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Introductory Essay to Charles Tilly’s Writings on Methodology

Under the direction of Johann Peter Murmann

While Charles Tilly may be best known for his research of large scale social change and collective action in European history, he has also written extensively on research methodology. Over the years, roughly a quarter of his publications have concerned method, ranging from specific techniques to general considerations of logic, epistemology, and ontology. In his early methodological writings, Tilly spoke especially to social historians, urging them to embrace quantitative (formal) methods in historical analysis (Tilly 1972). Later, Tilly’s methodological writings focused more on the ontology of macro social change. In assembling a website of Tilly’s methodological contributions, our primary goal is to provide a convenient source where scholars can become acquainted with his methodological views on social research.


User Guide

The purpose of this website is to make Charles Tilly’s methodological writings more readily available. It features all of Tilly's writings over last four decades that are primarily concerned with methodology. Each article is accompanied by a short summary, and is classified into one or more categories (Social History, Methodology, and Ontology). Some articles are identified further with topical keyword(s). The articles are listed in reverse chronological order. To view a copy of the article click the Adobe PDF icon to the left of the article’s title.


History of and in Sociology

Historical Sociology

The article compares Pitirim Sorokin’s, George Homans’s, and Barrington Moore Jr.’s views of historical sociology. Sorokin favored what Tilly calls “Epochal Synthesis” in which a researcher crafts a grand historical scheme and then uses historical material to detect stages within that scheme. In Homans’ work, categorized as “Retrospective Ethnography”, a researcher attempts to explain historical events by reconstructing the participants’ state of consciousness. Lastly, Moore’s research falls under the category of “Critical Comparison” which favors a process-based account of historical events.

Three Visions of History and Theory

Historical Sociology

The article contrasts three current perspectives of how sociology and history interact.. In the “practical sense” perspective, exemplified by Burke’s History and Social Theory (2005), history is envisioned as the repository of human richness and theory as a set of tools that can be used to arrange this richness. In the “cultural phenomenological” perspective, exemplified by Adams et al.’s Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology (2005), cultural consciousness of the individual is the core component of social life, thus proponents of this perspective argue that sociological analysis should be primarily interpretive. The systematic constructivism perspective, exemplified by Tilly’s recent edited volume (with R. Goodin) The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis (2006), accepts the world as socially constructed but argues that much can still be learned through systematic observation.

Philosophies of History and Social Science

Historical Sociology

The article critically reviews William Sewell Jr.’s “Logics of History. Social Theory and Social Transformation” and Arthur Stinchcombe’s “The Logic of Social Research”. Tilly contends that Sewell’s book focuses exclusively on the relationship between history and social science, while Stinchcombe’s book, which emphasizes theories of causation in social life, appears to abstract from historical context.

Why and How History Matters

Social History, Political Contention

The article argues that all political analysis requires serious consideration of the historical context. Tilly outlines several reasons why history matters to political analysis: (a) political analysis makes assumptions about historical origins of phenomenon and time-place scope conditions; (b) some features of political processes occur outside the observation of human participants and thus require historical reconstruction; (c) political processes incorporate local cultures which are historical determined; (d) political processes are influenced by external factors (i.e. neighboring countries) that change over time; (e) and path dependency strongly influences political processes.

It Depends

The article introduces the main topics covered in Tilly’s edited volume (with R. Goodin), The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis. The primary objective of the volume is to demonstrate that acquiring systematic political knowledge requires analysts to get context “right”. The authors distinguish between three classes of contextual effects that impact the study of political processes: (1) the level of an analysts’ understanding of the political processes they are attempting to study, (2) the nature of evidence available for the empirical examination of specific political processes, and (3) the nature and context of the political processes themselves. Additionally, the authors review alternative approaches to political analysis, discuss the necessity of explanatory stories in political analysis, and detail the strategies used by current political science researchers to either control or correct for context.

