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1“No social fact makes any sense abstracted from its context in social (and often geographic) space and social time”; as a result, understanding such facts means identifying “the arrangements of particular social actors in particular social times and places.”  [1] This fundamental principle of the Chicago sociological tradition led Andrew Abbott, then a PhD student, to undertake five years of “participant observation” in a psychiatric hospital in the early 1970s,  [2] where he was struck by the stark contrast between his study and the Foucauldian reading of the asylum. Abbott explains that as he wandered through the buildings, he initially “thought of Foucault finding in those arches the triumph of regularity and order.”  [3] Yet over the course of his ethnographic study, this image came to seem less than faithful to the empirical reality of the conflict and negotiation that characterized the psychiatric system, and which constantly challenged the authority of the doctors. Order at the local level was merely superficial: it was simply the frozen image of a conflictual narrative that saw various professions (psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, judges, etc.) fighting for their respective jurisdictions. Interrogating the sources of professional authority (in the form of expertise recognized as legitimate) led Abbott to position his ethnology of professional situations within a chronology that intertwined processes with different temporalities, producing this “larger reality” reflected in local conflicts.  [4] His interest in the interactions driving the psychiatric system did not prevent him from realizing that they were playing out in a “dying hospital”: the life of such an institution depends on processes that take place on different levels, and understanding their coexistence and articulations in analytical terms constitutes one of the principal problems addressed in Abbott's work (he outlines its contours in The System of Professions). From this perspective, the stability of the institution was the result of a temporary arrangement of movements, of differing magnitudes and durations. Change is permanent, and if Abbott initially saw the asylum as a “great Foucauldian system, a social structure of which [he] would infer the elements, the rules, and the values,” he subsequently “learned to divide this great appearance of a system into temporal parts,” identifying “which of [his] observations belonged to immutable everyday routines, which belonged to administrative problems demanding immediate resolution, and which belonged to the slow changes in the medico-legal system and especially to the political economy of states, which forced asylums to increase their authorizations for release and would thus ultimately lead to their closure.”  [5]

2This realization was the foundation of the processual approach that he developed from the 1980s onward, based on the idea—inherited from Robert Park  [6]—that “everything in the social world is continually in the process of making, remaking, and unmaking itself. . . instant by instant,” that “change is the normal nature of things” rather than “something that happens occasionally to stable social actors.” From there, what needs to be explained is in fact permanence, or “why things so often stay the same.”  [7] Today this proposition is based on the identification of the texture of the social world as that of the “world of events” described by Alfred North Whitehead and George Herbert Mead,  [8] in which “social facts must be treated not as things, but [as] processes.”  [9] Abbott thus calls for research into the processes that explain the emergence and perpetuation of social entities such as professions or scientific disciplines.  [10]

3Abbott's grounding in the sociological tradition of the Chicago school can be seen through his interest in the contextual effects that are inseparable from the unfolding of these processes.  [11] He extends this reflection on the situated nature of the activities he observes by focusing in particular on the way interactions are inscribed in a plural temporal order—in other words, in sequences whose succession and superposition can be formalized. This project is marked by the dual rejection of functionalist abstraction on the one hand, and of the dichotomy between objects and variables on the other. It largely relies on the resources of narration, the only method, according to Abbott, able to do justice to the complexity and contingencies of the social process. However, this does not mean abandoning positivism (i.e., the goal of producing knowledge that is quantifiable, modelizable, and generalizable) to “mainstream” sociological analysis: the originality of Abbott's processual sociology is particularly apparent in its endorsement of “narrative positivism,” presented as a potential replacement for the “variables paradigm.” Abbott recognizes the value of the results that this latter approach was able to produce in a few decades, but considers that the exhaustion of this paradigm makes it necessary to break away from its culture of abstraction, which expunges the links between social facts and the particular processes or spaces in which they are embedded, and to abandon the unrealistic imagery it has promoted—namely that of a “general linear reality.”  [12]

4It is important to recognize that the power of national traditions  [13] may prove a hindrance to the circulation of ideas within the space of the social sciences, and it would be paradoxical not to recognize the impact of the American context on Abbott's project—linked both to his intellectual and institutional connection to Chicago, and to his rejection of the variables paradigm then at its height.  [14] It is therefore sometimes difficult to situate his propositions for “historical sociology” in a French context that is more marked by “sociohistory.”  [15] But though these difficulties may blur the interpretation of his propositions in France, beyond (and through) his Chicago heritage Abbott has cultivated relatively strong connections with the European tradition of Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Karl Marx. In addition to the inspiration that he finds in the structuralists, or in Fernand Braudel (concerning the “interplay of scales,” well known here in France  [16]), these connections provide markers that make it possible to initiate the discussion or encourage the appropriation promoted by Jean-Louis Fabiani in the Annales in 2003.  [17] Since then, the small number of texts translated into French has not prevented Abbott's sociology from provoking the interest of Francophone scholars beyond the study of professions and the methods of sequence analysis. However, the concern for context and temporality at the heart of his processual sociology has only rarely contributed to debates in the French academic spheres where Abbott was recently invited to talk about his work (“the turn toward the normative” that he has taken in recent years probably has something to do with this).  [18]

5The present article was conceived as a contribution to this dialogue with Abbott, and presents his propositions, still little known in France, for taking social and temporal contexts into account in the analysis of processes which, by combining several “lineages” of events, constitute traditions and social entities. I will begin by introducing the intellectual environment in which the terminology, the central concepts, and the methods of his processual sociology emerged, before discussing their formalization within the framework of narrative positivism. The latter is understood as an unexpected prolongation of the Chicago school tradition, seeking to embed its interactionism into a structural analysis. I will therefore focus on the links that Abbott seeks to establish between patterns of interaction and their contexts, and on his suggestions for grasping the shift from one regime of activity to another in the processes that make up the social world. The place of the individual actor in this model gives rise to numerous questions, and I will demonstrate how these can lead us to extend the “theory of narrative linkages between levels” that Abbott considers necessary to the synthesis of history and sociology. The conclusion will return to the major originalities of Abbott's program, and to the perspectives that he opens up by associating a structuralist and institutionalist approach with an ontology of permanent movement.

Against the Variables Paradigm: The Study of Interactions in Context

6Based on both ethnographic observations and the collection of series of historical data, the sociology of professions developed by Abbott in his early work is marked by the multiplication of levels of interaction relevant to understanding the ways in which professions are “growing, splitting, joining, adapting, dying.”  [19] The analysis of the “system of professions” thus aims to articulate the patterns of recurring relationships that determine the division of labor between professionals (such as doctors) and their partners and competitors, whether in terms of the everyday relations that take place in the workplace (at the hospital, for example) or those that associate the development of one activity with the decline of another. Abbott's studies demonstrate that the dynamic of a profession cannot be conceptualized separately from that of the other actors who share the same workplace or the same audience. This is the case of psychiatrists and the clergy, for instance, who at the turn of the twentieth century were considered the experts in “personal problems.”  [20] We need to identify interactional processes and implement an “analytic rhetoric of narration”  [21] capable of shedding light on the articulations between them.

7This perspective is necessarily historical (The System of Professions “embodies an idea of history”  [22]) and is based on an understanding of the dependency of interactional schemas on their social and temporal contexts. Through it, Abbott distanced himself from the dominant form of the sociology of professions, which was based on monographs that isolated professions from one another and which reduced their evolution to a teleological schema culminating in access to the privileged category of “profession” according to a series of predictable stages.  [23] For Abbott, this schema “imposes a continuity that isn't there” and which must be reconceptualized at the level of the system of interprofessional relations. Indeed, “the state of modern medicine has more to do with the state of modern nursing, pharmacy, law, and accounting than with that of nineteenth-century medicine.”  [24] To do this, Abbott develops an “ecological” model inspired by “Park, Burgess, Zobraugh, and others of the old Chicago School,” which is able to grasp the entire system of professions as well as the sources of its dynamism. Focusing on the evolution of working conditions and the distribution of labor rather than identifying the “organizational structures” typical of a trajectory of professionalization, this approach serves to redress the neglect of “contents” and “context” in the functionalist sociology of professions.  [25] The historicity of these ecologies is thus manifested through the sensitivity of jurisdictional conflicts to changes in the “cultural [and] administrative environment” of professions (bureaucratization, rationalization, etc.), which can provoke evolutions in the importance of problems that they claim to address or the values upon which they base these objectives. The dividing line between the jurisdictions of law and psychiatry depends, for example, on the state of the relationship between legal and psychiatric definitions of individual responsibility.  [26]

8This inscription of professions in a history that is much broader and more complex than the simple unfolding of a series of key stages becomes clearer as Abbott's analysis develops. While The System of Professions simply describes the evolution of the terms of interprofessional competition as depending on “external forces,” these evolutions are subsequently connected to the history of other ecologies. We therefore move from a system of professions to a universe of “linked ecologies.”  [27] As a result, we can no longer consider that the criteria of jurisdictional legitimacy and success are defined by an “external power” or by a “dominant audience”; they must be conceived of as the products of other ecologies—and in particular the ecology of the state.

9In the same way, Abbott's studies of the dynamic of disciplines within the social sciences (in Chaos of Disciplines) and of the history of the Chicago school of sociology (in Department and Discipline) show that the establishment of territories and the institutions that set them apart are based less on the unfolding of a typical script than on contingent relationships between actors within unstable configurations, evolving according to different rhythms. For example, the articulation of two dynamics with different temporalities is at the heart of the model described in Chaos of Disciplines. In this text, Abbott argues that the developmental process of the social sciences is twofold, incorporating the division and subdivision of cultural communities via fractal processes and the reproduction of “institutional and material structures” within universities. Whatever their size, the durability of these institutions is simply based on the repetition of the same patterns of interaction over time, operating at distinct but nevertheless connected levels.

10From this perspective, the stability of the “social order” is nothing more than a mirage, and immobility should be considered merely one of the masks worn by activity.  [28] For Abbott, we must relinquish “the ‘problem of order’ tradition” based on models of equilibrium (“departures from order lead to corrective actions that make order return”), so as to do justice to the idea that “conflict and unpredictability are the nature of social life.”  [29] Abbott makes Tony, the character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1978), a surprising model for this approach. He argues that social scientists must focus on the tempo and styles of movement that give form to actors living in the present, instead of being blinded by ends and statuses like the duller characters in the film (those who, as Tony's boss says, have “a future” in the business). Instead of working back from ends that are considered similar and trying to identify their causes (the status of profession for Harold Wilensky, the act of buying or voting for Paul Lazarsfeld, revolution for Theda Skocpol, and so forth), social scientists should pay more attention to the concrete way things progress, following the moves of actors like Travolta as he concentrates on “staying alive” (in the words of the famous soundtrack).  [30] In other words, Abbott encourages his colleagues not to lose sight of the contingency and local meaning in the interactions that make up the social order event by event—step by step, as it were. This interactionist injunction is aimed at functionalist abstraction (that of Talcott Parsons's schemas), but also at the illusions produced by the variables paradigm. Indeed, within this paradigm the search for causal explanation leads to the reification of objects and variables into two distinct categories—and to the construction of a relationship between the two that is held to be true in an absolute sense, in a space that is beyond historical reasoning (that is, in the false universality of ceteris paribus, “all other things being equal”).

