Skocpol on the 1979 revolution in Iran

 

An earlier post reviewed Theda Skocpol’s effort in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China to provide a comparative, structural account of the occurrence of social revolutions. There I suggested that the account is too deterministic and too abstract. It gives the impression, perhaps undeserved, that there are only a small number of pathways through which social revolutions can take place, and only a small number of causal factors that serve to bring them about. The impression emerges that Skocpol has offered a set of templates into which we should expect other social revolutions to fit.

One of the benefits of re-reading a book that is now 35 years old, however, is that history presents new cases that are appropriately considered by the theory. One such case is the Iranian Revolution, which unfolded in 1979. And, as Skocpol indicates forthrightly, the Iranian Revolution does not fit the model that she puts forward in States and Social Revolutions very closely. Skocpol considered the complexities and challenges which the Iranian Revolution posed to her theory in an article which appeared in 1981, before the dust had fully settled in Tehran. The article is included in her collection, Social Revolutions in the Modern World. Here is the challenge that the Iranian Revolution created for Skocpol’s causal theory of social revolutions:

A few of us have also been inspired to probe the Iranian sociopolitical realities behind these events. For me, such probing was irresistible – above all because the Iranian revolution struck me in some ways is quite anomalous. This revolution surely qualifies as a sort of “social revolution.” Yet its unfolding – especially in the events leading to the Shah’s overthrow – challenged expectations about revolutionary causation that I developed through comparative-historical research on the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions. (240)

Skocpol finds that the large features of the Iranian Revolution did indeed fit the terms of her definition of a social revolution, but that the causal background and components of this historical event did not fit her expectations.

The initial stages of the Iranian revolution obviously challenged my previously worked-out notions about the causes of social revolutions. Three apparent difficulties come immediately to mind. First, the Iranian Revolution does seem as if it might have been simply a product of excessively rapid modernization…. Second, in a striking departure from the regularities of revolutionary history, the Shah’s army and police – modern coercive organizations over 300,000 men strong – were rendered ineffective in the revolutionary process between 1977 and early 1979 without the occurrence of a military defeat in foreign war and without pressures from abroad…. Third, if ever there has been a revolution deliberately “made” by a mass–based social movement aiming to overthrow the old order, the Iranian revolution against the Shah surely is it. (241-242)

So the Iranian Revolution does not fit the mold. Does this imply that the interpretation of social revolution offered in States and Social Revolutions is refuted? Or does it imply instead that there are more narrow limits on the strength of the generalizations offered in that book than appear on first reading? In fact, it seems that the latter is the case:

Fortunately, in States and Social Revolutions I explicitly denied the possibility of fruitfulness of a general causal theory of revolutions that would apply across all times and places…. The Iranian Revolution can be interpreted in terms analytically consistent with the explanatory principles I used in States and Social Revolutions – this is what I shall briefly try to show. However, this remarkable revolution also forces me to deepen my understanding of the possible role of idea systems and cultural understandings in the shaping of political action – in ways that I show indicate recurrently at appropriate points in this article. (243)

One important difference between the revolutions studied by Skocpol’s earlier work and the Iranian revolution is the urban base of the latter revolution. “Opposition to the Shah was centered in urban communal enclaves where autonomous and solitary collective resistance was possible” (245). “In the mass movements against the Shah during 1977 and 1978, the traditional urban communities of Iran were to play an indispensable role in mobilizing in sustaining the core of popular resistance” (246). This is a difference in the social composition of the social revolution; peasant unrest and uprisings were crucial in the cases of France, Russia, and China; but not in the case of Iran.

Another key difference in the circumstances of the Iranian Revolution was the role played by Shi’a Islam. This is what Skocpol was referring to when she indicated the important role of idea systems and cultural understandings.  “In sum, Shi’a Islam was both organizationally and culturally crucial to the making of the Iranian revolution against the Shah” (249). So ideas and values played a role in mobilizing and sustaining revolutionary actions by the population that does not have a valid counterpart in China, France, or Russia. This is a more serious divergence from the reasoning of SSR, because it introduces an entirely new causal factor — “idea systems”. In SSR the motivations that are ascribed to activists and followers are interest-based; whereas her treatment of Shi’a Islam and the Iranian Revolution forces a broadening of the theory of the actor to incorporate the workings of non-material values and commitments.

How does Skocpol think that ideas and culture function in the context of social unrest? “In and of themselves, the culture and networks of communication do not dictate mass revolutionary action. But if a historical conjuncture arises in which a vulnerable state faces oppositionally inclined social groups possessing solidarity, autonomy, and independent economic resources, then the sorts of moral symbols and forms of social communication offered by Shi’a Islam in Iran can sustain the self-conscious making of a revolution” (250). So the value system of Shi’a Islam, and the passions and commitments that it engendered, played a key causal role in the success of the revolutionary actors in Tehran, in the view that Skocpol offers in the current article.

So the social actors can be different and the causal factors involved can be different. What about the outcomes of the processes of social revolution? Can we at least keep the idea that a social revolution, once underway, has a certain logic of development that leads to certain kinds of outcomes? Here again, Skocpol is clear in saying that we cannot.

On the contrary, Skocpol brings the fact of contingency into her account here in a way that is not apparent in the earlier book. In her treatment of the Iranian Revolution she is brought to acknowledge and recognize the deep contingency that exists within a social revolution.

Of course, events in Iran may outrun that Shi’a revolutionary leadership. The clerics may lose their political unity and the army or a secular political party may step in. Or regional revolts and foreign subversion may lead to the dismemberment of the country. (254)

Or in other words: there is no necessary sequence of events in this social revolution, or any other.So what remains? How does comparative study of social revolutions contribute to explanation? Rather than hoping for a causal diagram that identifies factors, forces, and outcomes, it seems unavoidable that we need to look for more limited findings. And this pushes us in the direction of the disaggregated approach that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly take in their own subsequent treatments of social contention in Dynamics of Contention.

