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Week 18 Lecture Notes

The Unavoidability of Social Ontology

(Margaret Archer)

This is about the impossibility of `perspectivism' - having the best of all theoretical worlds by combining the insights from different approaches. One of the main arguments (linking to the rationale of the course) is that `theory', `investigation' and `findings' cannot be treated in isolation from one another.

1. Social Ontology and Explanatory Methodology : The Need for Consistency In any field of study, the nature of what exists cannot be unrelated to how it is studied. What social reality is deemed to consist of (and what is deemed non-existent) must affect how its explanation is approached.

The relationship between the two is not one of logical implication. This cannot be the case. It is possible to hold that something exists but need never enter our explanations (a deity indifferent to Creation), or that some things exist socially which carry no particular implications about how we should study them or what importance should be assigned to them in explanations. (For example, because both pleasure and pain are undeniably part of our social lot, this does not entail that all social action must be explained as the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.).

Nevertheless, the social ontology endorsed does play a powerful regulatory role vis à vis à vis the explanatory methodology for the basic reason that it conceptualizes social reality in certain terms, thus identifying what there is to be explained and also ruling out explanations in terms of entities or properties which are deemed non-existent. Conversely, regulation is mutual, for what is held to exist cannot remain immune from what is really, actually or factually found to be the case. Such consistency requires continuous two-way adjustments between ontology and methodology to achieve and to sustain it as such.

2. Description and Explanation : The Ties that Bind Them

The most fundamental consideration is that description and explanation are not discrete from one another and therefore we cannot be dealing with separate debates about the two. Unless it is held that we can have no knowledge of social reality, in which case how we go on in social life and coordinate our daily doings with those of others becomes incomprehensible, then what this reality is held to be also is that which we seek to explain.

It is denoted as being such and such by virtue of the concepts used to describe it and their use is inescapable since all knowledge is conceptually formed.

    Thus, there is no direct access to the "hard facts" of social life. By describing it in particular terms we are in fact conceptually denoting that which is to be explained - and different social ontologies describe social reality in different ways.

In short, explanation cannot proceed without prior description, yet what something is defined as being through the concepts which describe it determines what exactly is to be explained, which necessarily circumscribes the explanatory project. (E.g. Mandelbaum's point about banking being ineradicable from describing cashing a cheque or a tribesman not being describable without reference to a tribe.)

3. Ontology as Conceptual Regulation in Investigation

Social ontologies perform a yet stronger regulatory role, for they govern those concepts which are deemed admissible in explanation as in description.

Because the ontology contains judgements about the "ultimate constituents" (and non-constituents) of social reality it thus governs what sorts of concepts may be included. (E.g. atheists cannot attribute their well being to divine providence.)

The actual debate between Individualists and Collectivists provides the clearest illustration of the regulative role that ontology performs for methodology.

In the following instances a major protagonist from each side begins with an uncompromising statement about the "ultimate constituents" of social reality and then proceeds immediately to state the terms in which it should be studied.

Thus for Methodological Individualism, Watkins states that

"the ultimate constituents of the social world are individual people who act more or less appropriately in the light of their dispositions and understanding of their situation. Every complex social situation, institution or event is the result of a particular configuration of individuals, their dispositions, situations, beliefs, and physical resources and environment. There may be unfinished or half-way explanations of large scale social phenomena (say, inflation) in terms of other large-scale phenomena (say, full employment); but we shall not have arrived at rock-bottom explanations of such large-scale phenomena until we have deduced an account of them from statements about the dispositions, beliefs, resources and inter-relations of individuals".

On the other hand, Mandelbaum draws just as tight a link between the Collectivist ontology, the concepts which can be used to refer to social reality and which also explain it.

"If it be the case, as I wish to claim, that societal facts are as ultimate as are psychological facts, then those concepts which are used to refer to the forms of organization of a society cannot be reduced without remainder to concepts which only refer to the thoughts and actions of specific individuals". His explanatory aim is then "to show that one cannot understand the actions of human beings as members of a society unless one assumes that there is a group of facts which I shall term 'societal facts'".

Here, ontological considerations are used not merely to justify a congruent methodological stand-point, but actively regulate the associated explanatory programmes.

For both Individualists and Collectivists, what society is held to be made to be made up of serves to monitor the concepts which can properly be used to describe it and which in turn may legitimately figure in explanatory statements. No explanation is acceptable to either camp if it contains terms whose referents misconstrue the nature of social reality as they see it - whether such misconstruction is due to sins of conceptual omission or commission.

Ontology, acts as both gatekeeper and bouncer for methodology.

Thus the stern voice of Individualistic ontology asserts that its own explanatory programme, containing only concepts referring to individuals, "must work in principle". Equally it insists that its opponents explanations deal in unacceptable terms (reified entities, social substances or unreduced group properties) and therefore must be rejected out of hand because of this.

Even when the latter appear to work, they are only "half-way explanations" which cannot become complete or "rock bottom" until the group concepts they contain have been reduced to individual terms.

In parallel, the Collectivists' ontological commitment to irreducible social properties leads them to assert that individualist explanations must fail in principle because of what they leave out (reference to the social context).

Where they do appear to work in practice, this is because such necessary references have been smuggled in by incorporating them into the individual (belief systems become the individuals' beliefs, resource distributions are disaggregated into people's wealth, the situation confronted becomes a person's problem etc.).

4. Explanation and Ontological Revision : the relationship with Practical Social Theories.

Since the nature of social reality, like any other for once, is a matter of fact which is independent of the prior commitments of any theorists about what exists, then if and when an incongruous method of explanation gives evidence of working, or the congruent methodological programme breaks down in practice, this should result in a reinspection of those commitments themselves. What we think social reality is, cannot be a separate matter from what we find it to be.

The reciprocal regulation which obtains between ontology and methodology is one which obviously has to work in both directions.

Thus when a Collectivist explanation, containing "group variables" seems to be powerful, or even unavoidable (containing irreducible references to social entities like "banking"), then methodology has raised a question for ontology.

Here Individualist reduction consists in advancing explanatory statements made up of nothing apart from propositions about individual dispositions together with a specification of how people's behaviour differs according to the membership and size of the group in which they are participating. (i.e. complex group behaviour can be explained in terms of the behaviour of individuals in groups.)

However, the Methodological Individualist is not arguing that satisfactory means for achieving reduction have been found, or even that promising solutions are in sight, but only that in principle such reduction is possible.

Yet such a "principle" cannot serve as the basis for practical methodological injunctions of this kind. When it does not work it poses problems for the Individualists' prior ontological commitment.

( E.g. whether this factor, which now has to be incorporated if the explanation is to work, happens to look innocuously individualistic (like "fear of large groups", which makes the difference between small talkative seminars and the silence which ensues when the same people are asked to comment during a lecture), the fact remains that it has only come into play and is only identifiable in the context of the large group itself.

In "some sense", but undeniably one which is indispensable for explanation, the size of the group is having an effect independent of its membership - and this despite the fact that a large group can indeed be described simply as many people. This then means accepting factors incompatible with and Individualist ontology.


This means we can't just take `findings' based on any premises and combine them.

This is why we cannot be theoretical prespectivists .

This is why we can't be methodological instrumentalists.

Hence we have to make up our minds about social ontology