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Social ontology is the field of philosophy that investigates the nature of the social world and how it works. Among the topics addressed in social ontology are:

  • Social cognition: what is it for a collective to have thoughts, beliefs, intentions, or plans? What is collective or corporate action? And do individual people have "social minds"?
  • Social kinds: What is the nature of social categories and classifications? What, for instance, is race and gender? Are these features of the natural world, or are they socially constructed? What does it mean for a kind to be socially constructed?
  • Groups and collectives: What is a social group? Is it different from the people constituting it? Are groups abstract or concrete objects, and are there different basic kinds of groups?
  • Agreements and conventions: What are agreements, conventions, and other ways for communities to coordinate? What do agreements and conventions accomplish? How are related entities, such as contracts and promises, created?
  • Law: What is the nature of the law and legal institutions? How is the law related to social practices and to moral norms?
  • The nature of specific sorts of social entities: Laws, artifacts, economic entities (e.g., money, transactions, firms), political and geographic entities (e.g., states, nations, borders), socio-legal entities (e.g., marriage, property), institutions and organizations, social structures, language and linguistic entities

The few years have seen a surge of interest in these topics. Philosophers and scholars in a variety of fields increasingly endorse the idea — radical a quarter century ago but almost mundane today — that it is intellectually respectable to take social properties seriously. Collective actions and intentions, for example, are now widely understood to be distinct from the corresponding actions and intentions of individual people, without being ghostly or mystical.

Social ontology is also gaining prominence in more traditional philosophical venues. Philosophers investigating the nature of the world are realizing that they need to move beyond the stock examples they have traditionally used. Instead, more and more they are looking to the larger world, including artifacts, groups, and institutions. Meanwhile, political imperatives are leading other philosophers to take a more serious look at the metaphysics of social categories, such as race and gender. Social ontology has also benefited from the breakdown of boundaries across philosophical styles, as a new generation of philosophers has grown up for whom disciplinary boundaries and programmatic allegiances mean less than they once did.

The field of social ontology is large, and encompasses a variety of topics and domains of inquiry. In addition to these domains, social ontologists also investigate foundational topics and applications. These include the following:
  • Foundational issues: approaches to the analysis of the social world
  • Historical approaches to social ontology
  • Applications to the social sciences
  • Ethics (e.g., collective responsibility, improving social kinds and categories)

"International Social Ontology Society" is registered as a non-profit organization in Austria.

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