Charles Tilly Interview by Paul DiPerna   | Blau Exchange
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Charles Tilly Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange

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September 22, 2007

September 22, 2007

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Charles Tilly Interview by Paul DiPerna   | Blau Exchange Charles Tilly Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange Document Transcript

  • Site Search Charles Tilly Interview moderated by Paul DiPerna Paul DiPerna: Professor Tilly.. I understand that you completed both your Bachelors and Ph.D. in Sociology at Harvard. home What was your graduate school experience like? introduction How do you see your schooling and training in the 1950s contrast themes with the structures and demands of Sociology programs today? interviews index Charles Tilly: Having entered Harvard's newly founded subscribe to email updates undergraduate program in Social Relations during its initial year (1946) and having worked in the department office to supplement my meager funds, I found the RSS for interviews grad school atmosphere and personnel in Social Relations very familiar. We had to qualify in sociology, social psychology, Paul's bio and projects personality psychology, and social Paul's email anthropology, which made for both stretch Tilly's Bio and superficiality. As a partisan and assistant of Pitirim Sorokin and George Homans, comments policy I saw the formation of Social Relations as partly a coup d'etat against privacy policy Sorokin and partly a great adventure. Our teachers ran from Gordon Allport and Jerome Bruner to Clyde Kluckhohn and Talcott Parsons. No sociology department would demand so much scope of its graduate students today. Nor would any department give a student a year's graduate course credit for a note like the one I got from my Balliol College (Oxford) tutor: "Mr. Tilly read analytic philosophy under my supervision for a year, and did very well," or words to that effect. Harvard accepted the note, with the result that I did only one year's course work for the Ph.D. Paul DiPerna: You have published a number of highly regarded articles and books about social movements in Europe and in the United States... What got you interested in mobilization and the study of social movements? Were there particular circumstances or people that influenced you and your research questions? Charles Tilly: The French Revolution got me started. Once I was studying why a counter-revolution began in Western France during 1793, I had no choice but think more generally about how and why French people mobilized during the Revolution. That led easily to more general comparative and historical studies of political mobilization in France and elsewhere. I avoided the study of social movements as such for years, however, because I disliked the fuzzy conceptualizations people brought to movements; see the discussion in From Mobilization to Revolution (1978). Finally I became so frustrated with the ahistorical conception of social movements that prevailed in Europe and (especially) America I started writing about movements as such during the 1980s. My dissertation co-directors George Homans and Barrington Moore strongly affected my thinking about historical analysis, but not about
  • political mobilization. More on that topic came from political scientist Sam Beer and the gang of graduate students (including Michael Walzer, Norman Birnbaum, and Klaus Epstein) he recruited to teach in his Harvard undergraduate course on Western thought and Institutions. In fact, my fascination with the French Revolution began with teaching in that course... Then, after my six sad years teaching sociology at the University of Delaware, political scientist Harry Eckstein gave me the life-enhancing award of a postdoc year at Princeton, where I began to create the event-based methods for studying political struggle that I've used ever since. Paul DiPerna: How does the events-based method differ from the ahistorical analysis that you said was so prevalent in preceding European and American scholarship before the 1960s? Charles Tilly: I apparently didn't make myself clear... Two different points got mixed in your question. First, from my postdoctoral year at Princeton onward I started using event catalogs to study change and variation in forms of popular struggle. The method caught on, and became one of the most common approaches to describing a wide variety of struggles, including social movements. My own event catalogs typically drew from standard historical material: periodicals, archival correspondence, chronicles, and so on. But the most common method has been to draw qualifying events from newspapers. Second, I avoided writing about social movements for about twenty years because I felt that the term had become swollen and imprecise. The phenomenon of the social movement looked to me like a historically specific form of politics parallel to the electoral campaign and the collective seizure of food, not a universal category of human action. As I began to work on transformations of British popular politics during the later 1970s I couldn't help seeing that in Britain, at least, social movements didn't exist in the mid-18th century but had become a dominant form of popular politics by the 1830s. That started me writing about the history of social movements, first in Western Europe, then finally across the world as a whole. Paul DiPerna: Are there other people who have been good ambassadors (for lack of a better word) who over the years have extended the value of event modeling? Charles Tilly: It depends on what you mean by "event modeling." Susan Olzak has vigorously forwarded the use of event history analysis, the formal technique, in the study of contentious events. Andrew Abbott and Peter Bearman have pioneered and theorized the analysis of sequences, including historical sequences. But in my end of the business I would single out Hans-Peter Kriesi, Dieter Rucht, Sidney Tarrow, Mark Beissinger, and Roberto Franzosi as the empirical analysts who have done the most to organize and publicize the use of event catalogs as means of studying change and variation in political struggle. Although event catalogs are not quite his bag, William Gamson has also strongly influenced users of such methods, back to his The Strategy of Social Protest, which he wrote while working in the research center I directed at the University of Michigan. Paul DiPerna: You mentioned From Mobilization to Revolution (1978)... Are there particular projects/publications that have given you an enduring feeling of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment?
