Top Ten Books for Understanding Political, Cultural, & Religious Dynamics

Intelligence analysts should read quite broadly (not just outside their own message feeds, but also well beyond the boundaries of political science, sociology, security studies, & anthropology). Still, they also need to have a solid grounding in how things work. This list is my first attempt to suggest books that will help set the foundation of such an understanding. Note that none of these are normative: they are all designed to tell how things work, not how they should or ought to work (well, to be honest, some of the authors do have agendas, but I don’t look to them for this… academics tend to be as useful for understanding morality and prescribing public policy as most Hollywood actors).

Samuel Huntington. Political Order in Changing Societies. The main argument is that stability requires the development of state capacity; without it, modernization (or any change in other dimensions) disorder. It’s also a good introduction to the role political parties, bureaucracies, and economics play in development and the establishment and maintenance of equilibrium. The book is a bit repetitive, but it is easier to find than the journal article that would otherwise suffice. His much maligned Clash of Civilizations is also must read. You can balance it with Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld.

Schumpeter,Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. If you only read one book on political economics, this should be it. In addition to being great in its own right, it also allows me to include the best of other classics (Rousseau’s Social Contract (which Schumpeter counters); Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracy (which Schumpeter anticipates); Max Weber’s Essays in Sociology, and William Riker’s Liberalism vs. Populism (which Schumpter also anticipates) without assigning them.

Przeworski, Adam. Capitalism and Social Democracy. This explains the “rebel’s dilemma” both within a theoretical and comparative/historical context. I use it in my classes on insurgency/counterinsurgency to explain how working within the system changes the movement. Unfortunately, it does not cover (either theoretically or otherwise) what happens to those movements that do not chose to work within the system. The very close runner up to this book is Stathis Kalyvas’ The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe. It is the best example of how to set up a research design I know of, and is also a wonderful treatment of how getting religious outsiders/extremists to work through the system leads to their moderation (assuming, pace Huntington, that the system has the capacity to allow them meaningful participation).

David Laitin. Hegemony and Culture. This is a pretty good introduction to Gramsci, a philosopher whose work should be studied at least as closely as Mao, Lenin, etc., but whom most of us can best understand through secondary research. It also describes how institutions can be used to ensure that destabilizing cleavages remain politically dormant. Other favorites on the subject of hegemony include James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak and Domination and the Arts of Resistance, and John Gaventa’s Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence & Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Or you can decypher things yourself by reading Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Studying hegemony and counter-hegemony is vital to understanding the information dimension of insurgency and counterinsurgecy. This should be augmented by serious study of how public opinion is shaped. For this, I recommend William Riker’s The Art of Political Manipulation, John Zaller’s The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, and Iyengar and Kinder’s News that Matters: Television and American Opinion.

Robert Bates. Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies. Everyone has to understand how markets work and how government policies can help and hinder economic development. Given the fact that successful counterinsurgency strategies almost always require economic development, it makes sense to study books like this one. Another favorite is Adam Przeworski’s Democracy and the Market and States and Markets: A Primer in Political Economy.

Robert Putnam. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. The role of secondary organizations (aka civil society) in stability, instability, and effective governance is critical. This is a pretty good introduction to the topic, as are his Bowling Alone and, for a more comparative perspective, Democracies in Flux.

Jon Elster. Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. An amazing book. Mechanisms are ways of explaining how things happen or do not happen. They help flesh-out and substantiate suspected causal relationships. Rational choice is the easiest, most consistent mechanism, and it has been the go-to mechanism for political economists for a while; it is imperfect but it 1) is better than pure description (which is usually analytically sloppy and subjective and 2) useful as a “fill-in” until psychologists and social-psychologists give us a comprehensive listing of real mechanisms and conditions under which each becomes operative. Elster couldn’t wait any longer for #2, so he compiled his own list of mechanisms from rational choice/economics, psychology, social psychology, literature etc. Better yet, he is really fun to read! I supplement this ith pop-psychology books that help summarize relevant research for non-scientists to use. Some of my favorites are Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion; Malcomb Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking & The Tipping Point: How Little Things can Make a Big Difference (both books are flawed by cherry-picking and over-extrapolation, but still fun and useful); and Steven Dubner and Stephen Levitt’s Freakonomics: A Rogue Ecnomist Explores the hidden Side of Everything. Recognition of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. As such, everyone should start by reading stuff like Heuer’s The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

