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Patrimonialism in America: The Public Domain in the Making of Modernity – From Colonial Times to the Late Nineteenth Century

Patrimonial Capitalism and Empire

ISBN: 978-1-78441-758-1, eISBN: 978-1-78441-757-4

ISSN: 0198-8719

Publication date: 31 March 2015


To explore whether supposedly non-modern patrimonial arrangements ever advance the “modern” economy, this essay examines emergent state institutional practices in North America in relation to the domain of public lands from colonial times to the late nineteenth-century U.S. I deconstruct the Weberian model of patrimonialism into four elements – logic, setting, obligations, and resources – in order to show how state grants of land to individuals and corporations (notably railroad companies) constituted patrimonial practices embedded within modern structures. “Modern state patrimonialism” had its origins in royal patrimonialism. Monopolization of resources – by a state rather than an absolutist ruler – continued to offer the basis for patrimonial practice, but state patrimonial resource distribution became less personalistic and more connected to public goals (financing the state, rewarding state service, settlement of territory, development of a national economy, and construction of a transportation system). Recipients of patrimonial distributions often gained considerable control over disposition of resources that they received. In these patrimonialist practices, economic action was constructed in logics of action that occurred outside of “market” transactions. Future research should analyze patrimonial dynamics during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, by identifying state monopolizations of scarce and desirable resources (mineral rights; city water systems; electrical systems; telephone systems; radio, television, and other airwave bandwidth; the internet), and analyzing how the distribution of those resources are entailed, controlled, licensed, or otherwise managed. A research program in the study of modern patrimonialism helps build out an institutionalist sociology of the economy.




I am grateful for the helpful comments of participants in the “Patrimonial Politics, Then and Now” conference, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, May 9–10, 2008, and the University of California, Los Angeles, Comparative Social Analysis Seminar, March 6, 2014 as well as anonymous reviewers. I especially acknowledge Julia Adams and Mounira Maya Charrad for their support and encouragement of this project.


Hall, J.R. (2015), "Patrimonialism in America: The Public Domain in the Making of Modernity – From Colonial Times to the Late Nineteenth Century", Patrimonial Capitalism and Empire (Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 28), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 7-41.



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