The Gift-Giver

Viviana Zelizer

In his essay on faithfulness and gratitude, Georg Simmel identified the special character of the first gift. "Only when we give first," Simmel noted, "are we free, and this is the reason why, in the first gift, which is not occasioned by any gratitude, there lies a beauty, a spontaneous devotion to the other, an opening up and flowering from the ‘virgin soil’ of the soul … which cannot be matched by any subsequent gift."

With his bubbling generosity, Chuck was a virtuoso first-gift-giver, dispensing multiple varieties of advice, moral support, caring attention, encouragement, and sharp, always constructive criticism. To each of us, he listened closely and intensely. How he delighted in brokering connections among his many students and in finding precious references for them from the many journals he regularly read. Since his death, in a loving outpour of gratitude, his students and friends have provided moving testimony of Chuck’s gift-giving in the amsoc listserv he created, in blogs, and in the tears we all continue to shed.

He gifted me with his friendship and dazzling conversations. Beyond personal satisfaction, for Chuck, conversation offered key insights for understanding social interaction. Conversation, he declared in his essay on "Contentious Conversation" and elsewhere, "in general shapes social life by altering individual and collective understandings, by creating and transforming social ties, by generating cultural materials that are then available for subsequent social interchange, and by establishing, obliterating, or shifting commitment on the part of participants." He wrote about the "striking, jazzy combination of improvisation, innovation, and constraint that characterized conversation" as well as social interaction.

Our own conversation began years ago as an improbable dialogue: he the structuralist, me the culturalist; he the macro-historical sociologist who took on centuries, me the micro-analyst of a mere 50-year span; he the expert in translating complex issues into diagrams and charts, me who can think only in narratives; he the student of wars, revolutions, taxation, coercion; me of children, households, gifts, and intimacy. Even the location of our luncheon discussions matched badly: he loved interesting food, I’m the world’s blandest eater. Yet our friendship proved his theory of conversation to be right. Over time our dialogue did alter our understandings and explanations and created the possibility of actual collaboration in joint projects. Not surprisingly, Chuck introduced me to the power of relational analysis and in the process changed my own understandings of how culture works and how we should study it.

Among his many other gifts, Chuck offered us courage and indefatigable optimism. A reviewer once called him the Evel Knievel of social science: indeed, where others trod fearfully, he soared, marking new paths in multiple areas of scholarship and forcing us to think in new ways about everything from collective action to state formation, migration, democracy, inequality and so much more. Because he was fearless, he was drawn to the study of change rather than of order, to the analysis of contingencies, chance, and improvisation—some of the favorite words in Chuck’s lexicon.

He further gifted us with his optimism: he opened up possibilities, made us feel our work could be done, prodded us to get on with it, delighted when we succeeded, and helped us find ways—usually, at least three—to correct errors (his invisible elbow). At the end of one of our last conversations, he reassured me about his medical condition, adding, you know, Viviana, I will always remain an optimist.

Chuck’s absence hurts, it hurts deeply. But his gifts will continue to enrich his students, friends, and his dear family.His legacy is clear: keep thinking, creating, and helping others think and create. Let’s not forget one of his favorite mottos: turn threats into opportunities. All of us who knew him and loved him now have the unique opportunity and privilege to remember him and spread his scholarly and human example to those around us.

Returning to the essay I mentioned at the opening of this tribute: Simmel also remarked that gratitude "creates innumerable connections . . . among those that are filled with gratitude towards the same giver," not only for what the person has done for us, but for "the mere existence of a person . . . We are grateful to him only because he exists, because we experience him." We are all fortunate to have experienced the generous, the brave, the brilliant Chuck Tilly.


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