Charles Tilly’s Popular Writings: Public Social Science Through Superior Stories

Charles Tilly developed a passion for reaching a broader audience beyond academia with his writings. In his book Why (Princeton 2006), he laid out how social scientists should bring their knowledge about mechanisms and processes of social life into the larger public sphere: neither in form of technical accounts nor in form of everyday stories, but by what he called superior stories. “Like everyday stories, superior stories simplify their causes and effects. They maintain unity of time and place, deal with a limited number of actors and actions, as they concentrate on how those actions cause other actions. They omit or minimize errors, unanticipated consequences, indirect effects, incremental effects, simultaneous effects, feedback effects, and environmental effects. But within their limited frames they get the actors, actions, causes, and effects right. By the standards of a relevant and credible technical account, they simplify radically, but everything they say is true. Superior stories make at least a portion of the truth accessible to nonspecialists” (pp. 171f.).

Charles Tilly’s practiced public social science through superior stories in his popular writings, in his reflections on current affairs as well as in his teaching and writing style in general. His popular writings are exemplified by his two recent books Why (Princeton 2006) and Credit & Blame (Princeton 2008). Furthermore, over the last year of his life, he was invited twice by The American Interest to write for a broader, non-academic audience. This new political magazine was founded in the changing political context of 2005, led by Francis Fukuyama and devoted to the broad theme of “America in the World” with respect to policy, politics and culture.

With the permission of the American Interest, the SSRC can reprint these pieces of public social science by Charles Tilly:

  1. “Memorials to Credit & Blame” (May-June 2008)
  2. “Grudging Consent” (Sept.-Oct. 2007)

By publishing “Memorials to Credit & Blame” as part of the SSRC’s tributes to Charles Tilly (later followed by “Grudging Consent”), we hope to give Charles Tilly greater “credit” for his lifework. Several weeks before his passing, the SSRC “credited” Tilly with the Albert O. Hirschman Prize. The republication of “Memorials to Credit & Blame” is a prelude to the conference in honor of Charles Tilly, which the SSRC and Columbia University are jointly sponsoring on October 3-5.

Memorials to Credit & Blame

The more recent of the two articles, which appeared posthumously, is related to Charles Tilly’s book Credit & Blame, drawing on parts of the last chapter.

Tilly’s book Why investigated “what happens as people give other people reasons for things they have done, things they have seen, and things other people have done.” Credit & Blame takes up a question Why deliberately left unsolved: “When we give reasons for someone’s actions that significantly affect someone else’s well-being, what do we do about it?” We try to assign credit and blame. Tilly’s book identifies the “common properties” of instances of crediting and blaming and “shows how they work on a scale that ranges from arguments among friends to the creation of national commissions for the pacification of fierce political disputes” (pp. viii-ix). While the book covers the whole range of social life and interaction, the article “Memorials to Credit & Blame” focuses on the public assignment of credit and blame and its profound implications for democracy.

While Tilly produced the book and the related article with a wider, nonacademic audience in mind, he continued to employ the principles of historical social science, of which he was a leading practitioner. As practiced and formulated most recently in Democracy (Cambridge 2007), Tilly repeatedly relies on statistical information, but the “crucial matching of arguments and evidence will come in the form of analytical narratives” (p. 72).

Grudging Consent

Charles Tilly’s earlier article for The American Interest, “Grudging Consent,” synthesized the arguments he presented in his book Democracy which he regarded as the culmination and synthesis of all his work on the subject. In just a few pages, Tilly lays out the core of his theory of democratization, de-democratization and democracy promotion. He outlines in layman’s terms the general processes that have caused democratization and de-democratization at the national level across the world over the last few hundred years. In his view, democratization can be understood as the “advancement of grudging consent.”

Notably, Charles Tilly defines “grudging consent” with explicit reference to Albert O. Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (Harvard 1970). He likens the process of citizens offer grudging consent (not to be presumed automatic) to Hirschman’s notion of employing “voice” backed by the threat of “exit.” How fitting, then, that Tilly was the recipient of the SSRC’s 2008 Albert O. Hirschman Prize.

–Contributed by Andreas Koller, SSRC


Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: info@ssrc.org