e-book Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

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Please allow notifications to be able to download files. Block Allow. Ancient history to c ce. Princeton University Press. Hardback Seiten. Josiah Ober. When does democracy work well, and why? Is democracy the best form of government? These questions are of supreme importance today as the United States seeks to promote its democratic values abroad. Democracy and Knowledge is the first book to look to ancient Athens to explain how and why directly democratic government by the people produces wealth, power, and security. Athenian democratic institutions and practices, when viewed in their social context, can be understood as a kind of machine cf.

Elster, this volume whose design facilitated aggregating useful knowledge and produced benefits of routinization while maintaining a capacity for innovation. The machine of Athenian government was fueled by incentives, oiled by low communication costs and efficient means of information transfer, and regulated by formal and informal sanctions. The machine served to build, over time, special kinds of social knowledge among a large segment of the Athenian population: an increased capacity to discriminate among sources of expertise and information, and to cross-appropriate relevant knowledge from one domain of application e.

Those heightened capacities may be understood as political sophistication, an expertise in the operations of self-government. As a result, learning and innovation were simultaneously supported, and Athens thrived, over time, in its competitive environment. These design features emerged with the constitutional reforms associated with Cleisthenes, enacted, by the Athenian demos in the aftermath of the Athenian Revolution. Previous Section Next Section. Consider a typical village deme of Athens, near the end the sixth century B. Farming, supplemented with some fishing and local trade, formed the economic base.

Along with some slaves and perhaps a few resident aliens, the total free population of Prasieis was probably in the range of persons. Of these, perhaps were adult native males — citizens of Athens who had enjoyed limited privileges in regard to participation and certain legal immunities since the reforms of Solon in B. After the democratic revolution of the adult male Athenian residents of Prasiai, as in the other villages and urban neighborhoods of Athens, were full citizens with extensive participation rights in the central institutions of polis government.


They had the opportunity to meet periodically in a local village assembly in order to vote on admitting new citizens and to decide on various matters of local concern. By the late sixth century, many of the families of the village had lived there for generations. A century and a half later, by the middle of the fourth century, a number of Prasieis had moved away, to the city or elsewhere in Athenian territory.

Yet by Athenian constitutional law they maintained membership in their ancestral deme and many of them still attended deme meetings. As a result of their long history of steady interaction — social, economic, and religious if not yet extensively political — the men of late sixth-century Prasiai knew a lot about each other: by comparative reference to other small and relatively egalitarian pre-modern rural communities, we can assume that many of the ties between adult male citizens of Prasiai were strong , in the sense that the term is used by modern theorists of social networks.

That is to say, the local social network by which the Prasieis were connected to one another was based on regular face-to-face interaction and featured a good deal of overlap and redundancy. As a result of this strong-tie linked network of social relationships, the level of mutual social knowledge in Prasiai was high: People for the most part knew, for example, who was technically skilled in various domains, who could be counted upon and in what circumstances, whose advice was valuable on what topics.

Social norms of reciprocity and propriety were clear and dictated who shared what sort of information with which others and under what circumstances. Since network ties were strong both in the ordinary sense of the word i. The key thing, from the point of view of organizational performance, is that small-scale networks based primarily on strong ties are very good at distributing information internally, but they are poor conduits for importing or disseminating useful knowledge outside the local network itself.

As a result of their inherently small scale and lack of diversity, closed strong-tie networks tend to be relatively unproductive. Thus there, consequently, no feasible way for me to bridge to another strong-tie network of persons. Strong-tie networks tend to operate as small and closed cliques. Lacking bridges to other networks, these cliques are resistant to the free flow of information outside the local network. Cliques render large-scale cooperation more difficult and impede coordination across an extended social network.

As a result, it is harder to aggregate knowledge or align action at larger scales. The gains potentially reaped from extensive cooperation remain limited — and the problem of scale looms as unsolvable. If we imagine late sixth-century Prasiai as characterized primarily by strong ties either as a single strong-tie network or as a collection of such networks , the residents of Prasiai would have had relatively few bridging ties outside their local community; relatively few men from Prasai and fewer women would have had reason to make connections with men from other towns or neighborhoods in Attica.

But to the extent that strong-tie networks were a general social norm in the many villages scattered across Athenian territory, overall Athenian capacity for effective joint action was likewise limited. Relatively low Athenian state capacity in the areas of military, building, and domestic policy in the pre-democratic period is consistent with the hypothesis that sixth-century Prasiai and other Athenian villages and neighborhoods were characterized, in the first instance, by strong-tie networks.

It certainly cannot be true that all sixth-century Athenians were living out their lives entirely within local strong-tie networks; we know, for example, that some Athenians were involved in regional and overseas trade so we can assume the existence of some weak ties. But it seems safe to say that something like the Prasiai model sketched out above was the seventh- and sixth-century Athenian norm — just as it was the norm throughout most of Greece.

That social norm was the central problem faced by Cleisthenes in the months after the Athenian Revolution of B. Back in Athens and with expectations running high, Cleisthenes took on the task of rapidly creating a new government. Oligarchy and tyranny, the familiar modes of archaic Greek political organization, had been discredited by the events leading up to the uprising.