Afterword: Political Ethnography as Art and Science

Political Contention

The article briefly summarizes the benefits of using political ethnography over conventional social scientific methods. The primary benefits of this method are the researcher’s ability to closely observe social processes and develop more comprehensive insights. This benefit is critical to readers who, like Tilly, believe “how things happen is why they happen”.

Repression, Mobilization, and Explanation

Social Mechanisms

The article argues that scholars who study mutual relations between repression and mobilization should focus on the classification of episodes into recurrent processes and invariant mechanisms and move away from trying to identify covering laws.

Social Boundary Mechanisms

Political Contention

The article proposes a set of mechanisms that precipitate and constitute social boundary change. Tilly defines social boundary change as the "contiguous zone of contrasting density, rapid transition, or separation between internally connected clusters of population or activity". Mechanisms that cause boundary change are identified as: Encounter, Imposition, Borrowing, Conversation and Incentive shift. Mechanisms that occur as part of boundary change are identified as: Inscription-Erasure, Activation-Deactivation, Site transfer. and Relocation. The result of a combination these two types of mechanisms, Tilly argues, is frequently either a coordinated attack or a coordinated defense.

Lullabies, Chorales, and Hurdy-Gurdy Tune

Historical Sociology

The article reviews the methodological choices historical sociologists confront when they do their research. Tilly organizes these choices into five categories: genre, ontology, explanatory logic, mechanisms, and practical procedures. The article describes what these categories entail in some detail and concludes with a set of prescriptions for researchers doing historical investigation.

Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists

Political Contention

The article addresses the use of terminology surrounding the phenomenon of terrorism. He defines terror as "the asymetric deployment of threats and violence against enemies using means that fall outside the forms of political struggle routinely operating within some current regime". He argues that social scentists attempting to analyze the phenomenon of terror should not view terrorists as a distinct class of actors, terror as unitary form of political action, nor terrorism as a distinct variety of politics. Instead, Tilly argues, terrorism should be viewed as a strategy implemented by a variety of actors in different political situations. Tilly then proposes a two dimensional typology of terror-wielding groups. The first dimension differentiates between violence specialists and nonspecialists. The second dimension differentiates between groups that operate within their home territory and those that operate outside of their home territory. This typology, Tilly argues, should help reduce the conflation of different types of terrorism, and help social scientists exhibit some degree of causal coherence to analysis in this area.

Observations of Social Processes and their Formal Representations

Formal Methods

The article outlines the advantages of formalisms, defined as the "explicit representation of a set of elements and of relations among them", in historical research. Formalisms, he writes, help researchers discipline their research inquiries from the outset and make it easier to discover alternative explanations. The less frequent use of formalisms in historical research, he argues, results from historians’ confusion of formalisms with quantitative research. The quantitative/qualitative distinction, according to Tilly, is harmful to social science because it misrepresents the choice of using or avoiding formalisms with the transformation and representation of historical evidence. While all social scientists should use formalisms to guide their research, narratives are necessary for the presentation of certain types of research.

Rhetoric, Social History, and Contentious Politics: Reply to Critics

Political Contention, Social Mechanisms

The article advocates the continued efforts within the historical study of contentious politics to identify the robust mechanisms that appear in a wide variety of contentious episodes which will help to explain important similarities and differences among them.

Why Read the Classics?

Social Scientific Knowledge

The article describes how sociological classics positively influence current research. Tilly’s primary argument is that the classics provide “sources of justification” for contemporary arguments. The classics also commit researchers towards the cumulative goal of answering important questions, and identify the theoretical conversations in which researchers are engaged.

Sociological Resources for the Study of International Relations

The article identifies areas of sociological analysis that can benefit current research in the field of International Relations. The areas identified are:

State formation
War and revolution
World Systems
Boundaries, identities, and related social processes
Contentious politics

Event Catalogs as Theories

Formal Methods

The article describes one of Tilly’s favorite formal methodologies, the event catalog. The benefit of using event catalogs, defined as a set of descriptions of multiple social interactions collected from a delimited number of sources using a uniform procedure, is that it focuses the researchers attention on three critical methodological questions: (1) how phenomena leave traces, (2) how phenomena can be observed, and (3) how traces of phenomena can be used to reconstruct attributes and elements.

