The prominent and outstanding American sociologist Andrew Abbott – who is, among other things Editor of the American Journal of Sociology – recently published a book entitled Processual Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Like his earlier book Time Matters: On Theory and Method (2001), Processual Sociology is a collection of essays, but a more systematic exposition of his views, The Social Process, is foreseen. These writings are plainly important and deserve the close attention of those of us who follow in Norbert Elias’s footsteps on the path of ‘figurational’ or ‘process sociology’. And indeed Abbott would appear to be at least a fellow-traveller of ours.
Yet, astonishingly, Abbott makes not a single reference to Elias. It would seem that Elias’s work remains more or less invisible to American sociologists. Almost all references to his work by Americans are solely to On the Process of Civilisation, and even then almost entirely to the (original) first volume, from which they mistakenly extract the static, unprocessual, concept of ‘civility’.
It is very regrettable that Americans largely remain profoundly unaware of Elias’s wider writings, and especially his process-sociological theory of knowledge (notably Essays I: On the Sociology of Knowledge and the Sciences, vol. 14 of the Collected Works, 2009).
I reflect that Elias was right, in the last decade of his life, to advocate that we use the term ‘process sociology’ rather than ‘figurational sociology’. Unfortunately, ‘figurational sociology’ had by then become too firmly rooted, and ‘process sociology’ has not caught on so widely. ‘Figuration’ has never become a self-explanatory term, and I rarely use it myself; Elias introduced it as shorthand, especially to avoid the static idea of ‘system’, and never intended it to be a load-bearing structure. It can become a barrier, making us sound like an eccentric sect rather than people with important things to say to social scientists at large.
Be that as it may, we should not reciprocate trans-Atlantic ignorance. Abbott’s work is clearly of great interest.
I should like to invite blog subscribers to read Processual Sociology and to send me their thoughts about it, whether in the form of shorter comments or longer essays. We could perhaps form them into a symposium and offer it for publication in Human Figurations.