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New School

Things Of Boundairies
Source: Social Research, Vol. 62, No. 4, Defining the Boundaries of Social Inquiry (WINTER 1995),
pp. 857-882
Published by: New School
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An this paper, I shall argue that it is wrong to look for
boundaries between preexistingsocial entities.Rather we
shouldstartwithboundariesand investigate howpeople create
entitiesby linkingthoseboundariesintounits.We shouldnot
look forboundariesof thingsbut forthingsof boundaries.

in Boundaries

Problemsof thingsand boundarieshavearisenin bothareas

of myresearch:studiesof professions and temporality.
I conceived of the professionsas living in an ecology
(Abbott,1988).There wereprofessions, and turfs,and a social
and culturalmapping-the mappingofjurisdiction-between
thoseprofessions and turfs.A changein thismappingwas the
proper focus of studiesof professionsand happened most
oftenat the edges of professionaljurisdictions.These edges
could be studiedin thethreearenasof workplace,public,and
All of thispresupposedmuchabout boundariesof profes-
sions, of turfs,indeed of jurisdictionsthemselves.About
boundaries,I presumedthattheycould be specified,thatthey
did in factseparateprofessions,and thattheywerethe zones
of actionbecausetheywerethezonesof conflict. And,indeed,

*Thispaperwasfirstgivenas a lectureat theAsilomarconference

on organizations
at the kindinvitation
of RichardScott.I thankhimfortheopportunity to develop
theseideas. I thankRobertGibbonsfor pointingme towardscoalitiontheoryand
MichaelWade fordiscussions of runawayselection.

SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter1995)

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I presumeda spatialstructure to theseboundaries,as did the

manypeople who attackedmytheoryforcoveringmainlythe
exceptionsin the livesof professionsand not accountingfor
the stablelife"at thecore of a profession." Here was a notion
of professionsas convexbodies,withsecureheartlandsdeep
Beyondtheseimplicitpresuppositions about boundaries,I
presumedsomething muchmoreprofound.In arguingmainly
about interprofessional conflict,I took for granted the
existenceof the professionsdoing the conflicting. This had
been necessary, of course.One has to presupposesomething,
and if I made interprofessional conflictthefocusof attention,
the bodies in conflictwere the obviousthingsto presuppose.
But when I argued about the emergenceof professionsin
border territories,or about the gradual dissolution of
professions without jurisdictions,or about the transformation
of professions via amalgamation and division,I was takingfor
grantedthenotionof actingbodiescalledprofessions, capable
of beingsplitorjoined, capableof comingintoor losingsome
kindof permanentexistence.
A somewhatsimilarly linkedset of issuesabout boundaries
and entitiesarose in my work on temporality. One of my
centralconcernswas howprocessesof different temporalsizes
go together.The substantive issue again involvedprofessions
(Abbott,1982).Why were there veryfewpsychiatrists working
in mentalhospitalsin the 1930swhenpsychiatry had begunas
the professionof asylum doctors in the late nineteenth
century?I considereda numberof responsesto thisquestion.
One had to do withan annualmobility modelof thebehavior
ofdoctorsenteringand movingwithinthenervousand mental
diseasearea. Anotherhad to do withthemuchslowergrowth
of excitinglocal communities of neurologistsand psychiatrists
in majorcities,communities thatchangedthe veryconditions
of mobility. Yet anotherhad to do withgradual changesin
psychiatricknowledge, movingovera fifty-year periodtowards
psychologism and Freudianism.And a finalanalysisinvoked

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changesin socialcontrolthattookmorethana centuryto fall

It was easy to set up these four explanationsfor the
psychiatrists'move, but hard to imagine how they went
together. If one assumed that knowledgechange was the
centralcausal force,then it would determinethe mobility
choices of psychiatrists in, say, the qiunquennium1880 to
1885,even thoughit itselfwouldnotbe measurablycomplete
until 1920 or 1930. Obviously,thatcould not be. But it was
equallyridiculousto thinkthatsuchgrand,contextualchanges
nevermatteredat all. Clearly,all these forceswere working
throughthesamepresentand yetcontriving to somehowwork
All this drove me towardan intenselyprocessualview of
socialstructure.But ifone tooksucha processualview- as did,
forexample,GeorgeHerbertMead and HerbertBlumer- the
problemof entitiesbecameacute.Was a socialentitya merely
in a process,a kindof standingwave?Were
boundariesin factliterallyever-changing and, hence, not in
any real sense boundaries at all?
Now it is easier to explainstasisas an emergentphenome-
non in a fundamentally changinguniversethan vice versa.
Social theoriesthat presume given, fixed entities-rational
choice being the obviouscurrentexample- alwaysfall apart
over the problemof explainingchange in those entities,a
problemrationalchoicehandlesby ultimately fallingback on
biologicalindividuals,whomit presumesto have a static,given
character.But it is verynearlyas difficultto account,in a
processualontology,forthe plain factthatmuchof the social
world staysthe same much of the time. Here, too, is the
problemof entitiesand boundaries.
In boththeseresearchareas,then,therearose questionsof
the relationbetweenentitiesand boundariesand questions
abouttheconditionsunderwhichsocialentitiescan be said to
comeintoor leave existence.I proposean answerto thelatter
questionby proposingan answerto the former.

