Some historians have argued that feudalism is a technical term that can only be applied to Western European institutions of the Middle Ages. Others (including most sociologists) have conceptualized the phenomenon in a more abstract way, as a general method of political organization, and one which can therefore be identified in other times and places (such as Tokugawa Japan).
The term originated in seventeenth-century England as a way of talking about a mode of landholding that was then rapidly disappearing. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was widely taken up by legal scholars and in this way entered the vocabularies of the founders of sociology. Although the founders typically used the term to refer to the type of society from whence capitalism had emerged in Western Europe, none of them explicitly formulated a fully developed concept of feudalism. However, as will become apparent below, highly influential embryos of such a concept may be derived without much difficulty from the historical writings of both Karl Marx and Max Weber .
There have been and there remain disputes about how the concept of feudalism should be formulated. All of the specifically sociological conceptualizations are nomothetic (generalizing) in character. The best-known ideographic (individualizing) formulation is that arrived at by the French historian Marc Bloch in his Feudal Society (1961). Bloch's account deserves some attention, not only because it has been highly influential in itself, but also because the contrast between it and the various sociological alternatives illustrates some of the central disputes about concept formation in the social sciences.
Bloch's methodological premiss is that each society is unique and has to be understood in its own terms. (He only grudgingly admits, mentioning Japan specifically, that something like feudalism may have existed outside of the West European context.) His work is also profoundly empiricist and humanist in Louis Althusser's senses of these terms. The consequences of these premisses are apparent in his formulation of the core relation of feudalism-vassalage. In the course of a highly detailed study of France during the Middle Ages, he defines vassalage as ‘the warrior ideal’, or a contract of mutual benefit freely entered into ‘by two living men confronting each other’. From this relationship all the other characteristics of feudal societies follow: hereditary succession; enfeoffment (the granting of land by lords to their vassals); the fragmentation of authority; and the existence of a confinable and taxable but otherwise self-disciplining peasantry. What inevitably (but regrettably in Bloch's view) followed from the institutionalization of vassalage, was the tarnishing of ‘the purity of the (original) obligation’, and the gradual dissolution of the way of life constructed around it.
Almost by definition, no properly sociological approach to social phenomena is likely to start from the assumption that each society must be considered separately and as wholly unique, and this certainly has proved to be the case in the literature relating to feudalism in Western Europe (if not in Japan). On the contrary, the sine qua non of most macro-sociological explanation is the assumption of comparability, and what differentiates explanations from one another is whether they depend upon comparisons that were made before or after the formulation of the concepts upon which they rest; that is, whether they depend upon empiricist or realist modes of formulation, respectively.
Where the mode of formulation is empiricist, as in the case of the contributors to the collection edited by Joseph Strayer and Rushton Coulborn (Feudalism in History, 1956), a large number of cases of possible feudalisms are compared and any shared characteristics are then formed into a generalization. Interestingly, in this case the generalization is to all intents and purposes the same as that produced by Bloch, minus the romanticism and, by the same token, any means of grasping the internal dynamics of the system.
Because it is not a straightforward empirical generalization Weber's ideal type of feudalism does not share this weakness. Although it is nowhere explicitly formulated, this ideal-type may be extracted relatively easily from the discussions of feudal social relations to be found in Weber's Economy and Society(1922) and General Economic History (1923). In Weberian terms, feudalism represented an instance of the routinization of charisma , in the context of a traditional mode of domination . Thus, power was organized in a patrimonial manner, underpinned by a system of enfeoffment, and rested upon a system of exploitation whereby serfs (unfree peasants) were forced, in exchange for the right to work land, to pay varying and often multiple forms of rent (in labour, cash, or kind) to their lords. According to Weber it was the last of these, the struggles over rent, that gave the system its internal dynamic.
There is some textual evidence to suggest that Weber derived his concept of feudal rent from that constructed by Marx on the basis of the latter's realist mode of concept formation. Certainly, there are striking similarities between the two concepts, as well as in the reasoning used in their support. Most importantly, both theorists explain why exploitation took the form of rents extracted on the basis of the lords' superior might by arguing that the lords had no alternative, given their exclusion from the process of production. However, in their book Precapitalist Modes of Production (1975), Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst argue that Marx would have, or at least should have, revised this argument, in the light of the advances he made in refining his general concept of mode of production in Capital. They support this stance by arguing that feudal lords did in fact play an important role in the production process. On this basis, then, Hindess and Hirst argue that the importance ascribed by Marx and others to political coercion as the critical component of feudalism should be rejected, as a sign of conceptual underdevelopment, and replaced by a specification of the economic relations which allowed the lords to extract surplus product from the serfs.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.


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