According to that approach, there are some common causal processes — we would now call them “mechanisms of contention” — that give some insight into the critical events that transpire within a given historical sequence. But these common mechanisms do not have primacy over the myriad other factors in play — the behavior of the military, the emergence of a secular political party, the sudden appearance of a charismatic movie actor turned political leader, the eruption of international conflict (like the war that Iran was forced to wage with Iraq), and countless other possible causal branches. And this means something very deep for the project of comparative theorizing about social revolution, or any other large-scale social change: we should regard these processes as importantly sui generis rather than general, and we should look for the sub-processes and mechanisms rather than high-level macro-causal relationships.

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The West and the East

Ian Morris has written a pair of books that are intended to contribute to a particularly important set of disagreements in comparative economic history: what accounts for the advantage in economic development that seems to be enjoyed by Western Europe at various points in history? The key arguments are presented in  Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, and he lays out the quantitative methods and evidence in The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations.

The basic argument is that current debates are critically flawed because they consider too short a timespan. Morris is an archaeologist, and he thinks the relevant differences between West and East only become apparent when we consider a timespan that extends backwards in time by at least 15,000 years.

The central analytical tool that Morris introduces is a “social development index” — an index of four features that can be measured for various social locations at various points in time. The four features are: energy capture, urban development, war fighting capability, information handling capacity. Here is the basic graph that he develops:

20131121-091802.jpg

This graph tells a simple story of a horse race: West has a slight but constant advantage from 14,000 BCE to 4,000 BCE, broadening a bit through 2000 BCE. East pulls ahead at the beginning of the Common Era while the West declines sharply and begins to recover only 1400 years later. The West pulls ahead again by about 1700 and maintains a very small lead through the present. This is not a very dramatic story, however. Durning most stretches of this 16,000 year period there is very close alignment between the two trajectories. So it seems hard to imagine that the differences discernible here are in fact decisive historical factors.

Here is one of the primary reversals that occurs on the graph, between 300 BCE and 1100 BCE.

20131121-094133.jpg

The social development index is interesting in its own terms. The effort to pull prehistoric and ancient archeological data into a consistent system of accounting is interesting, and Morris makes a case for the idea that these four features can be measured with enough precision to permit comparison over long stretches of time. It is “macro history” and “shape of history at a large scale”. There is one kind of truth the work supports: there is a generally rising trend in “social development” with occasional crashes and reversals. This is historical research at the most macro scale.

These four factors are significant material indicators of social development. But they do not exhaust the questions we might want to consider. Other measures we might find interesting in this kind of grand sociology include the rise / fall of religions and ideologies; ebb and flow of scope of control of political systems (Victor Lieberman on Burma and France); demographic regimes (high fertility/high mortality); stratification and exploitation (Marx); life quality for the median individual (Sen); and there certainly are others.

So the goal of measuring factors like the ones chosen here over a broad historical expanse is an ambitious and valuable one. However, I don’t think the research has the consequences that Morris claims.

First, it isn’t really posing the same kind of question as that confronted by Pomeranz and Bin Wong. The comparative economic history question is superficially similar to the one the author asks — how do Eurasian cores perform 1500-2000? But the real questions are quite different. Fundamentally they want to open the  black box of institutions, ideology, and circumstance to account for 50- or 100-year shifts. Historians like Perdue and Pomeranz really want to know about the contingencies of history, and that seems to imply a shorter timescale.

So I don’t think it’s really on the subject suggested by the title. Its real subject is this: “there are very longterm differences between the two large cores in terms of material levels and rates of development.” But it doesn’t offer an explanation of why this should be so: earliest timing, material advantages of one core over another, contingent path dependencies, … Likewise the suggestions about projection onto the coming century are overblown.

Moreover, the analysis is not explanatory; really it is a redescription of the phenomena. It doesn’t even invoke explanatory factors. Geography? First comer advantage? Morris believes he has the key to a large scale explanation:

Why had the West got the Maxim gun [technology and war fighting advantage] when the rest had not? (Kl 286)

But I don’t find that his “long tendencies of social development” picture actually helps in answering this question; rather, it simply repeats the phenomenon to be explained.

Morris categorizes existing theories of comparative economic development as “long-term lock-in” and “short-term accident” theories. And he suggests that his own approach doesn’t fall in either category. It is indeed longterm; but it shows variation over the longterm, so it doesn’t postulate “lock-in”. And it disagrees with the accident theory because, essentially, he doesn’t think there is a lot of contingency and path dependency in the story he tells. The material factors that drive the shape of the master graph are primary, and trump the effects of lesser factors like institutions and culture.

The question [of why the West rules] requires us to look at the whole sweep of human history as a single story, establishing its overall shape, before discussing why it has that shape. This is what I try to do in this book, bringing a rather different set of skills to bear. (Kl 460)

In fact, Morris’s account literally doesn’t tell us a thing about culture or institutions. But these are the things historians want to understand. For Morris, however, these are dependent variables in the long story of problem solving the author wants to tell. (See KL 4377)

So my overall reaction is that this is an interesting piece of research that answers a different question than the one its author highlights. It provides a very interesting view of the “shape” of human history in the two mega-regions; the attempt to measure what the author calls social development is one interesting cut on longterm historical development. But it really isn’t a good way of understanding the relationship between East and West when it comes to comparative economic development. It doesn’t identify the more proximate factors that led to surges and plateaux of development in the two trajectories. And yet that is really what the debate is all about.

Who invented the totalitarian state?

 
The world has known ruthless, violent, and murderous rulers for centuries.  Queen Elizabeth ran a secret service that ruthlessly pursued her enemies in the Catholic underground.  Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted and expelled the Jews of Spain.  And the French government was perfectly ready to use deadly force against workers and rebels in Paris in 1848 and 1871.  But the totalitarian state was a creation of the twentieth century.  The fascist states of Italy, Spain, and Germany as well as the Soviet state seem to have been qualitatively different from even the most repressive of their nineteenth century predecessors. By comparison, Bismarck’s Prussia, Napoleon III’s France, Czar Alexander’s Russia, and Victor Emmanuel’s Italy were quaint amateur affairs when it came to organized coercion and mass politics.

The differences are striking — the apparatus of political prisons, the extensive secret police networks, the purposive use of violent organizations, the ideologies of national and ethnic purity.  Most fundamental, though, is the degree and depth of bureaucratic control that the modern totalitarian state achieved.  This is what made the modern fascist or soviet state “total” — an ability to monitor and intimidate civil society down to the street level.

