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.
The central organizing idea of Processual Sociology is one that finds expression in much of Abbott's work, the notion that we should think of the social world as a set of ongoing processes rather than a collection of social entities and structures. He sometimes refers to this as a relational view of the actor and the social environment. Here is how he describes the basic ontological idea of a processual social world:
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.
Abbott offers the idea of a "career" as an example of what he means by a processual social reality. A person's career is not a static thing that exists in a confined period of time; rather, it is a series of choices, developments, outcomes, and plans that accumulate over time in ways that in turn affect the individual's mentality. Or consider his orienting statements about professions in The System of Professions:
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)
His comments about the discipline of sociology itself in Department and Discipline have a similar fluidity. Rather than thinking of sociology as a settled "thing" within the intellectual firmament, we are better advised to look at the twists and turns various sociologists, departments, journals, conferences, and debates have made of the configuration during a period in time.
These examples have to do with the nature of social things -- institutions and organizations, for example. But Abbott extends the processual view to the actors themselves. He argues that we should look to the flow of actions rather than the actor (again, a parallel with Elias); so actions are as much the result of shifting circumstances as they are the reflective choices of unitary actors. Moreover, the individual himself or herself continues to change throughout life and throughout a series of actions. Memories change, desires change, and social relationships change. Individuals are "historical" -- they are embedded in concrete circumstances and relationships that contribute to their actions and movements at each moment. (This is the thrust of the first chapter of the volume.) Abbott extends this idea of the "processual individual" by reconsidering the concept of human nature (chapter 2).
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)
Here is something like a summary of the view that he develops in this chapter:
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)
The central topic for a sociologist in a processual framework is the problem of stability: given the permanent fact of change, how does continuity emerge and persist? This is the problem of order.
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.