The Late Charles Tilly’s Credit and Blame

Star190 Cosma seems to be on a Tilly kick, observing “As usual with Tilly, he draws on a huge range of historical sources, in an impressive display of erudition and clear thinking. Also as usual with Tilly, one does not get a comprehensive theory, but perhaps this is the sort of material where such a theory isn’t really possible, and the best one can hope for is a catalog of recurring mechanisms.”  That’s what I always liked about him.  Alexander Star in the NYT:

Two years ago, the sociologist Charles Tilly, who died this spring at the age of 78, published “Why?,” a slim volume examining our compulsive drive to give reasons for what we do. Explaining, he stressed, is a social art; what counts as a good reason always depends on the relationship between who’s giving the reason and who’s taking it. If you spill a glass of wine on a stranger, you might shrug it off with a conventional remark like “I’m a klutz.” If you spill a glass of wine on your wife, you are more apt to tell a story: “I was feeling nervous because of the bills.” It’s one thing to give someone a bad explanation. It’s even worse to give the wrong kind of explanation. If you expect your doctor to give you a technical account of your illness and you receive a cliché instead, you feel you are not being taken seriously.

In “Credit and Blame,” Tilly looks just as closely at our most ethically freighted explanations. When something happens that alters our environment for the better or for the worse, we are rarely content simply to say, “Oh well, those are the breaks,” or “I suppose I got lucky this time.” Instead, we leap at the chance to deem someone — anyone — responsible. We blame our parents when we are unhappy, and credit them for their sacrifices when they die. Thanking friends and family at the Academy Awards ceremony may be, as another sociologist has written, “the ultimate American fantasy” of giving credit, while winning a lawsuit against a local polluter may be the ultimate fantasy of affixing blame.

But how do we do this?