The distinction between the realm of the state and the realm of civil society has been fundamental to political theory.  Civil society encompasses the private activities of individuals and their associations, and the realm of the state involves the political apparatus of law, enforcement, and coercion.  We can roughly estimate the degree to which the apparatus of the state is able to penetrate down into civil society.  And European states prior to the twentieth century were objectively limited in their capacity to rule civil society.  This is true for the imperial Chinese state in the nineteenth century as well; it was commonly said that the power of the Emperor ended at the yamen wall (or at the county level).  As Mark Allee puts it in Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China: Northern Taiwan in the Nineteenth Century,

The limited effectiveness of yamen runners as police prompted local administrators in Danshui and Xinzhu to search for ways to augment and supplement their runner cadre. In so doing, sub-prefecture and county heads aimed to create more intimate linkages to the people in their jurisdiction and to extend the reach of local government beyond the yamen wall into the countryside. (197)

Weak states have only a limited ability to enforce their will against the mass populations of city and countryside; mechanisms such as tax farming and collective tax liability are therefore called upon in order to secure the resources needed by the central authorities.  And the scope of law and the effective enforcement of laws and decrees is limited as well in a weak state.  European polities of the nineteenth century were generally weak states; Britain, France, Germany, and Italy had central governments with only limited administrative capacity and limited ability to impose their authority at the local level.  But there was a dramatic increase in the beginning of the twentieth century in the administrative capacity of the state and its ability to govern local society.  The scope of the political grew much broader, and the domain of civil society — the relatively safe and insulated zone of individual activity and choice — grew more limited.  The creation of the totalitarian state depended on this radical increase in state power and state coercive capacity.

A striking feature of the totalitarian states of the twentieth century is their aggressiveness and brutality towards all opposition.  These fascist states were ruthless and effective in their ability to attack and dismantle oppositional groups — including communists, labor unions, radical peasants, rent resistance organizations, liberals, and anarchists.  Chuck Tilly’s discussion of “trust networks” is relevant here; the balance of power between the trust networks of civil society and the central power of the state apparatus shifted profoundly with the advent of the modern dictatorship; Trust and Rule.

One index of the administrative and coercive capacity of the state is the degree to which it is successful in exacting a greater percentage of the national wealth in taxes.  Weak states are relatively inefficient at collecting taxes.  So careful historical study of systems of taxation is an important contribution to the topic of the power of the state.  Isaac Martin, Ajay Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad’s The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective provides a good exposure to the field of comparative fiscal sociology. With a foreword and article by Charles Tilly, it examines the ways in which states since the early modern period have intensified their ability to collect tax revenues.

One piece of this new capacity was organizational.  Fascist states in the 1930s created bureaucracies of surveillance, enforcement, punishment, and killing that went vastly beyond the capacity of nineteenth century state organizations.  The organizations of police and army in Italy, Spain, and Germany took major steps forward in size and complexity in the twentieth century.  The personnel of the forces of coercion — police and other armed state forces such as militias — were few in the early nineteenth century; but by the middle of the twentieth century these numbers had grown exponentially.

Improved communication and transportation were also key to the possibility of the totalitarian state.  The telephone and the railroad allowed fascist states to collect information quickly and to move their forces around the cities and countryside efficiently; functionally, this meant that rural groups and ordinary people were no longer buffered from the state by poor roads and rudimentary communication.

Another technological advance that was crucial for the totalitarian state was a substantial improvement in the technology of record keeping and retrieval.  James Scott argues that the modern state’s imperative to regiment and record its population is fundamental to its capacity to collect taxes and conscript soldiers  — and therefore fundamental to the nature of modern political power (Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed).  The technology of organized record keeping improved dramatically in the first several decades of the twentieth century — thus making the state’s goal of closely monitoring its subjects more attainable.  (Edwin Black describes the use of IBM punch card systems to manage National Socialist records of Jews and other enemies in IBM and the Holocaust.)  So communication, transportation, and record-keeping were crucial to the creation of the totalitarian state.

Of course greater state capacity is not synonymous with totalitarianism.  Liberal democratic states too increased their capacity to impose their will at the local level.  What distinguished totalitarian regimes was the set of ideological and political goals that fascist states sought to accomplish on the basis of their greater repressive capacity and the cult of violence that each embodied.  Other states took some of these sorts of steps forward in the twentieth century; the “reach of the state” increased dramatically in the United States, France, and Britain as well.  The administrative functions of the state and the ability to extract revenues through taxation increased exponentially.  It would be interesting to compare the total tax percentages in 1860 and 1930 for the United States and France; surely the increase is dramatic.  And likewise, the personnel of these states increased dramatically during the same time period as a percentage of population.  But this broad increase in state capacity did not lead to repression and dictatorship in these countries.

This topic is historically interesting; much turns on how we explain the power and human tragedies associated with Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.  But it is also interesting today when we consider the undisguised efforts of the Iranian state, and its Republican Guard military organization, to dominate the whole of Iranian civil society.  Here too we see the use of surveillance, intimidation, mass arrests, forced confessions, and political murder as tactics in the effort to control civil society.

(There is quite a bit of scope for new comparative historical research on this topic.  Chuck Tilly has always emphasized these issues in his analysis of the development of the modern state.  Michael Mann’s findings in The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914 are certainly relevant as well to this line of thought.  But there isn’t much empirical detail available at present.  Simply attempting to measure the dimensions highlighted here for a number of countries — scale of tax collections, size of state apparatus, size and complexity of police organizations, and overall state capacity to regulate local society — requires research that doesn’t appear to exist at present. )

Comparative history

One of Marc Bloch’s most important contributions was to reinvigorate the idea of “comparative history.”  Bloch believed that we could understand French feudalism better by putting it into the context of European legal and property regimes; and more broadly, he believed that the careful comparison of agrarian regimes across time and space could be an important source of insight into human societies.  Moreover, he did not believe that the cases needed to be sociologically connected.  He thought that we would learn important new truths by comparing medieval French serfdom with bonded labor in Senegal in the twentieth century, and one of the innovations developed in Bloch’s editorship of Annales d’histoire économique et social was precisely his openness to this kind of comparison.  (Bloch’s ideas about comparative history are presented in his 1928 article, “Toward a Comparative History of European Societies,” reprinted in Frederick C. Lane and Jelle C. Riermersma, eds., Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings in Economic History.  See William Sewell’s article, “Marc Bloch and the Logic of Comparative History” (link), for a sophisticated discussion of Bloch’s theory of comparative history.  Another useful resource is Colleen Dunlavy’s syllabus for seminar on comparative history at the University of Wisconsin (link).)