11Although Abbott shared the ambition that motivated the emergence of the variables paradigm (including the desire to guide public action  [31]), by the end of the 1980s it seemed clear to him that it had run its course. Moreover, he considered it responsible for the contamination of the social science lexicon by expressions whose artificiality we no longer notice (for example, the “action” of variables), and which therefore hinder the production of alternative empirical knowledge. Tracing the assumptions and excesses of this paradigm in “standard positivist articles,”  [32] Abbott sought to hasten its demise by reminding us that propositions which mobilize variables (“education causes occupational achievement”) are only shortcuts and not genuine accounts of the dynamics of social life. They offer a “quick way of summarizing many narratives,” which in fact “embodies a concept of causality as forcing,”  [33] voiding actors of their “substantial complexity,”  [34] events of their ambivalence,  [35] and cultural concepts (such as “stress”) of their historicity.  [36]

12One of the major failings of this paradigm is the way that it has misguided the rapprochement of history and sociology. Abbott particularly targets the form of historical sociology which has dominated the landscape of the social sciences in the United States and crystallized around Theda Skocpol and Charles Tilly. For Abbott, Skocpol illustrates the false promises of this prevailing current, whose “methodological language betrays the dream of somehow generating ‘causal explanations’ that are abstracted from actors and stories.” “Locating islands of causal regularities within a sea of historic change,” she has in fact merely identified “typical narratives” à la Weber.  [37] Abbott thus joins the battalions of those who criticize Skocpol's methods, which have provoked strong reactions from both sociologists and historians.  [38] Among these critics, William Sewell has underlined the impact of the “historic turn” taken by American sociology in the 1970s and 1980s, and regrets the insufficiently narrativist orientation in historical sociology that emerged as its main result. Rather than attributing it to the magnetic pull of the variables paradigm decried by Abbott, Sewell ascribes this misdirection to the desire of the subdiscipline's main figures to display the scientistic signs of “experimental” comparatism, in order to reinforce its place in the institutional landscape. By the late 1990s, its legitimacy was established and for Sewell the time was ripe to provide historical sociology with a new momentum: its analyses could include a more complex and more original conception of temporality than that associated with linear causality—until then taken for granted by sociologists simply happy to extend the collection of their empirical data over time. This meant making more room for the contingency of events, and no longer “freezing history,” like Skocpol, before dividing it into “artificially interchangeable units” (according to Michael Burawoy's critical metaphor). Sewell recognizes that Skocpol's analyses are based on descriptions that are very instructive in their heterogeneity, but he regrets that their heuristic value ends up smothered by the importance conferred upon variables.

13Abbott shares Sewell's idea that the epistemic reform of historical sociology requires moving away from an experimental model that is untenable in the social sciences. For him, this model is guided by a narrow conception of what constitutes a scientific contribution: he reminds us that the progress of certain fields in the physical and life sciences, such as biology, has relied on the work of description rather than the search for causality.  [39] In any event, the irreducibility of sociohistorical contingency is ultimately incompatible with the variables paradigm. This means that we must not seek to reason on the basis of social facts that are in some way stripped of their social “envelope” (in order to shed light on a link between a variable and an event, for example). Instead, analysis must be based on a narrative structure that gives prime place to contextual effects—context being understood as “those things that surround and thereby define a thing of interest” and not as unnecessary detail. An investigation “must therefore begin with action and detail, with social activity in its immediate contexts of social time and place.”  [40]

14One of the most important contributions of the Chicago school, according to Abbott, is precisely its insistence on the indexicality of actions and their succession, through its formulation of the “central idea of contextuality.” Its history thus shows how it enabled scholars to distinguish increasing “degrees of contextuality” in the analysis of typical processes, moving from a “natural history” (linking events in a “relatively predictable” way, as in the urban sociology of Park or Burgess), to the schema of a “career” (with successions that are more exposed to outside influences), and then to narratives of “interactional fields” (in which no trajectory, individual or collective, is independent of any other).  [41] The analysis of these fields allows us not only to identify types of careers or occupational cycles, but also to put them “in motion in relation to one another.”  [42] In this context, relations between individual or collective actors reflect “temporal patterns of reciprocal determination” (“conflict,” “assimilation,” “accommodation,” and so forth).  [43] In other words, they mirror “sequences of jurisdictional control, describing who had control of what, when, and how,”  [44] and any study must explain their order and rhythm of succession, as well as their level of exposure to their context: “Given a set of spatial or social structures, how independent could they be of temporal context?”  [45] It is uncovering these sequences and their logics of succession that gives a study its positive value and allows it to move beyond simple narrative.  [46]

A New Paradigm for the Social Sciences: Narrative Positivism

15The heritage of the Chicago school to which Abbott lays claim means considering the work of the social sciences as shedding light on the characteristic processes of “interactional fields,” whether these are formed by interpersonal relations (as for Erving Goffman), by professional relations (as in The System of Professions), or by relations in a much broader space (such as Immanuel Wallerstein's “world-system”).  [47] This characterization is the basis of narrative positivism, intended both to reflect the decisive influence of the contexts in which these processes take place and to produce generalizations that go beyond sociohistorical particularisms. Ideally, these generalizations could rely on quantification—measuring, for example, the proximity of historical sequences (according to the model of optimal matching analysis  [48]). Indeed, for Abbott “‘positivism’ means ‘measurement,’” and maintaining the term in the lexicon of the social sciences is justified by “the notion that social reality is measurable in some unambiguous way.”  [49]

16In seeking to combine narrative methods with positivist aims, Abbott applies a principle of innovation that is in line with his theory of differentiation in the social sciences. Presented in Chaos of Disciplines, this theory describes how conceptual or methodological dichotomies (“a focus on social structure or on culture,” a preference for “narrative versus analysis, positivism versus interpretation,” or quantitative versus qualitative  [50]) define the oppositions between subdisciplinary communities. Uncovering this dynamic thus reveals a method capable of bringing forth new currents of research, by introducing new dichotomies or by working to overcome old oppositions (this is the heuristic presented in Methods of Discovery).  [51] The second of these options leads Abbott to return to the now canonical opposition between narration and measurement, and to propose a new paradigm that brings together “positivism and interpretation” as “different moments of one process,” in an approach that is “flexible” as far as it is conducted with an awareness of the limits of the two approaches combined.  [52] In this perspective, the resources of narrative ward off the inability of the variable paradigm's causal and abstract analysis to grasp the contextual complexity of the social sciences’ empirical data.  [53] At the same time, formalization techniques make it possible to move beyond the identification of particularisms within an analytic frame that can give rise to comparisons and quantifications. Narrative positivism is thus presented as the extension of ethnographic study, offering the possibility to highlight its indexicality  [54] while avoiding the “soft interactionism” evoked by Fabiani.  [55]

17This is not a question of wiping the slate clean of past studies, but rather of returning to the sources of a collective evolution that Abbott now sees as a dead end, by proposing a combination of research positions that are traditionally opposed to each other. This proposition aims to open up a new space of knowledge while drawing on a repertoire of practices that are well established in the social sciences. For Abbott, the production of knowledge is a cyclical and not a cumulative process; a crucial part of social science involves regularly returning to the themes and questions abandoned by the previous generation, a process which nevertheless connects current generations to earlier ones.  [56] Narrative positivism therefore draws on formalist theories from literature and communication, theories that Abbot regrets are largely invisible in the work of social scientists.  [57] The ability of Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, Vladimir Propp, or Tsvetan Todorov to interpret complex narratives through order and sequence attracted Abbott's attention when he was young.  [58] By reading their classic works (particularly Roland Barthes's S/Z[59]) he learned that it was possible to conduct a rigorous and ordered analysis of material that is complex and ambiguous.  [60] Narrative positivism takes the same approach, applying the forces of interpretation and analytical rigor to empirical accounts—those “narratives” that alone can lay the foundations of a (“sympathetic”  [61]) understanding of actors’ experiences.

18Beyond the missed opportunities to collaborate with theorists of the structural analysis of narrative, Abbot considers that the disinterest for narrative among recent generations of social scientists can also be seen in the neglect of the narrative foundations of the Marxist and Weberian traditions—foundations that need to be rediscovered in a movement typical of the cyclical dynamic of the social sciences. Indeed, a substantial portion of Marx and Weber's respective work is based on a narrative method which consists in shedding light on sequences of typical interactions, pitting actors belonging to different social groups against each other, before analyzing the logic of their concatenation. This importance placed on narration explains why their work in historical sociology contrasts so substantially with the standard variables paradigm criticized by Abbott. He particularly favors a conception of causality in which the “action” of a variable does not have one single outcome, and especially not one single direct outcome, and where its effect cannot be isolated from its context of relevance. The works of Marx (on social conflict, for example) and Weber (on bureaucratization, for instance) are based on entirely different premises, and attest to the productivity of “hypotheses on the sequential regularities of the social process.”  [62]

19Abbot's mobilization of a narrative approach based on the revelation of sequential dynamics over the long term is reminiscent of another sociologist and historian, Norbert Elias. There is a striking proximity between the terms that Elias uses to explain his “general theory of social processes” and those of Abbott's critique of the variables paradigm.  [63] When he calls for studies of “processes, changes, relations, in other words, the dynamic of positions (for example, processes of stigmatization within a collective),” Elias advocates breaking away from a method consisting in the “separation of interrelated things into individual components—‘variables’ or ‘factors’—without any need to consider how such separate and isolated aspects of a comprehensive context are related to each other.”  [64] Elias opposes the long-term perspective of Marx or Weber to the “withdrawal of sociologists into the present,” which he explains, in the words of Nathalie Heinich, by “the paradigmatic nature of fixist belief, spontaneously working from a hypothesis of stability and immobility, making all movement into a puzzle to be solved, or a ‘historical’ phenomenon that. . . in the eyes of sociologists is contingent and ‘apart from the structure,’ instead of being an ‘indelible property of social structures themselves.’”  [65] However, it is not Elias's model of the “civilizing process” that interests Abbott, probably because in his mind it has too much affinity with the developmentalist and culturalist schema that he rejects.  [66] Instead he focuses on the multiscalar eclecticism of Elias's empirical data. By showing that “things we had thought utterly separate—the history of nose blowing and the history of the absolute state—were in fact part of one large process,”  [67] Elias demonstrates the advantage of leaving the beaten paths of causal reductionism that Abbott deplores in historical sociology.

20This empirical openness, praised in Methods of Discovery, nonetheless confronts researchers with a problem well known to some of the authors of the Chicago sociological tradition, whose research practices exposed them to the risk of retaining “too much information about individuals, about narratives, about groups.”  [68] As a result, narrative positivism also draws on ordering techniques adopted by Paul Cressey, Ernest Mowrer, or Frederic Trasher, based on narrative sequencing and the problematization of “causal power” at each stage of the narrative.  [69] It presents itself as a way of conducting “general” historical sociology based on the identification and characterization of “sequences of events” that pit actors of varying size against one another.  [70] As for Weber or Goffman, formalization begins with the choice of “terminology for generic types of narrative links” and the attribution of names to the processes observed (“bureaucratization,” “institutionalization,” “losing face,” “stigmatization,” etc.). In this way, a space for comparison emerges, with the establishment of a “catalogue” of recurring “narrative steps,” “typical stories” allowing for the modelization of “trajectories.”  [71] This last term is sufficiently generic for the method to apply to the evolution of individual or collective biographies, the transmission of epidemics or of innovations, or the spread of scandals or controversies.

