Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What exists in the social realm?

What sorts of social things exist?  Does the "proletariat" exist as a social entity? There are certainly workers; but is there a "working class"? What is needed in order to attribute existence to a social agglomeration?

We might want to say that things exist when they have enough persistence over time to admit of re-identification and study from one time to another.  Persistence involves some degree of stability in a core set of properties.  A cloud shaped like a cat has a set of visible characteristics at a given moment; but these characteristics disappear quickly, and this collection of water droplets quickly morphs into a different collection in a short time.  So we are inclined not to call the cat-shaped cloud an entity.  On the other hand, "the Black Forest" exists because we can locate its approximate boundaries and composition over several centuries.  The forest is an agglomeration of trees in a geographical space; but we might reasonably judge that the forest has properties that we can investigate that are not simply properties of individual trees (density and canopy temperature, for example).  The forest undergoes change over time; the mix of types of trees may shift from one decade to another, the density of plants changes, and the human uses of forest products change.  And we can ask questions like: "How has the ecology of the Black Forest changed in the twentieth century?"  So it seems reasonable enough that we can refer to the forest as a geographical or ecological entity.

We can also classify individual forests into types of forests: temperate rain forest, tropical rain forest, coniferous forest, etc.  (Here is a 26-fold classification of forests by UNEP-WCMC; the map below represents the global distribution of these types of forests.)  And we can ask ecological questions about the properties and processes that are characteristic of the various types of forests.

So what characteristics should a putative social entity possess in order to fall within the working ontology of the social sciences?  Here are a few possible candidate ontological features that might be associated with thing-hood in the social realm:
  • persistence of basic characteristics over time -- spatio-temporal continuity and social analogs such as nucleated population with shared norms and identities
  • an internal structural-functional organization
  • some sort of regulative social process that maintains the thing's identity over time, either internal or external 
  • social cohesion among the individuals who constitute the entity deriving from their social orientation to the entity (labor union, religious community, ethnic group)
  • an account of the particular material-social mechanisms through which the identity and persistence of the entity are maintained
According to these sorts of criteria, we might say that social things like these examples exist:
  • United Auto Workers
  • General Motors corporation
  • First Presbyterian Church of Dubuque
  • Missouri Synod
  • Kylie Minogue Facebook fan club 
  • 18th Street gang of Los Angeles
  • Michigan Legislature
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • University of Wisconsin
  • apprentice system for electrical workers
  • social practice of Islamic charity
Here is a slightly more abstract formulation.  We might say that these kinds of social entities exist: organizations, both formal and informal; networks of individuals oriented to each other and/or a social goal; social groups unified by features of consciousness or existential circumstance; bureaucracies of the state; enduring social practices; institutions possessing internal organization, rules, and purposes.

Social entities are composed of socially constituted individuals.  So the sinews of composition are important.  We can recognize a wide range of ways in which individuals are composed into larger social entities: agglomeration, adherence, mutual recognition, coercion, contractual relationships, marketing, recruitment, incentive systems, ...  This is one place where "assemblage" theory seems to be useful (Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity.)

Part of the confusion in this topic is the distinction between things and kinds of things. We might agree that the Chicago Police Department exists as a social entity.  But we may remain uncertain as to whether "police departments" or "state coercive apparatuses" exist as higher-order categories of social things. And perhaps this is a confusion; perhaps the issue of existence applies only to individual entities, not kinds or classes of entities. On this approach, we would stipulate the minimum characteristics of existence we would want to require of individual social entities and then be "nominalistic" about the higher-level categories or concepts into which we classify these singular individuals.

In considering the ontology of the social world it is important to be attentive to the fallacy of reification: the error of thinking that the fact that we can formulate an abstract noun (proletariat, fascism) allows us to infer that it exists as a persistent, recurring social entity.  So when we identify a given social entity as an X, we need to regard it as an open question, "What do X's have in common?"  We can avoid the fallacy of reification by focusing on the importance of providing microfoundations for the enduring characteristics of social entities.  It is the underlying composition of the entity rather than its location within a classificatory system that provides an explanatory foundation for the behavior of the entity.


Michael Bishop said...

Though there are benefits to the provocative framing? "Does ___ exist?" I have decided that I prefer asking: "is ____ a useful concept?" One imperfect test is, "does it have unique predictive power?" See my post here:


Anonymous said...

Seems to me that your examples are not very interesting. By that I mean they might all cease to exist by the stroke of a pen or by a voluntary agreement to disband. And we would carry on, more or less, as before. They are all merely social institutions.

What is the "social realm" goes to deeper and more interesting issues. For example, in what sense does "parenting" or "friendship" exist? There are hundreds of similar examples. They are practices without which social life as we know it would be unrecognizable.

Does the fact that such notions are "indispensable" to the "social realm" (whatever that means) affect their ontological status? Does it make sense to ask such questions about such things?

e.e.nixon said...

I've found what John R. Searle says in "The Construction of Social Reality" to be useful even though some would say it is merely a sketch. In particular, distinguishing among the Background, Social Facts and (within that) Institutional Facts might provide a way of talking about the, according to Anonymous, "interesting" versus "non-interesting" features of the social landscape. In this vein, "parenting" etc, would be members of the rather more general and fluid collection of social facts, while the "UAW", etc., would be Institutional Facts by virtue of their larger inertial mass, a result of either a web or hierarchy of other social facts.

It is not surprising given Searle's background in the philosophy of language, that he believes that language (itself a social fact, perhaps even a meta-fact if such a thing is conceivable) is key in both defining and maintaining these geographical features; while the Background (I'm using my own characterization here) is the compost heap upon which and from which our social ontology dies and finds its life.