Seth Abrutyn is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia. Abrutyn is a general theorist and mental health/medical sociology scholar with substantive interests in adolescent suicide and suicide clusters, mental health, identity and status processes, emotions, and the evolution of religions. His theoretical interests focus on developing synthetic theories linking meso-level processes (e.g., communities, organizations, and groups) to micro-level dynamics (e.g., encounters/interaction, identity, status, and emotions). That is, in an effort to build more robust and comprehensive theory, his research questions are motivated by examining how local contexts shape emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and, in turn, how these microsociological elements reciprocally affect the local context. He has authored or co-authored research published in forums such as American Sociological Review, Sociological Theory, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, American Journal of Public Health, Social Forces, Mental Health and Society, and Sociological Forum, and has published a book-length manuscript on institutional theory with Routledge and edited Springer’s Handbook of Contemporary Sociological Theory.
Abrutyn’s focus on suicide has employed a wide range of theoretical and methodological tools to understand (1) why and how suicide spreads among adolescents via cultural, emotional, and social psychological processes; (2) how and why some places and communities are vulnerable to suicide and suicide clusters; (3) the role inequality—specifically, gender, sexuality, and class—plays in mental health; and (4) how sociological research can improve suicide prevention. As a theorist, he is committed to developing a general sociological theory of suicide, which means using quantitative, qualitative, and historical methods to construct and refine sets of principles that not only contribute to our understanding of suicidality, but help explain why it happens so that sociological tools can be brought to bear on the important questions of how we prevent the further spread of suicide and how to help a community or group reeling from successive suicides. Currently, he and his colleague Anna S. Mueller (University of Chicago) are writing a book for Oxford Press that is the culmination of three plus years of fieldwork in a community that has had a recurring adolescent suicide problem for nearly two decades.
Prior to his interest in suicide, Abrutyn’s post-graduate work centered on theorizing how groups emerged throughout history and, like biological mutations, were occasionally capable of transforming the physical, temporal, social, and symbolic environment in which they emerged. In particular, he is interested in studying cases that underscore how sociocultural evolution works at the group-level. This has included research on the evolution of the ancient Israelite religion, the evolution of the state in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica, and the evolution of law in Europe during the 11th-12th centuries. Though his work on suicide is front and center, Abrutyn remains committed to using contemporary theoretical principles to make sense of why some groups affected change in qualitatively transformative ways while others failed, in addition to the strange, non-linear paths these successful groups tread before arriving at the point of transformation.
Abrutyn’s research has received five American Sociological Section paper awards including the prestigious and competitive Eliot Freidson Best Paper Award (Medical Sociology section). Additionally, he was the recipient of the Distinguished Early Career Award at the University of Memphis, where he began his academic career. He teaches courses on classical and contemporary theory, institutional theory, mental health, the sociology of religion, and social psychology.
General Sociological Theory; Mental Health; Adolescent Suicide; Social Psychology and Emotions; Evolutionary Sociology
At the core of my research agenda are two of sociology’s most enduring questions: (1) how does the broader sociocultural environment as well as relationships embedded within the environment shape how people feel, think, and act and (2) how can social action shift the broader sociocultural environment? Because of my interest in generating robust sociological theory, my work also aims: (1) to find innovative ways to integrate knowledge from diverse sociological subfields (particularly, medical sociology, sociology of mental health, social psychology, culture, social networks, and emotions) in order to (2) generate integrative, useful, and empirically testable theories. Indeed, it is through this broad theoretical aim and the research described above that I believe sociology can contribute to alleviating serious social problems. Over the last five years, I have developed three linked but distinct projects examining adolescent suicide with my colleague Dr. Anna Mueller (U of Chicago).
The Spread of Suicide. The first uses longitudinal data, multilevel modeling, and network analysis to assess whether teenagers exposed to suicidal behaviors via personal role models like parents and friends are more likely to attempt or contemplate suicide. In particular, this line of research is focused on the temporality of exposure, gender differences, exposure to different types of role models, and examining specific mechanisms which may play a significant role in the diffusion of suicide.
Suicide Clusters and Community Culture. The second project involves an in-depth qualitative study of a small, highly-integrated, affluent community that has had several adolescent suicide clusters over the course of the last two decades. Using in-depth interviews, focus groups, and observational methods, this work is breaking new ground in understanding and explaining how community-level structure and culture can shift from protective and healthy to problematic for youth and, potentially, adults. In addition to the focus on the community and its culture, this work has begun to delve into the role identity, status, and emotions play in learning to believe suicide is an option and to potentially choose suicide.
