Processual Sociology

Processual Sociology

by Andrew Abbott

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For the past twenty years, noted sociologist Andrew Abbott has been developing what he calls a processual ontology for social life. In this view, the social world is constantly changing—making, remaking, and unmaking itself, instant by instant. He argues that even the units of the social world—both individuals and entities—must be explained by these series of events rather than as enduring objects, fixed in time. This radical concept, which lies at the heart of the Chicago School of Sociology, provides a means for the disciplines of history and sociology to interact with and reflect on each other.

In Processual Sociology, Abbott first examines the endurance of individuals and social groups through time and then goes on to consider the question of what this means for human nature. He looks at different approaches to the passing of social time and determination, all while examining the goal of social existence, weighing the concepts of individual outcome and social order. Abbott concludes by discussing core difficulties of the practice of social science as a moral activity, arguing that it is inescapably moral and therefore we must develop normative theories more sophisticated than our current naively political normativism. Ranging broadly across disciplines and methodologies, Processual Sociology breaks new ground in its search for conceptual foundations of a rigorously processual account of social life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226336763
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/07/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Andrew Abbott is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. He edits the American Journal of Sociology.

Read an Excerpt

Processual Sociology

By Andrew Abbott

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-33676-3


The Historicality of Individuals

I shall here argue that we should reinstate individuals as an important force in history. By this I do not mean a return to great-man history, or great-woman history for that matter. To be sure, social structure can and sometimes does confer on particular individuals extraordinary power to shape the future. But the crucial explanatory question in such cases is not the quality or actions of those individuals, interesting as these might be. Rather, it is the conditions under which such social structures emerge and stabilize. The real question, for example, is not why it was that Elizabeth Tudor chose not to marry, but rather how it came to be that there was a social structure in which her refusal to marry could have such enduring political consequences. In this sense, great-person history is merely an empirically defined subbranch of the history of social structures in general. It is not really about individuals qua individuals, or even about individuals taken as a group or type, but rather about the conditions that make particular individuals particularly important. So it is not to the great-person mode of thinking about individuals that I urge our return.

Nor will I urge us to turn to what we usually call "the life course perspective," although some of my own past work on careers is certainly cognate with that perspective, at least in methodological terms. In life course approaches, as is well known, we do not seek the meaning of events by looking across cases, as we do in variables-based social science. Rather, we look along the cases, finding the meaning of this or that event by its relation to the unfolding of an individual's experience. This is the same whether we take a narrative approach and study the "story" of an individual life with textual methods, or take an analytic approach and study an ordered sequence of some variable's values over an individual life course using time series methods, sequence analysis, or some other such formal approach. Either way, we are interested in the sequential unfolding of the outcomes of a person's life.

This relatively strong focus on outcomes seriously limits the life course approach. The social process doesn't have outcomes. It just keeps on going. Individuals don't have outcomes either, except the invariant one that we must all expect in Keynes's long run. So the implicit analytic focus of life course studies on individual outcomes creates important problems, which we can see by looking at the concept of careers — the central life course concept of my own substantive field, the study of work and occupations. In our study of careers, we often see the individual as a kind of final slate on which the outcomes of social processes are written. Analytically, that is, most studies of careers presuppose a world in which large social forces push little individuals around, placing successive marks on individuals' work experience, which is then taken as the final explanandum. Translating this presupposition into more substantive language, we might say that big exogenous changes in technology, division of labor, markets, and legal institutions dictate the successive experience of the working individuals caught within them.

But of course the individuals who experience the various intermediate outcomes that make up a career take action in the meantime, while their careers are still in process. And these actions constitute further outcomes of those experiences. One way out of the analytical cul-de-sac implicit in the life course approach is therefore to focus our attention on those further outcomes — the interpretations and actions through which workers come to respond (usually collectively) to the larger social forces pressing on them. There is of course a literature that does this: our long and distinguished inquiry into the social movements through which workers respond to the changes of capitalism. These social movements are precisely the social structures that have emerged among workers to respond to the individual pressures placed on them by the social structures of the capitalists and, indeed, by aspects of the general social structure that are beyond the capitalists' control — by what we might call the conjuncture.

But, like the social movement literature, this literature too ignores a central fact about individuals. That fact is what I shall call the historicality of individuals. And I will insist that this historicality of individuals is a central force in determining most historical processes. In brief, I shall argue that the sheer mass of the experience that individuals carry forward in time — what we might imagine in demographic terms as the present residue of past cohort experience — is an immense social force. It is all too easy to ignore this easily invisible force, for we fall into that ignorance almost inevitably when we take up periodized historical thinking, as we so often do when we work at the group level. In fact, the vast continuity of individuals over time forbids such periodic analysis, however convenient it may be; most individuals alive in a given period were also alive in the period immediately preceding it. In short, individuals are central to history because it is they who are the prime reservoir of historical connection from past to present. This is what I mean by the historicality of individuals.

