Clientelism is a term used to describe a political system at the heart of which is an assyemtric relationship between groups of political actors described as patrons and clients. Richard Graham has defined clientelism as a set of actions based on the principle take there, give here, with the practice allowing both clients and patrons to gain advantage from the other's support.[1][2][3]

The origin of the term has been traced to ancient Rome. Here relationships between the patron (patronus) and client (cliens) were seen as crucial to understanding the political process. While the obligations between these were mutual, the key point is they were hierarchical. These relationships might be best viewed not as an entity but rather as a network (clientela), with the patronus himself perhaps being obligated to someone of greater power, and the cliens perhaps having more than one patron. These extensions increase the possibilities of conflicting interests arising. While the familia was the basic unit underlying Roman society, the interlocking networks (clientela) acted as restrictions on their autonomy but allowed a more complex society to develop. Historians of the late medieval period evolved the concept into bastard feudalism. There is, as is usual, ambiguity in the use of political terminolgy and the terms "clientelism," the "patron-client relationship," "patronage" and the political machine are sometimes used to described similar or related concepts.[1][4][3][5]

A key to understanding clientelism might lie in stressing not only the mutually beneficial relationships of exchange but also asymmetries in power or standing. Implied is a certain selectivity in access to key resources and markets. Those with access, the patrons (and/or sometimes sub-patrons or brokers) rely on the subordination and dependence of the clients. In return for receiving some benefits the clients should provide political support. Clientelism as a strategy of political organisation is substantially different from other strategies which rely on appeals to wider programmatic objectives or simply emphasize higher degrees of competence. It is often assumed that clientelism is a vestige of political underdevelopment and that politcial modernization will reduce or end it. But alternative views stressing the persistence of clientelism – and the patronage associated with it – have been recognized. [1][2][3]


  1. ^ a b c Roniger, Luis (2004) Political Clientelism, Democracy and Market Economy, Comparative Politics, Vol. 36 no. 3, April, 353-375
  2. ^ a b Graham, Richard (1997) Clientelismo na cultura política brasileira. Toma lá dá cá, Braudel Center Papers No. 15
  3. ^ a b c Tornquist, Olle (1999) Politics and Development: A Critical Introduction, SAGE
  4. ^ Clapham, Christopher (1985) Third World Politics, Croom Helm
  5. ^ Gruen, Erich S. (1986) "Patrocinium and clientela," in The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, University of California Press, Vol. 1, pp. 162–163.

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