The Fixation of (Moral) Belief: Making Imperial Administration Modern (2018)

The European Journal of Sociology, 59, 1 (2018):13-38 [Link]

Abstract: This article argues that the transition between early-modern and modern organization of empires—especially the administrative outlooks and institutional logics used to govern them—revolved around how moral conflict was viewed within imperial organizations themselves and by metropolitan audiences. Early modern imperial organizations were deeply patrimonial, and hence relied on a style of embedded moral reasoning that distanced and segmented their affairs from the metropole. By contrast, modern empires order what they govern in hierarchies that are nominally objective and whose criteria seem universal. Using a case study of the British Empire’s crisis and transformation at the turn of the 19 th century, I argue that modern imperial administration emerged because networks of moral justification, which provided the scaffolding for patrimonial early-modern empire, eroded in the face of “disinterested” metropolitan scrutiny. This scrutiny created an audience for bitter political and moral conflicts among imperial administrators, who then used disembedded moral claims to mobilize support.