21One of the objectives of narrative positivism is to facilitate a rapprochement, or even a fusion, between history and sociology, by thinking “about social reality the way historians have traditionally done”  [72] and making that the basis for research and writing. According to Abbott, historians are trained in “thinking narratively” by default, which allows them “to theorize the multilevel social process, at the same time avoiding the dangers of simple-minded causality.”  [73] His diagnosis is as follows: by subjecting itself to the variables paradigm, sociology (particularly in the United States) has moved away from the theoretical debates on context and process engaged by the Chicago school. Yet these debates might well have brought together two disciplines which, abandoned to institutional power struggles, never began the dialogue that would have allowed them to transcend their respective limits within a new social science. Adopting “narrative thinking” and working toward the formalization of event sequences would enable this “lost synthesis” to emerge, and offer a means of breaking away from the embarrassing situation that pushed Abbott to compare the relationship between history and sociology to that of “parents from differing backgrounds whose adolescent children have contracted a friendship at school” and who put on a show of “pleasant but empty cordiality.”  [74]

Chains of Regimes and Successions of Structures

22For Abbott, the renewal of the interdisciplinarity specific to the social sciences requires a redefinition of the role of temporal contexts in understanding the forms of social life. His conception of temporal context works toward the dual insertion of an interactional sequence in the flow of events: placed in a particular succession of moments, the sequence also forms a component in the layers of diverse temporalities that make up social change. The historicity of a series of events established as a relevant sequence (for example, “the transformation of a journal into a disciplinary instrument” in Department and Discipline, or the “disappearance of a profession” in The System of Professions) depends first of all on its place in a much longer process, which concerns the entire interactional field to which its actors belong. For Abbott, one of the errors of advocates of the variables paradigm is to consider that variables “act” in a uniform way across all sequences of a transformation process. In fact, the same causes do not produce the same effects depending on the order of the sequences in which they appear (“time matters” is a maxim that is now well established in the domain of historical sociology).  [75]

23Narrative positivism is a historicism, in the sense that it generalizes a problem consubstantial to history as a discipline—that of periodization—to all levels of social interaction. Periodizing, wrote Antoine Prost, means “identifying moments of rupture, taking a stand on what changes, dating the changes, and giving them a first definition.” What is at stake is “thinking simultaneously in terms of continuity and change,” defining periods—or sequences—in which “homogeneity prevails.”  [76] Narrative positivism therefore requires the identification of events that mark the shift from one “present” (or “regime”) to another.  [77] An excursion into the Norwegian fjords provided Abbott with an example to explain his schema of change between eras: the invention of the “grenade harpoon.” The era is here defined by the stability of a “set of social parameters” characterizing “the world of marine mammal hunting in the early 1860s,” specifically the fierce competition of the seal hunt, the difficulty of catching rorquals, and the high selling price of oil and guano. These parameters changed in the 1870s with Sven Foyn's invention, the drop in oil prices, and the arrival of new competitors hunting whales.  [78] For the actors involved, the end of the sequence meant a change in the social order, with the emergence of new (cultural and institutional) structures.

24Another example of this kind of sequential schema is drawn from the history of the Chicago school, and likewise shows that the problem of transition between regimes must be envisaged in terms of the destruction or creation of structures—in this case considered as intellectual and organizational “traditions.” Indeed, Abbott criticizes the overexploitation of the concept of “culture” to explain the continuity and changes in these processes, because he believes that it prevents us from gauging the “complexities of indexicality”  [79] by subordinating the influence of the past to the inscription of a culture in actors’ memories. He recognizes the advances made in this area by historians such as Sewell,  [80] but (perpetuating the terms of opposition between structure and culture) prefers to orient his research toward the “structural influence” of the past or the “purely structural problem of temporality.” In this perspective, “the past is encoded into the present in patterns of connection that we call structure,” patterns which essentially constitute the “memory of the social process.”  [81] Studying the emergence and longevity of the Chicago school thus led Abbott to consider an intellectual tradition as the result of the “yoking together” of different lineages: personal, intellectual, material, and so on. This tradition can be considered a structure to the extent that it transcends in turn the lineages of interactions that constitute it, in a process that is difficult to observe except through “comparisons across cases or counterfactual reasoning.”  [82] In any case, it is a process, a succession of events, and not a list to which one must conform: a “way of becoming. . . characteristic of particular locales in social life,” and therefore impossible to apprehend synchronically.

25Similarly, Abbott's history of the American Journal of Sociology (AJS) is not based on the material accumulation of issues of the journal, but rather on the reconstruction of “a long braid of moments,” continually changing over the course of the different connections and disconnections forged between new lineages. The important consequences of certain events in the history of this academic institution (“an institution in time”) make it possible to identify sequences of relative stability. When it was created, the AJS was the instrument of one man (Albion Small) and still unclear in its outline. It subsequently became the journal of a university department, driven by “a sense of duty to the discipline,” and then later one of the driving forces in the academic development of sociology. This relationship was inversed in the most recent sequence of the history of the AJS, that of its standardization: here the journal was subject to the influence of the discipline until it was eventually absorbed by it.  [83]

26“The Chicago writers [of the 1920s and 1930s] believed social structure to be a set of temporary stabilities in a process of flux and reciprocal determination.”  [84] In their wake, one of the objectives of processual sociology consists in identifying moments in which such a structure emerges or is renewed, in a narrative ordered by the succession of regimes (or “presents”). Rejecting the convenience of culturalist vocabulary led Abbott toward the ontology of Whitehead (via Mead), in which “both micro and macro entities are emergent”  [85] and share the fundamental property of endurance. This persistence—the fact of being an ensemble of events “that keep happening the same way”  [86]—can be explained by internal or external (“ecological”) factors. The case of the Chicago school shows however that endurance is not enough to constitute a “social thing”: its “thingness” is founded on its status as a “site of causation,” a source of social consequences. This status is defined more actively through the demonstrated influence of such an entity on neighboring entities or sites, as an “ability to create an effect on the rest of the social process that goes beyond effects that are merely transmitted through the causing entity from elsewhere.”  [87] The defensibility of an entity, its “structural resilience,” is associated with its “causal authority,” which increases with the number and solidity of its footholds in different orders of reality (or in “several different dimensions of difference”), and with the “connections” that these forge “across long reaches of the social world.”  [88]

27The structures that define different sociohistorical regimes embody “arrangements that make certain actions or events particularly consequential.” For example, the structure of British royal power explains the fact that the consequences of King George III's madness were of an entirely different order to those of the madness of an anonymous commoner.  [89] Bernard Guenée has shown the complexity of this kind of situation, demonstrating how political structures in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century France both prevented actors from overthrowing Charles VI, in spite of his madness, and allowed his illness to have significant repercussions on the kingdom.  [90] But similar events do not have the same impact in regimes based on different structures. Indeed, these can show themselves to be particularly resistant to individual contingencies: Abbott notes, for example, that “the United States easily survived” eight years under George Bush, “a president with mediocre abilities and limited experience.”  [91] For Abbott, studying the sensitivity of power structures to these kinds of biographical idiosyncrasies should allow us to redefine the influence of individuals in history.  [92] Marshall Sahlins put forward a similar argument, evoking “structural types” of social organization that give “disproportionate historical effect” to certain individuals (such as the King of Fiji). But although he agrees with Abbott in rejecting the opposition between structure and event (he considers the latter “the empirical form of system”), Sahlins's historical anthropology also shows the difficulty in devaluing—as Abbott seeks to—the reference to the “symbolic system” or “cultural order” to explain the stability of social institutions.  [93] Similarly, the large-scale evolutions that Guenée associated with the realization that the feudal system was compatible with a mad king (“never did so weak a king carry in his person a stronger idea of sacred monarchy. The madness of Charles VI has played some part in the construction of the modern state”  [94]) were largely based on representations relating to the fundamental division between the king's two bodies.  [95]

28Guenée's analysis illustrates the ambivalence of the succession of the historical regimes he identifies, revealing both a change in representations of royalty and the persistence of feudal political structures. For Abbott, the potential to express such ambivalence explains the superiority of the narrative approach. Grasping the specific dynamic of a sociohistorical process depends on the ability of the analyst to recount the thread of events, defined as “those local consummations of action and interaction that knot the contingencies of the present into new relations and structures that become the constraints and potentialities of the next moment—its past.”  [96] There is never a breaking point in this Markovian schema, in the sense that this flow of events is never interrupted. In other words, the narrative approach supposes an author who creates a distinction between the interrupted process and the process of interrupting (as well as between “the contextual [or central] nature of a given event”), depending on his or her interests as a researcher “and not on the nature of the process itself.”  [97] Similarly, continuity and change are relative at the level of narrative; even the concept of “turning point,” implying an “abrupt” break in regime, remains a “narrative concept.”  [98] From this perspective, the shift implied in a “revolutionary moment” is a process that we can choose to analyze as a chain of interactional events rather than as a punctuation mark in a grand narrative. Understanding this kind of rupture has long been a question of choosing between “a structural reading (which makes it the product of social antagonism) and an ‘event-based’ reading (emphasizing the role of chance as situations tip into instability),” both being most often oriented toward “the outcome of the crisis.”  [99] In this alternative, we can see a perfect example of the distinction governing the disciplinary dynamic of the social sciences as it is described in Chaos of Disciplines, and which Abbott seeks to overcome with his pragmatist and structuralist conception (the event is what happens to the structure, the structure is a way of becoming). Although more recently research has “concentrated on the revolutionary moment itself,” particularly to underline “the plasticity of crisis situations” (a direction that Quentin Deluermoz associates with the work of Michael Dobry), Abbott's processual structuralism offers an alternative to approaches that place more emphasis on the “lived experience” of actors, without however neglecting the “specifically situational stakes of each moment.”  [100]

The Plurality of Temporalities

29The temporal context that must be taken into account in the narrative of the social sciences cannot be limited to a chronological order of succession. It is also defined by the superposition of strata with multiple temporalities, by the simultaneity of processes with different rhythms.  [101] Abbott's reflection on the plurality of temporalities (an exception in recent social sciences, according to Sewell  [102]) results from the observation that events are inscribed in several processual “lineages,” just as an individual is part of several family lineages.  [103] A process as simple as the writing of a text illustrates this: Abbott describes how writing the epilogue of Time Matters is “an event for me [Abbott], for Nuffield College (where I happen to be writing it), for men, for the University of Chicago Press, for my family (who are putting up with my absence), and so on.”  [104] Yet the individual and collective actors concerned by these lineages are in turn embedded in “interactional systems” which do not evolve according to the same rhythm—in other words, in which sequences, or even regimes of activity, do not succeed one another at the same speed. As a result, this particular event does not have the same meaning for each of them.

