Narratives from Major to Minor: On Resisting Binaries in Favour of Joined up Thinking

by Liz Stanley
University of Edinburgh

Sociological Research Online 14(5)25

Received: 29 Nov 2009     Accepted: 27 Nov 2009    Published: 30 Nov 2009


1.1 The articles in this special section of Sociological Research Online use a broad narrative inquiry approach to explore ‘big structures, large processes, huge comparisons’, in recognition of the work of historical sociologist Charles Tilly, who died in April 2008. Tilly’s (1984) Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons among other things asks uncomfortable but crucially interesting questions for narrative inquiry and its tendency to focus on the small-scale and local at the expense of major issues and topics – and it also strongly encourages exploring and analysing narrative matters on a larger scale and concerning the collective, temporal and comparative. ‘The trouble with stories’, Tilly proposed in a book chapter of this title, is that those who analyse them tend to presuppose overly individualistic understandings of cause and effect in social life, and also to think small and in a limited compass, about individuals talking about specific matters, rather than the big stories and collective processes that produce social change. As part of this, he insists that good analysis must avoid the ‘pernicious postulates’ and address the core questions concerning the nature of social life which he identifies: what fundamental large-scale processes need to be identified and explored in order to understand how the world has changed and is still changing? how do those processes relate to each other? and what social structures are impacted upon and how by those processes?

1.2 For Tilly, the behaviour and talk of individuals, collective organisation and action, and social processes at a large-scale are interlinked, for instance, in the formation of nation states, the rise of collective movements for social change, fundamental changes in the way that ‘the person’ and notions of identity are conceived, equally far-reaching re-conceptualizations of the nature of knowledge and who is seen to legitimately possess it, and so on. His approach, then, is neither anti-narrative nor opposed to the small-scale and the specific – indeed, one of his calls is for the individualization of comparisons and generalisations. Rather, for Tilly, what is required is an approach which builds concrete and historical analyses that are concerned with real times, places and people; that recognise that time matters and that when things happen affects how they happen; that avoid ‘pernicious postulates’; that connect ‘real people’ and their conduct and talk with the collective and the large-scale; and that embrace generalisations and comparisons which link persons and social processes.

1.3 Rather than a kind of posthumous festschrift, the contributions to this special issue all work in the spirit – but not to the letter – of Tilly’s evolving thinking. Tilly saw his writing about his work very much as ‘ideas in process’, to be challenged and changed though inquiry and debate. This provides the framework for the articles, which are organised in sets of twos, thereby placing them in an inquiring and interrogative, but also dialogical, relationship with each other; and they are topped by this Introduction, and tailed by an appreciative overview of themes in Tilly’s work. The headings provided for these dialogues are less prescriptive or descriptive than they are the raising of possible readings of themes and issues across the articles in each pairing. Also, reading across all the contributions, and recognising the important differences of approach and emphasis that exist between them, some important general themes for historical sociology, for a narrative inquiry approach within sociology, and for sociology as a discipline more broadly, come sharply into perspective.

1.4 For sociology as a discipline (not just for individual sociologists), its composing approaches, perspectives, theories and substantive concerns have changed over time - the whole disciplinary formation has undergone, and continues to undergo, long duree kinds of shift. It is not just states, economies and polities that change, nor are such disciplinary shifts entirely to be explained by these wider social, economic, political and cultural changes either. Or rather, the links between small disciplinary shifts and changes, and the big or even the huge ones of social formations, are complex and cannot (rather, should not) be treated reductively. This is perhaps something all the contributors agree with, although how they operationalise this insight varies considerably.

1.5 While it is a truism that sociology as a discipline came into being to study the processes of social change, the deeper reality is that society and social change are coterminous, and that combined structure and process we call society is never in a state of stasis. As the contributors all agree, embedding an investigation and explanation of (the experience of) social change needs to be done in connection with the particular contexts, relationships and historical time. Moreover, it is not a matter of conceiving of micro and macro being enmeshed, rather than ‘social forces and structures’ producing social relations and processes, or indeed vice versa. It is more complex, as various of the contributors point out. That is, sometimes there is a continuum effect, but sometimes there is a dislocation which can sharp, and it is the specificity of researching and theorising particular times and places that enables this to be seen and its implications grappled with. These implications include of course that theorising social change can never be general theory, must always also recognise variations and departures.

1.6 A critical engagement with scholarly narratives about sociology and its conceptual and practical tools, as well concerning how most appropriately to conceptualise, investigate and theorise society now and the complex historical processes which have produced it, is consequently called for. This is not to reduce sociology to an inward-looking auto-inquiry, but to proclaim the need for a rigorous intellectual reflexivity which recognises that sociology and its practitioners do not and cannot stand outside of the social processes/structures we engage with. It is not just that there is no god’s eye view or position; it is not just that different methods create different ways of conceiving and understanding; it is not just that traditional epistemologies need rethinking to better fit the material world about us; it is not just that the ‘outputs’ of sociology like all other inter/disciplines are to be read as legitimacy claims represented as narratives and true stories. All of these are important – but far more important is how the discipline and its practitioners respond to such matters in our engagement with society and social change. That is what matters intellectually and analytically, not us as individuals. More simply, analytical reflexivity is, or should be, a tool for doing sociological work; descriptive reflexivity is not, or should not be, an end in itself.

