Joshua Woods, professor of sociology at West Virginia University, has co-published a book, “Feudal America: Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society,” with Vladimir Shlapentokh, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University.

Woods said the idea for the book began with Shlapentokh’s interest in shedding new light on post-Soviet Russian society.

Shlapentokh emigrated from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1979 and has worked as a researcher and teacher for several years in the United States. He is an expert on Russian and Soviet society.

“In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, multiple power centers emerged in Russia, coupled with a weakened central administration and high levels of corruption and political instability,” Woods said.

Woods said the actions of major social actors – the president, oligarchs and governors – were similar in some ways to the governance of medieval kings and the feudal lords of the Middle Ages.

“Our challenge was to apply this to the United States with the hope of revealing some of the essential features of American society,” Woods said.

The authors offer a new analytical tool. They present a provocative explanation of the nature of contemporary society by comparing its essential characteristics to those of medieval European societies.

“In the book, the feudal model emphasizes five elements: the weakness of the state and its inability to protect its territory, guarantee the security of its citizens and enforce laws; conflicts and collusions between and within organizations that involve corruption and other forms of illegal or semi-legal actions; the dominance of personal relations in political and economic life; the prevalence of an elitist ideology; and the use of private agents and organizations for the provision of safety and security,” Woods said.

The book urges readers to think critically about the na�ve labels such as democracy, liberal capitalism and free markets, which are often used to characterize the United States. These labels are lavishly expressed in social studies textbooks and the speeches of American politicians.

Woods said the book examines the influence of big money and corporations on electoral politics, and suggests that corruption is not a small, atypical or temporary problem, but rather a persistent element of political and economic life.

Exploring American society from the feudal perspective sheds new light on the crippling consequences of social inequality and the gulf that separates the castle-building rich from the working-class poor.

The book’s most forceful point is that no society can be understood with one totalizing model or perspective; all societies have multiple dimensions and as such require multiple tools of analysis.

“The picture of modern American society is incomplete without the feudal model, but the model itself represents only one tool in the sociologist’s tool kit,” Woods said.

Woods currently teaches Complex Organizations (SocA 304), Social Psychology (SocA 320) and Social Research Methods (SocA 311) at WVU.

jh 2/28/11

CONTACT: Rebecca Herod, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
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