30“Why were there very few psychiatrists working in mental hospitals in the 1930s when psychiatry had begun as the profession of asylum doctors in the late nineteenth century?” Pondering this question, Abbott remarks that the answer mobilizes processes with different temporalities, working to rhythms that were biographical (the mobility of “doctors entering and moving within the nervous and mental disease area”), demographic (the “growth of. . . communities of neurologists and psychiatrists in major cities”), intellectual (the evolution of “psychiatric knowledge. . . over a fifty-year period”), and political (“changes in social control that took more than a century to fall into place”).  [105] In other words, the social process moves on many levels at once.  [106] On this point Abbott, an admirer of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philippe II,  [107] explicitly draws on Braudel's schema combining the longue durée of “geographical time,” the cyclical time of “societies and economies,” and the “short, individual time of the event,” which remains the key reference in conceptualizing temporal scales reflecting different “rhythms of intensity of change (more or less fast).”  [108] This “pluralization of the temporal dimension” formed part of Braudel's response to the attacks of structuralism,  [109] and in both the letter and the spirit of Abbott's narrative positivism and processual sociology we can see the echo of the historian's desire to construct models (and see them constructed) “while retaining the depth, complexity, and heterogeneity of the scenes chosen, which are the mark of life itself.”  [110] For Braudel too, the plurality of temporalities manifested itself through the varied rhythm according to which structures are made and unmade. Thus, “some structures, because of their long life, become stable elements for an infinite number of generations: they get in the way of history, hinder its flow, and in hindering it shape it. Others wear themselves out more quickly. But all of them provide both support and hindrance. As hindrances, they stand as limits (‘envelopes’ in the mathematical sense) beyond which man and his experiences cannot go.”  [111]

31However, the ontology of the “world of events” adopted by Abbott leads to a radical reversal of the Braudelian perspective. For Braudel, the primacy of the longue durée confined the event “to the level of superficiality” (and ensured the preeminence of his own discipline in the space of the social sciences).  [112] In contrast, processual sociology is founded on the refusal of any hierarchy in temporal scales, and in this it provides useful avenues for reflecting on the problem of their articulation, recently posed in the Annales.  [113] For Abbott, Braudel's schema “is one way to start,” but the hierarchical idea that runs through it must be abandoned in order to open up the construction of a new theory of the linkages between levels.  [114] No one level “commands” another: these linkages are constantly changing and need to be subjected to empirical study on the articulation of lineages of activity and their consequences. This conception is close to that expressed by Jean-Claude Perrot, who attributes a particular socioeconomic configuration's durability to intertwining traditions of various kinds and rhythms.  [115] In any case, Abbott cannot but see the territory that Braudel accords to sociology as rather unstimulating. Of course, it is sometimes useful to “define zones of temporal constancy and do ‘pure sociology’ [as per the Braudelian partition] within them. . . but as a general strategy such procedures are inappropriate.”  [116] To the contrary, for the sociologist the advantage of “the conceptualization of social reality as processes of complex events” lies in being finally able to deal with “the problem of multiple temporal layers of [social] change that lies at the heart of the history/sociology split.” From there, it is not just a question of identifying processes with different rhythms that model a given social space, but also a case of considering how these processes may “mutually condition each other.”  [117]

32For example, if the analysis of the dynamic of academic territories in Chaos of Disciplines reveals a slow-rhythmed process of interdisciplinary rivalry and an intra-disciplinary (“fractal”) process of competition that is more frenetic, it also shows that the solidity of the whole can be explained by the interconnections between social and cultural structures created at the two levels. In these descriptions, the contrast between the great stability of the system of disciplines and their internal agitation demonstrates that the longevity of social forms is based on connections between lineages with distinct temporalities.  [118] However, this stability does not cancel out the academic ecology's sensitivity to the influence of the processes playing out on other levels, which modify the rules of the game. Thus, one of the exceptions to structural stability in the American university system is biology, which “has fractured in most universities into a number of departments” under the influence of decisions made outside the academic ecology that have led to an influx of funding for biological research.  [119] The value of pursuing this reflection on multiple levels also marked the study that Abbott conducted with James Sparrow regarding the impact of the “massive social changes and dramatic events of the war years and the early postwar period” on “the demography, institutions, and intellectual development” of American sociology.  [120]

33Similarly, for the system of professions, Abbott emphasizes the importance of taking into account the “temporal structures” of ecologies, marked by different “rhythms and cycles of actors.”  [121] Once again, the temporality of the processes characteristic of “interactional fields” like ecologies contrasts with the much slower evolution of the rest of the system, whose “central constitution” has not greatly evolved in two hundred years.  [122] Abbott considers that we are currently witnessing a change in regime at this level, and was surprised at the lack of interest among readers of The System of Professions in recent transformations in professionalism during the “the epoch of neoliberalism and triumphant global capitalism.”  [123] On another level, the cases mobilized in The System of Professions show how the history of a profession depends as much on the slow evolution of this matrix of relations as it does on its near-continuous exchanges with competitors and partners (within its domain of activity) and its more infrequent relations with public, legal, and media actors (in other “arenas”). Understanding its dynamic means also understanding the relations between this history and the turnover processes, for example, that can affect a population of professionals. The situation of a profession in the division of labor can be maintained even as its population is entirely renewed. On the other hand, a given population can experience “a complete shift of collective identity” due to an evolution in this division of labor.  [124] This question of linkages between levels is already present in Abbott's sociology of professions, where he sheds light on “several layers of interaction, each operating at a different speed, such that the slower ones afford stability to the elements that are negotiated in the faster ones.”  [125]

34The breakdown of the social process into lineages can also be applied to other levels, as we can see particularly in the experience of desynchronization between the personal career of a researcher (Abbott himself in this instance) and the trajectory of a disciplinary institution (the Social Science History Association, or SSHA). The nostalgia of the former student for the interdisciplinary intellectual adventure that has become routine (nostalgia described as a “cohort experience”) must make way here for the observation of the growing distance between the two lineages—the evolution of the professor's career increases his dependency on other types of interactions and institutions, and at the same time weakens his involvement in the dynamic specific to the SSHA.  [126] Less anecdotally, this breakdown into lineages is conceptualized as a way to identify the specificity of individual trajectories in processual analysis and in the reflection on the various temporalities of social change. For Abbott, this specificity is connected to the length and exceptional coherence of these trajectories in the flow of the world of events, particularly in relation to the organizations (associations, congregations, but especially corporations) that they may encounter. This is all the more the case as life expectancy increases while, at the same time, evolutions in the world of business (toward “a world of rapid turnover and change in organizations, a world of continuous organizational restructurings and financial prestidigitation, of networks and arm's length relationships”) make it clearer than ever that the structures laid out in organizational charts are temporary.  [127] The “the sheer mass of the experience” that individuals carry forward from one era or one regime to another explains their capacity for action (their “immense social force”). It also testifies to the mistake of isolating these periods or regimes from one another: it is, for example, impossible to understand the social significance of the Great Depression in the United States if we forget that it “largely fell on people who had experienced periods of real prosperity.”  [128]

The Role of Contingency and the Place of the Individual

35Abbott presents the theory of linkages between levels as a way to unify the field of the social sciences, based on a literal and Markovian conception of the world of events. According to him, this vision has the advantage of removing false epistemological problems by reducing the range of historical causality to the moment: “the world really is Markovian. . . there is only the immediate past and its passage into the present.” As a result, “there is in fact no depth to historical causality” and its only vectors are local interactions.  [129] The division between micro and macro (levels, scales, etc.) is one of the problems that is eliminated, because this perspective implies that “micro and macro are not equivalent to real and emergent. . . both micro and macro entities are emergent.”  [130] From this perspective, it is not necessary to distinguish the different ways that social actors are constituted, whether they are individuals or collectives: “both individuals and social structures of all kinds are produced instantaneously out of relationships defined on the endless flow of events.”  [131]

36Deluermoz notes the remoteness of Abbott's positions from a historiographical tradition such as that of “the histories of France or Europe in the nineteenth century, which are often guided by a grand (sometimes teleological) narrative of economic, social, cultural, and political modernization.”  [132] In the context of the world of events (as in Sewell's “eventful temporality”  [133]), there are no “grand narratives”—in the sense that they could be distinguished from “minor narratives.” On the contrary, the longer the temporality of a narrative, the less the processes that it describes suffice to explain the march of history. This is an important point, because one of the handicaps of the social sciences, according to Abbott, is the tendency of “the best macro theories” (those of Durkheim, Marx, and Weber) to conceive the micro sociological order as “relatively fixed,” whereas micro analysts show that it is in fact “extremely open and uncertain.”  [134] By considering, along with Whitehead (or with Gaston Bachelard, whose ideas are just as radical and probably better known in France  [135]), that even the most durable structures require the repetition of similar events, we can repair this mistake and give ourselves the possibility of understanding the irreducible contingency of the social world.

37Promoting the historian's penchant for narrative is often associated with the “antipositivist” recognition of the importance of contingency in the succession of historical sequences.  [136] Faithful to his pragmatist lineage,  [137] Abbott does not betray this assessment,  [138] and narrative positivism is also based on a clarification of the forms and role of contingency in the processes of transition between sequences. Contingency is conceptualized as the result of the diversity of processes underway, their complex organization decimating the value of a teleological reading of the course of history—even if it is sequenced into “regimes.” That said, Abbott's goal is not to reaffirm the privilege of micro descriptions, but rather to establish a historical sociology that is capable of grasping (and narrating) the modalities of this connection between processes with multiple temporalities.

38What is at stake here is understanding how sporadic events that are dependent on individual decisions (like a murder or a soldier's refusal to follow orders), or on particular idiosyncrasies (like the shape of Cleopatra's nose), can produce change with a significant impact on public order.  [139] Recent events have given us an example of this with the death of Antonin Scalia, a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. This event was perceived by certain commentators as heralding “the salvation of our planet,” due to the judge's constant opposition to legislation increasing his country's participation in environmental protection.  [140] The importance accorded to this kind of event can reflect very different conceptions of historical investigation and the workings of the world: the position of Voltaire, who attributed part of the responsibility for the Saint-Barthélemy massacres to Charles IX's stomach upset, can be contrasted with that of Leo Tolstoy (often considered a model narrator by the social sciences), who mocked those who “say that Russia remained a power because Napoleon had a bad cold on the 26th of August. . . and [consider] the valet who omitted to bring Napoleon his waterproof boots on the 24th. . . the savior of Russia.”  [141] For the novelist, this type of event meant nothing compared to the inertia of the masses, and “the course of human events is predetermined from on high” by the will of thousands of men (in this instance soldiers). It therefore seemed to him impossible that the momentum at the macro level could be broken by an extraordinary event, even one affecting a key actor in the process under consideration. But what did Tolstoy think of Cleopatra's nose?

