Dylan Riley’s work uses comparative and historical methods to challenge a set of key conceptual oppositions in classical sociological theory: authoritarianism and democracy, revolution and counter-revolution, and state and society. Marx, Weber and Durkheim all in different ways conceptualized societies as sharply contrasting wholes: feudal or capitalist, traditional or modern, segmented or interdependent. Yet a growing body of theory and research challenges this dualistic approach. For example, recent scholarship questions the opposition between absolutism and constitutionalism; the contrast between capitalism and pre-capitalism; and the opposition between democratic and authoritarian societies. Riley extends this work by investigating how techniques of social organization and political control migrate across historical, geographical, and ideological boundaries thus undermining the sharp conceptual contrast between types of social structures.
He has done this in three main substantive areas: the comparative analysis of regimes, the study of political movements, and state-society relations. His book, The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania 1870-1945(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), argues that fascist regimes arose paradoxically on the basis of strong civil societies in the pre-fascist period. Reviewers have called this book “the most original and provocative new analysis of the preconditions of Fascism that has appeared in years”, and “brilliant and courageous”. A second book How Societies and States Count: A Comparative Genealogy of Censuses (with Rebecca Jean Emigh and Patricia Ahmed in preparation for Palgrave), argues, against state centered accounts of official information that censuses work best where there is intense interaction between state and society. In addition he has started a new project investigating the connection between the meaning and substance of democracy in interwar and post-war Europe. He has published articles in the American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Comparative Sociology, Social Science History, The Socio-Economic Review and the New Left Review and is a member of the editorial committee of the New Left Review.