Historical Analysis of Political Processes

Historical Sociology, Political Contention, Social Mechanisms

The article urges sociologists to renew their search for robust causal mechanisms and processes in history. It then outlines an analytical program that includes goals such as pursuing robust mechanisms and processes that make up large social phenomena, explaining puzzling features in historical episodes, explaining puzzling features of whole classes of historical episodes, and detecting analogies among ostensibly dissimilar episodes.

Historical Sociology

Historical Sociology

The article provides an overview of the subfield of Historical Sociology which he parses into four intellectual pursuits. The first pursuit is social criticism which aims to reconstruct of the past on the way to informing human choices in the present and future. The second pursuit, pattern identification, aims to discover the necessary and sufficient conditions for large recurrent social transformations. The third pursuit is scope extension which aims to either apply techniques or models of current life to historical situations, or use historical evidence to challenge contemporary sociological thought. The fourth pursuit, process analysis, aims to examine how social interactions impinge on each other in time and space, where time and space are considered defining causes of social processes, rather than simply additional variables.

Mechanisms in Political Processes

Social Mechanisms

The article defines his ontological view of the social world as a set of bounded episodes that are made up of a complex array of small recurrent social processes. He terms this the mechanism-view of the explanation of political processes where the main goal is the identification of robust mechanisms (a delimited class of events that change relations among elements) that exist within processes (frequently occurring combinations or sequences of mechanisms) that make up episodes (bounded streams of social life). Thus, social scientific explanations should focus on the smaller processes and not the larger episodes (i.e Big Case Comparison).

Iron City Blues

Social Mechanisms

Tilly reviews "Fundamentalism, Sectarianism, and Revolution: the Jacobin Dimension of Modernity" by S.N. Eisenstadt. Tilly argues that research proposing to make civilizations and societies major actors within human history must indentify (1) the boundaries separating each unit and it population from other units, (2) the distinctive culture of each unit which operate within and throughout the boundaries of the society, and (3) the self-regulating processes within these boundaries.

Errors, Durable and Otherwise


The article contrasts the difference between strong and weak functionalist arguments. Strong functionalist arguments explain social phenomenon by their consequences for the system in which they occupy, whereas weak functionalist arguments claim that actors pursue certain ends by trying different means and adopt them to accomplish those ends or to reinforce the arrangements that keep the pursuit of those ends possible.

Jumbo Speaks

Historical Knowledge

Tilly reviews “The Sociology of Philosophies” by Randall Collins, an analysis of the formation philosophical thought over humanity’s entire literate history. Tilly cites methodological issues with Collins’ analysis (i.e. data selectivity issues, lack of economy in the presentation of data) and questions the plausibility and relevance of the analysis.

The Trouble with Stories

Social Scientific Knowledge

The article suggests that sociology's strongest insights do not take the form of standard stories - sequential, explanatory accounts of self-motivated human action - which are common in historical analysis. This is due to the limits of storytelling including: (1) its limited number of interacting characters, (2) its constraints on analysis within a specific time and space, (3) its requirement of independent and conscious actions, and (4) its requirement that all actions, with the exception of externally generated accidents, result from previous actions by the characters.

A Grand Tour of Exotic Landes

Social History

The article reviews historian David Landes' sweeping comparison of successes and failures in economic growth, arguing against its long-term cultural determinism.

Wise Quacks

Social Mechanisms

The article advises social movement researchers to (1) define their work not as an explanation of social movements but as an explanation of contentious politics, (2) interrogate categories for variability within them, (3) search for causal mechanisms instead of universal patterns, and (4) recognize that the results of this type of research will provide a transferable explanation of significant elements within the complex events.

Micro, Macro, or Megrim?

