Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Chapter 3. Social things


Let us shift now to a more traditional question of ontology, the nature of entities. There are substantive disagreements at this level of social ontology. What sorts of social things exist? Does the “proletariat” exist as a social entity? There are certainly workers; but is there a “working class”? Did “feudalism” exist as an extended social structure? What about the world trading system? What is needed in order to attribute existence to a social agglomeration?

In chapter 1, we argued that social entities are composed of socially constituted individuals. So, the lineaments 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, and so forth. Here, we would like to look more closely at the nature of higher-level social entities and forces that emerge from these various forms of aggregation.

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 configuration 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 ...

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