Category Archives: Summaries

Summaries of literature.

Book Review: Methods of Discovery by Andrew Abbott

If I am to recommend one book on sociological methodology, Methods of Discovery is definitely the book to go to. With his smooth proses and sharp mind, Prof. Andrew Abbott teaches apprentices in the sociological profession valuable lessons about how to generate ideas for their research. In his words, this is a book about “heuristics for the social sciences”.

The book is devoted to three parts: an overview of basic epistemological debates in sociology, a collection of heuristics tricks for discovery, and more general remarks on ideas and puzzles in research projects. In the first part, the author discusses three types of explanatory programs in sociology: pragmatic, semantic and syntactic ones. They emphasize on the interactions between explanatory system and real world, translation from one explanatory system to a more familiar one, and the syntactic coherence of the explanation system itself, respectively. He then proceed to outline nine basic pairs of themes in methodological debates in sociology, and situates familiar methods such as ethnography, historical narratives and small-N analysis in this scaffolding. Abbott offers a structured way of thinking through and compare different methods from their more fundamental, epistemological divergences.

The majority of this book (or the second two hundred pages, in Abbott’s page-counting style) is devoted to his heuristics tricks. He roughly divides the tricks into three groups: additive heuristics that can add to existing arguments but usually lead to more ordinary discoveries; narrative and descriptive heuristics that develop new arguments with regard to time and space; and fractal heuristics that twist the arguments themselves, often along the nine pairs of methodological debates. The use of fractal heuristics sheds light on the point that, methodological issues in fact have profound epistemological origins. In a sense, “all methodological are fundamentally theoretical.” Thus said my supervisor, a student of Abbott at Chicago.

The final part of this book deals with more general topics as puzzles, ideas, taste and personality. There are the factors that ultimately determines “good” research, but are hard to specify as the hardness of research itself. “Puzzles” translates to discrepancies in literature and empirical world. Ideas are just that, ideas. Taste and personality are more about styles of finding ideas.

Abbott does not offer any step by step instructions on how to build taste and personality that are prone to good research. It seems this can only be researched by broad reading, as Abbott himself does. Indeed, the book is filled with numerous examples drawn from multiple disciplines of social science, not limited to sociology. I wonder how Abbott has managed to find time to read all these books.

I would like to conclude this review with a comparison of this book with two other pieces I have read on methodology: Shehui Yu Zhengzhi Yundong Jiangyi (Lectures in Social and Political Movements) by Prof. Zhao Dingxin at Chicago, and Tricks of the Trade by Howard Becker. There are other pieces on specific methodological issues, say, Michael Burawoy on “extended case method”, but these threes’ interest are somewhat broader and more fundamental. Zhao spends one chapter of his book compare different methodological foundations on social science and natural science, offers a two by two classification system dimensioned by structure/individuals and formal/empirical. Parsimonious as this might be, this model is more like an insufficient subset of Abbott’s comprehensive scaffolding. For Becker, however, even such a clear model like Zhao’s is missing. Tricks of the Trade is a book in which important ideas scatter here and there in a suspiciously casual manner. I wonder why this book has been so popular among American sociological departments, as I regret not having read Abbott’s book back in my undergraduate years.

Abbott, Andrew. (2004) Methods of Discovery. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Theory week: Anthony Giddens

The author cracks four myths and establishes two implications in the study of sociological theories. The four myths are: the myth of the great divide between 1890-1920 generation by Parsons, the myth of the problem of order, the myth of the conservative origins of sociology, and the myth of schism. The two implications are to reformulate the theory of industrial society and to reconsider the epistemological status of social theory.

Four myths
First, the myth of the great divide refers to the “fundamental watershed that separates the prehistory of social theory”, located between 1890 and 1920, especially between Durkheim and Weber. This divided was largely promoted by Parsons in his 1937 book The Structure of Social Action. For the same reason, Marx and Engels were excluded from this part of discussion because they were reduced to limbo.

Second, the myth of the problem of order refers to the notion that most non-Marxist authors of the 1890-1920 period were being preoccupied with an abstract “problem of order”. Parsons phrased this ,especially with reference to Durkheim’s Divisions of Labor, as the “Hobbes problem”, that was, how do men escape from the nature status of “war of all against all”? But according to Giddens, Durkheim was not primarily concerned with this problem at all. Not only did Durkheim dismissed the “Hobbes problem” at early stage of his writing, but he was not criticising the utilitarianism of Hobbes but German idealism – both the holism of Wundt and Schaffle and neb-Kantian philosophy. Parsons treated The Division of Order in an ambiguous way to establish his own structural functionalism, but Durkheim intended to show the anthesis between individualism and holism. Parsons also framed Durkheim as dominated by the notion of moral consensus, but the latter also cares for institutional analysis and institutional change. That is, it is not Durkheim that was conservative – but Parsons himself was.

Third, the myth for the conservative origins of sociology was promoted by Nisbet, who claimed Durkheim was conservative because he drew from conservative sources, and who processed anti-individualism ideas himself. However, Durkheim both drew from neb-kantian sources that were not conservative at all, and was again methodological individualism instead of moral individualism.

