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Summer 2004
The Providential Scholar
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Why do people put up with or even embrace less-than-ideal conditions? It's a tough question with complicated answers, and it underpinned Mann's 1971-'77 work at Essex University, where he helped build what The Times of London has called the United Kingdom's "finest sociology department." In 1973 he published Consciousness and Action in the Western Working Class, which was followed by two collaborations with sociologist R.M. Blackburn: a 1975 paper on "The Ideologies of Non-skilled Industrial Workers" and a 1979 book titled The Working Class in the Labour Market. By the end of the 1970s, when he had moved from Essex to the London School of Economics, Mann was shining brightly enough to be included in the Sunday Times' list of the 100 people it predicted would have the largest impact on the 1980s.

But much as he enjoyed the roll-up-your-sleeves empiricism of interviewing workers from dreary factory towns, Mann still maintained his boyish love of history and was becoming increasingly interested in the broader issues suggested by his research. If humans were acquiescing to the status quo, as his work indeed seemed to infer, what did that say about the strategies and practice of those who held the reins of government?

And so Mann decided to compare modern society to ancient Rome. "What should have been a couple-of-pages study," he says, "gradually changed into a historical narrative of power." It also changed Mann's life, and perhaps the very discipline of sociology itself.

"THE SOURCES OF SOCIAL POWER," says UCLA Sociology Department Chairman Roger Waldinger, "is really a reanalysis of world history from the very beginnings. There are very, very few people who can do this with the level of mastery and sophistication of which Michael's capable."

The first volume in the planned trilogy — A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760 — took the academic world by storm when it was released in 1986. Leading sociologist Anthony Giddens called it a "sociological classic"; the word most frequently used to describe the book is "seminal," and Waldinger says "it remains an absolute must-read." Sources won the American Sociological Association's Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award, plus second place in the Amalfi Prize for best social-science book published in Europe. It was translated into German, Japanese, Chinese, Italian and other languages.

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