The Multiple “isms” in Charles Tilly’s Model

By Jan Minke Contreras

In his paper, Charles Tilly comes to the conclusion that most historical research papers can be classified into two categories (axes) namely the (a) scale of the research and (b) the epistemological assumptions. Tilly subsequently assigns them a certain ‘value’. A paper with a large-scale of research will have a higher ‘value’ than a small-scale one. The same happens with the epistemological assumptions: a paper that relies more on social-scientific concepts will have a higher value than a paper based mainly on humanistic assumptions. 

Tilly’s two-dimensional makes perfect sense at a first glance but, it might become unconventional when trying to allocate account for concepts. For example, concepts like interpretivism or positivism fit quite nicely into the “humanistic vs. social-scientific axis”. Qualitative and quantitative data also conveniently paired with the “large- small-scale axis”. Nonetheless, when trying to allocate concepts like nomothetic or ideographic  into the model it seemed counterintuitive to allocate them in any of the axis. My main criticism here is that these concepts (and many others) would need to have their own “axis”. Nomothetic and ideographic refer to the purpose of a historical research paper, which would require a third axis.  

a. Conventional vs suggested model

a. Conventional vs suggested model

Let’s try, for example, to fit “Colonial Origins of Comparative Development” into Tilly’s model: a paper that is clearly nomothetic. (Model b.) It might seem a coherent model but, the problem is that it looks the exact same way Wringley & Schonefield’s paper was modeled by Tilly himself. One cannot tell the difference as the model ignores the purpose of the paper. Incorporating an additional axis representing purpose, would change the way Acemoglu & Robinsons’ paper is modeled and would allow more accurate classification of historical papers. In a nutshell: Tilly’s model is a good starting point but can and must be built upon. 

b.  “Colonial Origins of Comparative Development”  in conventional vs. suggested model 

b. “Colonial Origins of Comparative Development” in conventional vs. suggested model