39The question of the sensitivity of world history to a proboscis of this kind is another way of marking the possible influence of individual contingencies on the direction of vast configurations. It is one of the canonical examples of counterfactual history. But although he borrows this image from Blaise Pascal to emphasize the contingency of the social process,  [142] Abbott does not engage in discussion with “counterfactualist” historiography, even though it confronts problems that are dear to him, seeking out “vanished possibilities,. . . that profusion of contrary experiences that were not shattered without difficulty.”  [143] This is regrettable, given that his conception of history and his promotion of a narrative method “by case”—open to a “constellation of forces” of different natures, going beyond the list of so-called independent variables in the paradigm of the same name—could potentially find material in this historiographical perspective. For Abbott, nothing can be totally “predetermined” (to use Tolstoy's word); he emphasizes the openness of all social processes and refuses to consider a priori the existence of structures which no event could ever transform, however stable they may seem. Indeed, the lineages that make up these structures are based on interactions and therefore always open to events that may unmake them: “no structure exists outside the current present, immune to action.”  [144] Moreover, these interactions create “the possibility for sudden change in what seemed very stable,” like the tumblers of a lock awaiting its key. For Abbott, we have to accept this whether we are considering the history of a relationship, of a scientific collective, or of an even larger entity. The Eastern Bloc had undoubtedly experienced moments of fragility before 1989, but “no one had figured it out and turned the key in the lock.”  [145]

40Abbott's insistence on contingency is a reminder of the diversity and unpredictability of lineages, whose interlacings shape the structures (traditions and entities) of the social world. It is however possible to identify sequences, a posteriori, in which the openness of future scenarios is clear (including for the actors themselves). As a program of research, the “positivist-narrative” analysis of a case thus consists in identifying the conditions under which certain sequences of a collective history can be defined by great uncertainty and find an outcome in an interplay of interactions marked by situational logics. It is not inconceivable to connect the product of these micro contexts to the opening of a new macro regime. Rather than the death of a nearly eighty-year-old Supreme Court justice, the global impact of which depended of course on the timing (to use Abbott's terms, on the moment at which the personal lineage—interrupted by death—broke away from other, legal and political, lineages) but which was naturally foreseeable in the medium-term, we might think of moments of collective indecision shared by political leaders in times of crisis. This is precisely the domain in which Ivan Ermakoff, a close reader of Abbott, has put forward enlightening conceptual propositions, based on empirical studies of collective abdications. In particular, he has outlined the way in which we can evaluate the openness to contingency of a “relational configuration” at the heart of a political transition process, using the example of the meeting of the National Constituent Assembly on the night of August 4, 1789 (before demonstrating how this analysis could be generalized to other areas of activity).  [146]

41The king's madness, his murderer's madness, or the queen's nose are contingent elements of the social process to the extent that they can, in specific moments (time matters), give an unexpected direction to certain relational structures, and tie or untie the interlacing lineages that previously appeared so stable. But the analysis of their impact is decidedly a matter of sociology (possibly historical) rather than psychology; the individual nature of these contingencies depends solely on the identification of chronic or permanent idiosyncrasies as a source of collective disturbance. From this perspective, the individual does not appear to be an entity requiring special analytic status, and the radicality of the “evenemential” conception of the person that Abbott borrows from Whitehead's ontology is no impediment to his project. This conception is deflationary to the extent that it tends to devalue the specificity of human beings and their agency in the flow of lineages and events that make up the social world. From this point of view, biography is a lineage like any other, describing the reproduction of an ensemble of relations between the components of a human being.  [147] The events that make up biographies may be vastly more numerous than in other lineages, but this specificity is a difference of degree, not of kind, in the world of events (and our knowledge of it partly stems from biology). In this ontology there is no subject, only objects connected to one another: “Cartesian, enduring objects like stones and human individuals are simply events that keep happening the same way.”  [148] These ideas are in keeping with Abbott's manifest refusal of culturalism. But they also appear to be founded in hypotheses that are too costly even for him, given the importance that he otherwise awards to personalities in his most micro-sociological (self) analysis, for example in his description of the dynamic of the sociological tradition of the Chicago school, or when he explains or justifies the intuitions that guided his own choices as a researcher. Although he is aware of the difficulty in accounting for the existence of “personalities” in Whitehead's ontology,  [149] he nevertheless seems to implicitly recognize the specific status of the human person in the unfolding of the social process.

42The still-uncertain status of the individual in Abbott's processual sociology seems to be at the heart of an as yet insufficiently explored domain, that of the inscription of biographies in the overlapping and intertwining lineages that make up the social process. Abbott considers that explaining the persistence of a “social thing” based on the functioning of individual memories is deceptively easy.  [150] His interest in social change is also accompanied by an apparent disinterest in the question of “mentalities” (a specificity that is very visible in France, where this notion has influenced important historiographical debates).  [151] However, Abbott notes elsewhere that the misunderstood impact of individual longevity lies in the sum of accumulated experiences that individuals are able to carry into very different “presents.”  [152] Moreover, human subjects are characterized by an ability to represent time (and themselves in time) that certain commentators have considered undervalued in Abbott's sociology. Deluermoz thus suggests that we turn to the work of Elias to compensate for Abbott's indifference to this ability, which may impede our understanding of certain historical dynamics (for example, that of social groups such as the French nobility of the ancien régime, who “based their power and its definition on a conception of the universe that was essentially hierarchical and ahistorical”  [153]). Pierre-Michel Menger argues, for his part, that “the desubstantialization of the actor” inspired by Whitehead and the “privilege of the present” in Abbott's processual sociology leads to a devaluation of the way in which actors can envision the future, which he finds detrimental to the Abbottian model of action. For Menger, “action, interaction, and change are unthinkable without an axiomatic principle that incorporates the teleological nature of the action,” and which supposes a greater awareness (compatible with Whitehead's philosophy) of this ability to project oneself in time.  [154] It is no doubt also relevant to consider that individuals’ actions can be nourished by shared theories of temporality, even if they are less sophisticated than that of Henri Bergson as analyzed by Abbott.  [155] Relation to time matters too, we might say.

43In a general sense, the critiques of Abbott's work by French readers focus on this model of action, which seems to them to betray a lack of coherence in his work as a whole. Pierre François emphasizes the hiatus between the place awarded to (inter)action in Abbott's epistemology as a source of causality to be privileged in narration, and his “de-specifying anthropology” based on an “evenemential” ontology that does not treat individual activity specifically.  [156] From this point of view, Abbott is lacking a philosophy of action that would enable him to eliminate this incoherence. Ermakoff makes a similar observation, regretting that the importance awarded to interaction and personalities in Abbott's empirical accounts (which are not always entirely devoid of psychologism) did not lead him to revise his attachment to a theory that sees the individual actor as “nothing less than a fiction.”  [157] This hiatus is accentuated still further by the increasing importance Abbott intends to give to the emotion of actors in the (“humanist”) development of his processual sociology, although until recently this had been confined to an essay on “lyrical sociology” based on very different principles, as a heuristic experiment “against narrative.”  [158] Responding to the objections of Menger, Ermakoff, and François in a French-language article, Abbott makes a methodological argument, affirming that it was necessary to conduct an “analysis of the topology of linkage” before turning to the “quality of links.” He promises to harmonize the two in a future summa entitled The Social Process, which will provide a detailed analysis of the types of linkages associated with three cardinal terms (emotion, action, and signification) “within a radically different ontology.”  [159]

44In the meantime, it seems that the specific status of the human individual in the narrative of the social world requires a closer analysis of the articulation between biographical and other types of lineages, in order to complete the “theory of the linkages between levels” that Abbott conceives as a precursor to the synthesis of sociology and history. This synthesis is founded on techniques of narration which, when they are used to order empirical data (including by Abbott himself), reveal the practically unique role and “evenemential” nature of the projections in time and emotions that shape the intentions of actors, as well as their place as irreducible sources of contingency in the evolution of lineages and social processes.  [160]


46One of the most immediately apparent aspects of the originality of processual sociology lies in the dualism of Abbott's sources; a sociologist nourished by American pragmatist philosophy, he is also obsessed by the question of order and social structures, and ultimately by the “encoding” (a key term in Processual Sociology) of this order in lines of interaction. The influence of the former soon led Abbott to abandon the fixed image of Parsons's model, and to reverse the functionalist formulation of the question: “How can social change come about in an ordered society?” Because if “we can explain stability as a consequence of continual change,. . . we cannot, on the other hand, explain change as a consequence of stability.”  [161] From that point on, nothing in the social order is “made,” everything (people and structures) is “in the process of making itself,” in a permanent flux of interactions that make up the events whose scope, whose historical consequences, the social sciences are retrospectively able to understand. Observing human activity must allow us to grasp this social alchemy which sees actors produce discontinuity from “the absolute continuity of movement.” To turn once again to Tolstoy, this search for discontinuity is a source of illusion, but it is also the only path open to the social sciences.  [162]

47Beyond the task of satisfying the intellectual curiosity piqued by the propositions of a now rare species of homo academicus, the objective of this article has also been to shed light on the avenues opened up for future research by Abbott's hypotheses. Although his vocabulary has evolved, the increasing conceptual precision and the constancy of his main ideas have contributed to reinforcing the coherence of his work as a whole. Its innovations lie in the distance separating the sources on which it draws (following a method inspired by a fractal reading of disciplinary space) and in its heuristic inversion of the classic conceptual pairs that mark the vocabulary of the social sciences (which leads to thinking about “things of boundaries” rather than the inverse,  [163] or considering abundance rather than lack as the central problem for social analysis  [164]). Somewhat neglected by its inventor, narrative positivism must be more thoroughly tested in its empirical applications if it is to impose itself as a new paradigm. Designed to resist the hegemony of the “thinking by variables” that marked the American context of the 1970s and 1980s, it has nevertheless allowed us to specify the terms of the processual approach, which has already opened up attractive and intricate perspectives for numerous problems and areas of study.  [165] The diversity of these domains is important, given the generalist ambition of Abbott's project. Indeed, if he considers that “important general theory always grows out of extensive empirical work,”  [166] his own is essentially focused on the ecology of professions and of the social and human sciences in the United States (if we leave aside the more exotic objects—folk dances, the labor market of sports trainers or of German musicians in the eighteenth century—which allowed him to test and develop the techniques of sequence analysis).

48In particular, Abbott's processual sociology provides an interesting alternative in areas where there is an uneasy cohabitation between structuralist or institutionalist approaches, on the one hand, and theories focused on networks and mobility, on the other. This can be measured by briefly invoking the example of science and technology studies (STS), where this tension is very present—and where many sociologists, historians, and ethnologists have, like Abbott, demonstrated the productivity of studies on “boundary work.” This approach looks at the interactions that take place on the internal and external borders of scientific worlds, and which contribute to transforming them.  [167] For Abbott, the constitution of professional or intellectual communities stemming from these border zones is inscribed in several processes whose rhythms form different temporalities. Similarly, the dynamic of a scientific domain is the result of the articulation of natural and experimental processes, individual careers, institutional trajectories, and national and international histories.  [168] Abbott's reflection on the contextuality of lineages also appears likely to open new paths of investigation in a literature where ethnographic precision has rarely contributed to reflection on temporalities.  [169] Associating radical and incremental innovation, “normal science” and “ground-breaking innovation,” the scientific world provides fertile ground for experiments to test Abbott's conceptualizations. This makes it possible to move beyond the alternative presented by Deluermoz between a configurational perspective on historic change, often associated with Elias, and the Foucauldian model of the brutal rupturing of the episteme.  [170] This is all the more the case given that STS have mobilized a whole range of narrative models to conceptualize scientific revolutions or paradigm changes, associating them sometimes with individual actions (intentional or random) situated in biographical lineages, sometimes with collective work (in the context of a subdiscipline or for the duration of a project) structured by the intersection of heterogeneous lineages. It is in this context that the notion of “regime,” for example, has experienced renewed interest within STS,  [171] enabling—as it does for Abbott—a conceptualization of the plurality of configurations and processes that foster scientific production and their ordering into sequences.

I would like to thank Daniel Cefaï, Didier Demazière, Nicolas Dodier, Jean-Louis Fabiani, Mathieu Hauchecorne, Claire Lemercier, and Étienne Ollion for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this text, and more generally all the colleagues with whom I have discussed the work of Andrew Abbott in recent years. I would also like to express my particular thanks to Pierre-Michel Menger, who sparked my interest in Abbott's work, and to Andrew himself for the close attention he paid to my queries.


