Andrew Abbott: Processual Sociology

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.

Stephen Mennell


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2 Responses to Andrew Abbott: Processual Sociology

  1. Debbie Kasper says:

    Thank you, Stephen, for this post. I was not aware of Abbott’s new book and will certainly check it out.

    “…astonishingly, Abbott makes not a single reference to Elias.” Incredible, yet totally believable. Disappointing.

    Also, thanks for the note about terminology. I’m working on a book (painfully slowly, I’m afraid) that draws heavily on Elias and have been struggling with what terms to use. Perhaps Abbott’s book will provide an extra impetus to choose one over the other? I’d welcome further opinions or suggested reading on “processual” vs “figurational.”

    So good to know you all are diligently doing this good work across the ocean. Many, many thanks!!

  2. thomas Scheff says:

    Toward Integration: Disciplines, Specialties and Journals. American Sociologist. March 2015, 46, 1, pp. 116-121

    Thomas Scheff (1343 words)

    Human beings live to a great extent in what has been called an assumptive world. Many of the things we take for granted may be untrue or only partially true. One example is the belief that the earth was flat, which thrived for thousands of years. The philosopher William Quine (1979, pp. 199-204) called such assumptions “tropes.”
    There seems to be two assumptive worlds for academics, not only the general one but also the special beliefs and dogmas of particular societies, disciplines, locations, and persons. The history of science and scholarship reveals many examples of obstructive tropes. Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer, spent his life trying to determine the orbit of Venus. He made extraordinarily accurate observations of the position of the planet during his lifetime, but he assumed, like everyone else at the time, that planets revolve around the earth, a trope.

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