What is “comparative history”? Most basically, it is the organized study of similar historical phenomena in separated temporal or geographical settings.  The comparative historian picks several cases for detailed study and comparison, and then attempts to identify important similarities and differences across the cases.  Theda Skocpol’s treatment of social revolution is a case in point (States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China); Skocpol is interested in examining the particulars of the French, Chinese, and Russian Revolutions in order to discover whether there are similar causal processes at work in these three cases.

Other possible comparative research projects might include —

  • Slave-based agriculture in Rome and the antebellum United States South
  • Rituals of royal healing in medieval France and Bali
  • Religious pilgrimages in Islam and Christianity
  • Periods of rural unrest in Britain and Malaysia
  • Modern economic development in England, France, and China
  • Frontier societies in nineteenth-century North America and seventeenth-century Russia
  • Feudal legal institutions in eastern and western Europe
  • Processes of urban development in London, Mumbai, and Berlin

What is the intellectual purpose of comparative history? What might we expect to learn through careful examination of sets of cases like these?  What sorts of knowledge can comparative historical research provide?

There might be several goals. First, we might imagine that some of these phenomena are the effect of similar causal processes, so comparison can help to identify causal conditions and regularities. This approach implies that we think of social structures and processes as being part of a causal system, where it is possible to identify recurring causal conditions.  This seems to be Skocpol’s approach in States and Social Revolutions, though she later extends her views in an article mentioned below.  Researchers often make use of  some variant of Mill’s methods in attempting to discover significant patterns of co-variation of conditions and outcomes.  See an earlier posting on “paired comparisons.”

Second, we might have a theory of social types and subtypes into which social formations fall. The purpose of comparison would be to identify some of the sub-types of a general phenomenon such as “slave economy”. This sounds pretty much like the approach that Comte and Durkheim took; it corresponds to a social metaphysic that holds that there are finitely many distinct types of society, and the central challenge for sociology is to discover the structural characteristics of the various types.

Third, we might have a fundamentally functionalist view of social organization, along with a basic repertoire of social functions that need to be performed. We might then look at religious systems as fulfilling one or more social functions — social order, solidarity, legitimacy — in alternative ways. Comparison might serve to identify functional alternatives — the multiple ways that different social systems have evolved to handle these functional needs.

Another possible purpose of comparative history is to attempt to discover historical and social connections across separate historical settings. For example, examining different methods of labor control in different fascist countries in the 1930s may give us a basis for assessing some of the forms of influence that existed between these movements and governments (post). And Victor Lieberman’s comparative study of the rise and fall of state power in France and Burma falls in this category as well; see an earlier posting on his metaphor of “strange parallels”.

Finally, we might have a social metaphysics that emphasizes contingency and difference. This perspective differs from the first several ideas, in that it looks at structured comparative study as a vehicle for identifying difference rather than underlying similarity. Examining the histories of Berlin and Delhi may shed a great deal of light on the range of social forces and historical contingencies that occurred in these ostensibly similar cases of “urbanization”.  Here the goal of comparison is more to discover alternatives, variations, and instances of path dependency.  Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin’s analysis of alternative forms of capitalist development in “Historical Alternatives to Mass Production” illustrates this possibility (link; see also World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization).

So there are a number of different intellectual purposes we might have in undertaking comparative historical research.  How have other social scientists understood these issues?

Theda Skocpol and Margaret Somers address precisely this issue in “The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry” (link).  Their analysis highlights three distinct models of analysis that can underlie comparative inquiry:

There are, in fact, at least three distinct logics-in-use of comparative history. One of them, which we shall label comparative history as macro-causal analysis, actually does resemble multivariate hypothesis-testing. But in addition there are two other major types: comparative history as the parallel demonstration of theory; and comparative history as the contrast of contexts. Each of the three major types of comparative history assigns a distinctive purpose to the juxtaposition of historical cases. Concomitantly, each has its own requisites of case selection, its own patterns of presentation of arguments, and–perhaps most important–its own strengths and limitations as a tool of research in macrosocial inquiry. (175)

R. Bin Wong offers a different view of the value of comparison in historical studies in his important comparative study of Chinese economic and political development (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience).  Wong argues that comparison allows the historian to discover what is distinctive about a particular series of historical developments.  Features which perhaps looked inevitable and universal in European economic development look quite different when we consider a similar process of development in China; we may find that Chinese entrepreneurs and officials found very different institutions to do the work of insurance, provision of credit, or long-distance trade.  Likewise, elements that might have been taken to be sui generis characteristics of one national experience may turn out to be widespread in many locations when we do a comparative study.

Ultimately it seems that there are really only two fundamental intellectual reasons for being particularly interested in historical comparisons.  One is the hope of discovering recurring social mechanisms and structures.  This is what Charles Tilly seems to be about in his many studies of contentious politics.  And the second is the hope of discovering some of the differentiating pathways that lead to significantly different outcomes in ostensibly similar social settings.  The first goal serves the value of arriving at some level of generalization about social phenomena, and the second serves the goal of tracing out the fine structure of the particular.

(The images above represent rice cultivation in Bali and grain cultivation in France.  As Marc Bloch might have observed, they depict landscapes that reflect fundamentally different agrarian regimes: intensive cultivation in small plots in Bali, versus extensive cultivation making use of a considerable amount of animal or machine traction in France.  And Bloch would have been likely to spend a great deal of effort at discovering the legal, cultural, religious, and technical characteristics of the two regimes.)

Variation as a social fundamental

Over 700 historians, sociologists, demographers, and political scientists enjoyed a splendid program of panels at the Social Science History Association in Long Beach this week (link). There were panels on recent historical demography, comparative historical analysis, and social mobilization research, as well as a pair of great panels on the work of Charles Tilly. There was even a smattering of papers suggesting possible opportunities for innovation in theory and research methods in historical sociology.  (A book panel on Neil Smelser’s recent The Odyssey Experience: Physical, Social, Psychological, and Spiritual Journeys illustrates this point: the book is highly original and demonstrates the value of seeking out new perspectives and angles of view on social behavior and social change.)