Reconceptualizing Durkheim. Ultimately, these two projects engage dialectically with the third project: constructing and refining a general sociological theory of suicide. In a series of articles, he has sketched out how Durkheim’s classic theory of suicide can be reconceptualized through the integration of emotions scholarship, principles drawn from social psychological perspectives, and, finally, cultural sociology. The underlying goal of this project is to create a more powerful framework that rests on a multi-level model, specified propositions for future research, clear links between the structure and culture that shapes everyday life and through which we learn about suicide, and the micro-level dynamics that refract structure and culture into meaningful identities and statuses that allow us to set goals, make decisions, and choose lines of action. Ultimately, while his primary research agenda centers on suicide, as a theorist his larger goal is a more synthetic theory of mental illness that can explain a wider range of healthy and unhealthy emotions, attitudes, and behaviors.
In addition to Abrutyn’s work on suicide, he continues to pursue a second research agenda focused on how institutions like polity, religion, economy, law, medicine, or sport evolve towards greater or lesser structural and cultural autonomy. Though this line of study tends to be macrosociological in focus and predominantly uses historical-comparative methods, it has clear ties to his research on suicide. In particular, he is interested in how local structural and cultural contexts give rise to special collective actors—or, institutional entrepreneurs—who act as the sociocultural equivalent to mutations, except that they are conscious, deliberative, and purposive in their efforts. Thus, some cases of sociocultural evolution occur when these entrepreneurs are capable of qualitatively transforming the local physical, temporal, social, and symbolic landscapes such that a significant proportion of the population reorient their everyday reality—e.g., how they express emotions, attitudes, and actions. He has written extensively on the evolution of religion, particularly the ancient Israelite religion between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE, and is currently gathering historical data on the evolution of law in Europe during the 11th and 12th centuries CE.
Asterisk = equal authorship; Underline = student authorship
Abrutyn, Seth (ed). 2016. Handbook of Contemporary Sociological Theory. New York: Springer.
Abrutyn, Seth. 2013. Revisiting Institutionalism in Sociology: Putting the “Institution” Back in Institutional Analysis. New York: Routledge.
Peer Reviewed Publications
Mueller, Anna S., Seth Abrutyn, and Melissa Osborne. Forthcoming “Durkheim’s Suicide in the Zombie Apocalypse.” Contexts.
Binnix, Taylor, Carol Rambo, Seth Abrutyn, Anna S. Mueller. Forthcoming “The Dialectics of Stigma, Silence, and Misunderstandings in Suicidality Survival Narratives.” Deviant Behavior.
Mueller, Anna S. and Seth Abrutyn. 2016. “Adolescents under Pressure: A New Durkheimian Framework for Understanding Adolescent Suicide in a Cohesive Community.” American Sociological Review. 81(5): 877-899.
Abrutyn, Seth, Justin Van Ness, and Marshall Taylor. 2016. “Collective Action and Cultural Change: Revisiting Eisenstadt’s Evolutionary Theory.” Journal of Classical Sociology. 17(1):369-95.
Seth Abrutyn. 2016. “Why Groups Matter to Sociocultural Evolution: How Religio-Cultural Entrepreneurship Drove Political and Religious Evolution in Ancient Israel.” Comparative Sociology. 15(3):324-353.
*Turner, Jonathan H. and Seth Abrutyn. 2016. “Returning the “Social” to Evolutionary Sociology: Reconsidering Spencer, Durkheim, and Marx’s Models of “Natural” Selection.” Sociological Perspectives. DOI: 10.1177/0731121416641936.
Abrutyn, Seth and Anna S. Mueller. 2016. “When Too Much Integration and Regulation Hurts: Re-Envisioning Durkheim’s Altruistic Suicide.” Society and Mental Health. 6(1):56-71
Mueller, Anna S. and Seth Abrutyn. 2015. “Suicidal Disclosures among Friends: Using Social Network Data to Understand Suicide Suggestion.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 56(1):131-148.
Mueller, Anna S., Wesley James, Seth Abrutyn, and Martin Levin. 2015. “Suicide Ideation and Bullying Among U.S. Adolescents: Examining the Intersection of Sexual Orientation, Gender, and Race/Ethnicity.” American Journal of Public Health. 105(5):980-985.
*Mueller, Anna S.,*Seth Abrutyn, and Cynthia Stockton. 2015. “Can Social Ties Be Harmful? Examining the Social Dynamics of Suicide Suggestion in Early Adulthood.” Sociological Perspectives. 58(2):204-222.
