Thursday, December 22, 2005

State Formation and Periodization
in Historiography

This article is about how small proto-states (Inner Asian) on the frontier of larger states (China) become states. I believe it is relevant to the study of how small Tai states on the Burma-Yunnan frontier developed (c. 1350-1600). This free online article was published in the Journal of World History: Nicola Di Cosmo, "State Formation and Periodization in Inner Asian History," Journal of World History 10, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 1–40.

Di Cosmois now at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton the same place where Einstein worked. The institute has a School of Historical Studies. Di Cosmo is an expert on state formation and was cited in the announcement for an upcoming conference state expansionat the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Even though the history addressed in the paper is Inner Asian history, the historiographical approach can be applied to pre-modern Burmese history. The paper "explores the basic mechanisms of state formation in inner Asia and presents an argument for the periodization of inner Asian history based on the incremental ability of inner Asian empires to extract from outside sources the wealth necessary for the maintenance of political and military state apparatus."

The role of periodization in historical writing is analyzed: "Periodizations are necessary analytical tools that permit the historian to identify key moments of transition, whose significance and validity depend, naturally, upon the criteria adopted to qualify historical change. The measure of the validity of any periodization rests in its ability to isolate elements accountable for change, whether the subject is society, institutions, production, or cultures" (page 3).

The paper advocates periodizations based on connections between regions, using "phenomena that would bring to the surface connections among different regions of the world — connections otherwise invisible to historians who investigate a single society or civilization. The web of linkages thus uncovered would eventually show the 'systemic' relations existing between 'areal' histories previously considered separately."

This paper is so extensive and useful in a general sort of way that it will warrant multiple postings in the future to this weblog. The genealogy of the ideas it uses can be traced back to the field of political anthropology. I used this article in a recent paper published in the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research (SBBR).