Partners in Contention

Sidney Tarrow

Doug McAdam’s encomium to Chuck Tilly encourages me to use my tribute to tell my own “First Time I Met Chuck” story. When I was a raw assistant professor at Yale, I participated in a study group that met once every few weeks to read and discuss individual chapters of Barrington Moore, Jr.’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Each week, country specialists would tear shards off Moore’s hide; their general point seemed to be: “I could have done it better than Barry.” Not Chuck: when his turn came to discuss “his” chapter, I learned how a vibrant social scientist could learn from another and tell us what we could learn from that work. That was always the way he read my work, and he never failed to make it better than it had been.

The next time I met Chuck was in Ann Arbor, when I was beginning my study of what I was then calling “protest events” in Italy. He had already begun the monumental collection of contentious gatherings that would result in both his Popular Contention in Great Britain (1995) and in his last book: Contentious Performances (forthcoming in 2008). I shook in my boots as Chuck walked me through the elaborate process he had designed for enumerating and coding contentious gatherings in Britain. I accepted some of his suggestions and (to my everlasting regret) ignored others that would have made my Democracy and Disorder a much better book. What was memorable about that encounter was that Chuck never lectured me from the heights of his long experience with event analysis, as he might well have done; for him, I was already a co-worker in the vineyard he had cleared and planted.

Chuck could be a savage critic when he reviewed work that was inadequate or pretentious. I remember his review of a book on empires that had a brief moment of fame a few years ago. Chuck took that book apart chapter by chapter, exposing the hollowness at its core and highlighting its errors of fact and logic. But his abiding characteristic was his generosity. From our first encounter in Ann Arbor through his years at the New School and Columbia, I never sent him a text that he failed to comment on (usually overnight), and which his comments forced me to improve. After reading his reflections on my work, I sometimes felt I didn’t know what I had written until he told me what it was about.

Collaborating with Chuck could be a trial. When Doug McAdam and I were drafting Dynamics of Contention with him, he would sometimes return our drafts with his comments so quickly that we were still mulling over the last version when he was already working on a new one. But his criticisms were always fair, never mean-spirited, and he never ever held over our heads his greater status or longer experience in the field of contentious politics.

Chuck liked to pretend that I was eternally unsatisfied with his own work. As he approached his final illness and the pace of his productivity sped up incredibly, I urged him to slow down, capture the nuances in his work, and nail his opponents more firmly to the wall. But he was in a hurry, and now we know why. In the preface of Contentious Performances, he joked that he hoped some day to be able to write a book of which I approved. I was honored when, from his deathbed, he asked me to proof this last book, which I think is his crowning achievement. I hope he knew that I not only approved, but admired every book or article he ever wrote and treasure the memory of his friendship.


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