Introduction: Bringing Power In

In the preceding chapter we examined several theories attempting to explain the cross-national variations in the dimensions of the civil society sector that have emerged from our empirical work and found them largely inadequate to the task. We suggested that a major reason for this may be that these theories are “undersocialized,” that is, that they take too little account of the macrosocial conditions that constrain or shape choices regardless of individual preferences or the most efficient means of their attainment.

In point of fact, choices about whether to rely on the market, the civil society sector, the state, or kinship networks in the provision of key human services are not simply made freely by individual consumers or service providers adhering to norms of altruism or operating in an open market and perfectly functioning democratic political system, as the preference and sentiment theories seem to imply. Rather, research into human behavior has shown that such choices are heavily constrained by existing social, economic, and political structures resting on foundations inherited from the past and shaped by complex interrelationships among social strata and social institutions.1 These outcomes are therefore heavily affected not simply by sentiments and preferences but also by the exercise of political, social, and economic power. In other words, the warm, fuzzy world of charity and civil society activity is hardly immune from the fundamental insight of Anthony Giddens that “[p]ower is to social science what energy is to thermodynamics.”2 It determines whether there is movement and, if so, in which direction. Against the backdrop of this discussion of sentiments and preferences we therefore turn in this chapter to an alternative body of explanation that brings power full-square into the story.

But what aspects and forms of power are most likely to be involved? Fortunately, as mentioned in the introduction, we are not completely at sea in identifying some likely suspects. Rather, scholars who have grappled with the intriguing and complex question of what accounts for different historical patterns of social, political, and economic development have provided us with a number of promising clues about the factors that might be involved and the outcomes likely to result. Three strands of such theorizing in particular seem most relevant.

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