more Abbottian mental toys: avatars


In a recent Sociological Theory article, Andrew Abbott develops a theoretical framework for the study and analysis of what he referred to as “linked ecologies.” For Abbott, an ecology is,

…best understood in terms of interactions between multiple elements that are neither fully constrained nor fully independent.We thus contrast ecology with mechanism and organism on the one hand and with atomism and reductionism on the other. The latter contrast is straightforward and general: ecology involves some kind of relation between units whereas atomism and reductionism involve only qualities of units themselves or of their aggregates. With mechanism and organism, the contrast is more specific. When we encounter complete and routine integration in the social world, we employ the metaphor of mechanics, as in the ‘‘rule-governed systems’’ of role theory, for example. When we encounter systems whose elements move together in flexible homeostasis, we use the metaphor of organism, as in structural functionalism. By contrast with these two, in ecological thinking the elements are not thought to move together at all; rather, they constrain or contest each other. ‘‘Ecology’’ thus names a social structure that is less unified than a machine or an organism, but that is considerably more unified than is a social world made up of the autonomous, atomic beings of classical liberalism or the probabilistically interacting rational actors of microeconomics (249).

The meat of the article consists of an extended analysis of various empirical cases in which the mesolevel mechanisms and processes by which different ecologies become “linked” are described. This paper is very thought provoking and innovative, in particular due to the use of various self-consciously metaphorical neologisms, which in contrast to the similar use of vernacular words to refer to theoretically rich but counter-intuitive processes made by Harrison White in Identity and Control (arenas, disciplines, councils, etc.) actually make sense most of the time and in fact provide the reader with additional understanding rather than head-scratching perplexity. For Abbott the marked terms in his article are arena, audience, avatar, bundle, hinge, jurisdiction, linkage, ligation, location, position, setting, and settlement.

One of the new metaphors that I find fascinating in this paper is the idea of an “avatar.” But before we get to that I want to address what for some of the readers of the quote above might be the looming elephant in the room. Abbott’s concept of ecology is fairly close to Bourdieu’s notion of a field. In fact for me they are virtually identical. That does not mean that Abbott’s exposition of the various processes and mechanisms that serve to link fields can be found in Bourdieu (most of them cannot to my knowledge), but that there’s a “family resemblance” in the Wittgensteinian sense between the two frameworks.

Abbott disagrees. In an addendum to the published ST article posted on his website, Abbott discusses the similarities and differences between the linked ecologies approach and field theory. I agree with most of the points that he makes (in particular with the difference between “economic” and “political” metaphors), but I also think that he overstates the differences between two approaches. In fact, it took me a while to read the original article, because I kept retranslating a lot of his terminology to field theory terms in my head.

That said, Abbott’s approach certainly goes beyond many of the limitations of field theory as Bourdieu stated it. In particular Abbott is more concerned with processes of field genesis and field structuration (the weaknesses of Bourdieu’s approach) but I think field theory can definitely complement Abbott’s approach, especially when it comes to comparative statics (the strength of the field approach). The linked ecologies framework is also very strong when it comes to questions of history and process, which is not surprising considering the source. In my description of the idea of avatars therefore I will mix up field theory terms with the linked ecologies terminology that Abbott uses. Those who have no patience for Bourdieuese can just read the original thing (:- p).

What then are avatars? For Abbott fields can be linked in many ways. One of the most interesting ways happens when a field produces a representative of the original field which is then inserted into another field. Consider the academic field and the field of the professions for instance. These two fields interact a lot and one of the ways that they become linked is via avatars: thus, the professions produce avatars in the academic field which become new disciplines (usually first subject to serious lack of specifically academic legitimacy). Thus, managers ensconced in the field of for profit corporations were able to link to the academic field via the creation of management. Management has experienced status mobility through its scientific accomplishments, but initially as wrily noted by Herbert Simon, it was a fairly low status endeavor. Avatars can go the other way of course: from academia to the professions. Abbott discusses the case of academic economics creating an avatar in the for-profit arena through the creation of consultants. The distinction between messy applied econometrics and pure mathematical economics within the academic economic field is partially the consequence of this process; with mathematical economics occupying the higher status position in the specifically academic portion of the field (although as Fabio points out in his comments to this post, this might be an outdated picture).

Consultants of all stripes in fact are usually academic avatars inserted into various fields. Thus management consultants are second order avatars, or avatars in the for-profit field of an avatar itself (management). Political consultants are usually avatars of political science in the political field. We have seen from McKenzie’s research how powerful was the role of economic avatars in the field of finance. While external avatars inserted into academic fields are invariable of initial low status (because they are lacking in the specific capital that is recognized in academia), academic avatars inserted into professional fields sometimes are able to gain fairly large amounts of symbolic capital in those fields (even if they are also initially seen as low status peddlers of purely academic knowledge useless for the practical exigencies of the field in question). Thus, economic avatars in finance revolutionized the practice of stock trading. Business consultants have had mixed success in the for-profit arena, although they have been able to create a niche for themselves there (they continue to have legitimacy issues however).

Abbott’s example is that of psychologists in various applied fields. Avatars from the field of scientific psychology have been able to claim important jurisdictional claims in various other professional and practice-oriented fields (education, law, etc.). As the ecology of scientific psychology became linked to other fields through their various avatars, applied psychologists came to dominate the initial professional association (APA) to such an extent that academic psychologists interested in the production of basic knowledge had to flee into their own umbrella association (the APS). Human resource professionals can also be seen as avatars of the juridical field in the field of for-profit corporations and state administration.

Written by Omar

April 16, 2007 at 7:52 pm

Posted in just theory, omar, sociology

4 Responses

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  1. So are sociologists avatars in any field?



    April 16, 2007 at 11:57 pm

  2. Abbott suggests that (American) sociology began as an avatar of the progressive reform movement (located in the political ecology) in the academic field. Sociologists in contrast to other disciplines, have not engaged (I think) in widespread avatar spreading to other fields, unless you count the smattering of sociologists that enter the non-profit field and social movement fields as “consultants” and sometimes participants.



    April 17, 2007 at 1:17 am

  3. I’ve been reading the paper on linked ecologies with alot of interest. I doubt however the statement Abbott made about military ecology. He seems to imply military ecology looks too much like an organism to make it possible for studying as an ecology in his sense of the word. Is it not true then that Mills uttered the opposite with his theory on power elite. Is it not so that there’s a linkage between military ecology and economic and political ecology?

    Is it a coincidence the republic candidate for the presidential election is a naval aviator and a Vietnam veteran? Doesn’t this point at a linkage between military and political ecology?

    I do agree military organisation is internally very overlapping but I also agree with Mills that military organisation is externally very much linked with other ecologies and that as a result the mere fact of being a Vietnam veteran for instance could make your political candidature legitimate.

    Any thoughts on that?
    Greetings, benjamien



    April 1, 2008 at 8:53 pm

  4. […] language and terms such as ecologies, and multiple institutional logics (e.g. Abbott 2005; see also here).  F & M bring order to what could have been some overwhelmingly complicated proceedings […]


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