Here is one strong impression that emerges from the program.  Variation within a social or historical phenomenon seems to be all but ubiquitous. Think of the Cultural Revolution in China, demographic transition in early modern Europe, the ideology of a market society, or the experience of being black in America. We have the noun — “Cultural Revolution” — which can be explained or defined in a sentence or two as an extended social phenomenon of mobilization and conflict that took place in China from 1966-76; and we have the complex underlying social realities to which it refers, spread out over many cities, villages, and communes across China (The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History).  Or consider another general noun, “demographic transition,” defined as a period in which a population experiences abrupt decline in mortality, followed by a decline in fertility.  Using a variety of statistical methods, historical demographers can document the occurrence of a demographic transition in different periods in Sweden, Italy, Britain, and China.  And it turns out that there are both common features and distinguishing characteristics that emerge from detailed study — differences in timing, differences in social composition, differences in the mechanisms bringing these changes about.

In each case there is a very concrete and visible degree of variation in the factor over time and place. Historical and social research in a wide variety of fields confirms the non-homogeneity of social phenomena and the profound location-specific variations that occur in the characteristics of virtually all large social phenomena. Social nouns do not generally designate uniform social realities (post).  These facts of local and regional variation provide an immediate rationale for case studies and comparative research, selecting different venues of the phenomenon and identifying specific features of the phenomenon in this location. Through a range of case studies it is possible for the research community to map out both common features and distinguishing features of a given social process.

This description focuses on locational variation in processes — village to village, country to country. But social scientists often also highlight variations across social segments within a given location: class, race, gender, religion, occupation.  Do sharecroppers have a different fertility profile over time than the wealthy in a particular region at a particular time?  Are there significant differences in survival strategies for distinct groups defined by race or ethnicity in a city or a group of cities?

This situation of variation and case-specific research raises a number of challenging questions. One is the question of whether the phenomenon designated by the noun is one integrated social reality, with varied expressions across locations, or whether instead the different locations are simply loosely similar but independent occurrences. Simon Schama’s radical question — was there a French Revolution, or were there simply a congeries of periods and locations of disturbance? — illustrates this question (post), as does a previous discussion of the revolutions of 1848 (post).

A second major question is the challenge of discovering causal and social mechanisms connecting the various social locations encompassed by the phenomenon. How did the activism and ideology of Cultural Revolution spread from Beijing to Nanjing and other locations? How did activism spread from city to rural locations? How did local circumstances cause changes and variations in the political movement? How much path dependency existed in the spread of revolutionary ideas and strategies?

There is a more epistemic set of questions as well, concerning generalizability. Fundamentally, if there is substantial variation across locations and instances of a given phenomenon, then to what degree can we say anything about the phenomenon as a whole? And what does the study of one location allow us to say about the larger processes? Does study of the Tsinghua student Red Guard movement tell us anything about Red Guard mobilization in other places? Or is it simply one of many different and contingent develoments of contentious politics during the period?  Can we generalize from case studies and comparative research?

We can also look at the problem from the other end of the telescope: are there any social phenomena that occur fairly homogeneously across all places where this phenomenon occurs?  Candidates might include:

  • Anti-Semitic violence across 19th-century Ukraine villages
  • Marriage / fertility practices across rural Sweden 1700-1800
  • Peasant revolts in medieval Germany
  • Process of protoindustrialization in villages and towns in Low Countries 1300-1600 (Industrialization Before Industrialization)

For examples like these we can ask a symmetrical set of questions to those posed above. What factors explain the uniformity of results for these processes across separate locations? Various explanations are possible:

  • There is a common set of conditions across the regions (e.g. famine or drought)
  • There are common causes that mobilize people in many separate places (tax protests, land confiscations)
  • There are common political traditions
  • There is substantial inter-location communication and influence
  • There are no large institutional or circumstantial variations that would drive significant variations in outcomes across locations

This is where the appeal to social mechanisms seems once more to be highly relevant and helpful.  If we work on the assumption that any large social process — the dispersed locations of contention associated with the French Revolution, say — is the compound result of a set of underlying causal social mechanisms, and if we hypothesize that many of these mechanisms are in play in some places but not in others; then we can explain both similarity and difference in the occurrence of the phenomenon across time and place.  Now the work of historical investigation can be put in these terms: identify some of the social mechanisms that evidently recur in various locations; identify some of the mechanisms that lead to significantly different results in some places; and identify some of the cross-location mechanisms that are at work to secure a degree of synchrony and parallel in the developments observed in different locations (communication systems, networks of leaders, dissemination of activists).  Case studies and comparative research permit both a degree of generalization and an explanation of variation.

In other words, the intellectual strategy here is to disaggregate the large social factor into the results of a larger number of underlying mechanisms; and then to attempt to discover how these mechanisms played out differently in different settings throughout the range of the French Revolution, protoindustrialization, or ethnic conflict in South Asia.  Significantly, this is exactly the strategy of research and explanation that Charles Tilly was led to in his emphasis on discovering the component social mechanisms that underlie social contention (McAdam, Tarrow, Tilly, Dynamics of Contention).

MacIntyre and Taylor on the human sciences


There is a conception of social explanation that provides a common starting point for quite a few theories and approaches in a range of the social sciences. I’ll call it the “rational, material, structural” paradigm. It looks at the task of social science as the discovery of explanations of social outcomes; and it brings an intellectual framework of purposive rationality, material social factors, and social structures exercising causal influence on individuals as the foundation of social explanation. Rational choice theory, Marxian economics, historical sociology, and the new institutionalism can each be described in roughly these terms: show how a given set of outcomes are the result of purposive choices by individuals within a given set of material and structural circumstances. These approaches depend on a highly abstracted description of human agency, with little attention to deep and important differences in agency across social, cultural, and historical settings. “Agents like these, in structures like those, produce outcomes like these.” This is a powerful and compelling approach; so it is all the more important to recognize that there are other possible starting points for the social sciences.

