Chuck Tilly and the Revolution in Historical Sociology

Although I never studied with Chuck or worked at the same university as him, I felt very close to him from the beginning of my graduate student days. My advisor, Ron Aminzade, had been Chuck’s student. Chuck was incredibly generous. I first met him in person when I travelled to Michigan in a blistering snowstorm in January 1983 to visit his Center, consult his French archive materials, and to get advice from him and Louise about my Master’s thesis research on unemployed workers in Paris in the 1860s and ’70s. Chuck guided me through the Archives Nationales the following summer, and Louise took time out to explain the intricacies of the old Bibliotheque Nationale catalogs. When I moved into German history for my PhD dissertation, Chuck’s brother Richard shared his entire dataset on contentious politics events with me.

Chuck’s defense of archivally-based historical sociology was extremely important for historical sociologists like myself coming of age in the 1980s. He virtually invented the idea that sociologists could combine historical research based on primary documents with explicit sociological theorizing. Although many people dismiss the project of creating a historical sociology, arguing that all sociology is (or should be) historical, we all know that sociologists only started using primary historical documents after Chuck introduced the practice. The explicit connections to historians that Chuck created are another important part of building historical sociology. Chuck was an excellent institution-builder, as he himself recognized in his interview with Dan Little last year. For me, Chuck’s first revolutionary institutional innovation was holding a joint appointment in the history and sociology departments at Michigan, for almost two decades. Former students like Bill Roy have commented on the way the weekly seminar at Chuck and Louise’s house blurred the boundaries between historians and sociologists. Chuck went on to create the Committee on Historical Studies at the New School. Of course, his accomplishments reach much further, but I wanted to comment specifically on these.

I last saw Chuck in October 2007 at a panel that we both participated in at Columbia Law School on the historical aspects of executive power. I was amazed at Chuck’s energy. He was as brilliant as ever, cutting analytically to the heart of the matter. And he came to dinner with the panelists afterwards. He was exactly the same as I’d always known him.
His death is a tremendous loss for his friends, and for sociologists, historians, and social theorists worldwide.

George Steinmetz
University of Michigan


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