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Andrew Abbott's Time Matters: On Theory and Method


Time Matters: On Theory and Method

Abbott, Andrew. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001. 296p, $25.00, hardcover. ISBN: 0226001032.

Andrew Abbott’s Time Matters is a collection of articles that track the development of the author’s ideas on time, statistics, theory, and change. As a sociologist, Abbot attempts the difficult task of pursuing both qualitative and quantitative approaches employing sophisticated methods of analysis to arrive at conclusions which are theoretically sensible, reconciling the seeming precision of empirical science with the ambiguity of human behavior.

While I lack an understanding of statistical analysis, and many of the theoretical conclusions Abbot draws seem somewhat modest and self-evident when compared with contemporary cultural theory, his text is important in that it calls for balance on both sides, saying that qualitative sociologists and quantitative sociologists need to "rethink [their] methodological commitments" (281). For the culture studies scholar, Abbott’s study points to some troubling and homogenizing tendencies that eradicate the complexity and ambiguity of cultural life in favor of politically motivated essentializations to create categories of identity for both heroes and villains. Abbott’s "seven types of ambiguity," -— "semantic ambiguity," "ambiguity of locus," "syntactic ambiguity," "durational ambiguity," "narrative ambiguity," "contextual ambiguity," and "interactive ambiguity" (71-3) are powerful reminders that scholars should be aware of multiple meanings when searching for "causes" to attitudes and actions, and serve to undercut essentializations that create alliances and oppositions.

While many Theory-based positions pay lip service to complexity, chaos, and ambiguity, Abbott’s approach is to pursue a quantitative method which demonstrates this complexity and does so convincingly. By using numerous quantitative studies, Abbott is able to construct a postmodern statistics which is more consistent with what we understand about the limitations of conventional sociological methods. The solution that Abbott offers is a radical refocusing of sociological concerns. As Abbott explains, "The seductive assumption that fools both functionalism and rational choice theory into accepting a social ontology that by making stasis primary loses its ability to explain change. If we would explain change at all, we must begin with it, and hope to explain stasis -— even the stable entity that is the human personality -— as a by product" (266). This reordering of priorities establishes change as the point of origin, and asks scholars to explain why things stay the same. It places tradition and the conservation of identity at the center of cultural life and identity, and thus moves towards a more sophisticated understanding of culture as a process of ordering that runs counter to the propensity for change.

In spite of all of the data and statistical operations (which many readers may find interesting), Time Matters delves into some interesting theoretical areas, particularly its call for a shift towards a recognition of stasis as an the exception rather than the rule. And although, the theoretical claims may seem tame next to Theory, the lessons of Abbott’s "ambiguity" as explained by his statistical analysis should serve as a reminder to be cautious with the oversimplifications that can result from a purely theoretical stance.

Davin Heckman