| Gabriel |
Last year ago I read Richard Saller’s book on patron-client networks in ancient Rome, Personal Patronage under the Early Empire. I found it fascinating because the book wasn’t explicitly informed by economic sociology, but every few pages I’d think, this is just like Podolny, or Gould, or Zelizer, or Granovetter! Anyway, it’s a very good book but the thing I’m thinking about right now is a methodological point, which I’ll get to in a minute.
We have a variety of sources that tell us about the institution of clientela. Most concretely, it was built into the very architecture, such that a villa would have benches by the front door where clients could wait to suck up to the boss. Not only do these benches survive at places like Pompeii, but we have poetry and satiric plays making fun of the people who sat on them.
The methodological point stems from Saller’s observation that in some sources the very idea of clientela seems to disappear. For instance one of the historians (Cassius Dio? I’m going from memory) rarely used terms implying a directed tie (clientela, patronus, or cliens). The interesting thing is that whenever he did use such words it was in a context involving a (shameful) status inversion of social class where a senator would become a client of a knight or freedman. (The implication was that by putting commoners in structural positions of power the principate had disrupted the natural order of things that was respected during the republic, the complaint is similar to Southern narratives that complain about black political power during reconstruction). But this is not to say that the historian seldom mentions networks. Rather the historian talks a lot about amicitia (friendship), but always to refer to networks that were either intra-class or with an appropriate hierarchy. Likewise, Pliny wrote many letters to Trajan asking for some favor for Pliny himself or one of his cronies, and Trajan’s reply always used language of friendship.
What seems to be going on is that even in a society as hierarchical and status conscience as Rome, there was a level of discomfort with boldly asserting dominance and so the superior party euphemistically describes the relationship as egalitarian. Pliny sucks up to Trajan, but Trajan maintains the face-saving pretense that Pliny is his equal. So we have a system of directed ties but they can only be perceived as such when viewed from below. When viewed (credulously) from above they appear to be symmetric ties. This is particularly a problem if you’re relying on the superior party for evidence, as classicists do if they rely on the written sources (which are heavily dominated by the senatorial class) rather than, say, archeological discoveries of elaborate tombstones raised by freed slaves extolling the patronage of their former masters.
Similar issues can come up in modern contexts of interest to sociologists. For instance people tend to exaggerate the help they provide to others and minimize the help they receive so you get very different estimates of care-work and other domestic exchange if you ask about incoming versus outgoing transfers. Likewise when you’re doing social network research this isn’t so much a problem for whole network approaches because you can often get information on a dyad from both parties, but it’s potentially a big problem for ego-centric networks.