Benjamin Rohr

Benjamin Rohr

Postdoctoral Researcher

Department of Sociology, University of Mannheim




Welcome! I am a political and historical sociologist who uses quantitative and computational methods to study elite political action and the formation and reconfiguration of political institutions. I received a PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago and am currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Mannheim.

My dissertation project examines the relationship between state formation and the emergence of the first political parties in American history between 1777 and 1820. It pays particular attention to the processes that tied political elites into the emerging party system, focusing on the role of social networks and political careers. This research is supported by an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant.

Other work analyzes the career paths that led into elite administrative positions in the American state between 1850 and 2000, the structure of political careers in China from 1978 to 2012, and the structure of political discourse in Renaissance Florence. I also began a new project analyzing the protocols of the German Reichstag during the Weimar Republic using NLP tools. You can read more about my work here.

RESEARCH

PARTY AND STATE FORMATION IN THE U.S.


Dissertation: Portraits of a Political World: The Structure of the First Party System in New York, 1777-1822.

Abstract

We tend to take for granted the existence and operation of electoral parties in modern democracies. But where did they come from? This dissertation is a study of party formation in the theoretically important case of the United States where parties emerged pretty much from scratch. Drawing on several novel datasets, I examine the emergence and structure of the first party system in the pivotal state of New York, focusing on the crucial years between the ratification of the U.S. constitution in 1788 and the election of 1800. I first show that the Federalists and Republicans in New York cannot be understood as the politicization of pre-existing social master categories like class or region. The product of divisions within the political elite, both parties looked very much alike in terms of the sociodemographic characteristics of their members. This opened up opportunities for skilled political elites to form new and complex webs of alliances. To understand these alliances, I turn to the social networks political elites were embedded in. Existing social ties pulled and pushed elites to one side or the other. But as social “bricoleurs,” they also actively used them to form new networks of political support. Even though the structure of elite social networks goes a long way towards explaining the structure of the emerging party system, these networks do not fully explain it. Very early on, the political field in New York was so well-developed that it produced sophisticated political actors who were not tied down by their positions in social space. Their actions were underdetermined by the social, and there was room for an endogenous political process irreducible to pre-existing social structures. I first examine this process through an analysis of roll call voting in the state assembly. I demonstrate that parties in the sense of voting blocs formed at three moments in time and appeared most clearly around procedural issues that had to do with access to public office. I then provide a systematic analysis of office-holding to show that competition for control of the state, and the alliances it produced, was at the core of party formation. As political actors tried to build their careers in a rapidly changing institutional structure, they increasingly sorted themselves into two opposing camps that both contemporaries and historical social scientists have come to understand as the first political parties in American history. I end with a look at those who switched parties during their careers. The analysis of party switching highlights that ambitious political actors were able and willing to cut existing social relationships when this was required to advance politically.


The Structure of the First American Party System: The Case of New York (with John Levi Martin). Revise & Resubmit at American Sociological Review.

Abstract

A key component in the formation of the modern democratic state is the party system. Yet theoretical understandings of the origins of such systems remain weak. Misunderstanding the role of parties seriously biases our understanding of the American case of state formation, where parties played a major role in filling the offices created in the process of state expansion. The origin of these parties has often been told only from the point of view of the national level, even though most government took place at the state level. Using a new data set on roll call votes and on characteristics of legislators, we examine the case of New York, probably the state most advanced in its partisan organization, right after the founding of the federal government in 1789 into the Jefferson administration. We demonstrate, first, that party coherence was far more developed in directions consonant with a “modern” party system than previously understood; second, that it led, as opposed to followed, partisan organization at the federal level; and third, that the parties gelled not around class or regional issues, but the endogenous struggle to define the rules of the game and, in particular, those that regulated access to public office.


Party Formation in Multiple Networks: New York in the Early Republic (with Marissa Combs). Manuscript in preparation.