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I begin with a basic assertion about the relation of

boundariesand entities:social entitiescome into existence
when social actors tie social boundariestogetherin certain
ways.Boundariescome first,thenentities.
Let me restatethisassertionin concreteexamples.In the
viewproposedhere,a geographicalstateis a set of frontiers
whichare laterlinkedintowhattopologists calla closedJordan
curve(a continuoussingleboundary that defines an insidethat
is nowherecontinuouswithan outside).An organizationis a
set of transactionsthatare laterlinkedintoa functionalunit
thatcould be said to be the siteof thesetransactions. A legal
corporationis a set of market(and other)relationsthatare
laterlinkedin a certain,specifiedfashion.A profession is a set
of turfbattlesthat are later yoked into a single defensible
positionin thesystemof professions.
The majoralternative to the positionI am advocatingtakes
the relationbetweenboundariesand entitiesas a synchronie,
evenlogicalrelationship. In thisview,boundariesare a logical
correlateof thingnessand vice versa. Therefore,indeed,
saying that a set of closed boundaries exists is logically
equivalentto sayingthata social thingexists.This common
view obviouslycannot provide a temporalaccount of the
originsof socialentities.
thatwe neverstartwithboundaries.The
It is notsurprising
prototypical entity modernsocial thoughtis the biological
human being. We thinkabout social entitiesas overgrown
versionsof suchbiologicalindividuals, and, thus,havebecome
accustomedto thinkthat social entitieshave essences like
biologicalindividuals,that theyhave some internalplan or
thingnessor Aristotelian substance.1Moreover,we assignto
human individualsa self-otherboundary guaranteed by
centuriesof Cartesianphilosophyand cannot imaginesuch
boundarieswithouthumanentities,an inabilityall too easily
generalizedto thelevelof socialentities.

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I am here suggestingthat we reversethe whole flowof

metaphor.Ratherthantakingthe individualhumanbeingas
metaphorfor the social actor,let us take the social actoras
metaphorforthe individualhumanbeing. Not onlyis there
much biological evidence for this- the world is full of
organismslike slime molds and jellyfishthat appear to be
individualsbut are actuallysocieties-but also, under such an
assumption,the fruitfulbelief that there mightbe social
Let me now turn to the logical issues of imagining
boundaries without there being any entities for those
boundariesto be theboundariesof.It willbe helpfulhereto be
formal.In algebraictopology,spaces are understoodin terms
of neighborhoods.The neighborhoodsof a point x are
arbitrarilydefined"partsof the universethatare near x." In
real (Cartesian)space, neighborhoodsare typically circlesor
spheres hyperspheres, loci such that all in
points the locus
are withina certainEuclidean radius of x. But, in general,
givena setof neighborhoods and a setM, a boundarypointof
M is a pointx such thateveryneighborhoodof x containsat
leastone pointin M and one pointin the complementof M.
(The complementof M is the restof the universeonce M is
Note thatthisformaldefinition of boundariesrequiresthe
prior existence of entities-the set M and itscomplement-in
termsofwhichtheboundariescan be logicallydefined.Yet the
directionof the definitions could be reversed.One could in
principledefinethe neighborhoodsystemand the potential
boundarysetand thenconstruct thesetofwhichthe( potential)
boundary set is the actual boundary. That is, given an
assignment of pointsto neighborhoodsand a completelistof
potentialboundarypoints,we wouldsaythatan entityM exists
if we can find someassignmentof all the pointsin all the
neighborhoods to eitherM or thecomplement of M suchthat:
(1) each point has a unique location (in M or the complement
of M), and (2) giventheselocations,thepointsin thepotential

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boundaryset all do in factmeet the definitionof boundary

pointsvisa visM. This woulddefinea setpurelyin termsofits
propertyof beinga thingthatpossessesa boundaryand is a
perfectlylegitimatedefinition.But note that with the
definition so constructed thereis no guaranteeof uniqueness.
There mightbe severalwaysof assigningthe pointsto a set
(notM, but N, O, P, . . . ) and itscomplement(N' O', P' . . . )
that fulfilledthe definitionalconditions. Indeed, these
different"assembliesof boundaries"would be many if we
allowedthedefinition oftheneighborhood systemto fluctuate.
Thus, in formal topology, boundaries and entitiesare more
or less logicallyequivalent.Eitherone could be primal.But in
the logicalsequence fromneighborhoodsystemto definition
of boundarypoints to definitionof set we see a logic of
increasingspecificationthat could easily be regarded as
temporal,an accountof theemergenceof entities.
To postulatethetemporalpriority ofboundaries,however,I
mustcome up witha definition of boundarythatmakessense
even when there is nothingto bound. To do this,I shall
replacetheconceptof set membership withthe moregeneral
notionof "differenceof character." Thus, I shalldefinea point
x as a boundarypointin space S if everyneighborhoodof x
containsat leasttwopointsthatdifferin somerespect:notone
in M and one notin M, but simplytwo pointsthatdifferin
some respect.(Note thatthe boundarypointis defined"in a
space S" ratherthan "of a set M.") In the simplecase, this
differencewill be a single knownproperty-color, gender,
creed,education.In the more complicated(and more likely)
case, it willbe a combinationof propertiesor dimensionsof
I havenotmentioned"boundaryof" anything. These points
are simplywhatwe mightcall "sitesof difference." Also note
the assumptions, here, of and
"differences" of some kind of
atomic unit (the point) to which those differencescan
These two assumptionsare criticaland problematic.The