Social Networks

The article outlines the four main ontologies that social scientists have applied to social life. Phenomenological individualism which is the doctrine that individual consciousness is the primary or exclusive site of social life, methodological individualism which is the doctrine that assumes human individuals are the basic unit of social reality but models them within consciousness (economic historians), holism which is the doctrine that social structures have their own self-sustaining logics, and relational realism which is the doctrine that interactions and social ties constitute the central existance of social life. Tilly writes that relational realism is best equipped to overcoming the micro/macro gap in analysis because relationships simultaneously form organizational structures and shape individual behavior.

Means and Ends of Comparison in Macrosociology

Invariant Modeling

The article suggests that Big Case Comparison research is disappearing from the social sciences due to the difficulties expressed by John Stuart Mill, often credited with formulating the comparison method, who actually questioned the method of agreement/disagreement pertaining to human affairs.

James S. Coleman as a Guide to Social Research

The article argues that the program for social science outlined by James S. Coleman is misguided because it neglects to specify causal mechanisms, it promotes incomplete psychological reductionism, and advocates rational choice analysis which is ill equipped to explain many social processes.

What Good is Urban History?

Urban History

The article suggests that cties are an excellent natural laboratory in which to study the mechanisms which are tied to important macro processes such as social inequality. He urges urban historians to recognize this opportunity and ask the "big" questions in their research.

Macrosociology Past and Future

Invariant Modeling

The article suggests that "Big Case Comparison" research in macrosociology is ontologically inadequate due to the a priori assumption that macro events are distinctive and coherent units of analysis (misplaced concreteness). Further, it has lost its appeal due to the disintegration of autonomous states/societies/cultures. This has led to a movement towards adopting of an ontology of relational realism (i.e. network perspective).

To Explain Political Processes

Invariant Modeling, Political Contention, Social Mechanisms

The article critiques the method of invariant modeling of macro social processes. He claims that this practice leads researchers to focus on "improving the model" as opposed to understanding that the regularities between macrosociological processes do not operate in the form of recurrent structures and processes. Thus, the construction of invariant models of political revolution is a waste of time and the poor fit accounts for the slow accumulation of knowledge.

As an alternative to invariant modeling Tilly recommends the mechanism approach which consists of the following steps: (1) construct valid ontologies, (2) clearly specify the variation within the field, (3) break complex sequences into smaller events, and (4) form contingent predictions (i.e. "insofar as…") instead of attempting to form invariant general laws.

History and Sociological Imagining

Invariant Modeling

The article argues that one of the primary problems with invariant modeling in sociology is the assumption of monadism, that elementary units of social life are self contained monands that aggregate up to form society, that the social world consists of structures and processes that monands repeat in essentially the same manner, and that the central task of social science is to create and perfect invariant models of these processes.

Softcore Solipsism

Historical Knowledge

The article critiques two books on 19th century English history of class formation discussing their focus on radical individualism, and categorizing them as works of "softcore solipsism". The philosophical doctrine of (hardcore) solipsism denies the possibility of knowledge beyong that of ones own experience. Softcore solipsism is based on the belief that the only significant historical events consists of mental states, and the doubt that intersubjective statements of social life are verifyable. This philosophical doctrine can be overcome by adopting a relational realism ontology (i.e. social network perspective).

How (and What) Are Historians Doing?

Historical Method

The article compares history to other disciplines and outlines some of the major philosophical debates surrounding historical research.

History stands out from other disciplines due to its: (1) insistence on time and place as fundamental principles of variation; (2) specialization according to time and place; (3) questions rooted in national politics; (4) interpenetration of professional and amateur efforts; (5) heavy reliance on documentary evidence; (6) emphasis on practices that involve identification of crucial actors and their motivations, the verification of this with documentary evidence, and the presentation of it in narrative form.

The major philosophical choices facing historians include (1) whether the most important phenomena to study are large social processes or individual experiences; (2) whether research should be centered on the systematic observation of human action or the interpretation of individual motives and meanings; (3) whether history and social sciences are the same or distinct fields of research; (4) whether historical writing should stress explanation or narrative.

