In This Article Modern Dynastic Rule

  • Introduction

Political Science Modern Dynastic Rule
Douglas A. Yates
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0180


Dynasty comes from the Greek word for family and is used for a family that rules or simply reigns. One quarter of all states in the contemporary world system have a family dynast as their head of state or government. Some are constitutional monarchs, others are absolute monarchs. Some are republics temporarily ruled by democratic political families who win and lose power in elections. Others are tyrants born to rule oxymoronic dynastic republics. One thing is certain. Dynasty is no archaism on the verge of extinction. Every historical era and geographical region breeds its own kind of dynasty. So the question is why do we accept to be ruled by families? What kind of atavistic behavior is this? Does dynastic style really provide a comparative advantage? How should we study these omnipresent phenomena? No modern textbook in comparative politics is available on modern dynastic rule per se, so we tend to borrow from the classics of Antiquity or from sociology’s theory of patrimonialism, anthropological theories of kinship, psychological theories of personality, political histories, biographies, and journalism. This leads to an eclectic bibliography, if it is intended for political scientists. Before diving into thick biographies or attempting to read national histories about very different peoples and cultures, it is important to have some understanding of the debated anthropological concept of family kinship and sociological theories of patrimonial rule, as well as some grounding in psychological theories of family influence on individual personality. Empirical cases of modern dynasties are limited here to contemporary families still currently in power, divided into four fundamental categories: two authoritarian (Absolute Monarchies, Dynastic Republics) and two democratic (Constitutional Monarchies, Democratic Political Families) in order to distinguish those regime types and to differentiate monarchy from republic. The life-span of a dynasty is a subject of political science. One theory is that a dynasty lasts on average three generations, which is useful in making predictive statements of the some of the world’s most despotic regimes, but this will require more testing by scholars in the future.

Disciplinary Approaches

In the Western tradition, Greco-Roman writers discussed dynastic rule in their works, which include the most famous classics of history and philosophy. Elsewhere around the world analogous classical traditions emerged, which provided ideals of legitimate rulership, a literature of ideals for Muslim West Asia, Indic kingship, and China’s imperial tradition. Political sociology made early efforts to theorize about dynastic rule, yet eventually the field moved away from the term dynasty toward alternative concepts, such as patrimonialism. Sociologists of the family have employed political concepts of social and cultural capital as well as sultanism, an extreme form of patrimonialism. In the meantime, the field of psychology has developed its own parallel theories of personality and family dynamics, which have produced a cultural mainstream expectation for a psychobiography of rulers and their corruption by power. Social anthropology has focused on the elements of kinship, which has provided a language of family relations that can be used to describe lineages and affinity relations in ruling dynasties.

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