Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Rethinking the Globalizing World

Charles Tilly ( 1929-) is currently the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University. He has taught at Harvard, the University of Toronto, the University of Michigan, and the New School for Social Research. Tilly is respected worldwide for his historical studies, the empirical rigor of which accounts, in part, for the influence of his social theories of political and economic change. Tilly's books include The Vendeé ( 1964), Strikes in France, 1930-1968 ( 1974, with Edward Shorter), From Mobilization to Revolution ( 1978), The Contentious French ( 1986), Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758-1834, and Roads from the Past to Future ( 1997).


Future Social Science and the Invisible Elbow

Charles Tilly( 1996)

For the Invisible Hand, let's substitute the Invisible Elbow. Coming home from the grocery store, arms overflowing with food-filled bags, you wedge yourself against the doorjamb, somehow free a hand to open the kitchen door, enter the house, then nudge the door closed with your elbow. Because elbows are not prehensile and, in this situation, not visible either, you sometimes slam the door smartly, sometimes swing the door halfway closed, sometimes miss completely on the first pass, sometimes bruise your arm on the wood, sometimes shatter the glass, and sometimes--responding to one of these earlier calamities--spill groceries all over the kitchen floor.

You, your elbow, the groceries, and the kitchen have systematic properties that strongly limit the likely consequences of your attempted nudge. Over many trips to the grocery store, which of these outcomes occurs forms a frequency distribution with stable probabilities modified by learning. With practice, you may get your door-closing average up to .900. After a calamitous elbow shot, however, you tell a story not of frequency distributions, but of good intentions frustrated by bad circumstances: the floor was wet, children left toys just inside the door, the grocery bagger put heavy items on top, or something of the sort. Thus we . . . save the belief in rational action, at least our own.

Don't hear my analysis as an irrationalist model of social life. Despite the fact that batters rationally aim to hit safely on almost every swing, over the long run, few major-league baseball players ever maintain batting averages even a third of the way to .900. As Herbert Simon has taught us to understand, instead of true maximizing,

____________________
Excerpt from Roads From the Future ( Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 1997). Copyright © 1997. Reprinted by permission of Roman & Littlefield.

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