Sociology Charles Tilly
Cecelia Walsh-Russo, Ernesto Castañeda
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0156


Charles Tilly was born in Lombard, Illinois, on 27 May 1929, and died in the Bronx, New York, on 29 April 2008. He was born at the beginning of the Great Depression to parents Naneth and Otto Tilly, a family of Welsh-German immigrants of modest means. Tilly graduated from York Community High School in 1946. He attended Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude in 1950. He obtained a PhD from Harvard in 1958. During his productive fifty-year career he taught at a number of universities including the University of Toronto, University of Michigan, The New School for Social Research, and Columbia University. Tilly published over fifty books and monographs and between six hundred to seven hundred scholarly articles, some of which have been translated into many languages. His work provides insight on a range of topics including urban sociology, European nation-state formation, democracy, social movements, labor, and categorical inequalities. Tilly’s oeuvre is monumental in terms of its impressive range of breadth and depth. He is noted for describing the consequences of the transition from a world with kingdoms, city-states, and empires into a world with nation-states as the most common type of social organization. Tilly claims that preparing for war in Europe resulted in territorial units administered by a central authority capable of raising taxes to upkeep a professional standing army. Bargaining between territorial bureaucracies and a new historical figure “citizens” resulted in the formation of new social boundaries and territorial borders. Social movements, parliaments, and representative democracy resulted from these new arrangements. Tilly noted that excluded groups employ contentious politics, unconventional non-electoral political activities to advance their interests against groups hoarding capital, opportunities, and prestige. In seeking answers to what kinds of interactions and relational dynamics influenced social change, Tilly moved toward developing the formalisms that defined his late career. He often began his complex analyses with a story. Balancing his dual role as social scientist and historian, Tilly’s stories served as a bridge connecting the underlying conditions that generated social networks, social identities, and rituals. In an interview a few years before his death, he was asked about solutions to our age’s most challenging dilemmas. He replied, “Terrible things and great unfairness are happening, but they are not inevitable. They are actually created by human intervention—however conscious or unconscious—and therefore they are susceptible to change through human intervention.” Tilly’s explanations continue to shed light on our most vexing concerns. The following selections are not meant to be exhaustive or to include only the most-read and cited works, but they give an overview of the diversity of materials and topics that comprised Tilly’s work.

War and State-Building

Tilly has been recognized for his contribution to a more historically accurate and less normative account of the rise of modern nation-states. Tilly 1990 argues that war is a fundamental strategy of state-making and that states and state agents are often the primary perpetrators of violence. Tilly 1972 discusses the conditions for the emergence of collective violence and Tilly 1975 discusses the beginnings of the nation-state. Tilly 1983 argues that explaining the historical roots of the nation-state requires examining dialectically the transformations within rural-agricultural and urban-industrial locales. Tilly 1985 extends his analysis of the dynamics and relations between different sets of interests and claims—among economic and political elites and the broader populations of peasants and workers—and included comparisons of European states beyond his early examples of France and Great Britain. Tilly 1990 compiles his analysis of war, state formation, and the modern European nation-state. Tilly 1992 shifts the analytic lens toward understanding trajectories for international politics and includes the prediction that non-state actors will play an increasing role in global warfare.

  • Tilly, Charles. 1972. How protest modernized in France, 1845 to 1855. In The dimensions of quantitative research in history. Edited by William Aydelotte, Allan Bogue, and Robert Fogel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Tilly puts forward the argument that significant structural transformations in social life such as the expansion of cities and the rise of industry may not directly create instances of collective violence. Rather, these macro-level changes impact membership, the chosen tactics of violence, and the collective identity of those involved. These factors then impact where and how collective violence takes place.

  • Tilly, Charles. 1975. “Reflections on the history of European statemaking.” In The Formation of National States in Western Europe. Edited by Charles Tilly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    See also chapter 6, “Food Supply and Public Order in Modern Europe,” and chapter 9, “Postscript: European Statemaking and Theories of Political Transformation.” Tilly examines the conditions for the ascendance of the nation-state within Europe and concludes with a discussion on the future of the state as an entity given its global dominance. The volume became a foundational work on state-making.

  • Tilly, Charles. 1983. Flows of capital and forms of industry in Europe, 1500–1900. Theory and Society 12:123–143.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00157009

    The article seeks to address the transformation of rural production to intensive, broadly used capitalist-urban production. Further attention should be paid less toward changes in technology and more toward the ongoing dynamic and dialectical interconnections between urban-industrial and rural-agricultural communities.

  • Tilly, Charles. 1985. War making and state making as organized crime. In Bringing the state back in. Edited by Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyerm, and Theda Skocpol. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The article lays out Tilly’s argument on the historical dynamism of modern nation-state formation: the extraction of resources and war-making as the foundations for citizen-state interaction. The extraction of taxes allowed citizens and state apparatus a specific relationship—in exchange for taxation, citizens were granted protections from external threats. Early European states engaged in contentious internal struggle that subjected rulers to confrontations by various internal actors as states became increasingly subject to direct rule.

  • Tilly, Charles. 1990. Coercion, capital, and European states, A.D. 990–1990. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Tilly expands on earlier works to provide a vivid and detailed account of the interactions between private capital and state-makers as coercers through war-making. These interactions generated urban spaces as sites of capital and eventually contentious collective action. Tilly traces the interaction between war and state-making, the origins of the nation-state, and the uniqueness of the European state system.

  • Tilly, Charles. 1992. War in history. Sociological Forum 7:187–197.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01124762

    The article asserts that the latest transformation of the state system occurred following World War II, which led to the international post-war system of nation-states. Among the article’s conclusions is the observation that non-state actors will increasingly play a larger role in warfare with a decline in warfare among the world’s most powerful states.

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