In fact, this approach to social explanation stands in broad opposition to another important approach, the interpretivist approach. On the interpretive approach, the task of the human sciences is to understand human activities, actions, and social formations as unique historical expressions of human meaning and intention. Individuals are unique, and there are profound differences of mentality across historical settings. This “hermeneutic” approach is not interested in discovering causes of social outcomes, but instead in piecing together an interpretation of the meanings of a social outcome or production. This contrast between causal explanation and hermeneutic interpretation ultimately constitutes a major divide between styles of social thinking. (Yvonne Sherratt provides a very fine introduction to this approach; Continental Philosophy of Social Science.) Max Ringer, one of Weber’s most insightful intellectual biographers, places this break at the center of Weber’s development in the early twentieth century (Max Weber’s Methodology: The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences). (See earlier discussions of two strands of thought in the philosophy of social science; link, link, link.)

On this approach, all social action is framed by a meaningful social world. To understand, explain, or predict patterns of human behavior, we must first penetrate the social world of the individual in historical concreteness: the meanings he/she attributes to her environment (social and natural); the values and goals she possesses; the choices she perceives; and the way she interprets other individuals’ social action. Only then will we be able to analyze, interpret, and explain her behavior. But now the individual’s action is thickly described in terms of the meanings, values, assumptions, and interpretive principles she employs in her own understanding of her world.

Most of the arguments in support of interpretive approaches to the human sciences have come from the continental tradition — Dilthey, Ricoeur, Gadamer, Habermas. So let’s consider two philosophers who have made original contributions to the historicist and interpretivist side of the debate, within the Anglo-American tradition. Consider first Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion of the possibility of comparative theories of politics (“Is a science of comparative politics possible?” in Alan Ryan, ed., The Philosophy of Social Explanation). MacIntyre poses the problem in these terms: “I shall be solely interested in the project of a political science, of the formulation of cross cultural, law-like causal generalizations which may in turn be explained by theories” (172). And roughly, MacIntyre’s answer is that a science of comparative politics is not possible, because actions, structures, and practices are not directly comparable across historical settings. The Fiat strike pictured above is similar in some ways to a strike against General Motors or Land Rover in different times and places; but the political cultures, symbolic understandings, and modes of behavior of Italian, American, and British auto workers are profoundly different.

MacIntyre places great emphasis on the densely interlinked quality of local concepts, social practices, norms, and self ascriptions, with the implication that each practice or attitude is inextricably dependent on an ensemble of practices, beliefs, norms, concepts, and the like that are culturally specific and, in their aggregate, unique. Thus MacIntyre holds that as simple a question as this: “Do Britons and Italians differ in the level of pride they take in civic institutions?” is unanswerable because of cultural differences in the concept of pride (172-73).

Hence we cannot hope to compare an Italian’s attitude to his government’s acts with an Englishman’s in respect of the pride each takes; any comparison would have to begin from the different range of virtues and emotions incorporated in the different social institutions. Once again the project of comparing attitudes independently of institutions and practices encounters difficulties. (173-74)

These points pertain to difficulties in identifying political attitudes cross-culturally. Could it be said, though, that political institutions and practices are less problematic? MacIntyre argues that political institutions and practices are themselves very much dependent on local political attitudes, so it isn’t possible to provide an a-historical specification of a set of practices and institutions:

It is an obvious truism that no institution or practice is what it is, or does what it does, independently of what anyone whatsoever thinks or feels about it. For institutions and practices are always partially, even if to differing degrees, constituted by what certain people think and feel about them. (174)

So interpretation is mandatory — for institutions no less than for individual behavior. So MacIntyre’s position is disjunctive. He writes:

My thesis . . . can now be stated distinctively: either such generalizations about institutions will necessarily lack the kind of confirmation they require or they will be consequences of true generalizations about human rationality and not part of a specifically political science. (178)

Now turn to Charles Taylor in another pivotal essay, “Interpretation and the sciences of man” (Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences). Taylor’s central point is that the subject matter of the human sciences — human actions and social arrangements — always require interpretation. It is necessary for the observer to attribute meaning and intention to the action — features that cannot be directly observed. He asks whether there are “brute data” in the human sciences — facts that are wholly observational and require no “interpretation” on the part of the scientist (19)? Taylor thinks not; and therefore the human sciences require interpretation from the most basic description of data to the fullest historical description.

To be a full human agent, to be a person or a self in the ordinary meaning, is to exist in a space defined by distinctions of worth. . . . My claim is that this is not just a contingent fact about human agents, but is essential to what we would understand and recognize as full, normal human agency. (3)

Thus, human behaviour seen as action of agents who desire and are moved, who have goals and aspirations, necessarily offers a purchase for descriptions in terms of meaning what I have called “experiential meaning”. (27)

One way of putting Taylor’s critique of “brute data” is the idea that human actions must be characterized intentionally (34 ff.) in terms of the intentions and self understanding of the agent and that such factors can only be interpreted, not directly observed.

My thesis amounts to an alternative statement of the main proposition of interpretive social science, that an adequate account of human action must make the agents more understandable. On this view, it cannot be a sufficient objective of social theory that it just predict . . . the actual pattern of social or historical events. . . . A satisfactory explanation must also make sense of the agents. (116)

Taylor’s discussion of ethnocentricity is important, since it provides a way out of the hermeneutic circle. He believes it is possible to interpret the alien culture without simply covertly projecting our categories onto the alien; and this we do through meaningful conversation with the other (124-25). This is a point that seems to converge with Habermas’s notion of communicative action (The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society).

It isn’t entirely clear how radically Taylor intends his argument. Is it that all social science requires interpretation, or that interpretation is a legitimate method among several? Is there room for generalizations and theories within Taylor’s interpretive philosophy of social science? What should social science look like on Taylor’s approach? Will it offer explanations, generalizations, models; or will it be simply a collection of concrete hermeneutical readings of different societies? Does causation have a place in such a science? (He says more about the role of theory in “Neutrality in political science”; Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences, 63.)

Both MacIntyre and Taylor are highlighting an important point: human actions reflect purposes, beliefs, emotions, meanings, and solidarities that cannot be directly observed. And human practices are composed of the actions and thoughts of individual human actors — with exactly this range of hermeneutic possibilities and indeterminacies. So the explanation of human action and practice presupposes some level of interpretation. There is no formula, no universal key to human agency, that permits us to “code” human behavior without the trouble of interpretation.

