He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Sociological Research Association and the Ordre des Palmes Academiques.
Tilly received several awards including the Common Wealth Award in sociology in 1982, the Amalfi Prize for Sociology and Social Sciences in 1994, the Eastern Sociological Society's Merit Award for Distinguished Scholarship in 1996, theAmerican Sociological Association's Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award in 2005, the International Political Science Association's Karl Deutsch Award in Comparative Politics in 2006, the Phi Beta Kappa Sidney Hook Memorial Award in 2006 and the Social Science Research Council's Albert O. Hirschman Award in 2008. He also received honorary doctorates from Erasmus University of Rotterdam in 1983, the Institut d'Etudes Politiques of University of Paris in 1993, the University of Toronto in 1995, the University of Strasbourg in 1996, the University of Geneva in 1999, the University of Crete in 2002, the University of Quebec at Montreal in 2004 and the University of Michigan in 2007.
In his obituary, Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger stated that Tilly "literally wrote the book on the contentious dynamics and the ethnographic foundations of political history". Adam Ashforth, of Northwestern University, described Tilly as "the founding father of 21st-century sociology".
Tilly's work has had considerable influence on the study of social movements. Ironically, Charles Tilly was initially reluctant to tackle social movements. “I avoided writing about social movements for about twenty years because I felt that the term had become swollen and imprecise,” he said in a 2007 interview. “The phenomenon of the social movement looked to me like a historically specific form of politics parallel to the electoral campaign and the collective seizure of food, not a universal category of human action.”
The notion of locating the birth of the social movement in a specific time and place occurred to Tilly while he was writing his pathbreaking work on the transformation of British popular politics, Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758-1834. In the process of collating and analyzing the 8,088 contentious gatherings (CGs) that form the basis of the book, Tilly noticed that one momentous change in how ordinary people made collective claims on public authorities turned out to be the invention of what we now call the social movement. “I couldn’t help seeing that in Britain, at least, social movements didn’t exist in the mid-18th century but had become a dominant form of popular politics by the 1830s. That started me writing about the history of social movements, first in Western Europe, then finally across the world as a whole.”
Instead of defining all forms of social protest as social movements, Tilly uses a narrower definition. Conceptually, he argues that social movements share some elements with other forms of political contention such as coups, electoral campaigns, strikes, revolutions, and interest-group politics, but have their own distinct characteristics. He argues that the social movement developed in the West after 1750 and spread throughout the world through colonialism, trade and migration. Local populations are more likely to experiment with the social movement with democratization, and when successful, are more likely to incorporate it into their political struggles.
Tilly argues that social movements combine:
1. A sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target audiences: let us call it a campaign;
2. Employment of combinations from among the following forms of political action: creation of special purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering; call the variable ensemble of performances the social-movement repertoire. and
3. Participants' concerted public representations of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment (WUNC) on the part of themselves and/or their constituencies: call them WUNC displays.
A campaign always links at least three parties: a group of claimants, some object(s) of claims, and a public of some kind. Social movement repertoires are the context-specific, standard operating procedures of social movements, such as: public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, special-purpose associations and coalitions, demonstrations, petition drives, and pamphleteering. As for WUNC displays, Tilly writes, “The term WUNC sounds odd, but it represents something quite familiar.” Social movements’ displays of worthiness may include sober demeanor and the presence of clergy and mothers with children; unity is signaled by matching banners, singing and chanting; numbers are broadcast via signatures on petitions and filling streets; and commitment is advertised by braving bad weather, ostentatious sacrifice, and/or visible participation by the old and handicapped. WUNC matters because it conveys crucial political messages to a social movement’s targets and the relevant public.
Tilly distinguishes between three sorts of claims advanced by social movements:
1. Identity claims declare that “we”—the claimants—constitute a unified force to be reckoned with. Such claims commonly include a name for “us,” such as “Cherokees,” “Diamond Cutters,” or “Citizens United against X.”
2. Standing claims assert ties and similarities to other political actors, for example as excluded minorities, established traders, properly constituted citizens' groups, or loyal supporters of the regime.
3. Program claims involve stated support for or opposition to actual or proposed actions by the objects of movement claims. The relative salience of identity, standing, and program claims varies significantly among social movements, among claimants within movements, and among phases of movements.
Tilly locates the origin of social movement repertoires in the national regime within which they operate. Defining regimes as the degree of governmental capacity and democracy within a given polity, Tilly argues that contentious repertoires are shaped by regimes in three ways: regimes control claim-making repertoires—determining zones of prescribed, tolerated, and forbidden repertoires; regimes constitute potential claimants and potential objects of claims; and regimes produce streams of issues, events, and governmental actions around which social movements rise and fall.
Tilly also argues that there exists a complex relationship between social movements and democratization. Democratization promotes the formation of social movements, but by no means do all social movements advocate or promote democracy. The distinction is crucial. Tilly cautioned against the illusion that social movements themselves promote democracy by analytically separating movement claims from movement consequences. A pro-democracy movement may lead to anti-democratic consequences, he argued; an example would be anarchists ultimately promoting the fragmentation of democracy-seeking coalitions. Conversely, an anti-democracy movement may promote democratic outcomes by stimulating democratic counter-action by other citizens or self-serving countermeasures by public officials; an example would be unsuccessful anti-immigrant movements.
However, democratization always promotes the formation of social movements because each of its elements contributes to social movement activity. Democratization’s formation of more regular and categorical relations between governments and subjects renders the making of rights-based claims feasible, visible, and attractive. The broadening of rights and obligations within public politics promotes participation in campaigns, social movement performances, and WUNC displays. The equalization of rights and obligations within public politics strengthens cross-category coalitions and the assertion of new identities. And increases in binding consultation of subjects with regard to government policy hold out the prospect of movements acquiring some say in governmental decision making.
In sum, social movements thrive on the secure rights of assembly, association, and collective voice granted by democracy.