Charles Tilly

Charles Tilly (May 27, 1929 – April 29, 2008[1]) was an American sociologist, political scientist, and historian who wrote on the relationship between politics and society. He was professor of history, sociology, and social science at the University of Michigan 1969–1984 and in his last position the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University.

Charles Tilly
BornMay 27, 1929
DiedApril 29, 2008 (2008-04-30) (aged 78)
Alma mater
Spouse(s)Louise A. Tilly
ChildrenChris, Kit, Laura, Sarah
Scientific career
FieldsSocial Science
Political Science
InstitutionsUniversity of Delaware
Harvard University
University of Toronto
University of Michigan
The New School
Columbia University
Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy
Academic advisorsBarrington Moore Jr.
Doctoral studentsBarry Wellman

He has been described as "the founding father of 21st-century sociology"[1] and "one of the world's preeminent sociologists and historians" as his "scholarship was unsurpassed, his humanity of the highest order, his spirit unwavering."[2] After his death, numerous special journal issues, conferences, awards and obituaries appeared in his honor.[3]

Personal life and education

Tilly was born in Lombard, Illinois (near Chicago). He graduated from Harvard University in 1950 with a Bachelor of Arts magna cum laude. He served in the US Navy as a paymaster of an amphibious squadron during the Korean War. Tilly completed his Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology at Harvard in 1958.[4]

While at Harvard, he was a student in the Department of Social Relations during the "Harvard revolution" in social network analysis.[5][6] According to Dr. Victor Lee Burke, one of Tilly's graduate students at the University of Michigan, Tilly stated that he was a teaching assistant to Pitirim Sorokin, who along with Talcott Parsons and George C. Homans was considered by many in the profession to be among the world's leading sociologists. According to Tilly, Sorokin was known to call him up in the wee small hours of the morning and say in a distinct Russian accent, "Mr. Tilly you have to teach my class today" and then hang up, leaving Tilly in a panic. Tilly dutifully taught the class without the slightest idea of what Sorokin intended for the day. Tilly also planned to have Sorokin chair his dissertation but every time Sorokin heard Tilly's ideas he would say something like "Very interesting Mr. Tilly but I do think Plato said it better."[7] Tilly failed his preliminary examination at Harvard because he forgot what time it was and never showed up. He eventually turned to Barrington Moore and George Homans to supervise his dissertation, but Tilly never failed to say that Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin was a great person even though Tilly eschewed any great person theory of history. Although Tilly rejected exchange theory, he considered Homans, one of exchange theory's creators, to be among the best writers in the history of sociology and he mentioned to the audience at the American Sociological Association where he accepted his Distinguished Scholarship Award (he always called it the Sorokin Award to his students its original name) that he wished that George Homans were alive so he could thank him.

Charles Tilly died in the Bronx on April 29, 2008, from lymphoma.[1] As he was fading in the hospital, he got one characteristic sentence out to early student Barry Wellman: "It's a complex situation."[8] In a statement after Tilly's death, Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger stated that Tilly "literally wrote the book on the contentious dynamics and the ethnographic foundations of political history".[9] Adam Ashforth of The University of Michigan described Tilly as "the founding father of 21st-century sociology".[1]

Charles Tilly was brother to Richard H. Tilly and the longtime husband of Louise A. Tilly although they were separated at the time of Charles' death. Both are distinguished historians.

Academic career

Charles Tilly taught at the University of Delaware, Harvard University, the University of Toronto, the University of Michigan, The New School, and Columbia University. At Michigan, Tilly was professor of history 1969–1984, professor of sociology 1969–1981, and the Theodore M. Newcomb Professor of Social Science 1981–1984. At Columbia, he was the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science, and along with Harrison White, Tilly played a key role in the emergence of the New York School of relational sociology. Over the course of his career, Tilly wrote more than 600 articles and 51 books and monographs.[9]

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Sociological Research Association and the Ordre des Palmes Academiques.[10]

Academic work

Tilly's academic work covered multiple topics in the social sciences and influenced scholarship in disciplines outside of sociology, including history and political science. He is considered a major figure in the development of historical sociology, the early use of quantitative methods in historical analysis, the methodology of event cataloging, the turn towards relational and social-network modes of inquiry, the development of process- and mechanism-based analysis, as well as the study of: contentious politics, social movements, the history of labor, state formation, revolutions, democratization, inequality, and urban sociology.

State formation

Examining political, social, and technological change in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present, Tilly attempted to explain the unprecedented success of the nation-state as the dominant polity-type on Earth in his 1990 book Coercion, Capital, and European States.[11]

Tilly focused his attention on Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire. During this period, state organization was mostly informal and the work of local lords who controlled relatively small areas. Peasants gave up revenue in order to benefit from the security and protection offered by a powerful local lord. Over time, these feudal lands consolidated and required bigger armies in order to offer protection from both internal and external threats. Larger armies proved more effective and subsequently, more money was needed to pay these armies. Feudal lands continued to develop and combine into larger kingdoms ruled by kings. Kings then demanded money in the form of taxes. To impose these taxes, they required a protocol for counting and enforcing collections, so they set up formal state institutions.

