Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Chapter 1. A better social ontology

The subject of social ontology has often been treated as an afterthought compared to epistemology and the theory of explanation in the philosophy of social science. But I believe that the social sciences need to be framed out of consideration of a better understanding of the nature of the social—a better social ontology—if we are to be more successful in understanding and explaining the processes of social change the twenty-first century presents. The social world has characteristics that fundamentally distinguish it from the natural world—heterogeneity, plasticity, and contingency, to name several. The social world is not a system of law-governed processes; it is instead a mix of different sorts of institutions, forms of human behavior, natural and environmental constraints, and contingent events. The entities that make up the social world at a given time and place have no particular ontological stability; they do not fall into “natural kinds”; and there is no reason to expect deep similarity across a number of ostensibly similar institutions—states, for example, or labor unions. 

A central thrust here is this: it is important for social scientists to avoid the fallacy of “naturalism”—the idea that social science should resemble natural science and the idea that social entities have a similar constitution and ontology to natural entities. 

Why are these ontological 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 is not really possible to investigate any domain without having a good 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. ...

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