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Doyle: Empires

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Doyle. 1986. Empires. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Doyle identifies three main explanations of empire. First, metropolitan views see imperialism as the result of domestic demand for more markets, more resources, etc. (Lenin's view fits here). Second, pericentric views locate the cause of imperialism in the problems of the periphery; states intervene when a periphery area's power structure collapses [I think]. Third structural views (Waltz) see imperialism as a result of disparities in power capabilities.


"Empire, then, is a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, by economic, social, or cultural dependence. Imperialism is simply the process or policy of establishing or maintaining an empire.

"These definitions are more significant than they might at first seem. They distinguish empires from the rest of world politics by the actual foreign control of who rules and what rules a subordinate polity. They imply that to explain the existence of empire, or a particular empire, one must first demonstrate the existence of control; second, explain why one party expands and establishes such control; and third, explain why the other party submits or fails to resist effectively." (pages 45-46) The existing theories do not address all three parts of this problem.


1.Domain � "A people subject to unequal rule. One nation's government determines who rules another society's political life."

2.Scope of Control � Includes the types of things controlled by the metropole, the process of control & the resulting outcomes.

3.Range of Power � "The difference between the greatest possible reward and the worst possible punishment" (40). Domestic power range is wide; international range of power is narrow; imperial range of power lies somewhere in between.

4.Weight of Power � "The probability of achieving a desired outcome." Domestic weight of power is high; international weight is low; imperial weight of power is also in the middle.

5.Duration � Beyond temporary subjugation, empires require enough time (10-20 years) for conquered society to surrender control. This is the difference "between a stickup and slavery" (45).

Imperial control is different than dependence. Whereas with dependence costs are incurred from dissidence or divergence, empires also "employ force successfully against resistance to guarantee control of the periphery's effective sovereignty" (43).


Doyle identifies two primary types of empire, and explains for each (1) that there is effective control; (2) why the dominator choose to colonize; and (3) why the colony allows (or fails to prevent) its own subjugation.

Basically, all three approaches from the literature matter, as does everything else. A classic kitchen sink argument: "Nineteenth-century imperialism rested on an interaction, not a disposition of the metropoles, nor a simple collapse of peripheries, nor a structural crisis of the international system. It reflected, like the earlier empires, not only geopolitical and economic forces but also metropolitan party politics and peripheral collapse and collaboration. These factors combined to account for the processes of imperialism-for the forms empire took and for the persistence, accretion, and acceleration of nineteenth-century imperialism."(341)

There are two types of empires:

  1. Formal � Characterized by:

1.Dominating states with:

a.Importance of governmental transnational forces (soldiers & bureaucrats)

b.Legitimacy from authority

2.Peripheral states with:

a.Tribal structures � collaboration was untenable because it completely disrupted or altered existing cultural, political status quo.

3.Multipolar International System

  1. Informal � Characterized by:

1.Dominating states with:

a.Importance of nongovernmental transnational forces (merchants, settlers, etc.)

b.Legitimacy from participation (liberal democracy)

2.Peripheral states with:

a.Patrimonial structures � permitted collaboration w/o social collapse

3.Bipolar or Unipolar International System

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Doyle, Michael (author)International RelationsImperialismAnarchyWestphalia SystemAnarchy vs Hierarchy

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