History, Sociology and Dutch Collective Action

Historical Sociology

The article observes that the study of collective action is split in the social sciences and history between three factions: those that take the coherent society as the starting point of analysis, those who treat the individual as the fundamental social unit, and those that begin with social relations and derive individual and complex social structures from them. Tilly, a majority of whose work resides in the third category, utilizes a concept called "repertoires of collective action" in which forms of collective action are assumed to vary as a function of surrounding social structure and history, while the actors enmeshed in these struggles are depicted as repeatedly employing an extremely limited set of routines.

Misreading, Then Re-Reading, Nineteenth-Century Social Change

European History

The article argues that many of the sociological models of modernization in Europe in the 19th century are misleading due to their depiction of the past world as overly immobile, fragmented, agrarian, rural, but locally homogenous and integrated. Tilly offers the alternative view that social changes of this era and location are best observed as the interaction between the macro-processes of the growth of nation-states and expansion of capitalism.

Future History

Historical Sociology

The article expresses an argument for sociology, as a field, to return to its historical roots in which social interaction and processes are properly rooted in time and space. This important because, as Tilly points out, social processes are inherently path-dependent whereby "every existing structure stands in the place of many theoretically possible alternative structures, and its very existance affects the probabilities that the alternatives will ever come to being."

Formalization and Quantification in Historical Analysis

Formal Methods, Labor History

The article argues that formal methods will remain on the periphery of the field historical research until the major questions of the field change to ones that can be properly addressed by explicit models, system variation, or the comparison of many cases. This is because quantification is useful in historical analysis as a function of (1) the complexity of the explanatory model, (2) the intrinsic quantifiability of the phenomenon to be explained, (3) the importance of variation to the argument, and (4) the number of units observed.

GBS + GCL = ?

Political Contention

The article proposes a study which looks at how the development of capitalism and power concentration affects how ordinary people contend for their interests. Drawing from the findings of two previous studies, the Great Britain Study (GBS) and the Geography of Contention in London (GCL), this proposal utilizes a two-prong methodological approach of (1) searching for regularities and connections within a particular historical setting and (2) following the similarities and differences between collective-action experiences that occur within different levels of capitalism and state making. This method, Tilly argues, allows the researchers to address the central phenomena systematically without losing sight of its complexity.

The Analysis of Popular Collective Action

Political Contention

The article critiques unitary actor models of popular collective action, claiming that collective action is largely a strategic interaction among several parties and follows a dynamic that no single-actor model can represent. Utilizing a brief analysis of the rural conflicts of 1830 in England, this critique is illustrated and an alternative approach is offered which centers on the analysis of "repertoires of contention".

Linkers, Diggers, and Glossers in Social History

The article describes how the field of social history is composed of three types of researchers:

Linkers: those who look to compare social processes and mechanisms.
Diggers: those who view history as a base where vital information about national politics can be found.
Glossers: those who use an anthropological viewpoint in which to recreate significant past actions in terms of meanings that they had for those actors.

The Tyranny of Here and Now

Historical Sociology

The article contends that sociological findings are oriented to a single time and place: Here and Now. To escape the tyranny of this boundary condition, sociologists focus on structures and processes that minimize constraints of time and place. Therefore, sociologists insist on explicit conceptualization, hypothesis testing, and elaboratative formalizations in their arguments and worry more about modeling, measurement and estimation than social historians. In reviewing William H. Sewell Jr.'s "Structure and Mobility: The Men and Women of Marseille, 1820-1870" (1985), Tilly critiques Sewell's attempt to mesh the two fields of study, categorized under the subfield of Historical Sociology. Tilly remarks that Historical Sociology should not be a straightforward absorption of historical analyses into sociological models; it is not worth the effort.

Retrieving European Lives

European History, Formal Methods

The article argues that the central activity for the study of European social history is reconstructing ordinary people's experience of large structural changes. Formal methods for this task such as collective biographies have the disadvantage of missing critical elements of movements and being enormously time consuming, but also provide extremely precise information that can be used to do close comparisons. In theory, these methods allow the researcher the ability to retain the idiosyncrasy of personal experience while identifying uniformities and variations across many personal experiences.