1.7 The historical has an inherent instability – times change; the past, the present, the future, change their configurations and inter-relationships. It really is not just a matter of past and present connecting ‘over time’ in a continuum-like fashion. People – including academics in our investigatory and analytical work - talk the past, invoke likely futures, orientate themselves to the present, and ‘now’ is composed of vectors of different, sometimes wildly different, times cohering in an experiential and analytical ‘moment’. And in terms of Tilly’s concern with big structures, large processes, huge comparisons, a mere additive approach is insufficient. It is not a matter of adding up what interviewed people say, the archival documents that survive, surveys of this or that, and of valorising whatever is one’s preferred data; instead what is required sociologically speaking is analysing so as to provide interpretation and understanding of structures and how they change, of processes and how they contradictorily occur, of using comparisons to establish how particular cases fit or don’t fit larger patterns. While Tilly may have imperialistically termed this ‘relational realism’, it is actually core to sociological constructionism in general and narrative inquiry specifically, and is not ‘owned’ by any particular ‘ism’ within the discipline. It is time to stop the ‘we/good, you/bad’, way of thinking about approaches in sociology, something which Tilly in his less disputatious moments surely recognised.

1.8 Narrative inquiry provides a framework and broad methodology for investigation and analysis, and a particular sociological take on what this can involve is demonstrated by the contributions to this special issue. The stories told – not only by and about persons, but also about organisations, world historical events, forces of change and so on – are descriptions of a ‘it is/was/will be like this kind’ and are accounts making claims rather than straight-forwardly referential of the ‘world out there’. But – and it is a big but – at basis and when push comes to shove, there is indeed a world out there and accounts made of it are rooted in the complex realities of the material world. Stories are interesting in all manner of ways and should be taken seriously and sociologically. However, they should not be treated as privileged and a priori not to be interrogated and analysed, and nor should they be reduced to researchers’ stories. This is where narrative inquiry comes in the analytical door, for insofar as there is a defensible researcher story to be told, this is the account of piecing together of the other composing competing past/present/future claims-making stories which are told of and in and about whatever the social setting is that we are investigating. So it is not the researcher’s story that the contributors to the special issue provide accounts about, but rather the narrative, or perhaps meta-narrative, that results from a rigorous interrogatable rebuttable inquiry. And one of the most powerful attractions of narrative inquiry for sociologists is that it does indeed enable ‘joined up thinking’ about the social world, treating the interconnections between (to paraphrase C. Wright Mills) biography, temporalities and social structures as fundamental to its investigations.

1.9 Overall, the contributions in this special issue provide thoughtful, free-thinking, responses to Tilly’s work on narratives, stories, and why and how; and they add up to a sociological engagement with big structures, large processes, huge comparisons from a broad narrative inquiry platform. They should indeed be read as a sociological narrative inquiry ‘answering back’ to a man whose work provoked, engaged, illuminated, adorned the discipline over a good many years and who would have enjoyed debating with the contributors and the insights they provide. To Charles Tilly.


The theme of ‘Big structures, large processes, huge comparisons’ was the title for an international seminar in an ESRC Seminar Series, 'Narrative Studies in Interdisciplinary Perspective', which was funded by the UK’s ESRC under its Seminar Series Programme and held at the University of Edinburgh. The ‘Big Tilly’ seminar was held in June 2008. The ESRC’s support (RES-451-25-4205) is gratefully acknowledged here. I am grateful for the input of reviewers from the Sociological Research Online Editorial Board, and particularly for that of Andrea Salter, who also helped organise the seminars in her usual helpful and efficient way.


Introduction: Narratives from Major to Minor: On resisting binaries in favour of joined up thinking
by Liz Stanley

Processes and events

Apocalypse in the Long Run: Reflections on Huge Comparisons in the Study of Modernity
by John R. Hall

Problems, Crises, Events and Social Change: Theory and Illustrations
by Constance A. Nathanson

Interaction spheres & research stories

The Origins of Modern Nationalism in the North Atlantic Interaction Sphere
by Jonathan Hearn

The Number of the South African War (1899-1902) Concentration Camp Dead: Standard Stories, Superior Stories and a Forgotten Proto-Nationalist Research Investigation
by Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier

War stories, memory & narratives of selves

Fast Girls, Foreigners and GIs: An Exploration of the Discursive Strategies Through Which the Status of Pre-Marital (Hetero)sexual Ignorance and Restraint Was Upheld During the Second World War
by Jenny Hockey, Angela Meah and Victoria Robinson

Trans-Generational Memory: Narratives of World Wars in Post-Conflict Northern Ireland
by Tomoko Sakai

Remaking narrative knowing & knowledges

Illness Narratives Revisited: The Failure of Narrative Reductionism
by Paul Atkinson

Narrative Foundations of Knowing: Towards a New Perspective in the Sociology of Knowledge
by Anna Borisenkova

Authenticity and textual claims

Neopagan Narratives: Knowledge Claims and Other World 'Realities'
by Sara Delamont

Big Punning, Large Troping and Huge Riddling: Why and How Macbeth and Other Narrative Texts Are Important and How to Deal with Them
by Joseph Maslen

Futures, uncertainties and stories

Futures Narratives, Possible Worlds, Big Stories: Causal Layered Analysis and the Problems of Youth
by Cate Watson

Tilly's Technical Accounts and Standard Stories Explored in Financial Markets: The Case of the Istanbul Stock Exchange
by Emre Tarim

Historical times & social relations

The Age of Grief in the Time of Talk
by Julie Brownlie

Narratives of Health Protection in Families with a Late-Onset Kidney Disease: Re-Defining Governmentality and Responsibility for Health in the Era of the 'New' Genetics
by Lucy Brindle

Charles Tilly: An Appreciation

Charles Tilly: Connecting Large Scale Social Change and Personal Narrative
by Ernesto Castañeda