We have long given up on the idea that history has direction or a fundamental motor driving change. There are no iron laws of history, and there is no fundamental driver of history, whether market, class struggle, democracy, or “modernization.” And there is no single path forward into a more modern world. At the same time, we recognize that history is not random or chaotic, and that there are forces and circumstances that make some historical occurrences more likely than others. “Men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing” (Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire). So historical process is both contingent and constrained. (Here are several earlier posts on the contingency and causation in history; link, link, link, link, link.)
One of the most insightful historical sociologists in generations is Charles Tilly. He was also tremendously prolific. His volume Roads From Past To Future offers a good snapshot of some of his thinking about contention, social change, and political conflict from the 1970s through the 1990s. The essays are all interesting (including a summary appreciation by Arthur Stinchcombe). Particularly interesting are two chapters on the routinization of political struggle, “The Modernization of Political Conflict in France” and “Parliamentarization in Great Britain, 1758-1834”. But especially worthy of comment is the opening essay in which Tilly tries to make sense of his own evolving ideas about social process and social change. And there are some ideas presented there that don’t really have counterparts in other parts of the historical sociology literature. As is so commonly true, Tilly demonstrates his basic ability to bring novelty and innovation to social science topics.
How do we get from past to future? If we are examining complex processes such as industrialization, state formation, or secularization, we follow roads defined by changing configurations of social interaction. Effective social analysis identifies those roads, describes them in detail, specifies what other itineraries they could have taken, then provides explanations for the itineraries they actually followed. (1)
Especially important here is a distinction that Tilly draws between “degree of scripting” and “degree of local knowledge” to analyze both individual actions and collective actions. He believes we can classify social action in terms of these two dimensions. Figure 1.1 indicates his view of the kinds of action that occur in the four extreme quadrants of this graph — thin and intense ritual, and shallow and deep improvisation. And he offers the examples of science and jazz as exemplars of activities that embody different proportions of the two characteristics.
The idea of “scripting” refers to the fact that both individuals and groups often act on the basis of habit and received “paradigms” of behavior in response to certain stylized action opportunities. At one stage in his career Tilly referred to these as repertoires of contentious action. And it reflects the idea that individuals and groups learn to engage in contentious politics; they learn new forms of demonstration and opposition in different periods of history, and repeat those forms over multiple generations.
Local knowledge captures for Tilly the feature of social action that is highly responsive to the actors’ intimate knowledge of the environment of contention, and their ability to improvise strategies of resistance in response to the specifics of the local environment. James Scott describes Malaysian peasants who toppled trees in the path of mechanized harvesters (Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance; link), and David Graeber describes the strategies adapted by the Spanish anarchist group Ya Basta! as a means of creating disruption at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec in 2001 (link). In each case actors found novel ways suited to current circumstances through which to further their goals.
Tilly’s general point is that historical circumstances are propelled by both these sets of features of action, and that different actions, movements, and conflicts can be characterized in terms of different blends of improvisation and script.
Also important in this chapter is Tilly’s advocacy for what he calls “relationalism” in opposition to individualism and systems theory.
Relational analysis holds great promise for the understanding of social processes. Relational analysis takes social relations, transactions, or ties as the starting points of description and explanation. It claims that recurrent patterns of interaction among occupants of social sites (rather than, say, mentally lodged models of social structures or processes) constitute the subject matter of social science. In relational analysis, social causation operates within the realm of interaction. (7)
This seems to be very similar to the point that Elias makes through his theory of “figurational sociology” (link). This is a theme that recurs frequently in Tilly’s work, including especially in Dynamics of Contention.
Finally, I find his comments about the inadequacy of narrative as a foundation for social explanation to be worth considering carefully.
Negatively, we must recognize that conventional narratives of social life do indispensable work for interpersonal relations but represent the actual causal structure of social processes very badly; narrative is the friend of communication, the enemy of explanation. We must see that the common conception of social processes as the intended consequences of motivated choices by self-contained, self-motivated actors — individuals, groups, or societies — misconstrues the great bulk of human experience. We must learn that culture does not constitute an autonomous, self-driving realm but intertwines inseparably with social relations. (7)
These comments are particularly relevant in response to historians who attempt to explain complex social outcomes as no more than the intersecting series of purposive strategies by numerous actors; Tilly is emphasizing the crucial importance of unintended consequences and conjunctural causation that can only be captured by a more system-level account of the field of change.
And Tilly thinks the two points (relationality and narrative) go together:
Relational analysis meshes badly with narrative, since it necessarily attends to simultaneous, indirect, incremental, and unnoticed cause-effect connections. (9)
So how does all of this help us think about important events and turning points in our own history? What about the 1965 march from Selma to Birmingham pictured above?
Several of Tilly’s points are clearly relevant for historians seeking to contextualize and explain the Selma march. The march itself reflected a well-understood script within the Civil Rights movement, in its organization, chants, and implementation. At the same time the organizers and participants showed substantial local knowledge that was inflected in some of the improvisations involved in the march — for example, the great distance to be covered. Both script and improvisation found a role on that day. That said, I don’t think this analytical distinction is as fundamental as Tilly believes. It is one useful dimension of analysis, but not the key to understanding the event.
Second, a telling of the story that simply presented a narrative of decisions, actions, and interactions of various individuals would seriously misrepresent the march. In order to understand the demonstration and the movement it reflected we need to understand a great deal about the preceding fifty years of race, economics, and politics in the United States and beyond. And we need to understand some of the realities of the Jim Crow race system in place in Alabama at the time. The event does not stand by itself. So we need something like Doug McAdam’s excellent Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition if we are to understand the structural conditions within the context of which the movement and the march unfolded. Simple narrative is not sufficient here — just as Tilly argues.
And third, this complex demonstration reflects relationality at every level — leaders, organizations, neighborhoods, and individual participants all played their parts in a complicated interrelated set of engagements.
A different way of putting these points is to say that the Selma march is a single complex event, involving the actions and strategies of numerous actors. It is enormously important and worth focusing on. But it is not a miniature for the whole Civil Rights movement. An adequate treatment of the movement, and a satisfactory understanding of the movement’s transformational role in American society, needs to move beyond the events and actions of the day to the larger structures and conditions within which actors large and small played their parts.
Does the framework of script and local knowledge help much in the task of explaining historical change? This scheme seems to fit the swath of historical change that is most interesting to Tilly, the field of contentious politics. It seems less well suited, though, to other more impersonal historical processes — the rise of global trade, the surge of involuntary migration, or the general trend towards higher-productivity agriculture. In these areas the distinction seems to be somewhat beside the point. What seems more important in Tilly’s reflections here are his emphasis on the contingency of a historical sequence, and his insistence on the idea that social actors in relationships with each other are the “doers” of historical change.