Let me start by saying in a little more detail what I mean by historicality. In the first instance, I mean continuity over time. And I argue that individuals have continuity over time to a degree that social structures do not. Note that we assume this relative dominance of individual continuity whenever we make the common remark that social change is getting faster and faster. This assertion involves the assumption that individuals last longer than social structures; for only then do they have to suffer the changes in the latter that force them to realize the extent of mutability. In a world of which it can be said that social change is happening faster and faster, it must be the historical continuity of individuals that provides the sinew linking past and present. It is the historicality of individuals that enables us — even forces us — to know social change.

Now the belief that social change is happening faster and faster also entails a belief that the imbalance between individual and social structural continuity used to be less than it is now. That is, while some might wish to take it as axiomatic that individuals have more continuity over time than do social structures, the actual relation between individual and social structural continuity is probably an empirical matter, varying with time and place. I agree wholeheartedly that we ought to think about degree of historical continuity as an empirical variable. But for convenience of exposition, I shall here somewhat arbitrarily ground my theory in a stylized understanding of contemporary society. In that stylized understanding, it seems to me, we take it for granted that individuals "last longer" than do most social structures.

This "lasting longer" can involve different kinds of things. There seem at first glance to be at least three principal dimensions to such historicality. The first of these is biological. Individuals have bodies that are in some sense physically continuous over time. Although the cells of our bodies are continuously renewed, this renewal is clearly something more precise than is the analogous renewal of, say, a formal organization by gradual replacement of its members. Bodies carry forward records of the past in quite literal ways. They retain disease organisms. They retain an implicit record of past nutrition. They retain the marks of past behavior — of occupation, of exercise, of drug abuse, of unprotected sex. Their immune systems retain a record of past exposure and nonexposure to various pathogens.

Few of these things are retained so exactly by any social structure. Marriage is perhaps the social structure that most closely resembles the individual in this biological sense of historicality, for the various practices of marriage — sexual, hygienic, residential, dietary, and so on — undoubtedly lead to a pooling of much of this biological heritage. In that literal sense, husband and wife do indeed become one flesh. And marriage, like any other dyadic social structure, also depends in a quite literal way on the biological life of the two individuals involved. It dies with either one, and hence, it, too, is always dead in the long run. So marriage is somewhat like individuals in its biological historicality.

But, beyond relations like marriage, most social structures have nothing like this physical continuity. Members change. Rules and practices come and go. Even the social structures that are more or less built around biological commonality or common biological history — genders, kinship structures, lobbying associations for various diseases, and so on — do not have the relatively extensive but nonetheless focused biological continuity that characterizes an individual.

Thus the historicality of the individual is in its first sense biological. Biological individuals carry forward with themselves a huge mass of historical experience, written quite literally in and on their bodies. The historicality of individuals is in its second sense memorial. It arises in the peculiar concentration of memory in biological individuals. By this I don't necessarily mean that social structures can't remember anything. I have no problem with thinking that my memories of past meetings of the Social Science History Association (SSHA) are the organization's memories as well as mine. What is different is that the memory of individual humans is concentrated in their biological selves in a way that the memory of social structures is not. A sizable plurality — perhaps even a majority — of the world's existing memories of Andrew Abbott are concentrated in my head. To be sure, hundreds of thousands of such memories exist elsewhere — in the minds of my teachers, classmates, colleagues, friends, students, relatives, insurance salesmen, and even perhaps in the mind of the conductor who punched my ticket on the train last Thursday. It is crucial for social theory to remember that the self, in this sense, is strewn all over the social landscape, not absolutely concentrated in one biological locale.

But even so, the individual memorial self is less diaphanous than are the memorial selves of social structures. As I have just said, a fairly sizable fraction of the total body of memory relating to Andrew Abbott is in my one head. By contrast, the memories of social structures like SSHA are fairly uniformly scattered in the brains of thousands of members and former members and readers of our journal, of workers in the hotels where we have our annual meetings, and so on. There is no one sensorium where anything like a majority or even a sizable plurality of this memory is located. Even our executive officer commands only a miniscule fraction of the world's total recollection of SSHA. This distribution of memory, let me repeat, does not mean that SSHA doesn't have a memory. Quite the contrary. As an organization's president discovers each time there arises some policy issue that involves organizational precedents, there is a very extensive organizational memory — sometimes mutually supportive, sometimes mutually contradictory, sometimes brighter, sometimes fainter, but always distributed to many different people. But this memory, although extensive, is quite widely and relatively uniformly distributed. Memories of individuals, by contrast, are relatively highly concentrated. This makes the impact of their continuity much greater.