Tilly argues that states carry out the following four activities:

  1. war making: The act of eliminating rivals or potential external threats outside of its own territories.
  2. state making: The act of eliminating internal rival forces and insurgents from within its own territories.
  3. protection: The act of eliminating potential threats to their population.
  4. extraction: The act of securing the means to execute the previous three activities, such as the collection of taxes or revenue.

These four activities can take on a number of forms, and Tilly was interested in examining these activities through the lens of organized violence, claiming that these activities are analogous to protection rackets carried out by organized criminal organizations. This comprises a predatory theory of state-building.

Contentious politics

In opposition to individualistic, dispositional analyses of contentious politics, Tilly's work emphasizes how dynamics of social protest are tied to their political, social and economic context. Where previous studies of collective violence had argued their atypical nature, Tilly amassed a battery of evidence to show that they typically arise from the organization of normally non-violent political contentions.

Tilly's work has had considerable influence on the study of social movements. Ironically, Charles Tilly was initially reluctant to tackle social movements. "I avoided writing about social movements for about twenty years because I felt that the term had become swollen and imprecise," he said in a 2007 interview. "The phenomenon of the social movement looked to me like a historically specific form of politics parallel to the electoral campaign and the collective seizure of food, not a universal category of human action."[12]

The notion of locating the birth of the social movement in a specific time and place occurred to Tilly while he was writing his pathbreaking work on the transformation of British popular politics, Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758–1834.[13] In the process of collating and analyzing the 8,088 contentious gatherings (CGs) that form the basis of the book, Tilly noticed that one momentous change in how ordinary people made collective claims on public authorities turned out to be the invention of what we now call the social movement. "I couldn't help seeing that in Britain, at least, social movements didn't exist in the mid-18th century but had become a dominant form of popular politics by the 1830s. That started me writing about the history of social movements, first in Western Europe, then finally across the world as a whole."[12]

Instead of defining all forms of social protest as social movements, Tilly uses a narrower definition. Conceptually, he argues that social movements share some elements with other forms of political contention such as coups, electoral campaigns, strikes, revolutions, and interest-group politics, but have their own distinct characteristics. He argues that the social movement developed in the West after 1750 and spread throughout the world through colonialism, trade and migration. Local populations are more likely to experiment with the social movement with democratization, and when successful, are more likely to incorporate it into their political struggles.

Tilly argues that social movements combine:

  1. A sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target audiences: let us call it a campaign;
  2. Employment of combinations from among the following forms of political action: creation of special purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering; call the variable ensemble of performances the social-movement repertoire. and
  3. Participants' concerted public representations of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment (WUNC) on the part of themselves and/or their constituencies: call them WUNC displays.[14] A campaign always links at least three parties: a group of claimants, some object(s) of claims, and a public of some kind. Social movement repertoires are the context-specific, standard operating procedures of social movements, such as: public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, special-purpose associations and coalitions, demonstrations, petition drives, and pamphleteering. As for WUNC displays, Tilly writes, "The term WUNC sounds odd, but it represents something quite familiar."[15] Social movements' displays of worthiness may include sober demeanor and the presence of clergy and mothers with children; unity is signaled by matching banners, singing and chanting; numbers are broadcast via signatures on petitions and filling streets; and commitment is advertised by braving bad weather, ostentatious sacrifice, and/or visible participation by the old and handicapped. WUNC matters because it conveys crucial political messages to a social movement's targets and the relevant public.

Tilly distinguishes between three sorts of claims advanced by social movements:

  1. Identity claims declare that "we"—the claimants—constitute a unified force to be reckoned with. Such claims commonly include a name for "us," such as "Cherokees," "Diamond Cutters," or "Citizens United against X."
  2. Standing claims assert ties and similarities to other political actors, for example as excluded minorities, established traders, properly constituted citizens' groups, or loyal supporters of the regime.
  3. Program claims involve stated support for or opposition to actual or proposed actions by the objects of movement claims. The relative salience of identity, standing, and program claims varies significantly among social movements, among claimants within movements, and among phases of movements.[16] Tilly locates the origin of social movement repertoires in the national regime within which they operate. Defining regimes as the degree of governmental capacity and democracy within a given polity, Tilly argues that contentious repertoires are shaped by regimes in three ways: regimes control claim-making repertoires—determining zones of prescribed, tolerated, and forbidden repertoires; regimes constitute potential claimants and potential objects of claims; and regimes produce streams of issues, events, and governmental actions around which social movements rise and fall.[17]

Tilly also argues that there exists a complex relationship between social movements and democratization. Democratization promotes the formation of social movements, but by no means do all social movements advocate or promote democracy. The distinction is crucial. Tilly cautioned against the illusion that social movements themselves promote democracy by analytically separating movement claims from movement consequences. A pro-democracy movement may lead to anti-democratic consequences, he argued; an example would be liberals or neoliberals ultimately promoting the fragmentation of democracy-seeking coalitions. Conversely, an anti-democracy movement may promote democratic outcomes by stimulating democratic counter-action by other citizens or self-serving countermeasures by public officials; an example would be unsuccessful anti-immigrant movements.