Abstract

The study of political divisions—be those factions and parties, rebellions and civil wars, or social movements—is central to political and historical sociology. Understanding the nature of these divisions often requires that we explain which side of the conflict people are on. Historical network scholars made an important contribution when they showed that in some important cases individual attributes like class or ethnicity were insufficient predictors of allegiances. Instead, they proposed formal network analytic techniques to identify structural positions in networks that could be used to predict actions, including side-taking. This structuralist network approach, however, tends to break down when it comes to political elites. Political divisions among elites are largely endogenous to politics and, thus, cannot be reduced to social position. Political elites often do not, and cannot afford to, act in ways that could easily be predicted by their network position. They are constrained by and make use of the networks they find themselves in, but they also always work to change these networks and their position within them. In these cases, looking for convenient links between networks and sides will be misleading. Instead, we focus on the dynamics of side-taking. Following recent developments in social network theory, we look at the action that takes place in networks—at how people do the relational work of making, maintaining, using, and breaking ties to do politics. This requires attention to the cultural logics embedded in social relations. To illustrate this approach, we conduct a historical case study of politics in the early American republic, focusing on the life of John Williams. What makes Williams an excellent case is that in 1795 he switched from the Republican to the Federalist party. Using the act of switching parties and drawing on rich archival data on Williams’ personal correspondence as well as other historical documents, our analysis reveals three insights into the logic of political action. (1) Skilled actors are always working in multiple social networks simultaneously. In our case, where the Constitution had established a multilevel political structure, this involved the special case of multiple levels of government (local, state, federal). Because many elites held offices at multiple levels, repositioning oneself on one level affected the political networks on other levels. (2) Political action involved not only the making, but also the breaking of ties. It required elites to escape the “Sargasso Sea of social obligation and context” and to create room for action. Consequently, Williams’ switch coincided with a complete reorganization not only of his political but also his social networks. (3) By the end of the 1790s, partisanship had imposed itself as a new logic of action that both incorporated but also displaced older forms of deferential and clientelist politics. For Williams, who perhaps did not realize this shift, this meant defeat at the polls by his son-in-law, a relatively minor social and political figure.


Patronage Politics in the Early American Republic: The Case of New York . Manuscript in preparation.



STATE BUILDING AND POLITICAL CAREERS IN THE U.S.

In a collaborative project with William McAllister (Columbia University), I study the career paths that led into elite administrative positions in the American state between 1850 and 2000.


Elite Cohesion in the American Administrative State, 1898-1998. Manuscript under review.

Abstract

Social scientists have long been interested in the degree of cohesion among elites in American society. Most work has focused on corporate elites and cohesion derived from shared board membership. Much less is known about the people who occupy the highest positions in the American administrative state and we have almost no knowledge of how cohesion within this group has changed over time. Drawing on a novel dataset of the career histories of 2,221 administrative elites who were appointed between 1898 and 1998, I measure elite cohesion by whether elites attended the same educational institutions at the same time and whether they worked in the same agencies of the Federal government at the same time prior to their elite appointment. I find strong evidence of increasing elite cohesion over time. Education-based cohesion increases especially during the three decades following WW2, while workplace-based cohesion increases during the first half of the 20th century and then remains steady after the Second World War. As elites are appointed to different organizations within the American state, these connections provide the potential for mutual understanding and coordination and thus help integrate the American government. These findings have implications for our understanding of the American administrative state.


State-building and the Changing Structure of American Elite Recruitment, 1850-2000 (with William McAllister). Manuscript in preparation.

Abstract

Coming soon.



ORGANIZATIONAL STRATEGIES AND POLITICAL CAREERS IN CHINA

Vacancy Chains as Strategy: Inter-Administration Mobility of Political Elites in Reform China (with Shilin Jia). Reject & Resubmit at American Sociological Review.

Preprint

Honorable Mention, 2023 Reinhard Bendix Student Paper Award from the ASA Comparative-Historical Sociology Section

Abstract

Scholars of large bureaucracies, whether public or private, have long understood that getting a job involves both the person striving to be chosen as well as the organization making the choice. While extant work focuses on interindividual comparisons between job-seekers, we formulate a complementary account that views mobility from the perspective of the organization and directs attention to the organizational strategies behind personnel management. We apply this account to a study of the strategies governing career advancement in the Chinese party-state. Drawing on a novel dataset of more than 2,500 inter-organizational transfers derived from the CVs of more than 5,000 political elites, we find that elites whose transfers are embedded in long vacancy chains have more successful careers than those whose transfers occur in isolation. This career boost happens after their involvement in vacancy chains and is stronger for younger elites than for older ones. These findings are consistent with a strategy of organizational sponsorship whereby the CCP strategically moves promising young officials through positions to groom them for future leadership roles. Sponsorship becomes more important over time and can be seen as the CCP’s attempt to counter the increasing decentralization of the Chinese state during the reform period.



POLITICAL DISCOURSE IN THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC

Together with John Levi Martin (University of Chicago), Farah Aly (University of Mannheim), and the University of Mannheim Library I have just finished digitizing the protocols of the German Reichstag during the Weimarer Republic. Using NLP tools, this project will examine parliamentary discourse in the Weimar Republic.



POLITICAL DISCOURSE IN RENAISSANCE FLORENCE

Political Discussion and Debate in Narrative Time: The Florentine Consulte e Pratiche, 1376-1378 (with John F. Padgett, Katalin Prajda, and Jonathan Schoots). 2020. Poetics 78.

