According to conventional state–society scholarship, kinship-based institutions undermine state building. I argue that kinship networks, when geographically dispersed, cross-cut local cleavages and allow elites to internalize the gains to others from regions far from their own. Dispersed kinship networks, therefore, align the incentives of self-interested elites in favor of state building. I evaluate my argument by examining elite preferences during a state-building reform in 11th century China. I map politicians’ kinship networks using their tomb epitaphs and collect data on their political allegiances from archival materials. Statistical analysis and narrative evidence demonstrate that dispersed kinship networks align elites’ family interests with state interests and incentivize elites to support building a strong central state. My findings highlight the importance of elite social structure in facilitating state development and help understand state building in China – a useful, yet understudied, counterpoint to the Euro-centric literature.
Discussant: Guillermo Kreiman (Oxford)