Moral Accounting as Field Foundation in an Early Modern Empire: The English East India Company in the Late Eighteenth Century (2016)

(2016). Volume 64, Sociological Review Monograph Series: Fielding Transnationalism, pp. 61-78. [Link]

Abstract: Field analysis and – the relational approach to historical social-scientific explanation of which it is an instance – helps illuminate the administrative dynamics of empires. While most studies of imperial dynamics emphasize the ‘high imperialism’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this article extends field analysis to a crucial case from the second half of the eighteenth century: the English East India Company’s transition from a (largely) merchant trading company to a territorial power. In this disordered space of administration, officials struggling with one another for metropolitan recognition provided moral accounts of themselves which, on the one hand, explained their behavior in terms drawn from abstract, purportedly universal social spaces, and, on the other hand, claimed credibility through a personal ‘interest in disinterest’. I argue that these moral accounts helped delimit the boundaries of and shape the dynamics within a distinctively imperial administrative field. To analyse this transformation, I suggest a synthesis of three varieties of relational analysis: Bourdieu’s field theory, Fligstein and McAdam’s analysis of strategic action fields, and Padgett and Powell’s work on network folding and robust action.