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ILAS Tribute - Charles Tilly

Distinguished Social Scientist Charles Tilly Passes Away

By Ernesto Castañeda Tinoco

An expert on Latin America and on the world, Charles Tilly studied the past in order to have us understand the present and to imagine possible roads towards understanding the future. After a long and prolific career marked by the writing of more than fifty books and around seven hundred academic articles, Charles Tilly died from lymphoma on April 29, 2008. Tilly was brave in his long battle against different types of cancer: despite submitting himself to intense chemotherapy treatments, including experimental treatments, he persevered, smiling, teaching and writing until weeks before his death. During his long and productive life, he was always a source of human and intellectual light, an example to follow and an exceptional man from whose life and work we have much to learn.

Charles Tilly was born on May 20, 1929 in a small city in Illinois, into a working class family, son of an immigrant mother. With the help of various jobs, scholarships and government assistance, he studied in the Department of Social Relations (a mix of various branches of sociology and social psychology) at Harvard. There he received his undergraduate degree in 1950, and his masters and PhD in 1958. In a department and field dominated at the time by sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), he preferred to study with the also distinguished sociologists George C. Homans (1910-1989) and Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968). Sorokin, a Russian immigrant who witnessed firsthand the revolution in 1917, had a great influence on Tilly, encouraging him in his interest in combining sociology and history into the systematic study of revolutions and social change. Tilly was also largely influenced by Barrington Moore (1913-2005), a political sociologist and master of the historical-comparative method from the same generation. Charles Tilly was one of the key figures in the establishment and institutionalization of the subfields of historical sociology, collective action, social movements, and contentious politics within contemporary social science.

Tilly was professor in the universities of Delaware, Princeton, Harvard, Toronto, Michigan, the New School for Social Research and Columbia, the two last ones in New York City. He was also a visiting professor in France at the Sorbonne, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) and the Paris Institute of Political Studies (the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris), as well as in Norway and the Netherlands. He received various honorary doctorate degrees and distinguished academic awards. Within the last few years, some standouts include the Hirschman Prize in 2008 from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association (ASA). He was a member of the most prestigious scientific societies in the United States and Europe. Tilly read English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, and a little Chinese.

Charles Tilly, sociologist, incorporated history and politics, on its large sense, into his work. His work had a large influence in the currents inside contemporary history and political science.  Tilly began his career writing a thesis on the counterrevolution in France.  He was an impromptu historian, a coincidence that brought him to create catalogs of contentious events in order to carry out quantitative analytic studies with strong historical and contextual information, information which lends itself to the comparison, across time and space, between phenomenon such as revolutions, social movements, strikes, protests, revolts or civil wars. After many years of maturation, Tilly and his research colleagues created what was called Contentious Politics studies, a new school that has influenced sociology and contemporary political science. From such a school of thought they have recently emanated many interesting works (that we hope will soon be translated into Spanish).

Before working in Contentious Politics together with Sidney Tarrow, Doug McAdam, and many others, Tilly contributed the concept of “state-making” (or the theory of the birth of the modern state), showing how the historical formation of nation-states in western Europe was strongly linked to war and the accumulation of capital to finance them. European monarchies fought among each other for control of their colonies and global trade routes. The urgency to finance these wars created in the governments of France and England, the need to develop systems to unify militias, govern territories, generate wealth, collect taxes and administrate their estates. From the tools that these governments used, today we have censuses, passports, customs, and accounting systems. This series of processes has resulted in the creation (accidental, to a certain point) of strong nation-states, with independent economies, and true governance over a certain territory.  The theory of state formation reminds us that nation-states did not arise as a product of a linear evolution but from a particular history within a large, historical, international context. Looking at the present, Charles Tilly wrote on the illusory nature of expecting the same types of state-society relations in countries more recently formed and copied the western European model. Imitating laws and establishing top-down reforms would rarely mean a bottom up reconfiguration. Local customs and traditions have to be taken into account to govern.