  • [*]
    This article was translated from the French by Katharine Throssell and edited by Chloe Morgan and Nicolas Barreyre.
  • [1]
    Andrew Abbott, Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 196 – 97.
  • [2]
    Abbott, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), xii and 331, n. 1.
  • [3]
    Ibid., xi.
  • [4]
    Ibid., xi – xiii.
  • [5]
    Abbott, “La description face à la temporalité,” in Pratiques de la description, ed. Giorgio Blundo and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (Paris, Éd. de l'Ehess, 2003), 41 – 53, here p. 47.
  • [6]
    Jean-Michel Chapoulie, La tradition sociologique de Chicago, 1892 – 1961 (Paris: Éd. du Seuil, 2001), 108, considers that “this conception of social reality marked by permanent change corresponds to a perception and formulation that were commonplace at the beginning of the [twentieth] century,” when Park was finishing his studies.
  • [7]
    Abbott, “On the Concept of Turning Point” [1997], in Time Matters: On Theory and Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 240 – 60, here p. 257; Abbott, Processual Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), ix and 2; Abbott, “Dans les yeux des autres,” in Andrew Abbott et l'héritage de l’école de Chicago, ed. Didier Demazière and Morgan Jouvenet (Paris: Éd. de l'Ehess, 2016), 1:441 – 66, here p. 458.
  • [8]
    George Herbert Mead, The Philosophy of the Present, ed. Arthur E. Murphy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932); Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: Free Press, 1979).
  • [9]
    To use Fabiani's formulation: Jean-Louis Fabiani, “Pour en finir avec la réalité uni-linéaire. Le parcours méthodologique de Andrew Abbott,” Annales HSS 58, no. 3 (2003): 549 – 65, here p. 556.
  • [10]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline; Abbott, The System of Professions; Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
  • [11]
    On this tradition and its emergence as a “school” in the history of sociology, see Chapoulie, La tradition sociologique de Chicago, as well as Christian Topalov, “Les usages stratégiques de l'histoire des disciplines. Le cas de l’‘École de Chicago’ en sociologie,” in Pour une histoire des sciences sociales. Hommage à Pierre Bourdieu, ed. Johan Heilbron, Rémi Lenoir, and Gisèle Sapiro (Paris: Fayard, 2004), 127 – 57.
  • [12]
    Abbott, “Transcending General Linear Reality” [1988], in Time Matters, 37 – 63.
  • [13]
    For clear examples of this power, see Marion Fourcade, Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); Jean-Louis Fabiani, Qu'est-ce qu'un philosophe français ? La vie sociale des concepts, 1880 – 1980 (Paris: Éd. de l'Ehess, 2010); Johan Heilbron, French Sociology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).
  • [14]
    See Étienne Ollion, “Andrew Abbott dans la sociologie états-unienne,” and Daniel Cefaï, “Andrew Abbott, un certain héritage de Chicago,” both in Demazière and Jouvenet, Andrew Abbott et l'héritage de l’école de Chicago, respectively 1:95 – 116 and 1:69 – 93.
  • [15]
    On the opposition between history and sociology characteristic of the context of late twentieth-century social sciences in the United States, see Terence J. McDonald, ed., The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), particularly Terence J. McDonald, “What We Talk about When We Talk about History: The Conversations of History and Sociology,” and Craig Calhoun, “The Rise and Domestication of Historical Sociology,” respectively 91 – 118 and 305 – 37.
  • [16]
    Jacques Revel, ed., Jeux d’échelles. La micro-analyse à l'expérience (Paris: Gallimard/Le Seuil, 1996).
  • [17]
    Fabiani, “Pour en finir avec la réalité unilinéaire.”
  • [18]
    With this “turn,” he aims to overcome the opposition between “the empirical and the normative,” which he considers to have become untenable in social sciences. See Abbott, “The Future of the Social Sciences: Between Empiricism and Normativity,” Annales HSS (English Edition) 71, no. 3 (2016): 343 – 60, as well as the final chapters of Abbott, Processual Sociology, in particular pp. 229, 258, and 283, where this evolution is presented as the logical prolongation of processual sociology: “All the ‘empirical realities’ of social life” (for example, “institutions of democracy,” “laws of economics,” or professional ethics) appear to be “congealed values,” “the hardened remains of some past value judgement.”
  • [19]
    Abbott, The System of Professions, xiii.
  • [20]
    Ibid., chapter 10.
  • [21]
    Ibid., 281.
  • [22]
    Ibid., 319 – 23.
  • [23]
    Ibid., 3 and 9 sq.
  • [24]
    Ibid., 320.
  • [25]
    Ibid., xv, 1 – 2, and 19 – 20. See also Abbott, “The Order of Professionalization: An Empirical Analysis,” Work and Occupations 18, no. 4 (1991): 355 – 84.
  • [26]
    Abbott, The System of Professions, 34 – 35, 55, 64, 86, 143 – 44, 208 – 9, and 279.
  • [27]
    Abbott, “Écologies liées : à propos du système des professions,” in Les professions et leurs sociologies. Modèles théoriques, catégorisations, évolutions, ed. Pierre-Michel Menger (Paris: Éd. de la Msh, 2003), 29 – 50; Abbott, “Linked Ecologies: States and Universities as Environments for Professions,” Sociological Theory 23, no. 3 (2005): 245 – 74. However, the model of “linked ecologies” does not cover the whole of the social world. For Abbott, the ecology is simply one form among others that allow us to account for its dynamism, and the reasons for its emergence at a particular time remain an “empirical question” (ibid., 269 – 71).
  • [28]
    Abbott, “On the Concept of Turning Point,” 254. The immobility of “thick description” in the style of Clifford Geertz is therefore only superficial, based on the ignorance (feigned or not) of the observer in relation to social dynamics (Abbott, “La description face à la temporalité,” 42 – 46).Online
  • [29]
    Abbott, “The Concept of Order in Processual Sociology,” Cahiers parisiens 2 (2006): 315 – 45, here p. 318. On this point, he opposes Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Niccolò Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, and Montesquieu. The theories of these last three thinkers “discuss order and disorder empirically, locally, within an actual flow of historical events” (ibid., 317).
  • [30]
    Abbott, “Process and Temporality in Sociology: The Idea of Outcome in U.S. Sociology,” in The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others, ed. George Steinmetz (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 393 – 426, here pp. 393 and 421.
  • [31]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline, 220 – 22.
  • [32]
    Abbott, “What Do Cases Do? Some Notes on Activity in Sociological Analysis,” in What Is a Case? Exploring the Foundations of Social Inquiry, ed. Charles C. Ragin and Howard S. Becker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 53 – 82, here p. 61.
  • [33]
    Abbott, “From Causes to Events” [1992], in Time Matters, 183 – 205, here pp. 186 and 189.
  • [34]
    Abbott, “What Do Cases Do?” 60.
  • [35]
    Abbott, “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” Theory and Society 26, no. 2/3 (1997): 357 – 99.
  • [36]
    Abbott, “Positivism and Interpretation in Sociology: Lessons for Sociologists from the History of Stress Research,” Sociological Forum 5 (1990): 435 – 58. On his critique of the variables paradigm see also Fabiani, “Pour en finir avec la réalité unilinéaire,” and Ivan Ermakoff, “La causalité linéaire. Avatars et critiques,” in Demazière and Jouvenet, Andrew Abbott et l'héritage de l’école de Chicago, 1:397 – 417.
  • [37]
    Abbott, “History and Sociology: The Lost Synthesis,” Social Science History 15, no. 2 (1991): 201 – 38, here p. 228.
  • [38]
    Michael Burawoy, “Two Methods in Search of Science: Skocpol versus Trotsky,” Theory and Society 18 (1989): 759 – 805, here pp. 765 – 69 10.1007/BF00147158; William H. Sewell, “Three Temporalities: Toward an Eventful Sociology,” in McDonald, The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences, 245 – 80.
  • [39]
    Abbott, “The Causal Devolution” [1998], in Time Matters, 97 – 125, here p. 122.
  • [40]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline, 3 and 199, n. 9.
  • [41]
    Ibid., 199 – 200 and 209.
  • [42]
    Abbott, “The Causal Devolution,” 123 – 24 (Abbott's emphasis).
  • [43]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline, 201.
  • [44]
    Abbott, The System of Professions, 3.
  • [45]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline, 200 (Abbott's emphasis). See also the outline of a “methodology for a contextualist sociology,” on p. 217.
  • [46]
    Abbott, “Life Cycles in Social Science History,” Social Science History 23, no. 4 (1999): 481 – 89, here p. 487: “We don't theorize contingency by writing haphazardly; we don't theorize narrative by telling stories; we don't represent diversity by merely mixing voices.”
  • [47]
    Abbott, “History and Sociology,” 223 – 24; Abbott, “The Causal Devolution,” 124. Goffman's processualism is however less structuralist than that of many others within the Chicago school. Indeed, according to Abbott's distinction it is more focused on the “rules” of interactions than the “structural constraints” they are subject to. See Abbott, “What Do Cases Do?” 74.
  • [48]
    On these methods, see Heather MacIndoe and Andrew Abbott, “Sequence Analysis and Optimal Matching Techniques for Social Science Data,” in Handbook of Data Analysis, ed. Melissa Hardy and Alan Bryman (London: Sage Publications, 2004), 387 – 406. See also the history presented by Nicolas Robette, “Du prosélytisme à la sécularisation. Le processus de diffusion de l’ ‘optimal matching analysis,’” and Philippe Blanchard, “Les vicissitudes de l'innovation méthodologique. ‘Validité, falsifiabilité, parcimonie, consistance, précision, etc.,’” both in Demazière and Jouvenet, Andrew Abbott et l'héritage de l’école de Chicago, respectively 2:173 – 94 and 2:151 – 71. An overview of the literature is provided in in Philippe Blanchard, Felix Bühlmann, and Jacques-Antoine Gauthier, eds., Advances in Sequence Analysis: Theory, Method, Applications (New York: Springer, 2014).
  • [49]
    Abbott, “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” 358.
  • [50]
    Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines, 10 – 12.
  • [51]
    ., 30 – 32, 59, and 153; Abbott, Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004).
  • [52]
    Abbott, “Positivism and Interpretation in Sociology,” 436 and 451.
  • [53]
    See above, 365 – 70.
  • [54]
    Abbott, “La description face à la temporalité,” 48. Daniel Cefaï, “Comment généralise-t-on ? Chronique d'une ethnographie de l'urgence sociale,” in Faire des sciences sociales, vol. 3, Généraliser, ed. Emmanuel Désveaux and Michel de Fornel (Paris: Éd. de l'Ehess, 2012), 31 – 57, emphasizes that ethnology has often been considered as “irremediably confined within a kind of indexical reference” (p. 31).
  • [55]
    Jean-Louis Fabiani, “La généralisation dans les sciences historiques. Obstacle épistémologique ou ambition légitime ?” Annales HSS 62, no. 1 (2007): 9 – 28, here p. 21: “In the everyday activity of the social sciences. . . today, the interactionist model seems to trump the structural model: a limited consensus awards the former with the great virtues of flexibility and adaptability to the allegedly less stable configurations of contemporary social life. A sort of ‘soft’ interactionism seems to have invaded the routine practices of the social sciences. Yet structuralist conceptualizations are regularly mobilized when it comes to identifying explanatory factors or making generalizations.”
  • [56]
    From this perspective, social science professionals are constantly re-performing the same repertoire, as at the opera: “we are not discoverers, we are performers” of great problems discovered long ago (Abbott, Time Matters, 33). “The ancients stole all our great ideas,” Mark Twain supposedly wrote. Abbott however adds that if “most of sociology is rediscovered,. . . that does not mean that all subsequent versions are worthless. . . . The great truths are worth reformulating, rediscovering, again and again.” See Andrew Abbott and COFSS,, “‘Le monde est un monde d’événements’. Entretien avec Andrew Abbott,” Raisons politiques 60, no. 4 (2015): 45 – 64, here pp. 58 – 59 10.3917/rai.060.0045.
  • [57]
    Abbott “History and Sociology,” 229.
  • [58]
    Abbott, Time Matters, 4 – 5.
  • [59]
    Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).
  • [60]
    Abbott, “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” 358; Abbott, “Transcending General Linear Reality,” 62; Abbott, “Conceptions of Time and Events in Social Science Methods” [1990], in Time Matters, 161 – 82, here p. 164 and n. 7.
  • [61]
    Abbott, Processual Sociology, 286 sq.
  • [62]
    Abbott, “Transcending General Linear Reality,” 39 – 40; Abbott, “La description face à la temporalité,” citation p. 48.
  • [63]
    Johan Goudsblom, “Penser avec Elias,” in Norbert Elias, la politique et l'histoire, ed. Alain Garrigou and Bernard Lacroix (Paris: La Découverte, 1997), 302 – 10, here p. 303; Roger Chartier, “Elias : une pensée des relations,” Espaces Temps 53/54 (1993): 43 – 60, here pp. 49 and 56.
  • [64]
    Nathalie Heinich, La sociologie de Norbert Elias (Paris: La Découverte, 1997), 100; Norbert Elias, What is Sociology? trans. Stephen Mennell and Grace Morrissey (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 116.
  • [65]
    Heinich, La sociologie de Norbert Elias, 70; citing Norbert Elias and John L. Scotson, The Established and the Outsiders: A Sociological Enquiry into Community Problems (1965; repr. London: Sage, 1994), 12.
  • [66]
    This model does not refer to a “continued, uniform, linear progression” (Heinich, La sociologie de Norbert Elias, 24) but nevertheless postulates a “global coherence in the evolution of humanity over the long term,” with a “general orientation and direction” (Catherine Colliot-Thélène, quoted in ibid., 25). Elias also relies on culturalist psychology to analyze “the formation of regimes of behavior,” “ways of doing things” (Goudsblom, “Penser avec Elias,” 304 and 405). On Elias's project and its development, see Marc Joly, Devenir Norbert Elias. Histoire croisée d'un processus de reconnaissance scientifique: la réception française (Paris: Fayard, 2012).
  • [67]
    Abbott, Methods of Discovery, 145.
  • [68]
    Abbott, “What Do Cases Do?” 71. For Abbott this is a crucial problem in social sciences today, when researchers have access to vast repertoires of digital data. Abbott, “Reflections on the Future of Sociology,” Contemporary Sociology 29, no. 2 (2000): 296 – 300, here p. 298.
  • [69]
    Abbott, “What Do Cases Do?” 71 – 72.
  • [70]
    Abbott, The System of Professions, 3.
  • [71]
    Abbott, “What Do Cases Do?” 76 – 79. We may also think of studies that describe collective action as the product of sequences of typical interactions rather than of shared motivation. See, for example, Mark Granovetter, “Threshold Models of Collective Behavior,” American Journal of Sociology 83, no. 6 (1978): 1420 – 43 10.1086/226707.
  • [72]
    Abbott, “Conceptions of Time and Events,” 182. On history as belonging to the “class of narrative,” see Roger Chartier, On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Languages, and Practices, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 7 – 9.
  • [73]
    Abbott, “History and Sociology,” 226 – 27.
  • [74]
    Except in a few specific niches centered on particular methods or subjects, such as science and technology studies (ibid., 201 – 8, quotation p. 201).
  • [75]
    Richard Lachman, What Is Historical Sociology? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 10 – 13.
  • [76]
    Antoine Prost, Douze leçons sur l'histoire (Paris: Éd. du Seuil, 1996), 115 – 16.
  • [77]
    Abbott, “On the Concept of Turning Point.”
  • [78]
    Abbott, “Temporality and Process in Social Life” [1998], in Time Matters, 209 – 39, here pp. 211 – 12.
  • [79]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline, 226.
  • [80]
    On the uses of the concept of culture in historical sociology and in history, see Lachmann, What Is Historical Sociology? 115 – 27; Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
  • [81]
    Abbott, Time Matters, 20 and 28; Abbott, “On the Concept of Turning Point,” 257 – 58.
  • [82]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline, 32.
  • [83]
    Ibid., 81, 103 – 4, 120 – 21, 137, 178, 180 – 83, and 223 – 25.
  • [84]
    Ibid., 203.
  • [85]
    Abbott, “Things of Boundaries,” Social Research 62, no. 4 (1995): 857 – 82, here p. 864.
  • [86]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline, 232.
  • [87]
    Abbott, “Things of Boundaries,” 872 – 73.
  • [88]