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"differences"are things that emerge from local cultural

negotiations.That is, local interactiongraduallytosses up
stablepropertiesdefiningtwo"sides."These are notnecessar-
ilycategorylabels,althoughthe traditionalargument(which
startswithentities)would presupposethatfact.For me, the
centralrequirementis ratherthatthese differences be local
and interactional.But to whom or to what unit do these
propertiesappertain? It would be easy to slide into the
traditionalargument:these units are pre-existing entities-
individualpeople, forexample- who bringdifferent, endur-
ing qualities to interaction. In this case, my whole position
turnsintoan elaboratemicroto macrotranslation argument.
I wishto claimsomething moreradical.I wantto emphasize,
withBlumer and other stronginteractionists, that the units
might anything-people,roles,physicallocations,shardsof
priorsocialentities,and so on. Of course,anysocialinteraction
begins with what is in part a soup of preexistingactorsand
actions. But interactionis not merelythe actors' way of
reproducingthemselves. This is theseductiveassumptionthat
fools both functionalismand rational choice theory into
acceptinga socialontologythatbymakingstasisprimaryloses
itsabilityto explainchange.If we wouldexplainchangeat all,
we mustbegin withit and hope to explain stasis-even the
stableentitythatis the human personality-as a byproduct.
Previously-constituted actors enter interactionbut have no
abilityto traversethe interaction inviolable.They fordit with
difficultyand in it manydisappear.Whatcomesout are new
actors,new entities,new relationsamongold parts.
Whatare theseparts?Is thisa hiddenassumptionthatthere
reallyare enduring,atomicunits?It is notifwe hold theworld
to be "a worldofevents"(Mead, 1932,p.l). The partsare then
events,instantaneousand unique. That some events have
stable lineages,therebybecomingwhat we call "actors,"is
somethingto be explained,notsomethingto be assumed.2
Having thus extended the logical foundationsof my
position,however,I readilyadmitthattheexampleI shalluse

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in this paper- the constitutionof social work as a social

-does happen to be an examplethatseemsto fitintoa
micro to macro translationframework.But that accident
shouldnot misleadthe reader.I could as easilyhave inverted
the example,for the productionof what are usuallycalled
microentities(the personality, for example) takes place by
preciselythesame process,but with whatwe usuallycall macro
(I shalldiscuss
entitiesplayingthe partof sitesof difference.
thisexample brieflylater.An analogous view of personality
Washeld by Simmel.)Microand macroare not equivalentto
realand emergent.Interaction and eventsare real; bothmicro
and macro entitiesare emergent.The world is a world of

An Example

Let me move fromalgebraictopologyand high theoryto

social realityin the late nineteenthcentury.In 1870, social
workdid notexist;thephrasedid notexist,thesetof activities
did not exist,the "thing"did not exist. There were some
being done thatwould eventuallybe done by social
workers, thesewerenotbeingdone byanygroupofpeople
in particular,nor were theyaggregatedeven at the simplest
levelintothetaskstheywouldbe whensocialworkersdid them.
For example,therewerehospitals.Doctors,nurses,and others
workingin thosehospitalssometimescontactedauthorities at
otherinstitutions about patientstheywere discharging.But
thisworkwas notorganizedintoa systematic setof tasksdone
by some one role in particular,much less was that role
articulatedwith"similarroles"in othersocialinstitutions. Or
again, "friendly visiting"by the wealthyto the homes of the
poor existed as a behavior;however,but itwas notarticulated
withanythinglikea systematic viewof charitybut was rather
seen as an outgrowth of earliergentry-type
Moreover,therewere some tasksthatwould eventuallybe

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done by socialworkersthatwerenot even imagined.Nobody

was investigating familystructures withan eye to theirimpact
on health.Nobody was thinkingabout vocationaleducation
outsidethe tradesthemselves. Nobodywas applyingpsychiat-
ricconceptslikestressto everydaylife.
By 1920,all thishad changed.The wordsocialworkwas old
and established.There were professionalsocietiesof social
workers.There were schools for social work. There were
journalsforsocialwork.There was an employment exchange
and a clearlydefinedlabor market.There were institutions
hiringlargenumbersof such "socialworkers"and employing
themin positionsof thatname. Mostimportantly, therewas a
fairlyclear turf,a set of things to do.
If we thenaskourselves,"Whendid socialworkemerge?"we
find that that question immediatelydisappears behind the
moreominousquestionof "whatdoes itmeanto saythatsocial
workemerged?"Now, we can addressthislatterquestionby
turningit into the questionof "whatwas the order in which
certaininstitutions thatwe takeas characteristic of socialwork
emerge?"Then at leastwe knowwhatcame beforewhat.This
sequence-of-institutions view at least moves us froma static
view of a profession'soriginsto a narrativeone.4 But the
narrative is deceitful.For we buildour narratives-at leastour
historicalnarratives-fromback to front.We startwithwhat
we knowemergedand thenseekitsorigins.But history is lived
frontto back. Thingsemergenot fromfixedplans,but from
local accidentsand structures.
In particular,the social workturfitself,the shape of the
thingsto do and of thingsdone,wasbyno meanstherelatively
givenfactorthatit appears in, say,the case of medicine.Nor
should its originsbe intuitedby reasoningback fromwhat
appeared in the 1920s. Rather,we mustask ourselveswhy
thingslikeprobationand kindergartens, whichwereoriginally
part of thisarea of activity, disappearedfromit in the final
"thing" that emerged as socialwork.
Even worse,bythetimewe see majorinstitutional eventsin

