rule of Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is currently working on a new book "The Rise and Fall of the Chinese State, 618-1911" (under contract at Princeton University Press) to examine the long-term state development in China.

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