Abrutyn, Seth. 2015. “Money, Sacredness, and Love: Generalized Symbolic Media and the Production of Instrumental, Affectual, and Moral Reality.” Czech Sociological Review. 51(3):445-471
Abrutyn, Seth and Justin Van Ness. 2015. “The Role of Agency in Sociocultural Evolution: Institutional Entrepreneurship as a Force of Structural and Cultural Transformation.” Thesis Eleven. 127(1):52-77.
Abrutyn, Seth. 2015. “The Institutional Evolution of Religion: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Ancient Israel.” Religion. 45(4):505-531.
*Lawrence, Kirk and Seth Abrutyn. 2015. “The Degradation of Nature and the Growth of Environmental Concern: Toward a Theory of the Capture and Limits of Ecological Value.” Human Ecology Review. 21(1):87-108.
Abrutyn, Seth. 2015. “Pollution-Purification Rituals, Cultural Memory, and the Evolution of Religion: How Collective Trauma Shaped Ancient Israel.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology. 3(1):123-155.
Abrutyn, Seth and Anna S. Mueller. 2014. “The Socioemotional Foundations of Suicide: A Microsociological View of Durkheim’s Suicide.” Sociological Theory. 32(4):327-351.
*Abrutyn, Seth and Anna S. Mueller. 2014. “Are Suicidal Behaviors Contagious in Adolescence?: Using Longitudinal Data to Examine Suicide Suggestion.” American Sociological Review. 79(2): 211-227.
Abrutyn, Seth and Anna S. Mueller. 2014. “Reconsidering Durkheim’s Assessment of Tarde: Formalizing a Tardian Theory of Imitation, Contagion, and Suicide Suggestion.” Sociological Forum. 29(3):698-719.
*Abrutyn, Seth and Michael J. Carter. 2014. “The Decline in Shared Collective Conscience as Found in the Shifting Norms and Values of Etiquette Manuals.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. DOI: 10.1111/jtsb.12071
Abrutyn, Seth. 2014. “Religious Autonomy and Religious Entrepreneurship: An Evolutionary-Institutionalist’s Take on the Axial Age.” Comparative Sociology. 13(2):105-134. (lead article).
*Anderson, Eugene and Seth Abrutyn. 2014. “Religion in Human Evolution.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture. 8(1):111-127.
Abrutyn, Seth. 2013. “Reconceptualizing the Dynamics of Religion as a Macro Institutional Domain.” Structure and Dynamics. 6(3):1-21. (lead article)
Abrutyn, Seth. 2013. “Revisiting and Reinvigorating Evolutionary Sociology: Bringing Institutions Back to Life.” Current Perspectives in Social Theory. 31:247-76.
Abrutyn, Seth. 2013. “Reconceptualizing Religious Evolution: Toward a General Theory of Macro-Institutional Change.” Social Evolution and History 12(2):5-36. (lead article)
Abrutyn, Seth. 2013. “Political Evolution, Entrepreneurship, and Autonomy: Causes and Consequences of an “Axial” Moment.” Research in Political Sociology 21:3-29. (lead article)
Abrutyn, Seth. 2013. “Teaching Sociological Theory for a New Century: Contending with the Time Crunch.” The American Sociologist 44(2):132-54.
Abrutyn, Seth. 2012. “Towards a General Theory of Institutional Ecology: The Dynamics of Macro Structural Space.” Review of European Studies 4(5):167-80.
*Abrutyn, Seth and Jonathan H. Turner. 2011. “The Old Institutionalism Meets the New Institutionalism.” Sociological Perspectives 54(3):283-306.
*Stephen K. Sanderson, Seth Abrutyn, and Kristopher Proctor. 2011. “Testing the Protestant Ethic Thesis with Quantitative Historical Data: A Research Note.” Social Forces 89(3):1-7.
*Abrutyn, Seth and Kirk Lawrence. 2010. “From Chiefdom to State: Toward an Integrative Theory of the Evolution of Polity.” Sociological Perspectives 53(3):419-42.
*Brint, Steven G. and Seth Abrutyn. 2010. “Who’s Right About the Right?: Comparing Competing Explanations of the Link Between Conservative Protestants and Conservative Politics in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49(2):328-50.
Abrutyn, Seth. 2009. “Toward a General Theory of Institutional Autonomy.” Sociological Theory 27(4):449-65.