Credit and Blame

June 19, 2008

Popular science writing at its best enables scientists to explore the implications of their fields' findings and emerging tendencies in ways rarely allowed by the peer-review process. This can make for speculative, exciting and often irritating reading. Consider the response to Richard Dawkins. The most intellectually hopeful feature of such writing is that it challenges readers to rethink their entire world-view.

Credit and Blame was Charles Tilly's second effort at addressing a popular audience. The first, Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons ... and Why, was published two years ago, also by Princeton University Press. Together they raise the question: Why is it so hard for social scientists to do what Dawkins et al. can do so well?

To be sure, some social scientists have successfully extended the reach of their disciplines into the public arena beyond merely revelling in the complexity of the social world. Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Putnam and Ulrich Beck have all done this. But Tilly was not in their league. The fact that so many distinguished social scientists have endorsed his popular works says more about his connections than their understanding of what makes for truly effective popularisation.

I say "was" because, as I was finishing this review, Tilly died, aged 78. Tilly was a US historical sociologist who pursued Max Weber's idea that the nation state is the site for organised violence in society. He added that social movements provided various modes of resistance to state imperatives. There is much to admire in the breadth and insight of Tilly's academic work. Unfortunately, his later popular work, often expanded from The New York Review of Books, betrays the marks of vanity publishing.

Jargon, the usual Achilles' heel of academic popularisation, is hardly the problem with Credit and Blame. It is banality. Tilly's light manner recalls the popular philosopher Alain de Botton, except that Tilly trades on having had a serious academic career. The book will probably be best received by the sort of person - say, a follower of Wittgenstein or Peter Winch - who believes that social science is largely common sense rendered self-conscious.

Tilly's modus operandi is to begin by drawing broad suggestive distinctions and then clarifying them via historical and personal examples. The examples are usually sufficiently engrossing - for example, the historically shifting calculus of credit and blame among US presidents - that the casual reader is diverted from any doubts about whether they genuinely shed light on the nature of allocating credit and blame.

According to Tilly, credit and blame are assignments of competent agency vis-a-vis the increase and decrease of value in the world. It is difficult to have one without the other as part of a system of "total justice". This explains why crime victims, regardless of compensation, often feel unsatisfied if the perpetrators remain defiant of their innocence after conviction. The end of a war offers the best opportunity for triggering a cycle of credit and blame, typically through its commemorative processes, in which a society redefines itself through the manufacture of heroes and villains.

Tilly says nothing objectionable here but also nothing deep. By steering clear of the heavy theology that underwrites his sociological intuitions, he ended up brewing Weber Lite.

Credit and Blame

By Charles Tilly
Princeton University Press
ISBN 9780691135786
Published 11 June 2008

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