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Political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists use clientelism to describe a certain type of relationship between individuals and larger groups of people that is not based on other types of relationships such as common class, ethnicity, or religion. In this sense, clientelism is a residual concept that can be used to explain strong patterns of allegiance and loyalty within larger groups in situations where they cannot be explained by other more traditional means.
Although definitions of clientelism vary, most suggest that at the level of individuals it involves a direct relationship between two people that is based on personal and intense feelings of comradeship and loyalty. From this starting point, larger clusters of such interpersonal relationships can form that result in the construction of collectivities such as labor unions and political parties. Regardless of the type of collectivity that is being studied, social scientists that use clientelism as a concept for explaining behavior share the view that the collectivity is based upon a complex and sophisticated set of interpersonal relationships.
In the social sciences, this concept has been most extensively used by political scientists attempting to explain patterns of allegiance and loyalty either in urban settings or in rural areas where there are high concentrations of poor people. For example, there is a large body of literature that attempts to explain the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century politics in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston in terms of the existence of personal networks in urban slums that connected individual workers and their families to ward healers, and eventually to the bosses who ran these cities. It is argued that this system of so-called machine politics was the result of a tacit bargain between leaders and followers. In exchange for jobs and favors from the bosses and their local representatives, the bosses were able to maintain loyal cadres of supporters who served as the basis for the establishment of modern political parties.
Because such machine politics in large U.S. cities came to be viewed by social scientists and citizens alike as a breeding ground for patronage and corruption, clientelism came to have a highly negative connotation. In fact, it came to be associated with the so-called primitive form of democratic politics practiced in developing regions of the world. During the 1960s and 1970s, a good amount was written concerning the specific nature of the pathology of clientelism in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Perhaps because of its combination of emerging democratic politics, rapid industrialization, and feudal patterns of landholding, Latin America received more attention than any other developing region.
In Latin America clientelism was frequently referred to in terms of patron-client relationships. Historically, the patron was a large landowner who was able to offer his peasant “clients” physical protection and job security in exchange for his labor and political support. Given the largely feudal nature of many Latin American societies, the patron-client relationship was hierarchical (vertical) in nature. Such patron-client patterns have been used by political scientists to explain the history and evolution of parties and party systems in countries such as Mexico and Colombia.
Although the concept of clientelism is not used as extensively as it was during the 1960s and 1970s to explain political phenomena, it continues to prove beneficial for assessing developments in certain regions of the world. For example, it has been used to explain how Hizbollah (the Party of God) has been able to create a loyal following among Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon despite the fact that these refugees are not permitted to vote in Lebanese elections.
- Kawata, Junichi. 2006. Comparing Political Corruption and Clientelism. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.
- Schmidt, Steffan W., James C. Scott, Carl Lande, and Laura Guasti, eds. 1977. Friends, Followers, and Factions: A Reader in Political Clientelism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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