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The Canadian Journal of Sociology 30.2 (2005) 236-240

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Charles Tilly, The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 276 pp.

The title accurately captures the contents of this book. It is a sociological analysis. There is no nonsense about bad genes, poor child rearing, mental illness, personality traits, or individual motivation. Violence in all of its manifestations is collective behavior– politically driven and understood interaction among groups. Tilly disposes of some sociological nonsense too. More of that later. His exploration sets no limits on the types of violence considered. It classifies, compares and analyzes them as they range from a deadly shootout among card playing American cowboys to genocide in Rwanda. It is a relief to find an historically grounded sociological analysis of the endemic problem of collective violence. The author has been publishing in the area of contentious politics at least since 1964. One of the things we learn from this book is how his thinking has evolved along with his research.

The Politics of Collective Violence is part of a series on "contentious politics" co-edited by Tilly and sponsored partly by the Mellon Foundation.The first few chapters consist largely of summaries of Tilly's earlier work– sometimes with lengthy quotes. Those chapters provide a necessary introduction to what follows. It is in this material that he lists the repertoire of contentious actions that is available to certain peoples at certain historical instances. The use of a dramaturgical metaphor is reminiscent of Erving Goffman. Also like Goffman, Tilly tells a tale which the reader recognizes as something he or she always knew, but failed to acknowledge until it was presented in a systematic manner. On the other hand, like Goffman, Tilly sometimes challenges [End Page 236] conventional wisdom both with his logic and his empirical evidence. For example "As a general rule, the attribution of terrorism to extremism, fundamentalism, or delusion makes little sense." There is a certain irony in the comparison since Goffman focused on the minutia of everyday life. Tilly's spotlight is on the horrible consequences of massive violence between and within nation states (although he occasionally ventures into smaller acts of collective violence such as cowboy shootouts, brawls, road rage and football hooliganism which can evolve into larger forms).

The Substance of the Book

Tilly exhibits a Parsonian penchant for precision of definition, classification and typologies. It is how he organizes his thinking and his book. He launches his attack with a matrix consisting of high capacity versus low capacity regimes (the amount of control the regime exercises over its people) on one axis and democratic versus undemocratic regimes on the other. The typology allows him to forecast the likelihood of violence under specified conditions. His prime examples of high capacity democracies are Germany and Japan. His high capacity undemocratic example is China while Somalia provides an example of a low capacity undemocratic regime. The final cell, which the author ignores, is the low capacity democratic regime exemplified by Jamaica.

The intent is to distinguish various forms of violence and the processes by which they morph from one form to another. The single universal embraced by Tilly is the us-them distinction. He is surprised by its prominence in all varieties of collective violence. It is not surprising then, that one of his central questions is, "How and why do people who have lived with their categorical differences (often cooperating and intermarrying) for years begin devastating attacks on each other's persons and property?" He reminds us that there are numerous boundaries which can set us off from others– race, ethnicity, class, language, religion, gender. But what activates one rather than another? Some of us frame this question in terms of choices among multiple identities, but by electing to discuss it in terms of collective boundaries, Tilly converts the issue from personal choice to social constraints.

This volume demonstrates the imagination required to identify similarities between apparently diverse phenomenon. Who would think of comparing a Kwakiutl potlatch with Italian flaggellation confraternities and public hangings (pp. 87–92)? The...


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pp. 236-240
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Archived 2007
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