Finally, the myth of schism was invented by Dahrendorf, means “consensus versus coercive” resolution of the problem of order. The former is attributed to Durkheim by Parsons, while the latter is attributed to Marx. But this is also misleading in that both authors at least agreed that the “nonalienated and free”, the “man in nature” arose exactly as a product of social development, instead of the pre-condition of capitalism. According to Giddens, Marx and Durkheim were only different in the question “what form of society” will there be anomie?

Two implications
In the 1970s when Giddens wrote this essay, there were there response to the malaise of social theory. First, a resurgent critique of positivism in the social sciences; second, the argument that sociology is tied to ideologies and thus need a radical sociology; and third, the fight between theory of order and theory of conflict. For the latter two, Giddens responded that they were resulted from the problematic theory of industrial society, that the fundamental contrast in the modern world is between traditional agrarian society and industrial urban society. This is reflected in paris of notions like “mechanic and organic solidarity” and “Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft”. But this is no longer our problem for now, because the assumption under this theory, that society develops in endogenous way, that all societies share the same path of development soled based on technological and economic development, no longer held in the globalizing 1960s. Thus there should be more mature and international theories. In the end, Giddens also rejected the positivism trends in sociology, but I failed to understand this part.

Summary: Liu and Emirbayer, “Field and Ecology”, Social Theory

Liu and Emirbayer were at pains to compare Bourdieu’s field theory and Chicago school’s ecology theory as spatial views of society. There are four sections in this paper. The first section offers brief overviews of important elements in the two theories as members of “spatial theory family”; the second and third analyze their similarities and differences along different dimensions (sociologically fancy substitute for themes); the last section discusses how the two theories can borrow from each other.

Field theory and ecology theory are both “theoretical metaphors for charactering social space” (Silber 1995, as in Liu & Enirbayer 2015). There are three elements in any spatial view of society: actors, positions, and the relations that associates them. [Reflection 1] Moreover, social spaces are different with social system in that the latter doesn’t concern positions but only the roles of actors; different with social network in that the latter only sees structural ties between actors, but has no concern with actors’ shift of positions; different with social structure in that the latter only cares for positions but not actors that occupies them. [For more detailed discussion on this dichotomy, see Reflection 1]

Field and ecology theories are similar in three aspects. First is structural isomorphism – fields become similar in their interaction. In Bourdieu this process is homology, in ecology theory Abbott links different ecologies by hinges (the same actors get rewards in different fields) or avatars (actors create their alternative self in another field?). Second is their conceptualisation of time. Field theory incorporates this dimension by tracing the trajectories over time of social actors and positions they occupy – that is, relations between them. For ecology theory, the focus on interaction itself implies an emphasis on time and fluidity of structures. Finally they are similar in the social psychologies discussions. Habits – unreflective dispositions – comes first, and only when habits are not enough will there be more reflective practices. In conclusion, field theory and ecology theory both conceptualise society as relational and views social relations as structured process.

Field and ecology metaphor are different along five dimensions. First, field theory is devoted to power relations and dominance / subordination pairs. It even has a meta-field of “power of powers”, or the field of power struggle between dominants in sub-fields. It is in this field that the legitimate principle of legitimation is produced [c.f. province head vs. centre head in CCP]. Ecology theory views society more like plant ecology, there are competition but few direct domination. Second, Bourdieu insists fields are inter-connected and are receptive to external influences. But ecology theory assumes social spaces are endogenous, for example they do not research life of immigrants in Chicago city. Thus they concerns more internal interaction than preexisting structures. Third, in field theory social spaces are heterogeneous, but in ecology there is usually one type of actor. [This can be attribute to the second difference – or there will be power. but how about competition? If there is only one actor, no competition, no plant ecology?] Fourth, the two theories use different metaphors in describing [don’t approve this sub-argument – they also have different authors?]. Last, field theory is more abstract in conceptualising than ecology theory. In the former a “space” is not necessary physical, while in the later a “space” is really a space.

How to incorporate field theory with ecology theory? For ecology to learn from Bourdieu, it can take into relations between spaces, heterogeneity of actors in a space, power relations between actors. A good example is Abbott Systems of Professions. For Bourdieu to learn from ecology, it can give more attention to interactions between actors and consider wider range of interaction besides domination/subordination. For example, competition, cooperation, accommodation and exchange.


  1. Although this dichotomy between position and actors resemble the theoretical pair of structure / agency, or objective / subjective, the two authors bridge the pair by adding a “relation” dimension. According to them, on the one hand, Bourdieu also tries to bridge the European objectivism / subjectivism or structure / agency in his field. Three elements here: topological area, organisation of forces, and contestation battlefield. The third is where actors try to make position shift – that is, bridge the changeable with prepositions. They use their habitus to do this. However, since their habitus is also largely predetermined by their position, Bourdieu’s theory is still closer to structuralism / objectivism compared to interactionists’ theory. On the other hand, the second Chicago school – Park and Burgess – build on Simmel’s concept of reciprocal relationship and proposes interaction as “the fundamental social process”. This is a characteristics of ecology theory.
  2. Liu’s own PhD thesis on Chinese lawyers is an empirical application of this integration of field theory and ecology theory. He defines two fundamental processes: boundary-work and exchange. Boundary-work includes boundary making, boundary blurring and boundary maintaining. This happens between different legal professions in legal field, legal profession and state. Exchange is exchange of resources.