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Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  154 Ratings  ·  14 Reviews
This is the first full-scale comparative study of the nature of slavery. In a work of prodigious scholarship and enormous breadth, which draws on the tribal, ancient, premodern, and modern worlds, Orlando Patterson discusses the internal dynamics of slavery in sixty-six societies over time. These include Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, China, Korea, the Islamic kingdoms, ...more
Paperback, 511 pages
Published August 10th 1985 by Harvard University Press (first published 1982)
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Dec 18, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Peggy Noonan
Shelves: own

This is a work of sociology foremost, with anthropological and historical aspects secondary. Patterson, whose area of expertise is slavery in the Caribbean, looks at all slave societies over time to find out what every slave had in common - and every master. (The book is as much about masters as slaves, and Patterson engages Hegel's master-slave dialectic and the notion of "parasitism" to explain the relationship between them.) Aspects of slavery such as race and gender are discussed, but not fr
Isaac Holloway
Dec 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death is a masterpiece of scholarship and the landmark text on the subject. Though I do tend to be critical of academic speech particularly regarding its inaccessibility and how it makes completion of scholarly materials a chore, the richness of this work given what Patterson uncovers in this study makes the sometimes grinding nature of the reading experience well worth it. In reading this text the realities of what a slave is the functions a slave serves a ...more
Oct 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Rather than focussing on slavery as an economic system, Orlando Patterson, in Slavery and Social Death, looks instead at slavery in terms of socio-political relationships and power dynamics in human societies. He opens with the statement that ‘all human relationships are structured and defined by the relative power of the interacting persons.’ He compares dozens of slave-holding societies across time and space to define slavery as ‘one of the most extreme forms of the relation of domination, app ...more
Mar 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book was foundational in my understanding of the depth of the debt that is owed black people. Until this book I didn't fully understand the magnitude of the physical, spiritual, psychological, social, and civic damage that was borne of slavery and continues on through the various agents of global capital (police, jailer, employer, case worker). It is not something that can merely be overlooked or gotten over. As we continue to grasp how deep this all goes, we will continue to understand how ...more
Robert Owen
“Slavery and Social Death” is a book by a sociologist for sociologists. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with this, it does suggest that a warning may be in order for mere mortals who pick the book up seeking insight or enlightenment. Dr. Patterson first defines slavery and then, with a scientist’s thoroughness, surveys examples of slave societies throughout the world and across history to flesh out the details of his own definition. One of the themes of the book is that to understand sl ...more
Matt Sautman
Nov 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book is dense, but Patterson’s investigative analysis of slavery on a global, historical scale, contains highly relevant data for any scholar rooted in African American studies or post-colonialism. Patterson’s idea of slavery as social death anticipates Muñoz’s work on dead citizenship in Cruising Utopia and Lauren Berlant’s work on citizenship in Anatomy of National Fantasy. Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic is core to the philosophical aspect of Patterson’s analysis, with the third section o ...more
Sam Diener
Jan 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book is astonishing in its ambition, scope, and erudition. In its exploration of the geographic and social diversity of slave societies, I learned a huge amount from it.

It was stunning and depressing to read about the sheer number of different societies which enslaved stupefying percentages (as much as an estimated 96% of their populations, such as in Grenada in 1777, and also, to take just two more of the 66 societies in world history that Patterson coded as large-scale slaveholders out o
Jon Panofsky
Dec 22, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The only reason that I am giving this book 3 stars and no lower, is because it IS the standard work on the subject. While very informative, this book is dreadfully tough to get through. Patterson's writing style has NO flow, and chapters jump from country to country, and from century to century with little seeming flow. This book is heady and not for the beginner. I read this as a graduate student in a course on Atlantic Slavery, otherwise it would not have been on my bookshelf.
Sep 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Not a light read, but really mind-blowing. He surveys every slave-holding society--ever--compiles the sociological data and draws a set of very interesting conclusions about the nature of slavery and its relationship to society.
Aug 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is one of those books that forever changes how you view yourself, your society, and your understanding of humankind. Slavery is a worldwide phenomenon and spans the history of our species. But what it means to us on such fundamental levels is what this book is really about.
Heather Moore
Sep 20, 2007 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
His arguments were unclear, and he spent way too much time stating other people's arguments. His idea of slaves going through"social death" I find very interesting, and was something that I had noticed, but had not defined as such.
Peter Tupper
Jan 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: slavery, history
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Orlando Patterson is a Jamaican-born American historical and cultural sociologist known for his work regarding issues of race in the United States, and regarding the sociology of development. He currently holds the John Cowles chair in Sociology at Harvard University.
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