The Political Ethnographer’s Compagnon
“[R]ight now I want to be the mournful friend, compañero del alma, who tends the ground you fertilize and lie in, gave too soon,” writes Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez about the death of his close friend Ramón Sijé. Those words came to my mind, like lightning, when I learned about the passing of our Chuck Tilly on Tuesday last week. Ever since, I have been grieving the loss of my mentor, colleague, and compagnon de route. But I am not alone. Dozens of us who belong to Chuck’s vast “contentious politics” virtual network, which he created and nurtured over the years, have been filling each other’s inboxes with expressions of mourning. We have been sharing stories about the person, the teacher, the friend, the advisor, the jazz lover, the volleyball player, the wizard who has just left us.
I won’t attempt in this brief tribute to summarize all the wonderful memories and anecdotes that have been circulating in that forum about his days at the University of Michigan, the New School, and Columbia. They all speak of his immense generosity, curiosity, humility, and openness. He is invariably described as a brilliant intellectual and scholar, as a unique advisor with an unparalleled kindness and egalitarianism, and as a noble man who was always there for us in the form of long and always insightful conversations, penetrating remarks in our workshops, encouraging e-mails in response to our queries, and reactions to our papers, which always came sooner than expected. There has been a phenomenal outpouring of recollections of our shared times with Chuck—in seminar rooms, in his office, strolling down the streets of Ann Arbor or New York—to which no words can do justice.
Like many others, some of my most precious “Chuck moments” are related to the times when I left his office feeling smarter than I really was, knowing where to go with my research (or, at least, the three potential routes to take—his legendary advice almost always came in a set of three options), and with a fresh sense of possibility. (“With this project, you can take over where Wright Mills left off,” he once told me. “Really, Chuck?” I remember thinking, “You have more confidence in me than I have in myself.”) But it was his gentleness, his smile—and the way in which his sparkling eyes were half-closed when he was thinking—that I will never ever forget.
In this tribute I would like to speak of a Tilly that quite likely scholars in the future will not remember: the political ethnographer’s compagnon. Call him my own private Chuck if you will. He is the Tilly of big and small structures, large and micro processes, huge comparisons and tiny variations within a case. True, Chuck was not an ethnographer. But he was always there—for me and for others—when he was needed. Those of us who chose ethnography as our way of understanding (and, yes, explaining) the manifold and complex ways political actors act, think and feel the way they do, could count on him not to tell us what to think (never!) but how to go about collecting evidence and making our arguments. We could lean on him to sharpen our analytical perspectives. The principle he inevitably invoked—which I heard so many times in various incarnations because (silly me!) I kept forgetting—was quite simple: “Besides the case, what is your study about?” In his straightforward way, Chuck kept reminding us to locate our theoretical concerns at the beginning and at the end of the ethnographic enterprise: “What can those who are not interested in (say) Argentine poor people’s politics learn from your study?”
But that was hardly all. I cherish this paragraph he wrote to me after reading one of my drafts, which sums up his (as far as I know unpublished) view of the craft of political ethnography:
Political ethnography is a risky business, at once intensely sociable and deeply isolating. On one side, its effective pursuit requires close involvement with political actors and therefore [implies] the danger of becoming their dupes, their representatives, their brokers, or their accomplices. On the other, bringing out the news so others can understand depends on multiple translations: from the stories that political participants tell to stories that audiences will understand, from local circumstances to issues that will be recognizable outside the locality, from concrete explanations for particular actions to accounts in which outsiders will at least recognize analogies to classes of actions with which they are familiar. The most widely read reporters on political conflict personalize their accounts brilliantly—but thereby neglect the social processes they are observing. Very few achieve balance between the personal and the systematic. Those few include James Scott, Adam Ashforth, Elisabeth Wood, and Pierre Bourdieu.
That assertion, which for me became a stimulating invitation, summarizes the challenges that lie ahead: a chase to find the right equilibrium between involvement and detachment, the personal and the systematic, being there and being here, stories told in the field and stories told to the public. And we know, because Chuck never let us forget, that we might fail in the attempt, but we should never cease to enjoy the search. Ultimately, then, I think the best tribute we can pay him as a scholar and as a mentor is to have fun in our intellectual pursuits and, as he repeatedly said to many of us, to do for our students and colleagues all the things he did for us.
The last stanza of Miguel Hernandez’s “Elegy” reads like this: “And I call you to come to the milky almond blossoms who are souls flying./That we still have so many things to talk about, compañero del alma, compañero.” With those words, I’d like to end my short tribute: thanking Chuck for all the things we learned both with and from him. Gracias, Chuck; eternal thanks for making us all not just better scholars but what is more important, better persons.