Its tough to find good methods book. Elster’s book is great for mechanisms, but analysts also have to learn how to test hypotheses using qualitative data. I suggest the first few chapters of Charles Ragin’s The Comparative Method: Moving beyond qualitative and quantitative strategies (the boolean method isn’t as useful, so I would suggest skimming those chapters). I would supplement that with Alexander George’s Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences and, for the people with some background in statistics, King, Keohane, and Verba’s Designing Social Inquiry. All this positivism should be balanced with a good dose of Clifford Geertz (start with The Interpretation of Cultures) to keep things from getting too abstract.

Quintan Wiktorowicz (ed.) Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach. While this book suffers from the weakness of many edited volumes, the case studies stick pretty well to the social movement theory outlined in the early chapters. I think that the social movement approach is the best thing going for studying insurgency and counterinsurgency. This book takes the excellent work done by Charles Tilly (e.g. The Politics of Collective Violence); Douglas McAdam (e.g. Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings); , Sidney Tarrow (e.g. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics), and Herbert Kitschelt (e.g. The Logics of Party Formation: Ecological Politics in Belgium and West Germany).

Many of the books above deal directly or indirectly with religion, but analysts need more; and they need less of what seem to be the two default approaches: the assumption that 1) religion is silly, its affect on other things is trivial, and it is bound to disappear as societies progress and 2) mirror imaging (of which #1 may be the secular example) of the analysts’ own religiosity. The approaches mentioned above (especially hegemony, social psychology, and social movement/party formation) provide an objective way to treat religion and religious people (meaning that religion is a construct that is both useful, limiting, and malleable); but there are other dimensions that these do not address. Rodney Stark’s Acts of Faith: Exploring the Human Side of Religion (written with Roger Fink… these two also gave us the wonderful book The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy) and his more readable The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History do for religion what Freakonomics did for regular life: show the insights that scientific/economic analysis provide. Anthony Gill takes this same approach to study the affect of government regulation on religiosity (in Rendering unto Caesar: The Church and the State in Latin America) and the rise of religious freedom (in The Political Origins of Religious Liberty). Max Weber’s work on the subject (not just the Protestant Ethic, but also his more general work on things like the institutionalization of charisma.

Of course, analysts studying modern insurgencies have to study Islam just as thoroughly as earlier generations had to study Communism. Nor is it enough to simply become familiar with the Koran, Haddith, and Sunnah; analysts have to understand how Islam is understood and practiced by all the relevant actors (fwiw, the social movement approach is good for this because it treats religion objectively: for example, it is treated as the source of symbols, mobilizations frames, solution sets, motivators etc). For this you have to read stuff about both Islamism (violent, pragmatic, and pacifist) and more moderate trajectories. I suggest reading the whole gamut from Sayed Qutb’s Milestones, The Al Qaeda Reader, Vali Nasr’s Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (in fact, everything by Nasr is excellent), and all the stuff the Islamists put out (jihad watch is a good site for keeping up with this- Robert Spencer is brutally honest about letting the Islamists words and deeds speak for themselves); to the comparative ethnography of Clifford Geertz (e.g. Islam Observed: Religious Development in Mororcco and Indonesia) and the idealistic advocate for moderate Islam John Esposito. Stay away from Karen Armstrong, though, unless you want to move from idealism to naiveté.

So there you have it: my top ten list of books analysts should start with. To these you have to add area (e.g. Afghanistan, Pakistan) and subject-specific books (e.g. insurgency, terrorism, weapons technology) and books from well outside these domains to provide fresh leverage (genius is about combining heretofore uncombined elements in ways that provide amazing leverage on old problems – this requires knowing more than your subject area!).