Virtual Workshop: An Introduction to Social Ontology

This is the first instalment of a new project in which we provide accessible introductions to the work undertaken by the centre. Each Virtual Workshop will include interviews with CSO director Margaret Archer and others involved in the centre, introductory texts and guides to further reading.

We begin with social ontology itself. While ontology concerns that which exists, the objects of the social sciences are often different to those of the natural sciences. Social ontology is concerned with clarifying the properties and powers of these social objects.  In some cases, it might seem these are no different to the objects which natural scientists study. But even the most brutely physical artefacts have social characteristics that we are unable to arrive at solely by specifying their material properties.


Furthermore many social objects aren’t observable in the way that a bridge is. In fact social realists argue that much of what we need to study in order to develop social explanations falls into this category and this is why it is so crucial to be clear about questions of social ontology.

In this sense social ontology is an unavoidable part of the research process. Our advisory board member Tony Lawson made this point effectively in a recent lecture: “We all do ontology, it’s not an option. The only option is whether we do it explicitly and systematically or implicitly”. As Margaret points out, assumptions about  what we’re investigating are an unavoidable part of social research.

Social ontology addresses these questions systematically rather than leaving them at the level of assumption. Anything we might seek to investigate has a social ontology. While we may not use the term ‘social ontology’ in our everyday lives, we inevitably confront the nature of social reality through our mundane involvements in the world.

In order to move beyond these everyday terms, social ontology utilises  general categories of structure and culture in order to help us make sense of social reality.

Approaching social reality in this way helps us make sense of the specific properties and powers of the things we’re investigating. These are not concerns restricted to social research: the causal powers of social structures shape our everyday lives. However while we may be aware of some of these, others impact upon our lives in ways we rarely, if ever, apprehend.

Social ontology helps us move beyond this everyday consciousness of social reality, though without seeking to leave it behind entirely. As Margaret puts it, “phenomenology is a fallible guide to reality, but it can be a useful pointer”. Our everyday experiences reveal important things about the world because it is the real properties and powers of that world which condition our experience.

But if we are to explain social reality (i.e. offer an account of how things came to be so rather than otherwise) then it’s necessary to reason more systematically about the nature of social reality and the relations between the entities which comprise it.

The notion of a SAC introduces a third dimension to social reality: agency. Social ontology helps us clarify the generic characteristics of structure, culture and agency in order to understand the relationship between them. Understanding agency is crucial to this because social reality hinges upon human activity.

peopleHowever to talk of activity in these terms necessitates that we are clear about what we take agency to mean. Social realism stresses that we are active agents and the role this plays in accounting for the dynamism of social life and the tendency for people to act in ways that undermine the predictions some social scientists make about their behaviour.

When we focus on social reality, it’s easy to forget that we also exist within the natural world. Realists stress that we always have relations with natural reality, ranging from our mundane dependence upon food & water to those rarer experiences when we encounter solitude in the natural world.

natureSocial realists are not the only people concerned with social ontology but social realism entails a specific approach to ontological questions. An integral part of the realist approach is fallibility: we can always get things wrong. In fact it’s precisely because of the reality of what we investigate that we can never avoid the possibility that we are mistaken. We never know all there is to know and this is why we seek to refine our theories with the intention of improving their accuracy. This complexity is something which we encounter in our everyday lives but we don’t always recognise it when we do.

To talk of improving theories can suggest that we become better able to predict the world as our theories advance. However the social world is an open system and unlike the closed systems produced through laboratory experiments. This means that there can always be intervening variables that interfere with our predictions and mean that we have to continue to ask ontological questions rather than simply testing our theories against our empirical observations.

Further Reading

Culture and Agency by Margaret Archer

Realist Social Theory by Margaret Archer

Being Human by Margaret Archer

A Realist Theory of Science by Roy Bhaskar

The Possibility of Naturalism by Roy Bhaskar

Reconstructing Sociology by Doug Porpora

Realism and Social Science by Andew Sayer

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