Useless Tilly (et al.): Teaching Comparative-Historical Sociology Wisely

Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID

This is a copy of a paper in Trajectories, Newsletter of the ASA Comparative & Historical Sociology section, Fall 2007. Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2007. “Useless Tilly (et al.): Teaching Comparative-Historical Sociology Wisely.” Trajectories, Newsletter of the ASA Comparative & Historical Sociology section, 19(1):14-17.

                           Rocco: “What’s worse, Curly, a dumbbell or a wiseguy?”
                           Curly: “A wiseguy, I guess.”
                                                —Key Largo, 1948.

These didactical observations are partly based on my experience teaching a comparative-historical sociology seminar as part of the methodology offerings in my Department’s graduate program (a course outline is posted on My comments need to be prefaced by acknowledging that I am not a methods person. It will therefore be understood that I cannot now restrain myself to express my pleasant surprise when the recent edition of a popular methods textbook included among its examples of contemporary historical work a brief exposition of my book on the history of international policing (Deflem 2002), warmly nestled in the company of works by Charles Perrow and Theda Skocpol (Babbie 2005:249-250). But perhaps I have to thank the police for that as well. As the practice of teaching is not isolated from our scholarship, some words are first in order about my perceptions of the field.


Arousing chuckles in preparation of the teaching of comparative-historical sociology (CHS) is the observation, in the presentation and perception of the field, of a stubborn and strikingly ahistorical obsession with Marxist preoccupations, or at least with a preference for Marx and theoretical frameworks with an underlying Marxist logic. In the United States, in particular, the primary color of CHS since the moment of its institutionalization has been red (e.g., Skocpol 1984). Spiced up with a conflict-theoretical appropriation of Weber, the result is an intellectual sort of tyranny of the ‘political economy.’ In reaction to a (presumably anti-Parsonian) understanding of sociology as a static enterprise, the lapse into Marxism was opportune more than appropriate. In actuality, the selective memory of sociology’s historical-comparative roots was not only profusely ahistorical, but undoubtedly informed by, rather than resulting in, a pro-Marx orientation. The development of comparative-historical sociology could have been accomplished more astutely with recourse to classical sociologists.

It is certainly peculiar to be teaching CHS in a country in which not only a Miss Teen has limited knowledge of the world and its maps, and in which any significant public consciousness of the past is missing. The very foundations of CHS are telling in this respect because it would seem banal to have to argue that sociological analysis requires serious consideration of the historical context. Theoretically driven by the classics, the objectives of CHS can be more specifically formulated to include the combined quest for descriptive accounts of patterns, and analytical accountings of the dynamics, of selected institutions. Broadening the purposes of CHS to scope extension exercises is useful only for those who value theory more than society, while social criticism pursuits might serve those who value societies that do not exist more than those that do.

As I methodologically prefer Durkheim, the conception of society as a thing apart is surely our discipline’s greatest victory. The sociological conceptualization of society is, of course, not to be confused with concrete societies, which we typically restrict to nations or other locales that are more or less bound. (Incidentally, it was Parsons [1935] who warned of a similar confusion affecting historians with respect to the use of the term ‘capitalism’). For CHS work, also, Durkheim is methodologically useful in having argued, and demonstrated by exemplary example, that “there is no sociology worthy of the name which does not possess a historical character” and that “[c]omparative sociology is not a special branch of sociology; it is sociology itself in so far as it ceases to be purely descriptive and aspires to account for facts” (Durkheim 1908:211, 1894:157).

As I analytically prefer Durkheim and Weber, the argument that some social process is fundamental to explaining the course of society, in terms of both stability and change, is equivalent to analytical reasoning. One can easily subsume under the heading of differentiation more specific processes, such as rationalization, but it is in any case important to recognize the fact that sociologists are always analytically oriented. Take the example of historical sociology and history. As historical sociologists, we are interested in the study of society and its constituent parts, as all sociologists are. The fact that the subject matter is not located in the present does not equate us to historians. Disciplines are differentiated also by how they approach their subject matters. This is not merely a matter of jargon. Analytical history probably baffles historians as well.

