This page provides a statement of the analytical approach to be used by the students of Dr. J. B. Owens, Department of History, Idaho State University. It is particularly directed to the students in History 360/560, "The Spanish Empire." You may return to the course main page, the course syllabus, or the research project page.

The Spanish Empire: Analytical Approach

The following essay is provided for the guidance of students of J. B. Owens of Idaho State University.

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In order to understand, in the context of this course, the impact on people's lives of the development of interactive global economic, political, and information networks, we require an analytical approach that allows us to determine how regularities in the patterns of human relations were generated and sustained by actors spatially and temporally and how these patterns could be transformed by human agency. I offer here a summary of the approach, which you are to use in developing your responses to interpretive questions and which I have used in organizing this course. As you read this page, you will generate a number of questions about the way I employ certain conceptual terms, and these questions should quickly become a major component of our on-line class discussion. Send these questions to me or post them to SpEmp (the Spanish Empire discussion list).

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A Global Economy

In historical writing, one often notes the automatic assumption of the reality of a number of stock historical categories. Among these categories are the rise of the "West," the transition from "Feudalism" to "Capitalism," the development of the "State" as a motor force of European and subsequently world history, and the "modernization" of "traditional cultures." This assumption has shaped research questions and the search for evidence to support and illustrate these broad trends. Because this approach has distorted understanding, you should try to concentrate on questions about seemingly less flashy matters: how were decisions made to produce and exchange certain commodities?; how was political authority exercised?; or how did innovation take place?

Based on a rejection of some of these assumed categories of classical social theory, Andre Gunder Frank published a book, entitled ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age (University of California Press, 1998), on the global economy, 1400 to 1800. He makes an excellent case for the idea that no local nor regional development can be truly understood without placing it in a global context, even if the human actors involved were not aware of it, because the global economy, and prior to 1500 the Afroeurasian one, was greater than the sum of its various parts and interactive with all of them all of the time.

Frank argues that the global economy is characterized by cyclical changes, that it pulsates, sometimes because of the impact of biological organisms that also move in an increasingly global context. Periods of contraction and expansion of population, production, trade, and investment can be delineated given adequate sources, as can their impact on the natural environment. Moreover, the geographic regions of the most intense commercial and productive activity have varied, often dramatically, over time, and these shifts also can provide a basis for periodization.

The work is impressive and is configuring debates on the writing of world history, and it received the first (1999) World History Association prize for the best book on world history. However, the great problem with Frank's perspective is that it provides little scope for human agency. The decisive, creative actions of individuals appear ground down by the relentless, pulsating movements of a global economy. Moreover, while this economy may be greater than the sum of its parts, these local parts interact with, and therefore clearly influence, the nature of the economy as a whole. But how does one analyze and then write about such complex interactions? It is difficult to give adequate attention to connections between large-scale changes and local contexts, as the usual focus is either on grand themes or on the local with little concern for connecting these narratives and analyses, and historians' conceptions of interaction are often too simplistic and are employed without sufficient self-consciousness (see Manning 1996).

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Nested Networks

In part, you will be utilizing a "nested network approach" (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997) in which you define units of analysis through the empirical description of the boundaries and nature of all interactive networks of which your chosen location was a part. This approach helps avoid teleological assumptions common in the categories of classical social theory. For a pattern of relations to constitute a network, it must be regular and of on-going importance. Both the significance of the networks and the areas within their boundaries will vary over time with cyclical changes and increased incorporation of locations within such networked relationships. You must assess the degree of importance of the different types of network in the transformation of your location's social and cultural environments. Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas D. Hall, in their book Rise and Demise: Comparing World-Systems (Westview Press, 1997), recognize four types of network: 1) the information network; 2) the prestige goods exchange network; 3) the political/military interaction network; and 4) the basic or bulk goods network (a list they feel goes from spatially largest to smallest).

If, over the course of the period examined, your location was incorporated into networks, or if other locations were incorporated into networks within which your location played a significant role, you should try to explain how such incorporation was accomplished. We want to know about the types of incorporation and the relationship of these to significant transformations of the social and cultural environments of a particular location.

Particularly in the sphere of economic interaction, the most relevant unit of analysis will often be the REGIONAL URBAN SYSTEM. In this approach, regions are defined by groups of cities organized hierarchically around central places in which essential economic functions were concentrated (Ringrose 1996).

