In Relations into Rhetorics, Peter Bearman demonstrates how the structure of gentry social relations in England underwent a profound social transformation in the period from 1540 to 1640, laying the groundwork for civil war. This transformation undermined kinship, the traditional mechanism of power for local elites, and replaced it with a national system of patronage-clientage that enabled English elites to transcend local politics.
In this radical revision, Bearman shows how the breakdown of the elite kinship system occurred with the widening circles of intermarriage and the growth of the gentry class. Diversification in religion and occupation further estranged elites. For many this meant seeking patronage-clientage ties with the Crown and appropriating for themselves a new source of power and prestige under these national relations. In examining the slow change from kinship to patronage-clientage, Bearman details increasing conflict among local gentry who were uncertain as to what were the legitimate bases for social and political action. An outcome of this uncertainty was the lay elite's articulation of radical and abstract ideologies, puritanism, and constitutionalism, that aided the organization of their activities along national rather than local lines.
Bearman proposes a new method for historical sociology, one based on the analysis of social network structures. By focusing on the social networks in which the gentry of Norfolk, England, were embedded during the sixteenth century, Bearman shows that network-based models of identity are more powerful predictors of action than competing categorical, or interest-based, models. He depicts the emergence of modern social relations and links the appearance of radical religious identity to larger historical processes.
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