Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The difference ontology makes

Quite a few posts here over the past few months have been on the subject of social ontology: what can we say about the nature of the social world? I've focused on characteristics like heterogeneity, plasticity, and contingency, and have also given thought to some of the processes through which social phenomena are "composed" of lower-level processes and mechanisms. (The topics of methodological individualism, localism, and holism fall in this category.) Why are these questions important to the philosophy of social science? And how could they possibly contribute to better research and theory in the social sciences?

One answer is that it isn't really possible to investigate any domain without having some idea of what sorts of things the domain consists of. So attempting to arrive at perspicuous models of what the social world is made up of is a necessary step on the way to more specific forms of empirical and causal research.

A second answer derives from recognition of the harm that has been done to the cause of knowledge by misconceived ontologies in the history of science. This has been especially true in areas of knowledge adjoining human life and activity -- radical behaviorism in psychology, naturalism and positivism in sociology, and what Andrew Abbott calls the "variables paradigm" in quantitative social science. Better science will result from more propititious ontology, because we won't be in the situation of trying to force the social world onto the wrong sorts of boxes.

Third, there are good reasons for thinking that reasoning about social ontology is possible. If ontological thinking were purely apriori, then we might be reasonably skeptical about our capacity to move from philosophy to the world. But we have a form of access to social reality that we lack for the realities of nature and mathematics: we are participants in social reality and our thoughts and actions are constitutive of that reality. So theorizing about social reality of ontology isn't wholly apriori; rather, it is more akin to a form of intelligent observation of real social processes around us. Ontological thinking is really a form of empirically informed theorizing, at a fairly abstract level.

Let's turn now to the question of how concretely better social ontological thinking can help create better social research.

Researchers will be encouraged to explore multiple methodologies and theories when a more satisfactory social ontology guides them. Pluralism finds strong support in the ontology explored here, given the emphasis offered to social heterogeneity and contingency.

Some specific research strategies and questions are likely to arise as a result of more adequate social ontologies. Questions about causal mechanisms and processes of composition will receive special attention.

Fields of research like comparative historical sociology and case study methods will receive theoretical support and encouragement, since these approaches are particularly well suited to the ontological ideas revolving around heterogeneity, plasticity, and composition.

So, to return to the original question: it is in fact very appropriate and potentially helpful for philosophy of social science to give more attention to social ontology than it has traditionally done. The social world of the twenty-first century is chaotic and rapidly changing, and we need better mental frameworks within which to attempt to make sense of this complexity and change.

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