However, democratization always promotes the formation of social movements because each of its elements contributes to social movement activity. Democratization's formation of more regular and categorical relations between governments and subjects renders the making of rights-based claims feasible, visible, and attractive. The broadening of rights and obligations within public politics promotes participation in campaigns, social movement performances, and WUNC displays. The equalization of rights and obligations within public politics strengthens cross-category coalitions and the assertion of new identities. And increases in binding consultation of subjects with regard to government policy hold out the prospect of movements acquiring some say in governmental decision making.

In sum, social movements thrive on the secure rights of assembly, association, and collective voice granted by democracy.

Urban sociology

In the 1960s and 1970s, Tilly studied migration to cities, and was an influential theorist about urban phenomena and treating communities as social networks.[8] In 1968 Tilly presented his report on European collective violence to the Eisenhower Commission, a body formed under the Johnson administration to assess urban unrest amidst the Civil Rights Movement. The report was included in Vol. 1 of Violence in America, a collection edited by scholars on the staff of the commission.[18] As informed by his studies of contentious politics in 19th-century Europe, and the present violence in the U.S., his interest in cities and communities became closely linked with his passion for the study of both social movements and collective violence.[19]


Tilly received several awards including the Common Wealth Award in sociology in 1982, the Amalfi Prize for Sociology and Social Sciences in 1994, the Eastern Sociological Society's Merit Award for Distinguished Scholarship in 1996, the American Sociological Association's Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award in 2005, the International Political Science Association's Karl Deutsch Award in Comparative Politics in 2006, the Phi Beta Kappa Sidney Hook Memorial Award in 2006 and the Social Science Research Council's Albert O. Hirschman Award in 2008. He also received honorary doctorates from Erasmus University of Rotterdam in 1983, the Institut d'Etudes Politiques of University of Paris in 1993, the University of Toronto in 1995, the University of Strasbourg in 1996, the University of Geneva in 1999, the University of Crete in 2002, the University of Quebec at Montreal in 2004 and the University of Michigan in 2007.[10] In 2001, Columbia's sociology graduate students named Tilly the Professor of the Year.

After his passing, the Social Science Research Council hosted a 2008 conference, co-sponsored with Columbia University and the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, in his honor: "A Celebration of the Life and Works of Charles Tilly"[20][21] At this conference the SSRC announced the Charles Tilly and Louise Tilly Fund for Social Science History.[22] The conference had presentations from notable sociologists including: Craig Calhoun, Harrison White, Doug McAdam, Immanuel Wallerstein, William Sewell, Jack Goldstone, Sidney Tarrow, Barry Wellman and Viviana Zelizer.

A 2010 special issue of Social Science History was dedicated to (the work of) Charles Tilly,[23] as was a 2010 special issue of The American Sociologist.[24] The latter was edited by Andreas Koller, and included contributions by George Steinmetz, Neil Gross, Jack A. Goldstone, Kim Voss, Rogers Brubaker, Mustafa Emirbayer, and Viviana Zelizer. In 2010, the journal Theory and Society also published a special issue on "Cities, States, Trust, and Rule" dedicated to the work of Tilly.[25]

See also

Partial bibliography

  • The Vendée: A Sociological Analysis of the Counter-revolution of 1793. (1964)
  • "Collective Violence in European Perspective." Pp. 4–45 in Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. A report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Volume 1. Eds. Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr. (1969)
  • "Clio and Minerva." Pp. 433–66 in Theoretical Sociology, eds. John McKinney and Edward Tiryakian. (1970)
  • "Do Communities Act?" Sociological Inquiry 43: 209–40. (1973)
  • An Urban World. (ed.) (1974).
  • The Formation of National States in Western Europe (ed.) (1975)
  • From Mobilization to Revolution (1978)
  • As Sociology Meets History (1981)
  • Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (1984)
  • War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, In Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter Evans, et al., 169–87. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985, PDF Online
  • The Contentious French (1986)
  • Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990 (1990)
  • Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992 (1992)
  • European Revolutions, 1492–1992 (1993)
  • Cities and the Rise of States in Europe, A.D. 1000 to 1800 (1994)
  • Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758–1834 (1995)
  • Roads from Past to Future (1997)
  • Work Under Capitalism (with Chris Tilly, 1998)
  • Durable Inequality (1998)
  • Transforming Post-Communist Political Economies (1998)
  • Dynamics of Contention (with Doug McAdam and Sidney Tarrow) (2001)
  • The Politics of Collective Violence (2003)
  • Contention & Democracy in Europe, 1650–2000 (2004)
  • Social Movements, 1768–2004 (2004)
  • From Contentions to Democracy (2005)
  • Identities, Boundaries, and Social Ties (2005)
  • Trust and Rule (2005)
  • Why? (2006)
  • Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis (2006)
  • Contentious Politics (with Sidney Tarrow) (2006)
  • Regimes and Repertoires (2006)
  • Democracy (2007)
  • Credit and Blame (2008)
  • Contentious Performances (2008)
  • Social Movements, 1768–2008, 2nd edition (with Lesley Wood, 2009)