By the same logic, Charles Tilly compared state formation with the criminal activity of the mafia, who are paid to offer protection about threat of violence that they themselves create, racketeering. He showed how, historically, the art of governing consisted of a large scale coordination among local leaders, militias, powerful economic classes, and even organized crime. Because of this, Tilly was able to predict the terrible consequences (i.e. the increase in violence and destabilization) that an open all war on drugs by the military set up by Mexican President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa would create.

Tilly reminds us that democracy represents one of many political regimes possible, reflecting a system of social, political and economic relationships and above all, a certain institutionalization of trust networks. In contrast with the literature which perceives democracy as goal unto itself with a social, linear evolution, in his book Democracy (2007), Tilly shows how democracy is a reversible process and introduces a new concept into the literature: de-democratization. Explaining how even mature liberal democracies can experience drawbacks and closing in civil rights, civil liberties, or mistreat immigrants.

Just four days after September 11, 2001, in a reflection that could only be Tilly’s, he predicted the political errors and terrible consequences to come of the international politics of George W. Bush.  Tilly intuited how the events of those days had been derived from a decentralized network, with members who did not know each other personally but shared a political ideology and were trying to make a political statement through non-conventional violent means. Tilly knew immediately that a discursive barrier would be constructed between the two large groups, the self-nominated as “Us” versus “Them.” A resulting armed attack against a certain region blamed for the attacks would change the power relations within this given group, amplifying the discontent amongst “them.” Who would then increase their attacks, therefore aggravating the situation, lead to an escalation justifying the confrontation between the two groups. This division would call for the creation of new international alliances, which would obligate the excluded ones to unite within themselves, creating new routes and opportunities for drug trafficking and international organized crime. The result of a war declared against an enemy who is invisible, and at the same time categorical, would end up giving more power and outside support to dissident groups inside countries such as Algeria, Turkey, Nigeria, Sudan and Russia. As a result, as much as in these countries as in the West, the level of democracy would fall, a product of a major militarization of the forces of security and the reduction in civil liberties and human rights for both citizens and foreigners. Regrettably, such predictions have become part of our current reality.
In his last books, Charles Tilly illuminated for us some of our contemporary daily behaviors. For example, why we see the need to give reasons and tell stories in our social life (Why, 2006); why we assign blame and give credit to people around us (Credit and Blame, 2008), and how we academics can reconcile the study of culture and the post-modern challenge with a research agenda that generates high quality and useful scientific social knowledge (The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Analysis, 2008). 

Professor Tilly was also a scholar of migration: he was one of the first social scientists to write on the important role that social networks play in chain migration, which resulted in the accumulation, within the same locality, of migrants in a distant labor market. For Tilly, remittances are a way to fulfill family obligations, tangible proof of the importance of social relations despite distance (see his work with Viviana Zelizer on this topic).

With his book Categorical Inequality (1998), Tilly demonstrated how inequality and exploitation reproduce themselves through the institutionalization of group behaviors and above all through assigning of professions to certain social categories; for example, natives working in the fields, mestizos in the service sector, whites working as managers, women in sales, men in production, immigrants as janitors and local male citizens as bankers. The inequality between groups reproduces itself for generations once these roles and different levels of life become invisible and seem natural, spontaneous, or merited.
Despite his fame and intelligence, Charles Tilly, or Chuck as he liked everyone to call him, was above all transparent, accessible, without pretensions; he was a true cosmopolitan, democratic and egalitarian in action. He was patient with his students and colleagues. He spent a lot of time helping us develop our ideas, reading all types of drafts and giving valuable suggestions to improve the scientific content of our texts. Because of this, through his death, the hundreds of students and colleagues whom he helped throughout the last five decades (me among them) remember his great human quality and intellectual generosity. His books and lessons stay with us to guide us in the difficult task of understanding society and the many relationships and mechanisms which this encompasses and that sometimes blind our eyes.
Ernesto Castañeda Tinoco is a doctoral student in sociology at Columbia University in New York. He was a student and teaching assistant of Professor Tilly.

A version of this article will appear in Spanish in the Cátedra magazine published by the University of Colima, Mexico 2008.

A conference in Honor of Professor Tilly was organized at Columbia on October 3rd – 5th. For more information visit: http://www.ssrc.org/hirschman/event/2008

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