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Human Action and Its Environments

In order to describe and explain with precision how incorporation into networks and how interactions within the different types of network were initiated and maintained by human agents and how networked interactions actually affected the local context of human actions, you should try to employ an approach I have derived, with some substantial modifications, from the work of Jeffrey C. Alexander (1988).

Alexander tries to explain human action, including that purposeful agency that sometimes produces innovation, by placing it within what he calls metaphorically its "environments." For Alexander, human action is constrained, shaped, and enabled by a blend of factors from its SOCIAL, CULTURAL, and PERSONALITY ENVIRONMENTS.

Alexander asserts that, within these environments, human action has two dimensions, INTERPRETATION and STRATEGIZATION. Interpretation involves both TYPIFICATION and INVENTION. Individuals act to typify the components of their environment on the assumption that every new impression of the world fits within their understanding of it. Invention is the source of innovation, which may be conscious or an unconscious product of an attempt to typify something novel. Although influenced by interpretation, strategization occurs when an actor seeks to transform the world to achieve certain aims, obtaining the most reward for the least cost to him or her.

Unfortunately, Alexander's discussion of the personality environment is almost completely useless, based as it is on a psychoanalytic, heavily Freudian approach, by now so discredited by biological, psychological, and medical research that its most important institutional home appears to be university literature departments. Therefore, your use of Alexander's "environmental" approach will be confined to versions of his social and cultural environments.

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The Social Environment

For Alexander, both interpretation and strategization by human actors are constrained, shaped, and enabled by the social and cultural environments of action. The social environment includes the division of labor, the institutions of political authority (broadly understood), and the ties of group solidarity. Alexander feels that each actor has particular roles and positions within the social environment, a perspective that gives gender a significant place.

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The Cultural Environment

Human action is also shaped, even constrained, Alexander argues, by a cultural environment composed of interpretive schemes of classification, sacralization, and valuation, which actors develop through a process of socialization by participation in the life of human collectivities. Socialization means learning to TYPIFY, and the ability to do so in much the same way as others within a particular human collectivity constitutes what Alexander calls "sociological citizenship" in that group.

These classification, sacralization, and valuation schemes of the cultural environment are often expressed in "symbol systems," and individuals construct and evaluate reality on the basis of these through analogy. The expression of these symbol systems is seldom neutral, however. Often they are products of attempts by various collectivities in a stratified community to impose the elements of their cultural environment on others as part of an ongoing effort to maintain material difference or to alter the relationship among economic interests, political institutions, or solidarity groups. When already dominant groups employ a particular symbol system, there are, in the social environment, always coercive sanctions behind these cultural projects to sustain existing positions and the allocation of roles. Therefore, for example, you can never assume, without empirical investigation, that all present comprehend and evaluate elite cultural performances in the same way. In any geographic location where there is an asymmetrical distribution of material resources and authority, mere acquiescence and compliance may mask the existence of alternative cultural environments sustained by groups whose members do not enjoy the wealth and coercive power of the dominant elites (Corrigan and Sayer 1985).

These interpretive schemes are expressions of cognitive, mental models or habits-of-mind (Gorman 1992; Margolis 1987, 1993). Guided by these models to a recognition of significant patterns in the world around them, people seek an interpretative understanding of that world that permits them to make judgments and act coherently either to conform to prevailing norms or to seek change. Rather than rigid structures of thought that always impose the same interpretation, recent research on the brain and cognitive psychology suggests that these habits-of-mind consist of interlinked schemes of classification, sacralization, and valuation, the employment of which is cued, in a dialectical manner, both by experience and by the immediately antecedent pattern recognition. Thus, shared habits-of-mind, expressed in, but not created by, the common discourse of regular configurations of human interaction, including those embedded in and sustained by material productions like books and art works, ease communication and interaction among those socialized in the same way, but there may be disagreements depending on which of the linked schemes are cued for particular individuals and groups (especially if they are differentiated within the social environment by roles and positions) by experience and earlier pattern recognition.

The existence of such potentially contradictory interpretative schemes does not imply a lack of rationality. Although by the standards of your interpretative schemes those of others may not qualify as rational, they can in fact be taken as rational if the schemes are founded on principles felt to be true by experience and understanding suitable to the group and time in question (see Skinner 1988). A grasp of the world is needed to permit strategization and to give greater clarity of interpretation as a basis for action. There will be variety in the available interpretative schemes because of the complexity of the social environment. Contradictions will become apparent to actors only with disturbances in the social environment to be understood.

