Andrew Abbott is one of the thinkers within sociology who is not dependent upon a school of thought — not structuralism, not positivism, not ethnomethodology, not even the Chicago School. He approaches the problems that interest him with a fresh eye and therefore represents a source of innovation and new ideas within sociological theory. Second, he presents some very compelling intuitions about the social world when it comes to social ontology. He thinks that many social scientists bring unfortunate assumptions with them about the fixity of the social world — assumptions about entities and properties, assumptions about causation, assumption about laws. And he shows in many places how misleading these assumptions are — not least in his study of the professions The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Institutions), but in his history of the Chicago School of sociology as well (Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred). Processual Sociology presents his current thinking about some of those important ideas.
By a processual approach, I mean an approach that presumes that everything in the social world is continuously in the process of making, remaking, and unmaking itself (and other things), instant by instant. The social world does not consist of atomic units whose interactions obey various rules, as in the thought of the economists. Nor does it consist of grand social entities that shape and determine the little lives of individuals, as in the sociology of Durkheim and his followers. (preface)
This isn’t a wholly unfamiliar idea in sociological theory; for example, Norbert Elias advocated something like it with his idea of “figurational sociology” (link). But Abbott’s adherence to the approach and his sustained efforts to develop sociological ideas in light of it are distinctive.
The professions, that is, make up an interdependent system. In this system, each profession has its activities under various kinds of jurisdiction. Sometimes it has full control, sometimes control subordinate to another group. Jurisdictional boundaries are perpetually in dispute, both in local practice and in national claims. It is the history of jurisdictional disputes that is the real, the determining history of the professions. Jurisdictional claims furnish the impetus and the pattern to organizational developments. Thus an effective historical sociology of professions must begin with case studies of jurisdictions and jurisdiction disputes. It must then place these disputes in a larger context, considering the system of professions as a whole. (kl 208)
For a processual view that begins with problematizing that continuity, an important first step is to address the concept of human nature, asking what kind of concept of human nature is possible under processual assumptions. (16)
Human nature, first, is rooted in the three modes of historicality—corporeal, memorial, and recorded—and the complex of substantive historicality that they enable. It concerns the means by which those modes interact and shape the developing lineage that is a person or social entity. It is also rooted in what we might call optativity, the human capacity to envision alternative futures and indeed alternative future units to the social process. (31-32)
Ecological thinking plays a large role in Abbott’s conception of the social realm. Social and human arrangements are not to be thought of in isolation; instead, Abbott advocates that we should consider them in a field of ecological interdependence. A research library does not exist uniquely by itself; rather, it exists in a field of funding, institutional control, user demands, legal regulations, and public opinion. Its custodians make decisions about the purchase of materials based on the needs and advocacy of various stakeholders, and the operation and holdings of the research library are a joint product of these contextual influences. In an innovative move, Abbott argues that the ecology within which an institution like a library sits is actually a linked set of ecologies, each exercising influence over the others. So the library influences the publisher in the same activities through which the publisher influences the library. Here is a brief description of the idea of linked ecologies:
I here answer this critique with the concept of linked ecologies. Instead of envisioning a particular ecology as having a set of fixed surrounds, I reconceptualize the social world in terms of linked ecologies, each of which acts as a flexible surround for others. The overall conception is thus fully general. For expository convenience, however, it is easiest to develop the argument around a particular ecology. I shall here use that of the professions. (35)
I am concerned to envision what kinds of concepts of order might be appropriate under a different set of social premises: those of processualism. As the first two chapters of this book have argued, the processual ontology does not start with independent individuals trying to create a society. It starts with events. Social entities and individuals are made out of that ongoing flow of events. The question therefore arises of what concept of order would be necessary if we started out not with the usual state-of-nature ontology, but with this quite different processual one. (200)
Here Abbott’s thinking converges with several other sociologists and theorists whose work provides insights concerning the persistence of social entities, institutions, or assemblages. Abbott, Kathleen Thelen and Manuel DeLanda (link, link) agree about an important fundamental question: we must investigate the mechanisms and circumstances that permit social institutions, rules, or arrangements to persist in the face of the stochastic pressures of change induced by actors and circumstances.