Edward A. Tiryakian was born in Bronxville, New York, in 1929. However, at the age of six months his mother, who was of Armenian extraction, took him to France, and he was educated there from 1935 to 1939. On September 1, 1939, the day that World War II began, he and his mother boarded a ship in order to return to the United States. This was under strong advice from an American consul. His subsequent education led to his graduation from A. B. Davis High School, Mount Vernon, New York, where he was valedictorian, class of 1948. He then entered Princeton University and received a BA in sociology (summa cum laude) and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa honor society. After this he was accepted as a graduate student at Harvard, where he obtained an MA in sociology and, subsequently, a PhD (1954). His thesis was entitled, “The Evaluation of Occupations in an Underdeveloped Area: The Philippines.” Upon entering Harvard he expressed an interest in working with Talcott Parsons, and the latter encouraged him to read Emile Durkheim in the original French. This interest in things French led him to a great knowledge of French (as well as German and Russian) philosophy.
Tiryakian developed an ever-expanding interest in “foreign” countries and their literatures, and it was in these terms that he was led to pursue dissertation research in the Philippines and to travel extensively in sub-Saharan Africa. This was a period of the burgeoning of interest in modernization, and it was in this particular context that he encountered the work of the French sociologist Georges Balandier, who was to become a close friend. The latter introduced him to a number of Francophone social scientists who belonged to a recently established organization, the International Association of French Speaking Sociologists (AISLF). This association had recently been launched by Georges Gurvitch and Henri Janne. Tiryakian was to become the only American to be elected to its executive committee and was elected to the presidency for the period 1988–92.
Tiryakian taught at Princeton University from 1956 to 1962 and at Harvard from 1962 to 1965. His first full-time academic appointment was at Duke University (1965), and there he rose to the rank of full professor in 1967, eventually retiring as professor emeritus in 2004.