This said, I would still judge that the “rational, material, structural” paradigm with which we began has plenty of scope for application. For some purposes and in many historical settings, it is possible to describe the actor’s state of mind in more abstract terms: he/she cares about X, Y, Z; she believes A, B, C; and she reasons that W is a good way of achieving a satisfactory level of attainment of the goods she aims at. In other words, purposive agency, within an account of the opportunities and constraints that surround action, provides a versatile basis for social action. And this is enough for much of political science, Marxist materialism, and the new institutionalism.

Contingent historical development




Here’s a relatively limited historical puzzle to solve. A powerful new technology — the railroad — was developed in the first part of the nineteenth century. The nature and characteristics of the technology were essentially homogeneous across the national settings in which it appeared in Europe and North America. However, it was introduced and built out in three countries — the United States, Britain, and France — in markedly different ways. The ways in which the railroads and their technologies were regulated and encouraged were very different in the three countries, and the eventual rail networks had very different properties in the three countries. The question for explanation is this: can we explain the differences in these three national experiences on the basis of some small set of structural or cultural differences that existed among the three countries and that causally explain the resulting differences in build-out, structure, and technical frameworks? Or, possibly, are the three historical experiences different simply because of the occurrence of a large but cumulative number of unimportant and non-systemic events?

These are the questions that historical sociologist Frank Dobbin poses in his book, Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age. He argues that there were significantly different cultures of political and industrial policy in the three countries that led to substantial differences in the ways in which government and business interacted in the development of the railroads. “Each Western nation-state developed a distinct strategy for governing industry” (1). The laissez-faire culture of the United States permitted a few large railroad magnates and corporations to make the crucial decisions about technology, standards, and routes that would govern the development of the rail system. The regulated market culture of Great Britain favored smaller companies and strove to prevent the emergence of a small number of oligopolistic rail companies. And the technocratic civil-service culture of France gave a great deal of power to the engineers and civil servants who were charged to make decisions about technology choice, routes, and standards.

These differences led to systemic differences in the historical implementation of the railroads, the rail networks that were developed, and the regulatory regimes that surrounded them. The U.S. rail network developed as the result of competition among a small number of rail magnates for the most profitable routes. This turned out to favor a few east-west trunk lines connecting urban centers, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. The British rail network gave more influence to municipalities who demanded service; as a result, the network that developed was a more distributed one across a larger number of cities. And the French rail network was rationally designed to conform to the economic and military needs of the French state, with a system of rail routes that largely centered on Paris. These differences are evident in the maps at the top of the posting.

This example illustrates the insights that can be distilled from comparative historical sociology. Dobbin takes a single technology and documents a range of outcomes in the way in which the technology is built out into a national system. And he attempts to isolate the differences in structures and cultures in the three settings that would account for the differences in outcomes. He offers a causal analysis of the development of the technology in the three settings, demonstrating how the mechanism of policy culture imposes effects on the development of the technology. The inherent possibilities represented by the technology intersect with the economic circumstances and the policy cultures of the three national settings, and the result is a set of differentiated organizations and outcomes in the three countries. The analysis is rich in its documentation of the social mechanisms through which policy culture influenced technology development; the logic of his analysis is more akin to process tracing than to the methods of difference and similarity in Mill’s methods.

The research establishes several important things. First, it refutes any sort of technological determinism, according to which the technical characteristics of the technology determine the way it will be implemented. To the contrary, Dobbin’s work demonstrates the very great degree of contingency that existed in the social implementation of the railroad. Second, it makes a strong case for the idea that an element of culture — the framework of assumptions, precedents, and institutions defining the “policy culture” of a country — can have a very strong effect on the development of large social institutions. Dobbin emphasizes the role that things like traditions, customs, and legacies play in the unfolding of important historical developments. And finally, the work makes it clear that these highly contingent pathways of development nonetheless admit of explanation. We can identify the mechanisms and local circumstances that led, in one instance, to a large number of firms and hubs and in the other, a small number of firms and trunk lines.

How the calendar matters

It is interesting to consider how the timing of a routine social event can have a major effect on outcomes. Malcolm Gladwell observes that the most talented Canadian hockey players in the NHL are disproportionately likely to have birthdays in the months of January or February in his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Observers of the current US presidential election may speculate that, if the financial crisis of September had occurred in May, the outcome of the election might have been different. The generation of Americans born around 1915 are much like those born around 1945 — except for the searing experience their generation had of the great depression.

The lesson to be drawn here might seem to be the obvious and trivial one — context matters in human affairs. Because youth hockey leagues define the age of a player based on his age on December 31, the January children have a major advantage in size and physical development over the November children. And this advantage creates a small headstart that amplifies over time. The fact that the financial crisis of 2008 created a major disadvantage for the McCain ticket less than 60 days ahead of the election made it very difficult for the candidate to recover in the polls. The cohort experience of poverty and insecurity made the 1920 generation much more risk averse than the 1950 generation. So context and the timing of contextual events matters.

But perhaps the importance of the calendar goes deeper than this. In an earlier posting I discussed Victor Lieberman’s discovery of an unexpected synchronicity of political change at the far ends of Eurasia, over the course of a millenium. We tried to understand this pattern in terms of hypothetical social mechanisms that might have produced these parallels. But what is striking about the example is not simply the fact that there must have been underlying causal mechanisms; it is that the result is a weakly synchronized system of events — that is, a system of events with a regular temporal association — that might never have been noticed.

What this suggests to me is that the social sciences can profitably give more attention to the temporal features of social phenomena — the simultaneous experiences a group of people would have had in virtue of being part of the same age cohort, the temporal parallels that might exist between the rise of a mass ideology and the sales of particular books, the accidents of simultaneity that have major repercussions decades later. Causal analysis implicitly imposes a temporal structure on events (causes precede effects). But often the research goal is to strip away the particular timing and temporal context, and to treat causal structures purely abstractly. And this means deliberately taking causal pairs out of their particular temporal contexts and comparing them with temporally disconnected alternative examples.

Andrew Abbott takes up some aspects of these issues in “Conceptions of Time and Events in Social Science Methods” in Time Matters: On Theory and Method. And William Sewell’s critique of some forms of causal reasoning in comparative historical sociology in “Three Temporalities” in Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation is highly relevant as well.

