A Voice We Will Miss
Charles Tilly passed away last week. He was among the most distinguished of contemporary social scientists. Indeed, the SSRC had just awarded Tilly its highest honor, the Albert O. Hirschman Prize. Like Hirschman, however, Tilly was not only distinguished but distinctive. He had a voice of his own.
Chuck’s voice animated his numerous books. From his remarkable study of counterrevolution in The Vendée through major historical studies in France and Britain, to an exploration of Durable Inequality, efforts to theorize contentious politics, and an investigation of the very act of giving explanations, Chuck’s written work always had style. The style was often slightly impish, with a wink to knowing readers, and always elegant. He was witty without telling many jokes. But as wonderful as Chuck’s writing was, he was even better in person. His talks were nearly always written out in advance, clear and precise, and timed to the minute. I heard him give dozens of speeches, but he is the only academic I have ever known who never went over the allotted time limit. And you could see him smile slightly to himself when he finished on the dot.
Chuck was also astonishingly prompt as well as detailed and effective on the range of collegial chores that demand the time and attention of contemporary academics. Universities are full of professors who teach less, write less, and have less research basis for what they teach and write yet claim to be terribly busy when contacted to undertake a review. Chuck was an editor’s dream, sending cogent comments almost by return mail. He was also an impressively effective editor, running for decades an Academic Press series that shaped the interdisciplinary field of historical social science. He didn’t like everything he read, of course, and I have to admit he rejected my first book. But he was unfailingly and extraordinarily generous in comments on the draft manuscripts of his students.
And Chuck’s students formed a network that stretched beyond the universities where he taught. He served as a mentor to SSRC dissertation fellows as far back as the 1960s. With Sid Tarrow and Doug McAdam he assembled summer workshops of young social movement scholars at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He helped organize a legendary interdisciplinary network at Michigan and in his last years ran a Workshop on Contentious Politics that drew participants from all around New York, including many visiting international scholars.
Over the years Chuck served on several SSRC committees. They reflected some of the diversity of his interests and the different fields in which he was a recognized leader. He was co-chair of the History Panel in a major Survey of the Behavioral and Social Sciences for which the SSRC joined forces with National Academy of Sciences in the late 1960s. He was chair of the Committee on Mathematics in the Social Sciences in the late 1970s. He was a member of the Committee on States and Social Structures in the late 1980s.
Perhaps Chuck’s most influential SSRC role was an early one. In 1969, he was asked by the Committee on Comparative Politics, chaired by Gabriel Almond, to bring historians and history into their social science conversation. The CCP had been running for 15 years at that point, and had exercised an enormous influence on the development of comparative research and especially on the challenges of new and newly independent states. It had spurred the development of generalizations, even theory of “nation-building” and the challenges faced by developing states. Chuck’s charge was to lead a group looking at European history to see whether the generalizations held there and whether history might even yield an improvement or two. The result was a truly path-breaking book, The Formation of National States in Western Europe (1975). This challenged the reigning developmentalism, pointing out how many states disappeared in European history, how constant were the conflicts and challenges, how central the processes of war. It upended a number of the CCP’s previous generalizations, but not simply in the direction of particularism. Rather it offered new explanations. These centered substantively on the extent to which a struggle for survival amid conflict shaped European states more than domestic nation-building efforts. But the impact was not just substantive. The project helped to create a field of historical social science—or social science history. And for some thirty-five years, Charles Tilly would be one of its handful of leading practitioners.
One of the most distinguished of all contemporary social scientists, Tilly was an influential analyst of social movements and contentious politics, a pathbreaker in the historical sociology of the state, a pivotal theorist of social inequality. When I spoke to him a couple of months ago about his having been awarded the Hirschman Prize, he told me he had long been an admirer of Albert Hirschman and it is easy to see why. Both men remade fields. Both wrote clear books that made complicated and nuanced analyses seem almost obvious—but only after their lucid formulations. Both men combined a passion for social science with a determination not to let this be owned by narrow disciplinary agendas or internal academic debates that lost purchase on the big issues in the larger world.
Early in his career, Tilly did historical sociology in a discipline where that hadn’t yet become a recognized subfield. He studied conflict in a field dominated by Parsonsian functionalism and even initially at Harvard where Parsons held center stage and figures like George Homans and Barrington Moore were pushed a bit to the wings. Tilly might have chosen to exit. He might have decided he would get a better job as a loyalist. But he chose instead what Albert Hirschman clarified for us was always the third option: voice. Tilly’s voice changed several fields, remaining impressively clear despite major contention and more than a little conflict. He both studied how voice could matter and exemplified it.
Chuck was startled when younger people thought of him as one of the older authorities and offended when they thought he wanted to encourage conformity. His own voice did command authority; sometimes there was conformity; and often he had the best arguments in the room. Moreover, his very eloquence meant sometimes that his positions were so completely stated that it was hard for others to see where to intervene. But though Chuck enjoyed using his voice to shape intellectual work, he never stopped nurturing others in developing theirs.