  1. Martin, Douglas (May 2, 2008). "Charles Tilly, 78, Writer and a Social Scientist, Is Dead". New York Times. Retrieved March 3, 2013.
  2. "Paid Notice: Deaths – Tilly, Charles". Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  3. "Tributes to Charles Tilly -- Memorials to Credit & Blame » Annotated Links to Charles Tilly Resources". Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  4. Martin, Douglas. "Charles Tilly, 78, Writer and a Social Scientist, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved February 8, 2016.
  5. "Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University - ILAS Tribute - Charles Tilly". Archived from the original on July 26, 2014. Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  6. Derman, J. (2012). Max Weber in Politics and Social Thought: From Charisma to Canonization. Cambridge University Press. p. 225. ISBN 9781139577076. Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  7. as recounted in his Big Structures, Large Systems, Huge Comparisons
  8. Barry Wellman (May 1, 2008). "Chuck Tilly, the urbanist". SOCNET Archives. Retrieved June 22, 2014.
  9. Bollinger, Lee C. (April 29, 2008). "President Bollinger's Statement on the Passing of Professor Charles Tilly". Columbia University. Retrieved June 22, 2014.
  10. ISERP. "Charles Tilly Remembered". Archived from the original on October 5, 2008. (Archived 29 April 2008 press release from ISERP, Columbia University.)
  11. Tilly, Charles (1990). Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990. Cambridge, Mass., USA: B. Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-55786-368-3.
  12. Charles Tilly Interview, BlauExchange, retrieved on September 28, 2012
  13. Tilly, Charles (2004). Social Movements, 1768–2004. Boulder, Colorado, USA: Paradigm Publishers. p. 53. ISBN 978-1-59451-043-4.
  14. Tilly, Charles (2004). Social Movements, 1768–2004. Boulder, Colorado, USA: Paradigm Publishers. p. 54. ISBN 978-1-59451-043-4.
  15. Tilly, Charles (2004). Social Movements, 1768–2004. Boulder, Colorado, USA: Paradigm Publishers. p. 184. ISBN 978-1-59451-043-4.
  16. Tilly, Charles (September 15, 2006). Regimes and Repertoires. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-80350-0.
  17. Tilly, Charles. 1969. "Collective Violence in European Perspective." Pp. 4–45 in Violence in America, edited by Hugh Graham and Tedd Gurr. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office
  18. Tilly, Charles. 1988. "Misreading, then Rereading, Nineteenth-Century Social Change." Pp. 332–58 in Social Structures: A Network Approach, edited by Barry Wellman and SD Berkowitz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  19. "SSRC » Albert O. Hirschman Prize » Award Ceremonies". Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  20. "Contention, Change, and Explanation: A Conference in Honor of Charles Tilly". Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  21. "Tilly Fund for Social Science History — Fellowships & Grants — Social Science Research Council". Archived from the original on July 25, 2014. Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  22. Social Science History Volume 34, Number 3, Fall 2010
  23. The American Sociologist. 41 (4). December 2010. JSTOR i40044197. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  24. "Theory and Society, Volume 39, Issue 3 - Springer". Retrieved June 23, 2015.

Further reading

  • Gentile, Antonina, and Sidney Tarrow. "Charles Tilly, globalization, and labor's citizen rights." European Political Science Review 1#3 (2009): 465-493.
  • Hunt, Lynn. "Charles Tilly's Collective Action." in Theda Skocpol and Daniel Chirot, eds. Vision and method in historical sociology (1984): 244+.
  • Kaspersen, Lars Bo and Jeppe Strandsbjerg (eds.). Does War Make States? Investigations of Charles Tilly's Historical Sociology New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Krinsky, John, and Ann Mische. "Formations and formalisms: Charles Tilly and the paradox of the actor." Annual Review of Sociology 39 (2013): 1-26.
  • Tarrow, Sidney. "The people's two rhythms: Charles Tilly and the study of contentious politics. A review article." Comparative Studies in society and History 38#3 (1996): 586-600.
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