Sunday, October 4, 2020

Adam Slez's "The Making of the Populist Movement"

Adam Slez is Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, where he joined the faculty in 2013.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Making of the Populist Movement: State, Market, and Party on the Western Frontier, and reported the following:
If a reader were to open The Making of the Populist Movement to page 99, the first thing that they would see is a large graphic depicting the network of connections between South Dakota towns and the owners of the grain elevators used to load crops onto railroad cars. The surrounding text describes how to read the figure and the interpret the results. Insofar as it draws on network-analytic concepts such as tie density and blocks, the language used here is admittedly technical. At the same time, these technical details are also translated into substantive statements that bear on the larger historical argument regarding the origins of electoral Populism in South Dakota. For example, the last full sentence on the page reads, "In general, tie densities tend to be quite low due to the fact that the vast majority of owners are tied to a single place.” This line foreshadows a longer discussion regarding the position of independent elevator owners in a market network help together by owners operating elevators in two or more places.

Does the Page 99 Test work in this case? The test works in the sense that page 99 captures one of the defining elements of the book’s style, as well as one of the book’s main empirical findings. Stylistically speaking, one of things that distinguishes this book from a more traditional narrative history is the use of quantitative data. What the graph on page 99 shows is that the coupling between the railroad corporations and the companies that owned the grain elevators was so strong that you could see the organizing effect of the railroad simply by looking at the connection between towns and elevator owners. This is consistent with the book’s argument that the underlying geography of the market was a byproduct of decisions made by railroad officials who had the power to dictate where market infrastructure would and would not go. This created a situation in which the interests of the railroads and grain buyers came head-to-head with those of the farmers who depended on the market for their livelihood.

For as much as page 99 speaks to key aspects of the book, it is by no means a perfect reflection of the book as a whole. While the use of quantitative data sets the book apart from otherwise similar works, the style of writing seen on page 99 is far from typical. And while the findings reported on this page are critical to the development of the argument, they do not, in and of themselves, reflect the structure of the narrative as a whole. The main argument is that electoral Populism emerged as a response to the expansion of state and market in the American West. The book is structured accordingly, in the sense that the first part of the book examines the expansion of state and market, while the second part of the book examines the subsequent response, focusing in particular on the formation of social movement organizations, regulatory agencies, and political parties. This would not be apparent if you were to take page 99 on its own. Yet page 99 comes just pages before the transition to the second part of the book, at which point the connection between market-building and the Populist response is laid bare in anticipation of what is to come over the course of the next three chapters.
Learn more about The Making of the Populist Movement at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue