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.