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socialwork,we are wellpastthereal momentof structuration,

the momentwhen the veryshape of tasksbegan to become
fixed.For example,thefirstlocal socialworkschoolarrivedin
New York in 1898. The firstprofessional associationsarrived
in theteens,typicallyspecialty in
associations areaslikemedical
and psychiatric social work.The social worklabor exchange
also appeared in the teens,as one of the major activitiesof
whatwouldslowlybecomethenationalprofessional association
in realityas wellas name.
But the real actionwas long before.The area of charities
and welfarebegan to take its firstloose shape withinthe
National Conferenceof Charitiesand Corrections,which
beganin 1874. At thatoriginalmeetingweredoctors,lawyers,
clergymen, wealthymen and ladies,university faculty,and a
whole varietyof others.Under its considerationwere things
like vocationaleducationand probation,as well as lunacy,
tuberculosis,venereal disease, alcoholism,unemployment,
childwelfare,and who knowswhatelse. The earlyinstitutions
for social welfare-institutionalchurches,settlement houses,
dozensof individualcharitiesand charitysocieties-articulated
between these and many other problems and services.
Settlementhouses provided kindergartens, cooking classes,
adult education,and vocationalguidance as well as several
varietiesof whatwe now thinkof as socialservices.
To thepeopleof thattime,all thesedifferent services,which
seem to us like thingsthatbelong in schoolsand jails and
hospitalsand othersuch places,made sense togetherin one
site.The emergenceof socialworkas an entity was (thatis,can
be definedas) theseparationof thosethingsintotasksthatfell
under socialworkand tasksthatfellelsewhere.And it is my
contentionhere thatthe separationsthemselvesemergedas
independent, unconnected boundarieslongbeforeitmadeany
senseto speakof socialworkas a socialentity.
Let me now returnto the formalexposition.I had defined
boundariesnot as pointsall of whoseneighborhoods contain
bothsomeinsideand someoutside,butrathersimplyas points

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all of whose neighborhoodscontainsitesof difference.I did

notinsistthatall thosedifferences be the same.
Such sitesof difference are verycommon.Indeed, in many
socialstatesofaffairs, theyare quiterandom.Earlysocialwork
is quite typicalin thisregard.If we look at JohnMohr'sdata
(1992, 1995) on New Yorkcharitiesorganizations, we findthat
manyadjacent charitiesdiffered in many differentways.His
data happen mainlyto involveclientdifferences, but other
data showmanyotherkindsof differences.
These locally random sites of differencebecome proto-
boundariesonlywhentheylineup intosomekindof extended
oppositionalong some single axis of difference.Thus, we
mighthave two kindsof people who do some taskand find
thatdifferenceliningup into a systematic differenceacross
many work sites or across several of
types institutions. The
kindof boundarythatemergedbetweensystemsanalystsand
programmers in the 1970s and 1980s is an example of this
difference.It appeared and reappeared independentlyin
organizationafter organization.In this case, we have an
extendedsetofboundarypointsthatbeganto takeon a special
realitybyvirtueof theprecedenceof one or a limitednumber
of types of difference.The names were conveniencesto
describethe boundary,whichemergedwellbeforetherewas
any really systematicsocial realityto the entity"systems
analysis"or "programming." It is ratherthata dimensionof
difference-in thiscase overhowone approachesa computing
problem-emerges across a number of local settingsto
producea proto-boundary.
Note, however,that I have assumed,in the word "local,"
some kindof adjacencystructure to the socialspace involved.
That is, we imaginesome kindof metricof propinquity that
placesinstitutions or areas. Examplesof thesemetricsmightbe
professionalmobilitybetween areas, or career structure
linkagesbetweenareas, or relationsof divisionof labor, or
clientexchange,or whatever.It seemsto me thatwe shouldfor
the presentle¿?vethe natureof propinquityopen. I simply

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underlinethat I have assumed some kind of propinquity

measure,whichmay be independentof the dimensionsof
I am now poised to presenta conceptionof the originof
entities.In mysocialworkexample,we have a zone of social
space thatwe may looselycall welfarespace or social order
space in whichvarious proto-boundaries are set up. These
mightinvolvegender,training,or priorprofession.It is the
yokingof theseproto-boundaries thatmakestheentity"social
work."Notethatitdid notreallymatterwhattheseboundaries
were, at first.They began as simple,inchoatedifferences.
They were not boundariesof anything,but rathersimple
locationsof difference.They were not associatedfromone
workplaceto another;theywerenotconsistent fromone client
type another;they were not necessarilystableovertime.
For example, kindergartensbegan in the 1880s to be
conductedby people with a much wider varietyof back-
groundsthan had appeared in the earlier Frobelianmove-
ment:some came fromeducation,some fromvolunteering,
some fromchurches.And thesepeople also differedin some
cases by gender, by class, by level of education. Rapid
expansion from the earlier,smaller movementdrove this
differentiation.But the importantdistinctionthat emerged
was in levels of special training;the older, specially-trained
Frobelianswereoverwhelmed by less trainedworkerscoming
into kindergartensvia the settlementhouses. But in the
probationfieldthe dimensionof difference was different. In
probation,the main difference was among clients,who were
themselvesdifferentiated by the statelaws governingproba-
tion,and thisdifference ofclientsin turndrovea difference in
origin and orientationof people working with those clients:
adult probationlargelydemanded legal professionals, while
childprobationwas dominatedbytheneweraimsof thechild
Both kindergartens and probationthus became sites of
difference,and, hence, boundaries in my sense, but the