  • For any that you mention, can you briefly tell us why the work has meant so much to you? Charles Tilly: I still enjoy re-reading my two big histories of popular struggle, The Contentious French (1986) and Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758-1834 (1995). They never had the impact on historians' work I had hoped for and also failed to inspire parallel studies elsewhere. Nevertheless, they communicate a love for both the problem and the data as well as showing that there is no necessary contradiction between historical and social scientific research. This doesn't mean, of course, that I think ill of my other monographs and syntheses. For example, I still enjoy having written Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (1985), Coercion, Capital, and European States 990-1992 (1992), and Why? (2006). Paul DiPerna: What is the best compliment you have received either for a specific project or for your collective body of work? Charles Tilly: I'm not sure, but I certainly prized the e-mail from someone I'd never heard of in Iowa last year who said he'd read my book Why? and suddenly understood things that had puzzled him about his own life. Paul DiPerna: What was your motivation for writing Why? a couple years ago? To me, it would have been incredibly daunting to set out to explain why people give reasons for their social actions... Charles Tilly: Frankly, I had thought for years that I wrote as well as many people who publish trade books, and had something to say in my relational approach that non-specialist readers would find engaging. So I tried a little essay for Sociological Theory to see if I could make it work. It worked, so I wrote the book, greatly enjoying myself along the way. Paul DiPerna: I have read most of your 2004 book, Social Movements, 1768- 2004, and there was a very interesting segment on the role of technological innovations in social movements. My understanding is that you believe the utility of communications technologies depends strongly on how well said technologies integrate with existing "offline" social structures and relations, interpersonal skills and technology skills among key members, and leadership goals. Is that accurate? Charles Tilly: That is accurate. Paul DiPerna: Are there clear examples of technologies enabling tipping points for social movements? Charles Tilly: Sure. The invention of the penny press in Great Britain after the Napoleonic Wars spread social movement messages to ordinary people as never before. Again, television made southern officials' brutality to civil rights activists visible to the whole US -- and Martin Luther King took full advantage of the medium.
  • Paul DiPerna: How do you see the Internet changing democratic processes here in the United States? Charles Tilly: As your reading of my book suggests, I worry that it allows people to substitute finger work for legwork, and promotes quick, slick solutions to problems of mobilization (e.g. petitioning) that over the long run would work better through face to face contact. Both Theda Skocpol and Dana Fisher have voiced parallel worries about the professionalization and outsourcing of advocacy. Nevertheless, the Internet and electronic communication at large greatly lower the cost of getting information out, which can be a boon for democracy if it doesn't substitute for direct participation. Paul DiPerna: When you set out to begin a project, do you have a system for your work approach? I guess this would probably depend on different phases like research design, lit review, research/data collection, analysis, writing, etc.. Charles Tilly: No system. Most projects begin either as responses to invitations or as by-products of things I'm already working on. Of course I don't start a serious effort without laying out systematic notes on what the project will require. Paul DiPerna: How have you seen the Internet change the way academics do their work? What do you see as the positives and negatives to these changes? Charles Tilly: Academics now share papers much more rapidly and readily, which has advantages for more extensive communication and disadvantages for overload. (I get irritable when someone sends me the same manuscript, slightly revised, for a third or fourth time without asking a specific question.) The information resources on the Internet are tremendous, so much so that, once a library bug, I rarely go to the library (except electronically) any more. Paul DiPerna: I haven't had the opportunity to fully read your most recent book Democracy, but I understand that one of the central theses is that the integration of "trust networks" into public politics is an essential process for democratization. Based on your following of the Iraq War, do you see trust networks and coalitions growing or diminishing in that country? Charles Tilly: We have to break the question into two parts: Are trust networks thriving? Are they integrated into public politics? Iraqis depend even more heavily than before the war on trust networks defined by kinship, ethnicity, and religion to get their consequential work done. But those trust networks have separated massively from public politics and the state since the US invasion. The
