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Reviewed by:
  • Durable Inequality
  • Mark Traugott
Durable Inequality. By Charles Tilly (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998) 299 pp. $29.95

Tilly is the best known and most prolific of all those who currently inhabit the niche between history and sociology. His distinguished academic standing is all the more noteworthy, since straddling two disciplines entails predictable hazards, including the tendency for matters of style or substance that win plaudits in one camp to draw criticism in the other.

Durable Inequality favors Tilly’s sociological side as strongly as any of his books, not just because it tackles a topic central to that discipline’s concerns or because it aspires, in the process, to address a pressing contemporary social issue, but also because it presents a case for adopting a relational logic that will not come naturally to those outside (or even to some of those working within) sociology itself. Its main substantive argument is that enduring inequality results when some clear categorical opposition (between, for example, men and women, whites and blacks, or citizens and non-citizens) becomes generalized as a way of distributing opportunities and rewards in social life. Most of the book is devoted to the explication of the four key mechanisms that promote inequality between categories (as distinct from variations in life chances within them, which are more likely to depend on individual differences).

The two primary mechanisms, exploitation and opportunity hoarding, are crucial in creating inequalities. Exploitation, illustrated in Chapter 4 by the cases of South African apartheid and of gender inequality in present-day America, makes it possible for a powerful group to derive returns that are out of proportion to its own contribution by excluding others from the full value added by their efforts. Opportunity hoarding seeks to monopolize access to valued resources for members of one’s own group or social network. Unlike exploitation, however, it is frequently practiced by relatively powerless as well as privileged groups, as exemplified by the Italian immigrant communities in France and the United States that are discussed in Chapter 5.

The two secondary mechanisms, emulation and adaptation, are instrumental in reinforcing and maintaining existing forms of social inequality. Emulation (the importation of categorical distinctions into a new organizational context) and adaptation (the creative application of those basic categorical oppositions in ways that suit the local setting) explain why inequality constitutes so ubiquitous and tenacious an aspect of collective life. By offering familiar, pre-tailored solutions to the problem of how to relate to others, they lower “transaction costs” (specifically, the need to learn alternative practices or to create new models).

As the foregoing inadequate summary of a complex argument may suggest, Tilly’s book contains an abundance of new terms and concepts, especially in the first three chapters, where he carefully lays out his explanatory framework. Some readers may feel bombarded with distinctions [End Page 302] like those between relative goods and autonomous goods, or “task” versus “loyalty” versus “drive” systems of incentives. They will also need to grapple with, for example, the five distinctive network configurations (chains, hierarchies, triads, organizations, and categorical pairs) that constitute the “elementary forms” of social relationships, or the four shortcomings common to previous explanations of inequality (particularism, the failure to address interaction effects, the lack of an account of transmission processes, and mentalism.)

Fortunately, what could be a tedious and formalist exercise is leavened with abundant examples, a number derived from historical materials. In this book, as in his other writings, Tilly makes use of another helpful grounding device, which I call the “reverse zoom technique.” We are all familiar with films that open with a sweeping shot of a grand vista, only to have the camera lens begin plunging deeper and deeper into that limitless landscape, until it zeroes in on an individual figure previously unnoticed in the vastness of the panorama. Tilly uses words to achieve just the opposite effect. He often begins a chapter with a commonplace, but pregnant, observation that draws his audience in because it evokes life on a human scale. The familiarity of the everyday allows him to make the bridge to the more abstract, systemic, and impersonal patterns that are his ultimate concerns. A...

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pp. 302-304
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