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differenceswerenotsimilaracrossthetwoareas or evenacross
giveninstantiations of a typeof institution in a singlearea. In
other parts of social welfare, a gender proto-boundary
emerged. The best example of such a boundary was in
psychiatricsocial work,an area in whichmen (psychiatrists)
and women(psychiatric social workers)did largelythe same
kindsof thingsunderdifferent professionalbanners.In other
areas,whatmatteredwas a similaroppositionbetweenpeople
who had connectionsto churchesand those who did not.
Friendlyvisiting itself-theveryrootof socialwork-was such
an area.
Social workas an entitycame into existencewhen various
social agents- the leaders of the settlementand charities
organizationmovements,the heads of state boards, the
superintendents of institutions- began to hook up thesesites
ofdifference intolargerproto-boundaries and thenintolarger
units.(Otheragents- particularly leadersof otherenvironing
professionsand proto-professions- did so as well, the most
important of these being the newlypowerfuloccupationof
school superintendents.) That is, social workemergedwhen
actorsbeganto hookup thewomenfrompsychiatric workwith
the scientificallytrainedworkersfromthe kindergartens with
the non-churchgroup in friendlyvisitingand the child
workersin probation.All those people were placed "within"
socialwork,and theothersruledoutsideit.An imagewas then
developedto rationalizethisemergingrealityas a singlething.
Unfortunately, in the process of makingsuch a hook-up,
certainareas (like probation)mayhave ultimately proventoo
distant, somesense,to have one of theirpartiesincludedin
theemergingthingcalled socialwork.
This is not to argue that in some cases, along other
dimensions, a singleboundarymaynothavebeen crucial.One
"edge" of social work illustratesthis well. An important
boundary in home economics, industrialeducation, and
kindergartens wasthatbetweenservicesthatwereschool-based
and thosethatweresettlement-house based. All of theseareas

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couldhave ended up "in" social work. But by linkingthe

"school"sidesof theseboundariestogether, schooladministra-
torsachieveda muchmoresecurelocationof certainwelfare
subjectsinto the school curriculumthan did the emerging
socialworkleadersintotheirown institutions.
Note that these variousproto-boundaries may well reach
clear out of whata functionalist mightregardas socialorder
space. Genderdifferences are an obviousexample.A gender
opposition kindergartens, forexample,was tied directlyto
similaroppositionsin schoolsystemsvia thoseparticularsites
wherekindergartens had been startedin schools.The social
worldis a crazyquilt in severaldimensions,withmanylocal
regularitiesand edges,someof whichpeterout in quitesmall
areas,and someof whichrun clearout of sight.
The makingof an entity is simplytheconnecting up of these
localoppositionsand differences intoa singlewholethathas a
quality which I shall call "thingness"(whichI will examine
shortly).In a greatmanycases,thisconnectingup is a matter
of consciousagency. The process involvedin creatingthe
medical professionin mid-nineteenth-century England is a
good example. There were four or fivepotentialcandidates
for inclusionin the whole thingto be called medicine:the
apothecaries, whohad begunbysellingmedicinebutwerenow
organizedinto a tight,self-examining group; the chemists,
withtheirskillin drug manufacture; the surgeons,withtheir
physicalexpertise;and the physicians,withtheiruniversity
degrees.The precedingunitiesof thesegroupshad brokenup
becausea newdimensionof difference- -expertisecertified by
directexamination-was createdby the apothecaries.On this
new dimension,the kindsof thingsavailableto differentiate
physiciansfromsurgeonsand apothecaries-thingslike uni-
versitydegreesand certainkindsof trainingperiods- failedto
providecontinuing, effective differentiation.That is, the new
dimensionof difference collapsedpreexisting differences. In
this new way of looking at the medical world, the only
effective,sharplydifferentiable entityone couldcreatewasone

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that would include physicians,surgeons,and apothecaries,

whichis preciselythe group thatbecame the modernBritish
medicalprofessionin 1856.
Note thatwhatthe apothecariesdid was to changethe way
one lookedat thespace of differences. It was as iftheyforced
a three-dimensional worldintotwodimensions,and in doing
so movedthemselves fromtheperiphery intothecenterof the
medicalgroup.As a resultof theiract,otherprofessionsand
actorsbeyondthe professionsmoved to createa new unity.
The emergenceof socialentitiesis oftensuchan act,a drawing
togetherof things.It could arise in any of the sources of
action- charisma,tradition,optimization, accident,monoma-
nia, value rationality.We should remain explicitlyagnostic
aboutwhichis actuallyinvolved.
I need now to considerthe term"linkingup" or "yoking"
that I have used throughoutto referto the connectionof
boundaries.Whatdoes it mean to saythatan organizationis a
setof transactionswhichare laterlinkedintoa functional unit
thatcouldbe said to be thesiteof thesetransactions? Or thata
legal corporation is a set of market relations that are later
linked a certain,specifiedfashion?Or thata professionis a
set of turfbattlesthatare lateryokedintoa singledefensible
positionin thesystemof professions?
Yokingmeansconnectionof twoor moreproto-boundaries
such thatone side of each becomesdefinedas "inside"the
same entity.There seem to be twowaysin whichthiscan be
done. In the exampleof Britishmedicinejust mentioned,the
introduction of examinationshad the effectof destroyinga
previousdimensionof difference-broadlyspeaking,thatof
class,bothof practitioner and client-therebybringingthings
close togetherthathad previouslybeen far apart. In formal
terms,such a yokingis a projectionfroma social space of
higherdimensionality to one of lower dimensionality. (For
example, Monterey, California,is right next to Monterey,
Tennessee,ifone ignoresthedifference in longitude,because
thetwoare at thesame latitude-36 15 N.)