One might note that the memory of an organization is widely distributed also in the sense that it is contained in a widespread body of records. These records constitute a third vector of historicality, for their whole purpose is the literal recording — and thereby the historicizing — of a social or individual entity. Unlike in the case of biological and memorial historicality, it may seem difficult to make the case that the recorded historicality of individuals exceeds that of social structures. However, persons as legal beings have roughly the same historical endurance as do corporations, which are after all personae fictae. Thus, there is a legal being who is me, loosely constructed from documents that record my birth, marriage, property, liabilities, contractual obligations, military service, credit record, citizenship rights and obligations, and so on. This legal being is roughly equivalent to a corporation's legal being, recorded in similar documents concerning foundation, merger, property, liabilities, contractual obligations, and so on. But while corporations thus have a legal historicality similar to that of individuals to some extent, the legal historicality of corporations can be truncated and limited in arbitrary ways that a natural person's legal historicality cannot. So even corporations lack the legal historicality of natural individuals, although like all truly social entities, they may outlast individuals in time.

Moreover, the vast majority of social structures are not corporations or even formal organizations. They are things like neighborhoods, occupations, newspaper readerships, church congregations, social classes, ethnicities, technological communities, and consumption groups: often disorganized or unorganized but nonetheless consequential as social structures. These often do not have formal records. If they do, the records are often of diverse kinds, changing rapidly over time. And even their nonrecorded memories are scattered through diverse people having diverse relations to them. Only a few members of these groups have more than a miniscule connection with the whole body of those memories.

Such social structures have quite diaphanous historicality. Their vast riot of memories is embodied in neither a few persons nor a legal being. Because their memories are widely distributed and their records often weak, such structures can change quickly and easily. There is little to keep them coherent over time. The discipline of sociology, for example, has been something like a social reality for about a century. In that period it has drifted quite rapidly from being a progressive and explicitly religious common interest group of do-gooders, reformers, and political academics to being a group of highly professionalized social scientists with an exclusive disciplinary association that aims to produce college teachers. Much of the reason for this change lies in the sheer ease with which the discipline can forget its past — a past that is expiring today in decent silence in the minds of emeritus colleagues.

To a first approximation, then, historicality consists in biological, memorial, and recorded continuity. There is at least a possible case to be made that the total mass of this historicality of individuals, at present, is greater than that of all but a fairly small handful of social structures. What are the consequences of this? The first consequence is that "larger social forces" no longer tower over the individual in the social process. They tower over particular individuals, as we all know at first hand. But they do not tower over the great mass of individual historicality. For while a single individual is easily erased by death, the large mass of individuals is not. And that mass contains an enormous reservoir of continuity with the past. This continuity confronts the "large social forces" of our arguments — the division of labor, the technological conjuncture, the coming of capitalism — with a huge, recalcitrant weight of quite particular human material that severely limits what those large forces can in fact accomplish.

This continuity means, for example, that we cannot write a history of periods. We customarily write the history of a population in terms of periods: the Jazz Age, the Depression, the 1960s, the Reagan years, and so on. This makes the historical "selves" of a social structure like "The United States" seem to be a succession of snapshots. But most of the people involved in the adjacent snapshots of this sequence are of course the same. Of the population who experienced the depths of Depression as workers — the people who were at least fifteen years old in 1930 — about three-quarters were at least fifteen years old in 1920. That is, most people who lived and worked in the Depression had also lived and worked in the Jazz Age. (In fact, by this definition about half of them had been workers by 1910, although not necessarily in the United States, to be sure.) The Depression, that is, largely fell on people who had experienced periods of real prosperity. This fact is obvious but nonetheless important. The experience of the Depression cannot be understood without it.


Excerpted from Processual Sociology by Andrew Abbott. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Part 1
1          The Historicality of Individuals
2          Human Nature in Processual Thinking
3          Linked Ecologies
Part 2
4          Lyrical Sociology
5          The Problem of Excess
Part 3
6          The Idea of Outcome
7          Social Processes and Social Order
Part 4
8          Inequality as a Process
9          Professionalism Empirical and Moral

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