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Robert A. Nisbet [1913-1996]


Robert Nisbet’s Leviathan

By Frank W. Elwell


Robert A. Nisbet is primarily a follower of Emile Durkheim. This influence can be seen in his basic understanding of modern sociocultural systems and their evolution. It is his contention that society is increasingly dominated by large-scale administrative systems that have severely weakened traditional groups and organizations. The concentration and centralization of social and political power and the consequent weakening of institutions that formerly mediated between the individual and centralized power has had devastating effects upon democracy, freedom, and human welfare.

Initially, Nisbet’s primary concern was parallel to Durkheim’s: the impact that this weakening of primary group ties had on the normative structure of society, and the consequent lack of integration of individuals into the social order. But over the years he began to focus more upon the impact that this shift had on representative government and individual liberty. He argued that the present structure of the State beganQuest for Community to gain overwhelming dominance in the West with the French Revolution, and since that time it has taken over more and more functions from traditional organizations and groups such as the extended family, neighborhood, class, and regional authority. This is a disaster, he argues, in that it is in these primary groups that the individual has roots, is formed, and internalizes the norms, values, ideologies, and outlook of the society.

According to Nesbit, social disorganization—the decline of family, community, and other traditional primary groups—is more properly thought of as the wearing away of these authorities caused by the “absorption” of their functions by the State. It is the enlargement and centralization of State bureaucratic power that has had dramatic effect on all other forms of social organization. The social fabric becomes frayed. “Threads are loosened by the tightening of power at the center.”

Without common bond, individuals increasingly take advantage of one another; relationships become commodified, increasingly relying upon contract and cash rather than loyalty and commitment. “As the blood rushes to the head of society,” Nisbet says, “it leaves anemic the local and regional extremities.” This enlargement and centralization of State power, he argues, is the root cause of the loss of authority and function of these intermediate institutions and this has two principle effects: 1) the weakening of local and regional checks on further centralization; and 2) the isolation and alienation of the individual and their consequent powerlessness. This centralization of power, a power that is external to both local groups and the individual, makes it difficult to establish true community. People gather together in lasting groups and associations to accomplish things they cannot do alone, Nisbet explains. When centralized power relieves local groups of these functions, it undermines the foundation for community, leaving local groups without function or authority, “what else but the social horde and alienation can be the result?”

This centralization and enlargement of power has been pushed by an ideology of bureaucracy, an ideology that promotes centralization, formal hierarchy, written rules of conduct and authority, and impersonal administration based on military models of human organization. Government bureaucracy has come from two main sources, Nisbet argues: mass war and the creation of the welfare state.

Twilight of Authority

Nisbet’s initial focus is upon the political State as a unified “Leviathan.” It is his belief that the political State has rapidly absorbed military, economic, political, and social power in the process transforming all social organization in the West. In later writings he details the interrelationships between State, economic, and military power in language highly reminiscent of Mills, recognizing that State power is often intimately involved in economic activities and has been since the rise of capitalism itself. Beginning only with military power, it is the State’s subsequent absorption of political, economic, kinship, and religious functions as well as the State’s dislocation or outright destruction of traditional authority structures that has led to the decline of community, freedom, and democracy. The modern individual has been freed from traditional hierarchies of class, religion, locality, and kinship, but this freedom has brought with it insecurity, disenchantment, anomie and alienation.  It has also subjected the individual directly to the control and manipulation of the State.

For a more extensive discussion of Nisbet's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.



Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America. New York: Harper Row, 1989.

Robert Nisbet. 1977. The Social Bond. New York: Knopf.  

Robert Nisbet. 1975. Twilight of Authority. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robert Nisbet. 1967. The Sociological Tradition. New York: Basic Books.

Robert Nisbet. 1953. The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.

To reference Robert Nisbet's Leviathan you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W. 2013. "Robert Nisbet's Leviathan," Retrieved August 31, 2013 [use actual date]

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