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This kind of yokingis, I am persuaded,the centralform

used whena socialspace is alreadyfilledwithentities, whena
divisionof a socialspace intoentitiesis alreadyestablishedand
institutionalizedin some way.Under such circumstances, the
onlyways radicallychangearrangements in a social space
are to delegitimize old differencesor to emphasizenew ones.
The formerstrategy yokesentitiestogether, the latterdivides
But whena socialspace is emptyor,rather,unstructured, as
was the case withthe area of socialorderand welfarein the
late nineteenthcentury,yokingmeans literalconnectionof
boundaries.That is, to createsocial work,a group of actors
hooked up the female side of friendlyvisitingwith the
nonchurch-affiliated side of the provisionof social services
withthe nonmedicaiside of patientworkin hospitals,and so
on. The foundingdefinitionsof social work included one
groupfromeach of thesedisputes,placingthatgroup"inside"
This secondkindof entityemergencecan be envisionedin
twoways,one of whichlooksbackwardto the sourcesof my
argument, the other of which depends on terms yet
uninvestigated.In terms of my earlier definitions,the
emergenceof an entityis the assemblageof varioussitesof
difference-boundariesin the loose sense definedearlier-
into a set of boundaries in the topologicallystrictsense,
boundariesthatdefinean insideand an outside.But thework
of creatingan entitymust also be seen as the work of
rationalizing these variousconnectionsso that the resulting
entity has the abilityto endure,as a persistent thing,in the
variousecologiesin whichit is located.


This bringsus to the issue of thingness, quality,

endurance,or whateverwe wishto call it. In the processual

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ontologythatI am here settingforth,thecentralqualityof an

entityis endurance.If "the world is a world of events,"in
Mead's ringingphrase,thenwhatdistinguishes entitiesis their
property of beingeventsthatkeep happeningin
of repetition,
thesameway.Repetition could ariseeitherinternally, through
some structureof causes thatinternally regulates"enduring
events,"in whichcase I shall speak of internalreproduction.
Or it could arise froman externalstructure, an ecologythat
leavesno real roomforchangein theindividual,in whichcase
I shallspeak of ecologicalreproduction.
But entity-nessseemsto me to go beyondmererecurrence.
If one recallsmyoriginalquestionaboutthemutualeffectsof
historicalprocessesofdifferent sizes,itis clearthatwhatmakes
an historicaleventimportantis itsindependentstandingas a
site of causation,as a thing with consequences.It is this
independentcausal authorityof large-scaleand small-scale
eventsthatmakestheorizing thesocialprocessso difficult. And
whatis trueforlargeand smalleventsis truealso forlargeand
smallentities, whichare, in myargument,a subclassof events.
Thus, a second crucialpropertyof entitiesis theirabilityto
originatesocialcausation,to do socialaction.But actionhere
mustbe definedbroadly,not merelyas Weberiansubjective
action,butratheras anyabilityto createan effecton therestof
the social process that goes beyond effectsthat are merely
transmitted throughthecausingentityfromelsewhere.
An entityis, therefore,somethingmore than a standing
wave.It acquires,somehow,a coherenceor internalautonomy.
If that coherence is lacking,if we have pure ecological
reproduction to whichis added no internalsolidity, it maybe
lessusefulto thinkof a givenrecurrent eventas an entity. At a
minimum,we mustdistinguishbetweensuch "internal"and
For a set of examples,let me returnfora momentto the
theoryof occupations.It is prettyclear thatour ideal typeof
an occupationincludes three things:a particulargroup of
people, a particulartypeof work,and an organizedbody or

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structure, otherthantheworkplaceitself, capableofsomekind

of reproduction. The highprofessionsand the guildsare, of
course,thearchetypical examplesof suchoccupations.But we
can easilyimagine social entitiesthat lack one of the three
attributes,but thatare, in fact,real socialentitiesin the sense
that they can be continuouslyreproduced and can have
independentcausal consequences.
First,supposethatwe havea particular groupof peoplewho
are doing a particularkind of work, but who are not
organized. Such quasi-occupationstypicallyappear in the
formative yearsof strongformoccupations.But theymayalso
be permanently created,if thereare organizationalforces-
laws against combinationsof workerscome to mind- that
preventworkerorganization.But we can also imagine a
particulargroup of people withan organizedbody and no
or fromdisplacement byothergroupsor fromlossof demand.
The railroadengineersillustratethe firstof these, psychic
mediumsthe second, and the clergy,at various times,the
third.We can call such groups worklessoccupations.And,
finally,we can imaginean organizationalstructuretied to a
particularbody of work,but no consistentgroup of people
doingthatwork.These can be calledturnoveroccupations,for
theirchiefcharacteristic is the intenseturnoverof workers
withinthem.The nineteenth-century railroadsofferexamples
of thisbut more characteristic are modernlife-cycle occupa-
tions,occupations served by individuals onlyat certainpoints
of the lifecycle-flightattendantin the earlyyearsof flying,
I, thus,have fourtypesof occupationsso far: strongform
occupations,quasi-occupations,workless occupations,and
turnover occupations.All oftheseare entities,in thesensethat
they can and
persist, that they can have causal consequences
for adjacentsocial groups. It is clear thatwe are willingto
thinkof themas socialthings.
But suppose I ask whetherthereare occupationalentities

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withonlyone of thefoundational propertiesof an occupation.

