Andrew Abbott. THE BIG IMPACT OF LITTLE THINGS: On the importance of pervasions

via Zoom

What we know about social life at any given time are the things that are easy to conceptualize and to measure. What we don't know are things that are very "small," very numerous, very widely distributed, and largely invisible. I shall call such things “pervasions.” Examples are language, etiquette, concepts of temporality,  bodily habits, even "attitudes." I shall argue that pervasions are typically maintained by non-institutional mechanisms. That is, they do not arise from social structures with rules, logics, monitoring, and error correction – systems with negative feedback. Rather they arise from various kinds of stochastic resonance within the social process, most easily illustrated by processes with reflecting barriers and Markov chains of certain kinds. These resonances give pervasions their characteristic combination of large variability at small scale with small variability at large scale, a combination that is problematic for both theory and method in the social sciences.   


Andrew Abbott teaches sociology at the University of Chicago. Author of ten books, Abbott is known for his ecological theories of occupations and his pioneering computational work on social sequence data. He has written on the foundations of social science methodology and on the evolution of the social sciences, the academic system, and research libraries. A recent book published by the Collège de France addresses the fact/value problem. Abbott is currently completing a general theoretical work on the social process. A former department chair and dean, Abbott edited the American Journal of Sociology 2000 – 2016, and has served on or chaired 120 dissertation committees. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.