Neat Analyses of Untidy Processes

Labor History, Formal Methods

The article speculates about the impact of formal methods (e.g. collective biography) on the study of labor history. Formal methods have been used to answer many of the peripheral questions of the field but the core questions, such as fluctuations in the militancy or effectiveness of worker collective action, remain properly answered through informal methods that are better equipped to describe shared states of mind and tactical replays of group interactions.

The Old New Social History and the New Old Social History

Formal Methods

The article contrasts the impact of "The New Social History" of the 1960s which was based on applying statistical analysis to historical evidence, in light of the field's return to a more narrative-based analysis of historical events in the 1970s which he terms "The New Old Social History".

A British View of American Strikes

Political Contention

A review of "Strikes in the United States 1881-1974" by P.K. Edwards. The book attempts to explain how and why the American strike picture has been altered during the enormous industrial and institutional changes of the past century. The review applauds the book for bringing more qualitative details into the study of strikes, but critiques its simple and sometimes unorthodox statistical methods. They argue that the author disputes previous work but does adequately show how his new theories are different from previous studies.

Two Callings of Social History

Historical Method

The article argues that social history research can be segmented into retrospective and prospective callings. The retrospective calling looks at the current world and tries to figure out how it came into being and how it affected the everyday life of ordinary people. The prospective calling asks what could have happened at important historical points and why the actual outcome prevailed over possible outcomes. Both are important as social science is in need of more historically-grounded theories.

Historical Sociology

Historical Sociology

The article gives a brief history and definition of the field of Historical Sociology. He posits that sociology's shift back towards history is a result of the general dissatisfaction with its developmental models of large-scale social change. Sociology, Tilly writes, is clearly differentiated from history in its reduced dealings with historical text and is instead built upon the abstraction and concretization of history; the abstraction of underlying processes from constraints of time and space and the concretizing of social research by aiming it at observations of visible behavior.

Anthropology, History, and the Annales


The article comments on the two main differences between the fields of anthropology and history. He argues that historians tend to be concerned with fixing action in time rather than space and anthropologists are concerned with fixing action in place rather than time. Additionally, historians are hostile to the use of categories which were not a part of a period's own vocabulary, whereas anthropologists frequently use foreign analytic frames. Interestingly enough, as Tilly points out, within the historical study of protests and collective action two anthropological styles became widely used in 1960s and 70s: (1) close analysis of cultural materials such as sounds and iconography and (2) retrospective ethnography.

Computers in Historical Research

Formal Methods

The article describes the effect of computers on historical analysis. He argues that computers reduce the time necessary for collecting and matching historical data, but that there is also an underlying danger. The increased ease in which researchers can make post hoc statements regarding spurious results may lead to mindless empiricism.

Quantification in History, as Seen from France

Formal Methods

The article argues that the rise of quantification in historical analysis is the result of: (1) the widespread adoption of the collective biography and (2) the arrival of historians trained in outside disciplines with analytic training and a desire to answer questions about long-run changes in society.

Methods for the Study of Collective Violence

Political Contention

The article discusses five major methodological problems plaguing the study of collective violence:
(1) Problem of basic definition
(2) Problem of biased enumeration
(3) Problem of fragmentary documentation
(4) Problem of multiple units of analysis
(5) Problem of attaching violent action to its context

Anthropology on the Town


The article describes the methods used by urban sociologists for studying life in large cities. He argues that anthropological methods become important in this area after average data (i.e. census) became prevalent. Cases that deviated from the mean become more interesting and important. These methods include: observing areas in cities to see who walks by, how often, and what are they wearing. Getting people to draw maps of the city to see what areas they include and which areas are drawn disproportionately. While much of the data collection is commonsense, what is important is that it is done in a systematic fashion (i.e. sociometrics).

In Defence of Jargon


The article outlines three practices that separate sociologists from historians: (1) their insistence on explicit conceptualization; (2) their use of systematic comparison; (3) their attempts at objective verification.