Whatdoes it mean to think about a particulargroupof people
in theworkworld,withouteitheran organization or an area of
work?How wouldsucha groupbe identified? Such a situation
could arise as an occupationwas disappearing.An example
mightbe canal boatmen,who up untila fewyearsago existed
in dwindlingnumbersin ruralNew Jerseyand Pennsylvania.
There was an annual reunionbut no workand no organiza-
tion. It was an occupationof memoryand, in fact,had no
causal consequencesfor anybody.Similarly,it makes little
senseto thinkof a mereorganizational formsurviving without
workto do or a consistent setof members.Surelythisis nota
socialentityin anyreal sense.
But the thirdmomentof occupation-an area of workto
do- existsin some people's mindsas a social thing.It is true
thatone mightthinkof disaggregated tasks,at a verylowlevel,
as existingin discretechunks, independentof particular
people or organizations.(To imaginethemaggregatedis the
enticingtrap of simple functionalism.) Thus, in the social
welfarearea, thingslike teachinga mechanicalarts class or
contactinganotherwelfareinstitution or directinga program
forsmallchildrencould all be seen as simpletasks.But how
thesetasksare connectedup is preciselywhatconstitutes the
making of a socialentity.It is all very wellfor the functionalists
to say"doctorshave controlof everything thathelpsmakethe
body well," therebyidentifying the area of Wellness.But this
area did notexistexante;one has onlyto thinkof theexclusion
fromit,bythemedicalprofession's definitionof itsturf,of the
single greatest determinant of Wellness-diet- which the
profession has been quite content to leave to uninstructed
family members for years. So this single dimension-of
task- is also no warrantfordefiningan entity.
We can then draw an effectiveline betweenentitiesand
non-entities in occupationallife.I wouldliketo raisetwoissues
aboutthisdistinction, however.
First,theargumentpresentedhere is basicallyan argument

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abouttiling,aboutdividingup a space in someway.Takingit

äs a generalmodel forthe creationof socialentitiesseemsto
assume thatthe typicalprocessof entityemergencein social
lifeis divisionof labor or turf.To whatextentdo we in fact
wishto assumethisprocess?Or are thereratherseveraltypes
oforiginsforsocialentities, one ofwhichis divisionoflabor?It
is true thatprocesseslike amalgamationand divisioncan be
understoodwithina boundaries-into-entities format.Division,
forexample,is simplymakingan internaldifference intopart
of an externalboundary,puttingthatinternaldifferenceon
thesame footingas theinside/outside distinction.
But it would be harderto so construecloning,the typical
mechanismfavoredby the new institutionalists (like John
Meyer) to account forthe origin of entities.
Suppose we create
a new franchiseor a new university. Are these not simply
clonesofexistingstructures, and,thus,does theiroriginnotlie
ratherin imitationthan in associationof differences? In a
broadersense,cloningcan be construedas a versionof role
theory, and thereby directlyconnectedto thenotionthatsocial
realityis producedbyplansand scriptsputintoplacebyactors,
a la Parsons.To me, however,it seems more usefulto think
aboutsuchscripting as a phase in theconstruction of entities.
That is, in the viewpresentedhere,scripting is one of several
ways of conductingthe action that pulls togethera set of
boundariesintoa socialentity.
Scriptingcannot be seen as independentof boundaries
because no social entityever takes shape in a vacuum.
Ecological constraintsare always in position, and, thus,
scripting alone can neverproducean entity. Take theextreme
case of theproductionof a humanpersonality withina family.
A firstchildentersa complexenvironment of twoadults,with
variousboundariesplacedbetweenthemin variousdimensions
and directions. And thoseof us who have childrenknowwell
thatthe child'spersonality emergesas a pullingtogetherof
variousexistingoppositions.The Oedipus complexis precisely
a contestover such a difference.There are many others,

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arisingin differentdifferencesthat divide the parents in

different ways.Froma hooking-upof thesedifferences comes
a new social entity-the child's personality-that in turn
restructuresthe existing boundaries of the relationship
betweenthe adults,just as successivechildrenwillredrawthe
cozythreesomeof parentsand onlychild.A child'spersonality
emergesas an assemblageof varioussides of varioussitesof
difference betweenparentsand child,parentand parent,and
childand otherchildren.5
Thus, itseemsbestto retainthenotionthattheprestructure
of an entitylies in the creationof zones of difference within
the social processor social space. These zones of difference
graduallyshape intoproto-boundaries, whichare thenyoked
bysome kindof activity intoan entity.If thisproto-entityis to
persist,it must have both internalreproduction and some kind
ofcausalauthority. However,we mustrecallthatthisprocessis
notin anywaynecessary.There are manywaysa givenset of
boundariescould have been structuredinto an entity,and
whatmattersis simplythatthe resultantentityhave internal
reproduction and causalauthority, notthatitbe optimalin any
way.Rather, it must satisfy.Boundaries are alwaysbeingsetup
within groups, but only occasionallydo these fall into
defensibleor coherentpossibleentities.Sometimes,actionor
accidenttakesadvantage.But thereis no guaranteeof being
I wouldlikealso to makeanotherclaimabouttheprocessof
boundaries-into-entities. It seems to me quite significantthat
entity-status among occupations involves more than one
dimensionof difference or structure.It maywellbe thatsocial
entitiescannot exist withoutthe tension provided by the
differing pullsofdifferent structural
dimensions.That is,what
gives entitiestheirstructuralresilienceis theirdefensibility,
theirendurancein severaldifferent dimensionsof difference.
In a simpleform,thismightbe seen as a sortof overlapping
cleavagesargument.Strengthlies in overlappingcohesiveness
of several kinds. Yet, at the same time,an entity'scausal