    Ibid., 877 – 78. Abbott associates this argument with descriptions of power as “robust action,” as set out in John Padgett and Christopher Ansell, “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400 – 1434,” American Journal of Sociology 98, no. 6 (1993): 1259 – 1319 10.1086/230190, or as the ability to avoid “rational choice,” citing Eric M. Leifer, Actors as Observers: A Theory of Skill in Social Relationships (New York: Garland, 1991). We could also mention Michel Callon and Bruno Latour's actor-network theory, in which the macro actor is the one to which the longest chains of action can be attributed. See, for example, Callon and Latour, “Unscrewing the Big Leviathan: How Actors Macro-Structure Reality and How Sociologists Help Them to Do So,” in Advances in Social Theory and Methodology: Toward an Integration of Micro- and Macro-Sociologies, ed. Karin Knorr-Cetina and Aaron V. Cicourel (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981; repr. 2015), 277 – 303.
  • [89]
    Abbott, “On the Concept of Turning Point,” 256.
  • [90]
    Bernard Guenée, La folie de Charles VI. Roi Bien-Aimé (Paris: Perrin, 2004).
  • [91]
    Abbott, “The Problem of Excess,” Sociological Theory 32, no. 1 (2014): 1 – 26, here p. 24, n. 10.
  • [92]
    Abbott, “The Historicality of Individuals,” Social Science History 29, no. 1 (2005): 1 – 13, here p. 1.
  • [93]
    Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985), 34, 41, and 153.
  • [94]
    Guenée, La folie de Charles VI, back cover.
  • [95]
    On this division, see Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
  • [96]
    Abbott, Processual Sociology, 1.
  • [97]
    Abbott and COFSS, “Le monde est un monde d’événements,” 52. See also the demonstration by Jacques Le Goff, concerning the passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, in Must We Divide History Into Periods? trans. Malcolm DeBevoise (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 92: “The question for the historian, then, becomes this: in the enlargement brought about in 1492, which is more important, that which ends or that which continues?”
  • [98]
    Abbott, “On the Concept of Turning Point”; Abbott, “The Concept of Order in Processual Sociology.”
  • [99]
    Quentin Deluermoz, “Andrew Abbott et la question du temps. Configurations, temporalités, historicités,” in Demazière and Jouvenet, Andrew Abbott et l'héritage de l’école de Chicago, 2:127 – 48, here p. 137.
  • [100]
    Ibid., 138.
  • [101]
    This perspective can be compared with Elias's approach, which notably included the integration of processes observed on different levels (hence his eclecticism, lauded in passing by Abbott, see above p. 373). Elias also identified “lines of change” that evolve together, “distinct but not separate,” such as those that concern “ethics, etiquette, [and] economics” within the “civilizing process.” See Goudsblom, “Penser avec Elias,” 309.
  • [102]
    Sewell, “Three Temporalities,” 275, n. 3. This assessment is presented identically fourteen years later in the French translation: “Trois temporalités : vers une sociologie événementielle,” in Bifurcations. Les sciences sociales face aux ruptures et à l’événement, ed. Marc Bessin, Claire Bidart and Michel Grossetti (Paris: La Découverte, 2010), 109 – 46, here p. 111, n. 4.
  • [103]
    Abbott, Processual Sociology, 24.
  • [104]
    Abbott, Time Matters, 298.
  • [105]
    Abbott, “Things of Boundaries,” 858 – 59.
  • [106]
    Abbott, “History and Sociology,” 225. Here Abbott confesses a musical influence. His “knowledge of the theoretical underpinnings of classical music” has always been his “secret way [of] theorizing about multilevel social process” (Abbott, Time Matters, 26).
  • [107]
    Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philippe II [1949], trans. Sîan Reynolds (London: HarperCollins, 1972).
  • [108]
    Christian Delacroix, “Échelle,” in Historiographies, vol. 2, Concepts et débats, ed. Christian Delacroix et al. (Paris: Gallimard, 2010), 725 – 30, here p. 726.
  • [109]
    Jacques Revel, introduction to Fernand Braudel et l'histoire, ed. Jacques Revel (Paris: Hachette, 1999), 9 – 26, here p. 18; Christian Delacroix, François Dosse, and Patrick Garcia, Les courants historiques en France, xixe – xxe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), 340 – 41. See also Fernand Braudel, “History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée,” in On History, trans. Sarah Matthews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 25 – 54.
  • [110]
    Cited in Revel, introduction to Fernand Braudel et l'histoire, 20.
  • [111]
    Braudel, “History and the Social Sciences,” 31.
  • [112]
    Prost, Douze leçons sur l'histoire, 122; Revel, introduction to Fernand Braudel et l'histoire, 13; Delacroix, Dosse, and Garcia, Les courants historiques en France, 340 – 41 and 345. By looking at the role of the Annales in the evolution of the border between sociology and history, Jérôme Lamy and Arnaud Saint-Martin situate Braudel's project for the social sciences in a dynamic that is both institutional and intellectual, seen from an Abbottian perspective: Lamy and Saint-Martin, “Jeu de frontières. Les Annales et la sociologie,” Revue de synthèse 131, no. 1 (2010): 99 – 127.
  • [113]
    Claire Lemercier, “A History Without the Social Sciences?” Annales HSS (English Edition) 70, no. 2 (2015): 271 – 83, here pp. 282 – 83.
  • [114]
    Abbott, “From Causes to Events,” 194.
  • [115]
    “But do economic and social options not become inevitabilities when they are too closely correlated together? Think of that knot in which the three-year crop rotation system, open fields, the use of horses and carts, cereal crops, strong community identities, and the feudal regime all worked together to maintain, to naturalize, in the strong sense of the word, a division of labor and a model of production. . . . Societies thus came together in clusters of unequally viable and compatible habits.” Jean-Claude Perrot, “Le présent et la durée dans l’œuvre de Braudel,” in Revel, Fernand Braudel et l'histoire, 165 – 85, here p. 176 (my emphasis).
  • [116]
    Abbott, “History and Sociology,” 224 – 25; Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines, 116. In this perspective we might consider as “pure sociology” those experiments that concentrate historical narrative on a specific year, such as James Shapiro's detailed demonstrations of the links between William Shakespeare's trajectory and his historical context: Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London: Faber and Faber, 2006); Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015). Yet these experiments contrast with narratives that describe a longer period, but in which the analysis is largely based on personal interpretation, the data on the playwright's trajectory being notoriously incomplete. If we share Abbott's interest in contextuality, we can therefore see that there is no paradox in considering that it is Shapiro's studies, although focused on a short sequence, that “reanimate Shakespeare's world” (to borrow an expression from the review by Michael Neill, “Glimpsed in the Glare,” London Review of Books 37, no. 24, December 17, 2015, 39 – 41) and better identify the contextual foundations of his career. The definition of the levels and time-span relevant to processual analysis is an operation of the researcher, and is not set in a hierarchy that necessarily prioritizes the macro level or biographical time.
  • [117]
    Abbott, “History and Sociology,” 224 – 25 and 230. The challenge is also a methodological one, because this type of study involves collecting data on several levels: Abbott, “What Do Cases Do?” 59 – 60.
  • [118]
    Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines, 122 – 23, 128, 148, and 152.
  • [119]
    Ibid., 122 – 23. Abbott's recent considerations on the evolution of working conditions in research systems confirm that these influences constitute a significant source of ecological change (now well documented by numerous studies on “managerialization” in universities and research organizations). See Abbott, Digital Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Abbott, “Dans les yeux des autres,” 437 – 62.
  • [120]
    Andrew Abbott and James T. Sparrow, “Hot War, Cold War: Structures of Sociological Action, 1940 – 1955,” in Sociology in America: A History, ed. Craig Calhoun (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 281 – 313.
  • [121]
    Abbott, “Linked Ecologies,” 254.
  • [122]
    Abbott, The System of Professions, 176.
  • [123]
    Abbott, “Dans les yeux des autres,” 447.
  • [124]
    Abbott, “From Causes to Events,” 191.
  • [125]
    Abbott, The System of Professions, 113.
  • [126]
    Abbott, “Life Cycles in Social Science History.”
  • [127]
    Abbott, “Organizations and the Chicago School,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sociology and Organization Studies: Classical Foundations, ed. Paul S. Adler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 399 – 420, here p. 419.
  • [128]
    Abbott, “The Historicality of Individuals,” 3, 5, and 7.
  • [129]
    Abbott, Time Matters, 20 – 23 and 296; Abbott, “On the Concept of Turning Point,” 257; Abbott, “From Causes to Events,” 194; Abbott, “Temporality and Process in Social Life,” 235.
  • [130]
    Abbott, “Things of Boundaries,” 864.
  • [131]
    Abbott, Time Matters, 22 (my emphasis).
  • [132]
    Deluermoz, “Abbott et la question du temps,” 139.
  • [133]
    Sewell, “Three Temporalities.”
  • [134]
    Abbott, “Conceptions of Time and Events,” 179, n. 28.
  • [135]
    “What has the most duration is what is best at starting itself up all over again” wrote Bachelard, who also considered “the past as empty as the future, the future as dead as the past.” Quoted in Perrot, “Le présent et la durée dans l’œuvre de Braudel,” 174 – 75.
  • [136]
    Sewell, “Three Temporalities.”
  • [137]
    “The sense of contingency specific to pragmatism is undoubtedly the best remedy against the contrary propensity that leads us to give the encrusted habits and forms of social and individual life the mark of necessity.” Quoted in Jean-Pierre Cometti, Qu'est-ce que le pragmatisme ? (Paris: Gallimard, 2010), 282.
  • [138]
    Abbott, “What Do Cases Do?” 60.
  • [139]
    Ibid., 68.
  • [140]
    The international press ran articles with titles such as “How Scalia's Death Will Change the Supreme Court, America, and the Planet,” “How Antonin Scalia's Death Could Save the Planet,” “Scalia's Death May Have Saved the Planet,” etc.
  • [141]
    Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Amy Mandelker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 841.
  • [142]
    Abbott, Time Matters, 5, n. 1.
  • [143]
    To use Braudel's expression, quoted in Revel, introduction to Fernand Braudel et l'histoire, 25. On counterfactual history see Quentin Deluermoz and Pierre Singaravélou, Pour une histoire des possibles. Analyses contrefactuelles et futurs non advenus (Paris: Éd. du Seuil, 2016).
  • [144]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline, 225.
  • [145]
    Abbott, Time Matters, 297; Abbott, “On the Concept of Turning Point,” 257 – 59. See also Abbott and COFSS, “Le monde est un monde d’événements,” 53.
  • [146]
    Ivan Ermakoff, Ruling Oneself Out: A Theory of Collective Abdications (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Ermakoff, “The Structure of Contingency,” American Journal of Sociology 121, no. 1 (2015): 64 – 125.
  • [147]
    See below, 388 – 89.
  • [148]
    Abbott, “Temporality and Process in Social Life,” 232 – 34.
  • [149]
    Ibid., 234.
  • [150]
    Abbott, Department and Discipline, 226.
  • [151]
    André Burguière, “Le changement social : brève histoire d'un concept,” in Les formes de l'expérience. Une autre histoire sociale, ed. Bernard Lepetit (Paris: Albin Michel, 1995), 253 – 72.
  • [152]
    Abbott, “The Historicality of Individuals.”
  • [153]
    Deluermoz, “Abbott et la question du temps.”
  • [154]
    Pierre-Michel Menger, “Temporalité, action et interaction,” in Demazière and Jouvenet, Andrew Abbott et l'héritage de l’école de Chicago, 1:145 – 70.
  • [155]
    Abbott, “Temporality and Process in Social Life,” 214  –  24. These remarks shed additional light on the dialogue reproduced in “Process and Temporality in Sociology,” 393. Abbott illustrates his invitation to concentrate on the operations of actors, rather than the variables “causing” their accession to different social statuses (see above, p. 367), by relating a scene from Saturday Night Fever in which Travolta's character argues with his boss about his way of projecting himself in time: “Fuck the future” Tony says, thinking above all of the shirt that he will wear out the following night; “No, Tony” replies his boss, “The future. . . fucks you.”
  • [156]
    Pierre François, “L'action chez Andrew Abbott. Pierre de touche ou chaînon manquant ?” in Demazière and Jouvenet, Andrew Abbott et l'héritage de l’école de Chicago, 1:171 – 90.
  • [157]
    Ermakoff, “La causalité linéaire,” 412. Contextualising this orientation, Ermakoff concedes that it is probably partly explained by the “state of the field of sociological research at the time Abbott began his work: the description of sequential structures was then the most uncharted of terrains and thus the one requiring the most methodological investment” (p. 414).
  • [158]
    Abbott, Processual Sociology. See the initial attempt in Abbott, “Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology,” Sociological Theory 25, no. 1 (2007): 67 – 99.
  • [159]
    Abbott, “Dans les yeux des autres,” 454 – 56.
  • [160]
    This perspective further increases the interest of the affinities between Abbott's project and microhistory. See Claire Lemercier, “Abbott et la micro-histoire. Lecture croisée,” in Demazière and Jouvenet, Andrew Abbott et l'héritage de l’école de Chicago, 2:105 – 25.
  • [161]
    Abbott and COFSS, “Le monde est un monde d’événements,” 51.
  • [162]
    “Absolute continuity of motion is not comprehensible to the human mind. Laws of motion of any kind become comprehensible to man when he examines arbitrarily selected elements of that motion; but at the same time, a large part of human error comes from the arbitrary division of continuous motion into discontinuous elements.” Tolstoy, War and Peace, 881.
  • [163]
    Abbott, “Things of Boundaries.”
  • [164]
    Abbott, “The Problem of Excess.” This heuristic of inversion leads Abbott to take on well-known mountain peaks of sociology, but via alternative routes that are often exposed to adverse winds. Approaching the “problem of abundance” by its north face, he considers for example that the way in which our modern societies deal with excess (of population, pollution, information, consumer goods, and so on) deserves conceptual theorization. From this perspective, rarity appears more the product of normative frameworks for managing abundance (which would otherwise paralyze all action by spreading “the malady of the infinite” targeted by Durkheim) than the negation of it.
  • [165]
    See the contributions assembled in the two volumes of Demazière and Jouvenet, Andrew Abbott et l'héritage de l’école de Chicago.
  • [166]
    Abbott, “Reflections on the Future of Sociology,” 299.
  • [167]
    Thomas F. Gieryn, “Boundaries of Science,” in Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, ed. Sheila Jasanoff et al. (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995), 393 – 443; Terry Shinn and Pascal Ragouet, Controverses sur la science. Pour une sociologie transversaliste de l'activité scientifique (Paris: Raisons d'Agir, 2005); Antonella Romano, “Making the History of Early Modern Science: Reflections on a Discipline in the Era of Globalization,” Annales HSS (English Edition) 70, no. 2 (2015): 307 – 34, here p. 322 – 23. For a case study dedicated to scientists of the “nanoworld,” see Morgan Jouvenet, “Boundary Work between Research Communities: Culture and Power in a French Nanosciences and Nanotechnology Hub,” Social Science Information 52, no. 1 (2013): 134 – 58 10.1177/0539018412466638.
  • [168]
    As I recently tried to demonstrate in Morgan Jouvenet, “From the Poles to the Laboratories: Stages of International Cooperation in Palaeoclimatology (1955 – 2015),” Revue Française de Sociologie (English Edition) 57, no. 3 (2018, to be published).
  • [169]
    Several historians have underlined the dearth of reflection on the context and historicity of science in this literature: Peter Galison, “Ten Problems in History and Philosophy of Science,” Isis 99 (2008): 111 – 24 10.1086/587536; Steven Shapin, “Discipline and Bounding: The History and Sociology of Science as Seen through the Externalism-Internalism Debate,” History of Science 30 (1992): 333 – 69 10.1177/007327539203000401. If the STS of the 1970s opened up the “era of science in context,” they also encouraged a break with the “grand narratives” (such as that of the scientific revolution: see Romano, “Making the History of Early Modern Science”) which limited efforts toward temporal contextualization.
  • [170]
    Deluermoz, “Abbott et la question du temps.”
  • [171]
    Romano, “Making the History of Modern Science,” 316. See the usages of this term in Dominique Pestre, ed., Histoire des sciences et des savoirs, 3 vols. (Paris: Éd. du Seuil, 2015).

