Classics in the Historiography of Psychology: Tilly, 1990

Charles TillyI found the following article, by Charles Tilly (1929-2008), listed as required introductory reading in three MIT courses offered via the free OpenCourseWare website. And it struck me that, although AHP often discusses new articles touching on issues related to the historiography of psychology (e.g., our recent discussions of contextualism and presentism), we have never turned to look at the history of our historiography. Since such a turn seems likely to encourage debate, or at least afford a reflective pause, I offer — as a first step — the following gloss on (what MIT deems) a classic article.

Tilly, C. (1990). How (and what) are historians doing? The American Behavioral Scientist, 33(6), 685-711. [PDF]

Tilly was, among other things, an historian of sociology. But his article speaks to the same kinds of issues dealt with in the history of psychology. It begins with a justification: history is valuable because it encapsulates how we came to be where we are.

To the extent that the social structures and processes we wish to understand endure or take a long time to unfold, historical knowledge becomes increasingly valuable. To the degree that social processes are path-dependent — to the extent that the prior sequence of events constrains what happens at a given point in time — historical knowledge of sequences becomes essential. (p. 685)

Following this is a differentiation between “history as phenomenon” (what happened) and “history as a mode of inquiry” (how we study the available evidence to infer what happened). The remainder of the article builds upon the latter half of this division.

Historians, according to Tilly, typically….

  1. assume where and when something happened affects how it came to be. This is a reflection of the path-dependency mentioned above: what happened in the past constrains the possibilities for what can happen in the future. From this, Tilly suggests, we can immediately abstract two methodological axioms for the doing of history:
  2. First, never interpret an action until you have placed it in its time and place setting; and second, use the greatest caution in making generalizations and comparisons over disparate blocks of time and place. (p. 687)

  3. adopt a degree of specialization that enables them to study their area of interest deeply, learning the relevant languages and delving into the practices and contexts of a specific group at a specific time in a specific place.
  4. are driven to their topic by an alignment of interests between their own context and that of their subject. (Tilly refers to this as the influence of “politics,” but the phenomenon can probably be more broadly defined following Michel Callon’s notion of intéressement.)
  5. …within each major time-place block of historical research, specialists (a) implicitly recognize a few questions as crucial; (b) reward each other for putting new questions on the agenda, for proposing persuasive new answers to established questions, and for challenging established answers to the standard questions; and (c) draw their dominant questions from problems on the national political agenda either of the nation under study or the nation to which they belong, or both. (p. 688)

    In other words, the interests of the investigator — be they implicit or explicit — are translated invisibly into the mode and method of their inquiry.

  6. do not automatically dismiss amateur contributions as irrelevant, so long as these build upon the same kinds of evidence used by the professionals: personal correspondence, private papers, archival sources, books, newspapers, etc.
  7. rely primarily on textual evidence, although this has begun to include documentary evidence in the form of audio and video recordings.
  8. …written documents constitute the historian’s stock in trade, the ability to locate and read relevant documents makes up a significant part of the trade’s secrets, and members of the trade recognize the skillful deployment of documents as good craftsmanship. (p. 689)

    Historians may also rely on non-literary forms of written evidence: birth and death records, census information, tax records, and administrative correspondence.

    Indeed, in many kinds of history… one of the active researcher’s primary qualifications is the ability to sit still and stay awake while going through mounds of papers having little intrinsic interest, and either accumulating bits and pieces of information that will eventually fit into a larger design or searching for the one text that will make a big difference. (pp. 689-690)

  9. construct narratives, “coherent sequences of motivated actions” (p. 690), in which actors are inferred to have performed rational acts on the basis of what is in evidence.
  10. Historians justify the imputation of attitudes and motives to actors by means of texts that presumably reflect those attitudes and motives. The narrative mode is by no means the only possible way to present history. One could, for instance, trace simultaneous connections among many actors and show how they changed, or follow the unfolding of complex processes, such as proletarianization and capital formation. Historians sometimes do these other things, of course. But on the whole, they do not recognize the enterprise as history unless it eventually yields, or at least informs, motivated narratives. (p. 690)

    This activity can be generalized — following (1) and (3) and building on Ludwik Fleck‘s recognition of the existence of “thought collectives” (popularized by Thomas Kuhn first as “paradigms,” then “disciplinary matrices,” and ultimately “lexical networks”) — as an unpacking of the loci of meaning according to which actions and beliefs can be seen to make sense in context.

Before moving on to a discussion of how these principles have been enacted in practice by four exemplary historians, Tilly provides a summary statement:

The six traits of Western history-writing… mark out a distinctive enterprise. Whether they are advantages or disadvantages depends on the task at hand. A discipline organized in this way is unlikely to discover principles that apply across large ranges of space and time, to make much headway in analyzing processes that leave few written traces, or to have great success in dealing with social changes that operate through the cumulation of diverse actions by millions of actors. But it is likely to do very well in helping literate people appreciate the problems of their counterparts in distant places and times. For many historians, that establishment of sympathetic understanding in the hallmark of well-crafted history. For some, indeed, it constitutes the only valid ground of historical knowledge. (p. 691)

He then discusses several “peculiarities” of social and economic history (pp. 691-694) and outlines four basic choices that lead historians to produce sixteen different kinds of history.

  1. History’s dominant phenomena are (a) large social processes or (b) individual experiences.
  2. Historical analysis centers on (a) systematic observation of human action or (b) interpretation of motives and meanings.
  3. History and the social sciences are (a) the same enterprise or (b) quite distinct.
  4. Historical writing should stress (a) explanation or (b) narrative.

Beneath these choices lie deep questions of ontology and epistemology: Is the social world orderly? To what degree and in what ways is it knowable? Does the capacity reflect and react to reflection distinguish humans from all other animals and thereby render the assumptions and procedures of the natural sciences inapplicable to human history? (p. 694)

The article concludes with a long discussion of how these styles, and the questions they motivate, interrelate.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

One thought on “Classics in the Historiography of Psychology: Tilly, 1990

  1. A nice short complimentary article may be:
    Prasenjit Duara, “Why Is History Antitheoretical?” _Modern China_ 24, no. 2 (April 1998): 105-120.

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