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influenceor extentmayreflectvastextensionsalong certain

particulardimensions.That is, while it might seem that
compactness(or heartlands, or whatevermetaphorwe choose)
would best allow an entityto reproduceand defend itself
againstredefinition out of existenceby other entities,what
producescausal authority maywellbe connectionacrosslong
reachesof thesocialworld.
The professions offernumerousinstancesof thisphenome-
non. A good examplewouldbe actuaries,who have a tightly
organized,rigidlycontrolled,and quite small occupation.
Entryis tightlystructured, careersare tightly
tightlystructured.In all three basic dimensionsof people,
work,and organization, actuariesare sharplybounded from
the restof the professionallabor force.Yet it is in a sense
because of thisthattheirinfluenceis so small. By contrast,
considerthe accountantswhose"profession"is porous to the
point of absurdity,whose careers lead in quite diverse
directions,and whose task areas include heavilycontested
zones like tax law, unstructuredareas like management
consulting,and dyingheartlandslike public auditing.The
accountantsare, in fact,far more causallyeffective than the
actuariesbecausetheycan bringtheirforceto bear in so many
different arenas,wheretheyplayso manydifferent roles.It is
preciselythestructure oflongtenuousboundariesanchoredto
a fewmoreor lesssecureheartlandsthatenablesaccountingto
be powerful.As in the Padgett/Leifer argument,openness
providesstrength(Padgett and Ansell, 1993; Leifer,1991).
Justas forLeifer,skillmeans neverhavingto make rational
choices,for entities,strongcausal effectmeans neverbeing
pinnedin anyone heartland.
This strength refersto endurance,to the temporaldimen-
as well.Rigidity
sionof entities, providesshort-term safetybut
long-termvulnerability, as is well shown by the rigid but
self-defeating of the Englishlawyerswhen
comparedwiththeopen and tenuouslayoutof theAmericans
(Abbott,1988,Ch. 9).

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In closing,I shallmentionthe relationbetweenthisviewof

socialrealityand certainothers.I have alreadymentionedthe
new institutionalism, a view emphasizingisomorphismof
entities and production of isomorphic entities both by
ecologicalprocesses(so-called"coerciveisomorphism") and by
cloning (a version of "mimeticisomorphism").6I have
elsewhereargued thatmuch of the new institutionalism has
failedto make the leap to a processtheoryof reality(Abbott,
1992), a failureembodiedin partin the emphasison cloned
institutions.A simple reproductionmodel is far from the
Another theoryof entitiesidentifiesthem as congeries
around an ideal type.Lakoff(1987) and others,forexample,
believesocialentitiesare constructedbydefiningan ideal type
and then identifyingvarious entitiesthat resemble it as
membersof its class. "The professions"(as a class) is an
excellentexampleof such a phenomenon,withmedicineand
law as theideal types.But I believethisprocessof namingand
metonymycomes much later, long after the structuration
processesdiscussedhere.Archetypal classimagesare centralat
that later momentbut do not play an importantrole in
creatingentitiesin thefirstplace,exceptinsofaras scriptsplay
therole I earlierassignedto them.As in board gameslikego
and chess,by the timethe structures are clear enough to be
labeled and discussed,theyhave long since been established
Another related theoryis that branch of game theory
dealingwithcoalitions.7 To be sure,thereare obviouswaysin
whichgametheoretic conceptsdifferfromthegeneralviewof
socialrealitypresentedhere.The worldof game theoryis not
one of generalfluxand indeterminacy, of unboundedgames
in indefinitetemporalties betweenplayerswho themselves can
be reconstructed and whoseinterestsand resourcesdifferin
undefinedand crosscutting ways.Nonetheless, coalitiontheory

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is among the most indeterminatein game theory: its

foundationscomplex, its implicationsunclear, its solution
conceptsconflicting. There is somesensein whichthinking of
entitiesas "coalitionsof units" accords well with the view
presentedhere,particularly in a microto macrocontext.
A finalrelevanttheoryis the theoryof whatwe mightcall
attractor structures.In sociallife,we oftenhave situationsin
which runaway processes destroythe middle ground of
indeterminacy around a group.A group'sinterestin compli-
ance withextremerules by its membersreduces free riding
and, hence,increasesrewardsfor remainingmembers,who
furtherstrengthen the extremerules,and so forth.Iannac-
cone (1994) notessucha mechanismamongchurches.Similar
runawayevolutionary processesleadingto stable"entities"(in
this case whole social structures)are discussedby Michael
Wade and others (Breden and Wade, 1991; Wade, 1995).
These models are all organizedby the same intuitiveidea:
under certain conditionsbecoming a well-definedgroup
strongly increasesthe rewardsto constituents of thatgroup.
This intuitionpresumesa micro/macro characterI have tried
to avoid,but theoverallstructure of thetheoretical
is stillcloselyrelatedto theargumentsmade here.
I have set forththe view that social entitiesare often
secondaryto socialboundaries.It is unclearwhetherthisrule
holdsonlyin rarecases- unformedturfslikesocialwelfarein
thelate nineteenth century-or is the generalrule accounting
forentitiesin social life.Addressingthatquestion,however,
meansembeddingthisclaimwithina larger,generaltheoryof
socialstructure and temporality. Such a tasktakesme beyond
theboundsof thispiece.

1In theextremeversion
are willing thinkabout as
existence an and
attribute to allow

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ourselvesto imaginethingsthat"are" but thatlack the attribute of

existence,as if the world were made up of myriadsof potential
entities,someof whichhave thepredicateof actualexistence.
2 In this
position,I am following
Mead and Whitehead.See Abbott,
For sources on social work, see the referencesin Abbott,
4 Cf.
5 This
argumentshowswhyreplacingtraditional roletheorywitha
role theorybased on structural equivalenceis useful.Recipesand
scripts can be proposed, but ecologicalconstraintsselect among
them.The resultis a hybrid"roletheory"thatconsistsof a dialogue
betweenscriptsand surrounds.
Bothtermsare fromDimaererio and Powell,1983.
On coalitions,see Myerson,1991,Ch. 9.


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Abbott,A., "An Old Institutionalist
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as Observers(New York: Garland,1991).

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Mead,G. H., ThePhilosophy ofthePresent,A. E. Murphy,ed. (Chicago:

University of ChicagoPress,1932).
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dissertation, Yale University,1992.
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