Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons

Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons

Charles Tilly
Copyright Date: December 1984
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons
    Book Description:

    This lively and erudite essay, now available in paperback, addresses a broad, central question: How can we improve our understanding of the large-scale social and political changes that transformed the world of the nineteenth century and are transforming our world today?   "In this short, brilliant book Tilly suggests a way to think about theories of historical social change....This book should find attentive readers both in undergraduate courses and in graduate seminars. It should also find appreciative readers, for Tilly is a writer as well as a scholar." —Choice

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-772-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Marshall Robinson

    In 1982 the Russell Sage Foundation, one of America’s oldest general purpose foundations, celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. To commemorate this long commitment to the support and dissemination of social science research, we departed from our customary publishing procedures to commission several special volumes. Unlike most Russell Sage books, which emerge as the end products of various Foundation-supported research programs, these Anniversary volumes were conceived from the start as a series of publications. In tone, they were to be distinctly more personal and reflective than many of our books, extended essays by respected scholars and authors on significant aspects of social...

    (pp. ix-x)
    Charles Tilly
  4. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-16)

    We bear the nineteenth century like an incubus. Inspect the map of almost any American city. Notice the telltale marks: rail lines slicing one section from another; a speculator’s grid, with its numbered rectilinear streets and avenues repeating themselves to the horizon; clustered residential areas, once serving as suburban middle-class refuges from the city but now absorbed into the urban mass. Stroll through and see it up close. Notice the characteristic artifacts: department store, office building, warehouse, factory, chimney, boiler, electric pole, street mixing people with machines. For all the twentieth century’s new technologies and stylistic experiments, the apparatus of...

    (pp. 17-42)

    The nineteenth century’s legacy to twentieth century social scientists resembles an old house inherited from a rich aunt: worn, over-decorated, cluttered, but probably salvageable. Appraising the old structure, we will want to save the belief in intelligible patterns of social interaction, the hope that disciplined observation will make those patterns more intelligible, the search for fundamental structures and processes, the attempt to reconstruct the processes that created our contemporary ways of life, and the organization of these inquiries as a cumulative, collective enterprise. We will want to retain a few specific theories, such as Marx’s theory of capital accumulation. But...

    (pp. 43-59)

    No doubt the marked successes of evolutionary models in natural history encouraged nineteenth-century social theorists to adopt differentiation as a master principle of social change. The specialization of work, the subdivision of governments, the extension of commodity markets, and the proliferation of associations all seemed to exemplify rampant differentiation. The invention of the simple, undifferentiated, “primitive” society as a model of the small, poor populations Europeans encountered in the course of their mercantile and colonial expansion articulated neatly with the same scheme. All societies fell on the same continuum from simple to complex, differentiation drove societies toward greater and greater...

    (pp. 60-86)

    How can we eradicate the pernicious postulates? Two approaches, one direct and the other indirect, promise to do the job. Directly, we should track the beasts to their dens, and battle them on their own grounds. We should look hard at the logical and evidential bases for generalizations about social change, about the use of illegitimate force, about differentiation as a master process. We should confront them with real historical cases and alternative descriptions of what actually went on. They cannot resist these weapons.

    The indirect approach makes it easier to discover appropriate historical cases and to devise alternative explanations....

    (pp. 87-96)

    Comparing large social units in order to identify their singularities has been with us a long time. When Montesquieu compared different parts of the world with respect to climate, topography, social life, and politics, he sometimes appeared to be seeking principles of variation, but generally ended up with singularities. He was attempting, after all, to show that environment shaped character, that forms of government corresponded strongly to the character of the people in their social settings, that each form of government called for its own variety of law, and that lack of correspondence among national character, governmental form, and law...

    (pp. 97-115)

    For the first half of the twentieth century, social scientists often did their theorizing in the form of standardized “natural histories” of different social phenomena. Individual careers, family lives, communities of a certain type, social movements, revolutions and civilizations all had their own natural histories. The theorist would typically begin with a well-known instance, break the experience of that instance into a sequence of events or a set of stages, then propose the extension of the sequence or stages to many instances—sometimes even to every known instance. The demonstration of the theory’s validity then consisted of taking up new...

    (pp. 116-124)

    If we believed textbooks and learned essays on the subject, almost all valid comparison would be variation-finding: comparison establishing a principle of variation in the character or intensity of a phenomenon having more than one form by examining systematic differences among instances. In fact, perfectly sound varieties of individualizing, universalizing, and encompassing comparisons exist. The advantage of variation-finding comparison is parsimony: a successful comparison in this mode produces a principle that extends readily to new cases, yet is relatively easy to verify, falsify, or modify on the basis of the new evidence.

    Those attractions have, unhappily, tempted social scientists into...

    (pp. 125-143)

    Encompassing comparisons begin with a large structure or process. They select locations within the structure or process and explain similarities or differences among those locations as consequences of their relationships to the whole. In everyday life, people use encompassing comparisons all the time: explaining the difference between two children’s behavior by their orders of birth, attributing the characteristics of communities to their varying connections with a nearby metropolis, accounting for the behavior of executives in terms of their positions in the firm’s organization chart. As self-conscious social science, nevertheless, encompassing comparison is rarer than individualizing, universalizing, or generalizing comparison.


    (pp. 144-147)

    In the light of any formal logic of comparison, most of the inquiries we have been examining are ungainly indeed. On the scale of continents, national states, and regions, the matching of instances with each other only provides the grossest of natural experiments. Therein lie two traps: the trap of refinement and the trap of despair.

    It is tempting to look for finer and finer comparisons, with larger numbers of cases and more variables controlled. In the present state of our knowledge of big structures and large processes, that would be a serious error. It would be an error because...

    (pp. 148-168)
    (pp. 169-170)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 171-180)