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Transformations of Action's Environments

Alexander appears most concerned to define localized, individual human action, often the subject of microhistories. To quote Alexander: "These social system elements establish constraints and normative guidelines for typification; define the circumstances and allocate the resources for invention; and distribute time, energy, and knowledge in ways that set the costs for strategic behavior" (323). However, all of these shaping elements of the social and cultural environments emerge most clearly in a global or geographically extensive, interactive, evolutionary context. Although human action is constrained to the extent that actors are denied the time, energy, and knowledge that would be needed to act against the world, all types of action can have evolutionary consequences. "Because all action is contingent, typification and strategization make invention continuous" (Alexander 1988: 326). Such "invention" produces transformations in the patterns of human relations through an almost stochastic, frequently nonlinear process of co-evolution as the changes are incorporated into the context of further "typification" and "strategization" by others. While such innovation appears to be local, and is in one sense, it will in fact have an impact of some kind on all of the other loci of its nested network as the boundaries of the various types of network involved are ultimately the boundaries of the locus's social and cultural environments.

Through this type of analysis, Alexander attempts to accomplish several things. He intends to move away from the tendency in macrosociology to privilege the stable "structural" elements of society as well as that in microsociology to ignore much of the larger context of human behavior, attributing to such actions more "freedom" than is really there. Moreover, Alexander has sought an analytical approach that keeps what is useful in the interest, stress, and semeiotic theories in accounting for the motivations of human action while avoiding the reductionist errors of each. By employing Alexander's approach when trying to understand significant transformations of the complex patterns of human interaction associated with your assigned location or others we study in this course, you should avoid the too-frequent tendency to explain historical developments on the basis of a single variable.

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Doing World History

Through a concentration on regular, interaction networks of varying density connecting loci over an often global space, this course has been designed to present real world history. This interlocal, interactive perspective is employed because it is networks of interactions that evolve and transform the contexts and nature of human action, not individual cultures, nations, societies, states, or civilizations, which as abstractions cannot exist as the stable historical actors often "peopling," through an unacceptable process of reification, writing on world history. Major changes in the nature and pattern of these complex interactive networks should be the bench marks of periodization. Only from this interactive network perspective can we evaluate hypotheses about the processes underlying important historical transformations. In your study for this course, you should try to describe the networks surrounding the various locations we study during a four-century period and explain the changes you note. In class and in our on-line discussion, we should try to relate these "local" studies to broader transformations in regional urban networks and the increasingly integrated global economy.

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Major sources for this essay

Alexander, J. C.
1988 Action and Its Environments: Toward a New Synthesis. New York: Columbia University Press.
Chase-Dunn, C., and T. D. Hall
1997 Rise and Demise: Comparing World-Systems. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press [see Owens 1997b].
Corrigan, P., and D. Sayer
1985 The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution. Oxford: Blackwell.
Frank, A. G.
1998 ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press [see Owens, in press].
Gorman, M. E.
1992 Simulating Science: Heuristics, Mental Models, and Technoscientific Thinking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Manning, P.
1996 "The Problem of Interactions in World History." American Historical Review 101,3: 771-782.
Margolis, H.
1987 Patterns, Thinking, and Cognition: A Theory of Judgment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1993 Paradigms and Barriers: How Habits of Mind govern Scientific Beliefs. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Owens, J. B.
1997a Review of Ringrose 1996. American Historical Review 102,3 (June): 833-834.
1997b Review of Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997. Sixteenth Century Journal 28,4: 1486-1487.
In press "Introducing a ReORIENTation of World History." In Brady and Sarah Hughes (eds.), World History: Teaching for the Twenty-First Century.
In press "ReORIENTing the Teaching of the 'Spanish Empire'." In Ibid.
Ringrose, D. R.
1996 Spain, Europe, and the "Spanish Miracle," 1700-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press [see Owens 1997a].
Skinner, Q.
1988 "A Reply to my Critics." In Tully, ed. (1988): 231-288.
Tully, J. (ed.)
1988 Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and his Critics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Your questions about this approach should be an important, early part of the activity of our class discussion list. What don't you understand? Post your queries to the SpEmp list or send your questions to me ( Better yet, mail them now. Be sure to include your name and e-mail address in the text of your message.
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Version and Change History

25 August 2002: Revised those URLs that were dead links and removed references to an earlier version of the student research project.

All contents copyright © 1995-2002.
J. B. Owens
All rights reserved.

Revised: 25 August 2002