As I thematically sometimes prefer Weber, chuckles cannot be suppressed when reading that some have to contemplate on the logic of the organization of coercion as existing independent from the logic of production, whereas other CHS scholars have not just been observing the patterns of said logic but have been studying its dynamics as well. From a similar viewpoint, also, it must be acknowledged that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate force is enlightening because it strikes right at the heart of processes of claiming and gaining legitimacy (through law, policing, control). But the colonization of CHS has also brought about a marginalization and exclusion of the sociological analysis of those societal institutions (law, family, religion, etc.) which others have refused to relegate to the superstructure.


What matters to the teaching of comparative-historical in the context of the above observations (and other, less related reflections) can be succinctly expressed in the following four promising proposals.

Rely on the classics. It is not merely a matter of good fortune that Weber and Durkheim, amongst others, began our discipline in an essentially comparative-historical fashion. Broadening our present-day understanding of CHS, as we should, to include next to historical and comparative also international/global work, the classics are not without value as well. In respects of social-science scholarship, the 19th century remains like a dream that lifts us up. The classics are not mere sources of justification for our work; they provide the very foundations of our discipline as a useful scholarly approach, though not necessarily as a guarantee for valid arrivals.

Do not teach CHS as a methodology, unless when necessary. Methodological writings in sociology are often divorced from theoretical issues, or mere exercises in epistemological fancy. CHS is not primarily a methodology. Teaching CHS implies teaching sociology. In formulating sociological questions, theory has primacy over methods. Clarifications on the status of theory will also help inform the relationships between CHS and related extra-sociological areas of inquiry (history, international and area studies). Thematically as well, CHS is shaped by the kind of questions that are asked. Taking the example of comparative sociology, such work takes on a different role when empirical linkages do or do not exist between the units that are compared. The sociological attention to globalization has brought this usefully to light by focusing on structures and processing transcending beyond as well as taking place within relatively confined localities.

Teach CHS by example. Much of the methodology writings in CHS are epistemological, clarifying the status of CHS knowledge, rather than being oriented at presenting methods of how to do CHS research. To my knowledge, David Pitts’ (1972) handbook on the use of historical sources in sociology and anthropology remains among the few works to develop data collection and analysis strategies. More such work is needed. In my own research, I remain convinced that a systematic classification of sources is more important than reading the methodological pieces on CHS which refuse to discuss such mundane matters. In answering sociological questions, however, methods enjoy primacy over theory. In my teaching, I have therefore decided to dispense with most of the highbrow epistemological exercises in the CHS area in favor of exposing students to concrete efforts in CHS work, specifically some of the many excellent monographs in our area. Students apply an analytical model to the selected books to uncover relevant aspects of theory, methods, and research findings. To be helpful for the student’s intellectual development, also, special emphasis is placed on techniques of data collection, recording, classification, and analysis. It is after all sometimes important and entirely appropriate to know a lot about something, especially when it concerns the basis of all our work.

Do not rely on translations, unless when necessary. It was Max Weber who reminded us that “anyone who is forced to rely on translations... must make modest claims for the value of his work” (Weber 1920:28). Weber, it is to be noted, was speaking of himself. The requirement to rely on source data in their original prose is a soft one and cannot be stretched practically to a global scale. But there should be limits even to our limitations. Linguistic capabilities, also, inform at once our knowledge and understanding of the sociological works of classics and contemporaries as much as the sources of our thematic interests. By example, the point is not to know that Comte coined the term ‘sociologie’ but that he was forced to do so because of the evil doings of a Belgian.

  • Babbie, Earl. 2005. The Basics of Social Research. Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. 2002. Policing World Society: Historical Foundations of International Police Cooperation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Durkheim, Emile. (1894) 1982. The Rules of Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press.
  • Durkheim, Emile. (1908) 1982. “Debate on Explanation in History and Sociology.” Pp. 211-228 in his The Rules of Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press.
  • Emirbayer, Mustafa. 1996. “Useful Durkheim.” Sociological Theory 14(2):109-130.
  • Parsons, Talcott. 1935. “H. M. Robertson on Max Weber and His School.” The Journal of Political Economy 43(5):688-696.
  • Pitt, David C. 1972. Using Historical Sources in Anthropology and Sociology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Skocpol, Theda, ed. 1984. Vision and Method in Historical Sociology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Tilly, Charles. 1981. “Useless Durkheim” Pp. 95-108 in his As Sociology Meets History. New York: Academic Press.
  • Tilly, Charles. 1984. Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Weber, Max. (1920)1976. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Allen & Unwin.

See related writings on comparative-historical sociology.