Social science history and historical social science


Social science methods and historical explanation seem to come together in several different ways; what can we say about the differences of approach between “history using the tools of the social sciences” and “social science research that pays close attention to history”?

E. P. Thompson treats the making of the English working class. His work is multi-faceted. He gives treatment of workingmen’s organizations and publications; churches and pastors; riots and chants; petitions to parliament; and much else. The story is historical in several respects: it provides an account of change over time and it engages in detailed and fine-grained description of specific circumstances in the past. Is Thompson attempting to explain something? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that his aim is to describe this extended, multi-location, multi-group process of “making”, along with some sense of the circumstances and features of agency that brought this “class” into being. And he goes out of his way to emphasize the contingency of the story that he tells: this “class” could have taken a very different shape, depending on altered circumstances and agency along the way. His is as much like the work of a biographer, detailing the development of personality, the contingencies of personal history, the formation of character, and the actions of the mature person.

Charles Tilly treats the development of contentious politics in France over three centuries. His account too is “historical”: it describes the development and diversity of contentious politics in France through revolution and periods of quiet. His account too is attentive to difference; he emphasizes the many ways in which French contentious “underclass” politics varied across time and across region. The politics of workers in Paris were quite different from those of the winemakers of the Vendée. But Tilly’s account is deliberately sociological and theoretical. The goal of his study is to discover causes; to test a few theoretical hypotheses about mobilization; and to use the “data” of French working class history as a basis for testing and evaluating sociological theory.

Each of these examples is a major intellectual contribution; each contributes to our historical understanding; each focuses on a historically situated working class. But the two oeuvres have substantial differences of orientation and feel. One is explicitly theoretical in its goals; the other is nuanced and descriptive. One aims at arriving at explanations; the other is interested in providing a qualitative understanding of the experience of ordinary men and women of the 18th and 19th centuries in rural England. One is historical social science, while the other is social science history.

So it is an important question within the philosophy of history, to articulate the difference between these two configurations of “social science” and “history.” How are the two genres distinguished? Are they differences of style, each embodying a complex of narrative and explanatory values? Are they at opposing ends of some sort of spectrum, ranging from descriptive to explanatory or concrete to abstract? Or are they actually logically different in some way—perhaps along the lines of the distinction between three conceptions of time described by William Sewell?

Perhaps most extremely, would we be right to consider excluding Tilly’s work from the domain of the “historical” and place it instead within the domain of social science, distinguished from other varieties of social science primarily by the fact that the data upon which it depends are facts about the past? In other words, is it possible to suggest that “historical social science” is not a variety of historical writing at all?

How might we characterize some of the differences between these two bodies of writing about the past? Do they constitute different paradigms, research frameworks, or forms of historical practice? Do they embody different complexes of assumptions about what to emphasize, what the standards of rigor are, what is required by way of description, detail, and fact; what is intended by way of explanation and understanding; the role that interpretation of the lived experience of agents plays; and so on?

Comparative historical social science is a particular instance of historical social science. There is a well-developed contemporary literature on the conceptual and methodological issues raised by comparative historical social science. And the participants in this literature generally seem to come down on the side of the “social science” conclusions rather than the “historical explanations” side of the debate. The goal of comparative social science is to assess causation, and to use knowledge of concrete historical cases as a source of evidence for evaluating causal theories. Examples include the explanation of social revolution (Theda Skocpol), the explanation of social contention (Charles Tilly), the explanation of economic development (R. Bin Wong, Philip Huang), the explanation of labor union politics (Howard Kimmeldorf).

Now let us turn the lens in the other direction and ask, in what ways do the contents of social science knowledge aid in the construction of historical knowledge? What is the role of theory and causal hypothesis in paradigm examples of historical knowledge? Virtually all historians would first insist: “Historical research cannot take the form of application of social science theory to the data. Rather, the historian’s task is to discover the particular and the grain of the materials in front of him. History is not the unfolding of theoretical premises and good historical knowledge does not result from deducing consequences from general social science theories.” That being conceded: are there forms of historical inquiry and knowledge that are importantly and rationally assisted by social science theory?

One variant of historical writing where social science theory is apparently pertinent is in the “causal narrative”. Historians are well served by appealing to social science theories of causal mechanisms in order to explain the transitions that they identify in their causal narratives. This is a logical point. And yet, it is strikingly difficult to find examples of leading historians who make use of social science theory in this way. Philip Huang is an example of a professional historian who makes substantial use of social science theory and concepts; Simon Schama is an example of a historian who is averse to this use. More commonly, the authors who provide causal narratives informed by social science theory are themselves sociologists or other social scientists (Skocpol, Tilly, Wolf, Paige).

It seems from some of these scattered observations, that there is indeed a significant difference between social science history and historical social science. The explanatory goals appear to be different, and the methods of reasoning and standards of rigor and adequacy seem to be distinct as well. So the question of how the disciplinary differences fit together is one that demands continued scrutiny.

Chuck Tilly




Along with many others, I was saddened today to learn that Chuck Tilly has died after a long fight with cancer. His passing is a very sad loss for his family and for the many scholars and friends who were so influenced by his ongoing thinking and writing. And there are hundreds or thousands of younger scholars who received encouragement and stimulation from Chuck throughout his teaching and writing career. They will feel his loss keenly.

Chuck was a deeply innovative thinker who kept coming up with new ideas and perspectives throughout his career — from his earliest days as a Harvard graduate student, all the way through his difficult illness. I particularly admire the flexibility of his mind as he grappled with the challenge of explaining contentious action. So many of his ideas will continue to shape the way scholars think about these aspects of social life into the twenty-first century.

He was also a tremendously generous man as an intellectual, scholar, and mentor. People who worked with him at Michigan, the New School, and Columbia as graduate students always speak fondly of his warmth and good humor. The courage he demonstrated in facing his final illness is inspiring.

And, of course, many will think with regret of the many books Chuck still intended to write.

Readers who would like to get a sense of the range of Chuck Tilly’s thinking and the fertility of his mind may want to visit an interview I conducted with Chuck in December, 2007. A YouTube version can be found here, and a higher resolution downloadable version is here.

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