Cleisthenes had been recalled to Athens after the demos had demonstrated its potential for large-scale joint action in the three-day siege of the Acropolis. Athenians clearly now thought of themselves as sharing an Athenian identity, which could potentially come to mean belonging to an extended network that included the entire polis. The design opportunity for Cleisthenes was building on a capacity revealed in a moment of crisis and based on a shared Athenian identity.

The challenge was creating institutional conditions for a productive equilibrium that would enable the Athenians to reap the individual and collective benefits of social cooperation. Although Cleisthenes lacked the theoretical apparatus of modern social science, the solution he devised makes sense when it is described in terms of social network theory.

Ober on robust democracy in classical Athens, Nov 2015

Cleisthenes created institutions that employed the principles of incentives for knowledge-sharing, lowering communication costs, and context-sensitive information sorting. A key to the new system although probably an unintended consequence of institutional design was the emergence of many bridging weak ties between members of local strong-tie networks. Granovetter showed that by contrast to strong ties, weak ties i.

Weak ties break down the claustrophobic environment of cliques by efficiently transferring information across an extended network. Weak ties are therefore an essential complement to strong-tie networks for social mobilization and for overall organizational cohesion. They would also become key markers of Athenian identity. Notably, the new tribes would not be territorially contiguous; each tribe drew about a third of its membership from communities located in coastal, inland, and urbanized regions of Athenian territory.

Democracy, Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

Prasiai was designated a coastal deme — as were three other, nearby villages, each located near the eastern coast of Attica. They were administratively joined to four inland demes to the west the inland trittys , and to three city demes: neighborhoods in or near the main city of Athens the city trittys. The same organizational principles were used in constituting the other nine tribes. The new system is represented schematically in Figure 1. Tribes would now be the basis for mustering a newly created national army.

The core of the army was heavy-armed infantrymen hoplites. Roughly speaking, these were the wealthiest one-third of the Athenian population. This would not be anything new; we can assume that the big men of the central Athenian coast had been mustering their heavy-armed supporters against pirates and other local threats for generations. Likewise, much of Athenian ritual life was now restructured on a tribal basis — the Prasieis would sacrifice and eat ritual meals, march in parades, and dance in ritual contests with their fellow tribesmen, the Pandioneis.

As a result, people with very different life-histories and different sets of social and technical knowledge frequently found themselves in close social proximity to people they never would have otherwise known. As we shall see, the system also promoted extensive bridge-building across the existing strong-tie networks and these bridges were essential to the process of knowledge aggregation.


The Council was charged with agenda-setting, deciding what matters should be discussed in the full Assembly of Athenian citizens. The Assembly, which all Athenian citizens in good standing were entitled to attend whenever they pleased, was a potentially chaotic legislative body. In the democratic era thousands of citizens attended its frequent meetings 40 per year in the fourth century. The Assembly was the embodied citizenry — the demos — and as such decided all important matters of state policy, including finance and matters of diplomacy, war, and peace.

The Council met very regularly in Athens, eventually in a purpose-built architectural complex. The Council also played an important executive role in ensuring that policy dictated by the Assembly was properly carried out. Meanwhile, the large inland deme of Lower Paiania and the city deme of Kydathenaion each sent 11 men, while tiny Upper Paiania and Konthyle each sent only one.

Let us stipulate, on the basis of the our description of late sixth-century Prasiai, that among the 49 other members of tribal team, Poseidippos had strong ties with his two fellow Prasieis but no bridging ties to any of his other fellow Councilors. This is a microcosm, at the level of 50 men, of the large-scale problem Cleisthenes faced as he embarked upon his reform plan. As he takes up his office, Poseidippos is ex hypothesi connected by strong-tie bonds with his two fellow Prasieis.

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He has no pre-existing connections his other fellow Councilors from tribe Pandionis. Yet he knows that he must work closely with 47 men with whom he has no current ties, weak or strong, and then with the other Councilors from the nine other tribes. During the period when a tribe-team was exercising its presidency, a third of its delegate-members were on hour duty.

The holes are evident on Figure 3: There are no existing weak-tie bridges, for example, between demes 1 and demes 6 and 9 or between deme 8 and demes 7, 2, and 5. In one sense, these holes are an institutional design problem, in that, as we have seen, they represent the absence of the sort of dense networking via weak ties that Granovetter identified as a prerequisite for effective joint action.

And so the holes represent a problem that Cleisthenes needed to solve by his new organizational design. Yet these same structural holes also represent opportunities — both for the individual willing to take the effort to bridge them and for the organization as a whole.

The presence of so many structural holes offered a key incentive to an ambitious and entrepreneurial Councilman. They do so simply by taking up a strategic position in respect to the flow of useful information and social knowledge: They become the conduit through which information passes and they reap rewards accordingly. Burt showed that, in modern business firms, the social capital accumulated by diligent bridgers of structural holes translates into material gain e.

The social capital that accumulates from bridging holes potentially benefits all members of the network, although the original bridge-builders do especially well. There is, therefore, a correlation between being "full of holes" and the development and maintenance of an entrepreneurial, innovation-prone, organizational culture.