  • dis-connection of trust networks poses even greater long-run obstacles to democracy than did Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Paul DiPerna: What, if anything, can the United States do to foster these informal social ties and processes to lay a foundation for what could someday become a democratic state? Is democratization beyond hope in Iraq? Charles Tilly: Democratization is not "beyond hope" anywhere. But the most the United States can do is to broker regional three or four way alliances between state officials on one side and local segments of ethnic- religious trust networks on the other, providing guarantees that each local group can pursue its major activities -- procreation, provision for children, physical protection, making a living, meeting religious obligations, and connecting with trust network members elsewhere -- in peace and security. A tall order, I admit, in today's Iraq, but possibly feasible one locality at a time. Paul DiPerna: There is a lot of talk these days that information and communications technologies (ICTs) will undoubtedly re-energize democratic politics and civic engagement... I can see this potential, but I don't believe it is a given. It seems to me ICTs are terrific for enhanced transparency and citizen oversight of public institutions and public individuals, but this can erode our trust as much as build it. In fact my understanding is that the American public has less faith now in most public institutions than in recent memory... All the while coinciding with the rise of cable television news, the 24 hour news cycle, the Web, and the blogosphere. To what extent do you think Television and the World Wide Web have been good for democracy here in the United States? Charles Tilly: As I said earlier, you have to balance two contradictory effects: (1) the wider availability of information and communication, which on balance favor democratization, and (2) the attenuation of person-to-person solidarity within politics, which menaces democracy. In recent years, my intuition is that (2) has increased faster than (1), and that ICT expansion has therefore weakened democracy. But I'd like to see a lot more evidence. Paul DiPerna: Is it possible the saturation of reporting and blogging (news or news-like stories) can actually erode democracy? Might a society's "information overload" threaten democracy by contributing to fatigue and apathy toward public institutions for which we used to have some reasonable amount of respect? Charles Tilly: No, people have always had "... ICT access to more information and expansion pseudo-information than they has could handle, and have always therefore organized (however implicitly) weakened selective connections with the democracy..." information, relying for example on intimates and local authorities to validate or invalidate different sources. It still works that way with blogs, zines, search engines, and e-mail.
  • Paul DiPerna: Can you describe the ideas in your forthcoming book Credit and Blame? Charles Tilly: Very simply, that when something consequential happens to them or others about whom they care people seek insistently to assign responsibility by identifying agents, evaluating the consequences of the agents' actions, judging the competence and responsibility of the agents, and matching preferred rewards and punishments to the multiples of all those elements. Blame isn't quite symmetrical with credit, however, because in blaming people draw sharper lines between us and them, between worthy and unworthy, and work harder to match penalties to magnitudes of damage. My book illustrates this line of argument at many scales and in many different settings, from friendship to Academy Awards to truth and reconciliation commissions. Paul DiPerna: What is one of your favorite examples in Credit and Blame? Can you share this with us as a sort of trailer to your publication? Or are there any examples off the top of your head (or in the book) that may have to do with uses of technology? Charles Tilly: The chapter on credit distinguishes among four ways of collective awarding credit: tournaments, honors, promotions, and networks. I especially enjoyed writing about the Academy Awards as the culmination of a tournament in which the winners (limited to 45 seconds of remarks before the music comes up and drowns them out) typically gush thanks to family, friends, and helpers without saying much that's coherent. Credit for technology sometimes shows up in the secondary Academy Awards (for example, in animation), but more often figures centrally in the Nobel Prizes -- where the speeches are never impromptu. Paul DiPerna: If you have any advice for the next generation of scholars and researchers in the social sciences, what would you like to tell them? Charles Tilly: Don't get blindsided by neuroscience, which is going to make individualistic, brain-centered accounts of human behavior even more popular for the next ten years or so. Anticipate the following phase, when even the neuroscientists will begin to recognize the importance of social interaction in the formation of individuals. Paul DiPerna: Along similar lines.... if you have any hopes for the next generation of scholars, what would you like to ask of them? Charles Tilly: Figure out how to do relational analyses that provide valid explanations of individual behavior and are accessible (at least in simplified form) to readers outside of social science. September 22, 2007 home | interviews index | Join the email list | RSS for interviews | Paul's email Blau Exchange, est. 2006 | Blau Exchange, All Rights Reserved 2006-2008 site design by gralmy