The Providential Scholar
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Mann's achievement was to take a subject already picked
to death by historians — the Roman Empire — and provide
a brand-new conceptual framework for understanding how it maintained
(and eventually lost) dominance. The professor's thesis, from which
all his subsequent work has sprung, is that empires require four
types of power: military, political, economic and ideological. They
may emphasize one pillar more than the others, but if any of the
four is neglected for too long the whole structure will topple.
Not only did Mann break new theoretical ground on an age-old question,
he helped legitimize the generalist field of "comparative sociology,"
a category that requires stepping into the fiefdoms of anthropology,
archaeology, art and history.
"I think what is really striking is the very high opinion
with which he's held by historians," Waldinger says. "It's
not just the sociologists who like him."
The book's enduring success, though it may look obvious in retrospect,
was anything but at the time. Which, as serendipity would have it,
has much to do with how Mann and his wife, Sociology Professor Nicky
Hart, ended up at UCLA.
"Now for a sociologist to write such a book was very unusual,
and I thought this book might fall completely between the cracks.
... I thought it might sink without a trace," Mann says. "So
I thought, well, what could I do?" What he did was contact
every far-flung university professor he knew and arrange an ad hoc
"Americans assumed when I was coming to give these talks that
I must want a job — and that was not my thought at all!"
he says. "But by the time the tour came off, it became clear
that the book was a great success ... and three places offered me
a job." One of them was UCLA.
"Los Angeles has kind of a globally awful reputation, so I
was really surprised when I came here and found it beautiful,"
Mann says. "We had just been in London in February ... so we
thought let's go to L.A. for a year and then come back. We didn't
intend to stay, but stay we did." Indeed, Mann found UCLA and
Southern California so congenial he eventually acquired an American
passport. "I now have dual citizenship," he says, "so
I'm no longer sure what my nationality is."