Robust action and the rise of the Medici, 1400-1434
Padgett and Ansell's article is a detailed look at the rise to power of Cosimo de Medici during the early part of the 15th century. Using network data from historical records, Padgett and Ansell argue that the political control was attained by Cosimo Medici by being able to span the structural holes between a number of different political players.
They claim that eyewitness accounts describe Cosimo de' Medici as an "indecipherable sphinx." He rarely spoke publicly and never committed publicly to almost any form of action.
Building on this observation, the key theoretical contribution of Padgett and Ansell is the concept of "robust action" or a "robust identity" which they associated with Cosimo's style. They argue that his identity had a strong multivocality and that, "the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed" led to a sort of a complex, hard to categorize identity which Cosimo was able to use to connect widely, span structural holes, and gain power.
The authors use empirical data from marriage, economic, and patronage networks in Florence to show that only the Medici's spanned a series of otherwise completely separate structures between oligarch families. Cosimo occupied a middle ground status-wise that allowed him to transcend boundaries that most oligarch families could not. He uses a major breakdown in neighborhood intermarriage to show that Medici was able to span boundaries that his unparsable position allowed him (and him alone) to transcend.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
Padgett and Ansell's article is a core citation in the literature on identity and the growing literature around what might be called "category theory" in sociology. The paper is critiqued, implicity in Zuckerman's (1999) The categorical imperative: Securities analysts and the illegitimacy discount and much more explictily in Zuckerman et al.'s (2003) Robust identities or nonentities? Typecasting in the feature-film labor market.
The paper has been cited more than 500 times since it was published 17 years ago.