America's most prolific and interesting sociologist is unknown in Britain, which shows how far the discipline has faded here. Tilly offers insights on everything from riots to the persistence of inequalityby Geoff Mulgan / September 25, 2005 / Leave a comment
Why are women paid less than men? Why were there riots in some northwestern English cities in 2000 but not in London? What is the significance of bloggers, or of the World Social Forum? One of the strange features of our times is that well-educated people can get by with very little idea of how to answer questions like these. Over the last few decades, we have witnessed great progress in the public’s level of scientific understanding, thanks to many brilliant expositors. In history, too, some of the most original minds are also first rate communicators. Much of economics has permeated into common sense, particularly of decision-makers around the world. But sociology has faded from view. Its heyday a generation ago feels like another era. As a result, many people rely on very simple interpretive frameworks to make sense of what they see around them or on the evening news. So conflicts between Muslims and Christians are attributed to culture or history. Gender pay gaps are seen as the result of misogyny. The internet is ascribed with magical powers to turn the tables on multinational corporations or governments.
Some of the reasons for sociology’s retreat from public awareness lie in the discipline itself, which took a turn towards abstract theory in the 1970s and away from observation, description and detailed historical analysis. Some of the reasons lie in the shape of professional careers which enabled sociologists to progress without having to do primary observation. Within sociology very good work is continuing to be done, and sense is being made of complex issues. But little of it is penetrating the public consciousness.
Charles Tilly is probably the outstanding contemporary exponent of an engaged but theoretically rigorous sociology. It is a symptom of sociology’s relative detachment that he remains largely unknown outside academic circles in Britain, even though he is by some margin the most fertile thinker in the American social sciences, covering topics as diverse as the rise of the state in 18th-century Europe to racial inequality, political violence to the conditions for democracy in central Asia. In some ways he is old fashioned—he offers explanations and shows how some things cause other things to happen. His accounts contain real people, history and drama, and have lessons for how change might be achieved more successfully.
Like all the best sociologists, his work starts with close observation. A good example is…