Charles Tilly, RIP

As you might have seen elsewhere, Charles Tilly has died.

One informal Tilly text I liked was a response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Four days later, he circulated a series of predictions among sociologist colleagues as to what would happen, or what we might learn about the plot itself. “Am I sure these dire predictions are correct?”, he asked. “Of course not. I write them out both to place myself on record and to encourage counter-predicitons from better informed colleagues.”

Over the fold for the full set:

Date: Sat, 15 Sep 2001 08:03:16
From: Charles Tilly
To: amsoc
Subject: Predictions

Let me take advantage of this bullhorn to broadcast some predictions concerning what we will eventually learn about and from the suicide crashes a little less than four days ago. Students of human affairs can hope to make two different kinds of predictions: unconditional predictions based on statistical regularities, and if-then predictions based on causal regularities. In the first category, demographers compare favorably to weather forecasters when it comes to anticipating, over large populations, how many children will be born tomorrow, how many people will be injured in automobile accidents, and so on — just so long as they remember which day of the week and year tomorrow is, making appropriate adjustments for weekly and seasonal cycles.

The second category brings us instantly onto controversial territory; at issue is not just the validity of any particular causal connection but a set of assumptions concerning the nature of social processes, causality, and knowledge of both social processes and causality.

I write out predictions in the two categories not because I know the answers better than anyone else, but for precisely the opposite reason. Most of learn more from discovering that we were wrong, then inquiring into how and why we went wrong, than from being right. I am hoping a) to encourage amsoc colleagues to lay out their own contrary predictions, b)
to identify errors in my own knowledge and reasoning, c) thereby to identify errors in the public discussion of what to do about terrorists and d) perhaps to stimulate more creative and constructive thinking about alternatives to dividing up the world into Us and Them as a preliminary to dropping bombs on Them.


It will turn out that:

1. More than four suicide crews set off to seize airliners on Tuesday, but only four succeeded in taking over their targets.

2. Participants in the effort were never, ever in their lives all in the same place in the same time.

3. All were connected indirectly by networks of personal acquaintance, but not all had ever met each other, or knowingly joined a single conspiracy.

4. Because of network logic, all were therefore connected to Osama bin Laden and a number of other organizers or sponsors of attacks on western targets.

5. But no single organization or single leader coordinated Tuesday’s action.

6. Some participants in seizure of aircraft only learned what they were supposed to do shortly before action began, and had little or no information about other planned seizures of aircraft.

7. Instead of emerging from a single well coordinated plot, these actions result in part from competition among clusters of committed activists to prove their greater devotion and efficacy to the (vaguely defined) cause of bringing down the enemy (likewise vaguely defined).


8. Bombing the presumed headquarters of terrorist leaders will a) shift the balance of power within networks of activists and b) increase incentives of unbombed activists to prove their mettle.

9. If the US, NATO, or the great powers insist that all countries choose sides (thus reconstituting a new sort of Cold War), backing that insistence with military and financial threats will increase incentives of excluded powers to align themselves with dissidents inside countries that have joined the US side, and of dissidents to accept aid from the

10. Most such alliances will form further alliances with merchants handling illegally traded drugs, arms, diamonds, lumber, oil, sexual services, and rubber.

11. In Russia, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, the Caucasus, Turkey, Sudan, Nigeria, Serbia, Algeria, and a number of other religiously divided countries, outside support for dissident Muslim forces will increase, with increasing connection among Islamic oppositions across countries.

12. Bombing the presumed originator(s) of Tuesday’s attacks and forcing other countries to choose sides will therefore aggravate the very conditions American leaders will declare they are preventing.

13. If so, democracy (defined as relatively broad and equal citizenship, binding consultation of citizens, and protection from arbitrary actions by governmental agents) will decline across the world.

Am I sure these dire predictions are correct? Of course not. I write them out both to place myself on record and to encourage counter-predicitons from better informed colleagues.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.