Friday, May 2, 2008

CHARLES TILLY'S FLIGHT

Charles Tilly, one of the great social scientists of the last half century, died on Tuesday at the age of 78. I only met Tilly once and it was a perfunctory greeting. But I have long admired Tilly as a model for the type of interdisciplinary, engaged social science that I attempt to practice. Thinking about Tilly and his scholarship led me this morning to turn to the work of Yale political theorist Ian Shapiro (who, to the best of my knowledge, has not written a word on Tilly.)

A few years ago, Shapiro offered a spot-on denunciation of current academic fashions across the social sciences and humanities. “In discipline after discipline, the flight from reality has been so complete that the academics have all but lost sight of what they claim is their object of study. This goes for the quantitative and formally oriented social sciences that are primarily geared toward causal explanation. Following economics, they have modeled themselves on physics—or at any rate on a stylized version of what is often said to go on in physics. But it also goes for many of the more interpretive endeavors that have been influenced by fashions in the humanities—particularly the linguistic turn in philosophy and developments in literary hermeneutics.”

Shapiro offers a multicausal explanation for these parlous developments, among them the “ebb and flow of academic fashion” and “the incentives for advancement in an era of exhausted paradigms and extensive specialization.” And perhaps more importantly, he argues: “Some are political in the broadest sense, having to do with the relations between disengaged human sciences and the reproduction of the social and political order. The flight from reality is not without consequences for reality…At best it marginalizes the potential effects of political and social criticism, and sometimes it contributes to the maintenance of oppressive social relations—however unwittingly.”

He offers a number of illuminating examples to illustrate these trends, among them the rise of a narrow behaviorism in political science, historians’ conception of “society as text,” the poisonous spread of rational choice theory outward from economics to political science and sociology, and the application of abstract notions of efficiency to jurisprudence (aka law and economics). Were I to have written Shapiro’s book, I might have added the turn toward biology and neuroscience in economics, sociology, and history, another manifestation of social scientists’ search for gross theories that simplify and in the process distort, one that extends from the social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century to the sociobiologists and scientific racists enjoying such a revival today. I might have also added the phenomenon that one of my colleagues, one of the most important political historians of his generation, calls the rise of “post-empirical” history, characterized by little original research, theoretical turf-marking (usually through superficial evocations of the work of literary, cultural, or political theorists), and sweeping claim-making that usually bears little relationship to the material at hand. Much of this work postures as political but, more often than not, leaves oppressive social relations unscathed either through obscurantist prose, excessive individualism, or an obliviousness to the mechanisms that institutionalize and replicated unequal power relationships.

This leads me at last to the late Professor Tilly, a scholar who flew head-on into reality, not away from it. There was nothing trivial in the kinds of questions that Tilly asked or the answers that he provided. Tilly was not at all allergic to theory. But for him theory grew out of rigorous research, rather than becoming a container into which he crammed a distorted version of reality. Tilly made grand generalizations that could—and should--be tested. And he tested them himself, using manuscript censuses, economic data, national and local archives, letters, and diaries. His work had a geographical scope and reach that many scholars today advocate, but few practice. He explored states and revolutions, the relationship of military power to the rise of taxation, and the role of systematic violence in fostering inequality. His work spanned the centuries, touching on medieval, early modern and modern history. He wrote knowledgeably about revolutionary France, early modern England, South Africa, and twentieth-century urban America. His topics spanned gender, race, immigration and migration, labor, economics, military history, and poverty.

One of his most important books, Durable Inequality, hinges on two concepts to explain the reality of asymmetrical political and economic relationships. The first is one of the oldest in the social sciences, even though it has fallen out of fashion in much work today. That is exploitation. The other, one of Tilly’s richest and most brilliant formulations, is “opportunity hoarding, which operates when members of a categorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that is valuable, renewable, subject to monopoly, supportive of network activities, and enhanced by the network’s modus operandi.” Tilly’s concept of opportunity hoarding allows for a sophisticated insight into intergroup dynamics; race, ethnicity, and identity; and nation-building. It allows for an examination of the ways that boundaries and politicized space (whether it be national borders or municipal and school district zones) create and reinforce inequality. Above all, Tilly’s work offers a mechanism for those who wish to combine studies of identity and interest, two subjects that, at least in history, are seldom combined.

One of Tilly’s major research projects was the study of “contentious politics,” social movements, revolutions, riots, and collective violence. His work is also, in the very best sense of the term, contentious. In his dozens of books and hundreds of articles, Tilly did not shy away from debate and provocation. He knew that social science and history had consequences for reality. May Charles Tilly rest in peace and may the rest of us, in his spirit, continue contending.

Footnote: Crooked Timber's post on Tilly is worth reading; even more so the comments that follow.

5 comments:

MSS said...

Shapiro on quant political scientists: "Following economics, they have modeled themselves on physics."

Ha! Ask an actual physicist-turned-political scientist.

Back to the main topic, in less than six months, we have lost Lipset and now Tilly. Those are significant losses.

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