Since the 1970s, Andrew Abbott has promoted an original and ambitious project for the social sciences. In particular, he has argued for the development of a “processual sociology” based on precepts first articulated by the Chicago tradition of sociology and in his view somewhat forgotten. Against functionalism, against the “variables paradigm,” he has emphasized the Chicago tradition's focus on patterns of interaction and their contexts, and has deepened our analysis of the local and ever-particular dimensions of social entities by considering their inscription in successive sequences. As well as seeking to formalize these sequences, this vision aims to link processes playing out at different rhythms and levels. As a project it is based on a conception of social life as a “world of events,” where “change is the normal nature of things” and “not something that happens occasionally to stable social actors.” This makes it possible to explain the emergence and durability of social entities (for example, professions and disciplines) in the flow of events. The originality of this approach consists in founding a new institutionalist analysis of social realities on this ontology of perpetual movement.
Marked by American pragmatism but also traversed by the question of order and social structures, Abbott's oeuvre offers an original approach to the diversity of contexts and temporalities in processes that, through the intermingling of various “lineages,” constitute social traditions and entities. This article presents Abbott's contextualist theses and the intellectual background against which they emerged. It also considers the place that the processual approach accords to contingency and personhood, factors that enable Abbot to work toward a synthesis of history and sociology.

Morgan Jouvenet
Laboratoire Printemps (CNRS/UVSQ/Université Paris-Saclay)
Uploaded on on 10/07/2018
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