Abstract

The Florentine Consulte e Pratiche is the oldest recorded series of speech-by-speech policy discussion by political elites in European history, over one hundred and fifty years in length. This article is the first of an extended two-article sequence on political discussion in the Consulte e Pratiche, during the 1376–1378 period of the War of Eight Saints, which led up to the famous Ciompi Revolt. Our interest is in discovering both the semantic- network (article 1) and the factional-network (article 2) mechanics of this unexpected spillover from foreign-policy conflict into domestic revolt. Our central finding at the semantic level, in this first article, is that the spillover from war to revolution was mediated through the ceremonial and political-economy sides of religion. The methodology in this first article is to uncover the evolving narrative-network structures exhibited in Florentine political discussion – namely, changing inter-correlations among keywords about topics, through chapters and subplots. “Narrative-network analysis” for us means (a) uncovering changing topological portraits of how subplots interlink through time, and (b) discovering interlocking linguistic “hinges” through which new historical trajectories of subplot combinations become defined. In our case, the linguistic hinges between foreign policy and domestic revolt were rooted in religion. How the evolving issues and topics discussed in this article express themselves in domestic (and eventually violent) political conflict between the anti-war Parte Guelfa faction and the pro-war Civic ‘faction’ will be the subject of the second of this complementary pair of articles.


Political Conflict and Revolt in Generational Time: The Florentine Consulte e Pratiche and Ciompi Revolt, 1376-1378 (with Jonathan Schoots, Katalin Prajda, and John F. Padgett). 2020. Poetics 78.

Abstract

We analyze public-policy speeches in the Florentine Consulte e Pratiche, immediately prior to the Ciompi Revolt, for signs of elite factional conflict, in the context of self-proclaimed unity. We employ three statistical analyses of these speeches in Latin: namely, scatterplots of word frequencies, Wordfish scaling, and regressions on speech-similarities. Plus we employ two qualitative analyses: a case study of the speeches of Lapo da Castiglionchio, leader of the Parte Guelfa faction, and a close examination of the rhetoric of unity in three important sets of meetings. Our main finding is this: The runup to the Ciompi Revolt was crystalization of “unity of citizens” in the room of the Consulte e Pratiche and, among the same actors, crystallization of “unity of Guelfs” in the room of the Parte Guelfa, with a lack of recognition in the multivocal speeches in the former of the obvious contradiction with actions in the latter. In our opinion, the tragedy of “the valiant failure of republicanism” in Florence was that intense wishful yearning for unity in speech induced, under background conditions of deep social-class contestation about “Who is Florence?,” an intensification in action of the very revolutionary forces that it most desperately wanted to suppress.



OTHER WORK

How (Not) to Control for Population Size in Ecological Analyses (with John Levi Martin). 2021. Sociological Methods and Research.

Abstract

It is common for social scientists to use formal quantitative methods to compare ecological units such as towns, schools, or nations. In many cases, the size of these units in terms of the number of individuals subsumed in each differs substantially. When the variables in question are counts, there is generally some attempt to neutralize differences in size by turning variables into ratios or by controlling for size. But methods that are appropriate in many demographic and epidemiological contexts have been used in settings where they may not be justified and may well introduce spurious relations between variables. We suggest local regressions as a simple diagnostic and generalized additive models as a superior modeling strategy, with double-residualized regressions as a backup for certain cases.


Economic Networks and Political Culture (with Maurice Bokanga and John Levi Martin). Forthcoming in Handbook of Culture and Social Network Analysis.

Abstract

While much of economic sociology has been interested in how culture shapes economic networks, there has been less attention to how economic networks shape culture. In this chapter, we focus on the case of political culture. Surveying literature in political and economic sociology and history, we argue that there are general patterns that link formal characteristics of economic networks (whether actors have direct ties or occupy structurally equivalent positions, whether relations are voluntary or involuntary) to aspects of political culture (whether it is particularistic or universalistic, whether it is conflictual or pacific). We discuss how these patterns vary for elite and non-elite political actors, and conclude with some preliminary generalizations about the relationship between economic and political relations that can guide future exploration.

TEACHING

Political Networks. University of Mannheim. Spring 2023, Spring 2024. Syllabus

Social Networks and Politics. University of Mannheim. Fall 2022, Spring 2023, Spring 2024. Syllabus

Introduction to Political Sociology. University of Mannheim. Fall 2023. Syllabus

B.A. Thesis Colloquium. University of Mannheim. Fall 2022, Fall 2023

Practicum in Historical Sociology. University of Chicago. Spring 2020. Syllabus, Poster

Political Sociology. University of Chicago. Autumn 2019

Applications of Hierarchical Models in Longitudinal and Multilevel Research. University of Chicago. Spring 2018

B.A. Thesis Seminar. University of Chicago. Spring 2017 - Winter 2018

CONTACT

You can contact me at rohr@uni-mannheim.de.