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Charles Tilly


I admire Charles Tilly, the renowned historical sociologist last associated with Columbia University who died on April 29, 2008, for many reasons, although I never met him or saw him publicly present his work in any setting.  But for any student of public controversy or the constitution of historical publics or social movements or argumentation, I think it undeniable that Tilly’s work has been an inspiration even as it has provoked disagreement and served as a spur to additional work.  I gather this is how he would have preferred it.

Tilly was astonishingly prolific; in the ten year span from 1998-2008 he published fifteen major books, all the result of his life’s research and obviously the outcome of collaborative team projects, their quality always high and his work deeply careful.  The New York Times obituary got it quite right when it noted that “Dr. Tilly mined immense piles of original documents for raw data and contemporary accounts – including municipal archives, unpublished letters and diaries – that he used to develop theories applicable to many contexts.”  The work of this last decade was dominated by a late-arising interest in social movements and the processes of contention that over time reorganize social structure and the dynamics of history itself.  I first came to read his work in this area with the publication (co-authored with Doug McAdam and Sidney Tarrow) of Dynamics of Contention in 2001, but was particularly interested in one of his shorter later books, Why? (published in 2006), since it pulled him into even closer connection with work I find compelling on the topic of social controversy and the mechanics by which publics make and defend their ideas.

His work on what he called contentious politics (which I admit I first thought something of a redundancy, though Tilly uses it for good reason) was implicitly set against earlier work that had seen such contention as the result of lone if influential individuals arguing with each other; Tilly’s work situated the individual expressions of contentious disputation in the wider contexts of social processes and economic disagreement.  What made this work distinctive, in the context of broader academic trends that were already tending in this direction, derived from Tilly’s ongoing efforts to narrowly define social movements as not conceptually containing all the possibilities of protest, but as necessarily distinguished as different from other forms of collective action (like mobs or revolutions).  This focus led him to see social movements as historically particular and as arising under very particular circumstances; for example, and this fact is partly what attracted his interest, he was surprised to find that while social movements did not practically exist as influential social forces in, say, 1750’s Britain, by 1830 they dominated English public life, then spreading throughout continental Europe and worldwide.  This diffusion, moreover, was not accidental but specifically widened under the pressures generated by colonialism and globalization (by which I mean the circa 19th century incarnation).

All this received a fairly wide and in my experience wholly respectful audience within my own field of communication studies because, in addition to providing a synthesis of work from political and social history that was well informed by debates over so-called New Social Movements (a term often used to reference social protest activity not aimed at the traditional target audiences of state or nation and which refers to behaviors that have dominated much of the last quarter century’s work on the subject), Tilly’s work understood social movements as modes of public representation, and this move instills his scholarship with a typical appreciation for movements as communicative phenomena.  His 2004 book on movements cast them in the language of organized activity designed to shape persuasive messages for broader audiences, which in turn produce a distinctive public repertoire of possible persuasive performances, and which finally work to persuade their broader publics that they speak legitimately and advocate worthy proposals for action.  The degree to which all this was underwritten by what could seem like an infinite set of examples and historical materials made his scholarship all the more impressive, especially since for many communication scholars this depth of historical specificity was often implicitly (and perhaps unfairly) contrasted to Jürgen Habermas’ cruder historical account of the emergence of Western European public spheres in his early book Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.  Tilly was of further help to those seeking to recenter communication scholarship on movements on account of his schematization of movement activity and, in particular, his work to identify the full and distinguishable range of claims movement advocates make.

I confess that the tributes offered at his death (some collected at the SSRC website) only reaffirm my positive impressions of his work.  One of his early students is referenced at the Wikipedia page describing Tilly’s career; as Tilly lay sick in the hospital, suffering from end-stage lymphoma, he got off a line to Barry Wellman:  “It’s a complex situation,” thereby summarizing what might be thought a credo of the diligent researcher.  Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s president, was surely right in noting that “it seemed that he could write, interpret, and explain virtually anything to curious minds.”

In 2002, in an afterward to The Rational-Choice Controversy in Historical Sociology (University of Chicago Press), Prof. Tilly offered some very practical advice for scholars undertaking projects in historical sociology.  I recall reading it at the time, in part because of my natural envy for academics so regularly productive (I read such statements religiously, as if they will convey some magic potion or trick that will galvanize my own efforts), but also because it seemed to offer sensible advice to anyone doing research, this although Tilly’s tips are most directed at social scientists.

One of his tips I found curious, although the more I think about it the more intriguing it seems.  Here is what he said:

“Recognize that you will eventually face four kinds of criticism [for your published work]: (a) from historians who claim to know the times, places, sources, and/or phenomena better than you; (b) from advocates of arguments you have implicitly or explicitly rejected; (c) from analysts who prefer other genres, ontologies, explanatory strategies, mechanisms, sources, and methods than you have chosen; (d) from your own recognition of haps, inconsistencies, uncertainties, and exaggerations in the analysis.  As much as possible, write so clearly that these four brands of criticism will actually bear on what you meant to say, rather than what someone – including yourself! – mistakenly thought you meant to say.  If you are trying to influence how other people carry out their own research and writing in historical sociology, waste little time on debate and exhortation.  Instead, devise, execute, and report studies that (a) clearly bear on already pressing questions in social science and history, (b) embody replicable and extensible procedures, (c) analyze a kind of evidence that is available for multiple times and places, (d) require a year or two of full-time effort from a reasonable trained researcher, and are therefore suitable for articles, master’s theses, and doctoral dissertations, and (e) immediately demand substantiation, elaboration, refutation, or extension.”

The advice is sensible and even perhaps obvious, but as I first read it, I wasn’t sure I agreed with the sentiment I’ve highlighted, especially coming as I do from a tradition that centrally views scholarship as an argumentative enterprise.  But the more I consider it, and the more I encounter work in my own field where argument seems too often uncomfortably to slip into argumentativeness, and then in turn at times into recrimination, I find my sympathies for Tilly’s view increasing.  For what he is urging, I think, is not the abandonment of even the most vigorous academic dispute but its final foundation in the quality of the work.  Pick a question meriting sustained attention, he is saying, do the hard and careful work of good research, write it up compellingly, and others will have no problem recognizing its essential implications in the broader conversations and disagreements of a field.  And, as opposed to the more jarring work of polemic, and the trap it can sometimes set for those who let it lead them into either she said yes, so I will say no or Prof. Idiot is wrong modes of interaction (or even their tamer versions, such as Dr. Naive says X but I, reflecting my more supple intelligence, will in what follows complicate the picture), this will serve as the sort of work that will induce others to themselves dig more deeply into the materials of scholarship without rancor.  Which is to say, all advice to the contrary: there are times when the best way to impress readers with the significance of your claims is simply to make good ones.

This Charles Tilly did exceedingly well.

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