Charles Tilly Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Charles Tilly Interview
moderated by 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?
How do you see your schooling and training in the 1950s contrast
with the structures and demands of Sociology programs today?
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
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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
anthropology, which made for both stretch
As a partisan and assistant of Pitirim Sorokin and George Homans,
I saw the formation of Social Relations as partly a coup d'etat against
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.
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
Were there particular circumstances or people that influenced you
and your research questions?
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
What is the best compliment you
have received either for a specific
project or for your collective body of
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
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...
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.
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?
That is accurate.
Are there clear examples of technologies enabling tipping points for
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.
How do you see the Internet changing
democratic processes here in the United
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
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.
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..
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
As I said earlier, you have to balance two contradictory effects:
(1) the wider availability of information and
communication, which on balance favor democratization,
(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.
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?
No, people have always had
access to more information and
pseudo-information than they
could handle, and have always
organized (however implicitly) weakened
selective connections with the
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.
Can you describe the ideas in your forthcoming book Credit and
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.
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?
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
If you have any advice for the next generation of scholars and
researchers in the social sciences, what would you like to tell them?
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.
Along similar lines.... if you have any hopes for the next generation
of scholars, what would you like to ask of them?
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
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