Tilly the Poet

Over at Abandoned Footnotes, Xavier Marquez has unearthed a poem (!) about models in the social sciences written by the historical sociologist Charles Tilly. Tilly was a very talented individual, but I hadn’t realised that he dabbled in verse. Xavier Marquez takes Tilly as making a, somewhat oblique,  argument against modelling. Based on my interpretation of such books of Tilly’s as ‘Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons’, I’m not sure that this was what Tilly was getting at in the poem. Here’s the comment I offered:

Hello. Interesting post. First sociological poem I’ve read. I don’t think Tilly was against models per se. Durable Inequality, for example, features a typology of the basic sorts of relationships which concatenate into larger structures of social inequality.

I think, rather, that Tilly is presenting two alternative models in his poem through metaphor. The first, kayaking, presents a model of human beings as satisficers rather than optimisers. Individuals lack perfect information, so they make improvised judgements to do the best they can under their circumstances. Unobjectionable, as you say.

The second metaphor, walking with other individuals through crowds, presents a model of human action as improvisation around existing social scripts. Chains of such interaction form into larger, impersonal structures – the movement of the crowd in the metaphor. So although interpersonal interactions are improvised, they exist within wider constraining structures. Most individuals remain within existing structures and stick to established scripts, they rarely take ‘short-cuts’ – i.e. paths of action which would seem to be instrumentally rational but are not part of an established social script.

Social structures the processes that produce them can be described or modelled by third parties: the cameraman in the metaphor might be a psephologist or epidemiologist. Individuals may have no understanding how their actions contribute to macro-level phenomena.

So I don’t think the poem is an argument against models. Rather, and I hope I’m not imputing my own views to Tilly here, it presents an argument it is very difficult to link macro-level phenomena to micro-level action – even if the macro-level phenomena is easily described and predicted. I’d interpret the poem as expressing scepticism about micro-deterministic models, as elsewhere Tilly emphasised the importance of the configuration of networks of social relationships between individuals in the emergence of macro-level structures. We can use ideal-types to understand individual relationships and models to describe the macro-level phenomena, but making sense of the translation between the two requires the methods of historical sociology.

This was rather less eloquent than a haiku, apologies.

I recall that Robert Denemark made a similar argument against microdeterminist approaches in his  ‘World System History: From Traditional International Politics to the Study of Global Relations’ in International Studies Review in 1999.


Posted on December 17, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the comment! I should say that I agree with you that Tilly is not against models per se; but the poem did strike me as an argument against rationalistic models of behaviour. And I was trying to suggest that Tilly’s critique of such models is not as powerful as he thinks it is. But your interpretation of the poem certainly makes very good sense.

    • Thanks for taking the time to respond. I think you’re right that Tilly’s criticism of RCT is not necessarily a slam dunk. Utilising game theoretical tools might not necessarily imply micro-determinism, for example. But these are really thorny issues, and I need to read more philosophy of social science, so I’m going to refrain from offering my own judgement.

  1. Pingback: The End of IR Theory? Part I: Bennett and Goddard on Mechanisms | Chaos and Governance

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