People Feature

Andrew Abbott

Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago

Andrew Abbott took his BA (in history and literature) at Harvard in 1970 and his PhD (in sociology) from the University of Chicago in 1982. Prior to his return to Chicago in 1991, he taught for thirteen years at Rutgers University. 

Abbott's dissertation work grew out of an ethnographic study of a large mental hospital. The near-absence of psychiatrists from the hospital led Abbott to write a dissertation on the history of the American psychiatric profession, detailing the demographic, organizational, intellectual, and functional forces driving the move of American psychiatry from the mental hospitals into outpatient practice over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The dissertation anticipated Abbott's later work and marked his intellectual heritage. Like many Chicago scholars he built on ethnographic foundations, but like them also he combined ecological and organizational accounts, and was eclectic in his methodological choices. 

Abbott's subsequent work has principally focused in two substantive areas, the sociology of occupations and professions, and the sociology of knowledge. His definitive 1988 book The System of Professions synthesized the professions literature, showing that the professions constitute an ecology of expert groups competing over work. Drawing on examples from the United States, Britain, and France he established a complete account of the division of expert labor. Abbott's model has become standard in writing on the professions. 

As a sociologist of knowledge, Abbott has focused on the organization of disciplines and other academic social structures. In the 2001 book Chaos of Disciplines, he stated a new internalist model of intellectual change, putting the static model of "conceptual binaries" into motion as a fractal model of disciplinary evolution. In the 2004 textbook Methods of Discovery, he turned this model into an approach to heuristics for the social sciences. Abbott's work on knowledge has continued with an exploration of the practices and methods of the humanities, particularly focused on an attempt to theorize traditional library research as a formal knowledge practice. He is currently writing a general book on academic knowledge that combines an ecological approach to the social structure of knowledge with his new models of intellectual advance and hehas also published a textbook of project management and research techniques for research in materials found in libraries or on the internet - Digital Paper

Abbott has also written widely on the methods and practices of social science. His early philosophical critiques of standard quantitative methods led him to bring computational methods into social science in the 1980s, using optimal alignment techniques for the analysis of data on careers, narratives, and other social sequences. These methods have become standard in the life course and time use literatures. 

Across these various methodological and substantive endeavors Abbott has gradually emerged as the current leading theorist of the Chicago School of sociology. His theory of the social world in processual and ecological terms draws directly on the classic works of Chicago sociology, but combines them with conceptual analyses drawn from Abbott's work in computational methods on the one hand and historical analysis on the other. Abbott's general theoretical approach underlay his own analysis of the Chicago tradition in the 1999 book Department and Discipline. It was then stated in preliminary form in the 2001 book Time Matters, alongside the collected methodological critiques that justified the Chicago alternative to the social ontology that is assumed by standard methods. Abbott's 2016 book Processual Sociology explores the ontological foundations of Chicago social theory and begins to explore its normative implications. 

Andrew Abbott