Form and Content

Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study reflects Orlando Patterson’s West Indian background and his experiences as a resident of the United States since 1970. Stylistically, the work owes much to Patterson’s European training and the European philosophical tradition, but the book’s emphasis is clearly a New World one. Readers may note themes from Patterson’s earlier sociological works as well as a restatement of concerns from his novels such as Die the Long Day (1972). A major strength in Patterson’s work has always been his keen awareness of the psychological and political dynamics of slave systems and his attention to the complexities and ironies of the master-slave relationship.

Patterson himself sees this book as a response and a correction to the enormous growth in the quantitative analysis of slavery. Prior analyses, he accurately points out, centered primarily on the Atlantic slave trade and patterns of slavery in the Americas. The author rejects these concerns and attempts to broaden the framework to include both qualitative and quantitative assessments of the institution of slavery across time and space. Patterson emphasizes that no global analysis of the institution had been attempted since H. J. Niebor’s classic study in 1910.

This volume is a product of twelve years of concentrated historical research (mainly from secondary sources) preceded by six years of archival research in Jamaica. Patterson draws on his earlier studies, most notably The Sociology of Slavery: An Analysis of the Origins, Development, and Structure of Negro Slave Society in Jamaica (1967). Slavery and Social Death also anticipates Patterson’s arguments in Freedom, Volume 1: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991).

Slavery and Social Death is in three parts. A brief introduction provides an overview of Patterson’s argument and outlines what he considers to be the constituent elements of slavery....

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Davis, David Brion. Review of Slavery and Social Death, by Orlando Patterson. The New York Times Review of Books, February 17, 1983. A thoughtful, sometimes critical review by an eminent historian of slavery. Points out some of the historical shortcomings in Patterson’s book. Takes Patterson to task for taking some historical evidence out of context.

Davis, Wade. Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Takes Patterson’s argument one step further by suggesting that there is a category beyond slavery (“social death”)—namely, that of the zombie (“the living dead”).

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966. Classic anthropological study of the relationship between unclear categories and notions of taboo in preliterate societies.

Durkheim, Émile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York: Free Press, 1951. An excellent introduction to the style of sociological argumentation. Durkheim’s classic study inspired the form and structure of Patterson’s presentation in Slavery and Social Death.

Patterson, Orlando. Die the Long Day. New York: William Morrow, 1972. Novel dealing with the psychology of the master-slave relationship.

Patterson, Orlando. The Sociology of Slavery: An Analysis of the Origins, Development, and Structure of Negro Slave Society in Jamaica. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1967. Anticipates many of the arguments in Slavery and Social Death, with attention to the Jamaican case. Good use of archival materials.

Scott, John, ed. Fifty Key Sociologists: The Formative Theorists. New York: Routledge, 2007. Patterson is one of the included sociologists in this anthology that includes critical and comparative assessments of each theorist.