About this topic
Summary Social ontology studies the metaphysics of social phenomena. Topics include the nature of groups, collective action, and social construction. Social metaphysics is important for other areas of philosophy, including critical feminist and race theory, moral collective responsibility, and action theory.
Key works An early and prominent account of social construction can be found in Searle 1995, and a highly influential discussion of social construction is contained in Haslanger 2012. Accounts of collective action are in Gilbert 1989 and Tuomela 1995. A recent and important general metaphysics of the social world is presented in Epstein 2015.
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Haslanger 2000Tuomela 2005Epstein 2019.

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  1. Substantive Social Metaphysics.Elanor Taylor - forthcoming - Philosophers Imprint.
    Social metaphysics is a source of important philosophical and moral insight. Furthermore, much social metaphysics appears to be substantive. However, some have recently argued that standard views of metaphysics cannot accommodate substantive social metaphysics. In this paper I offer a new diagnosis of this problem and defend a new solution, showing that this problem is an illuminating lens through which to examine the nature and boundaries of metaphysics. This case instantiates a broad, common pattern generated by attempts to align distinctions (...)
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  2. Social Kinds: A User's Manual.Francesco Franda - 2022 - Dissertation, University at Buffalo
    This is a dissertation in social ontology, whose goal is to defend a constructivist account of social kinds. First, I show how there is no fully satisfactory characterization or definition of the social, but that we can rely on an intuitive understanding on which entities count as social entities. Second, I clarify what I mean by ‘social category’ or ‘social kind,’ which I define as a partition of entities that bear and share certain social properties. Third, I argue against what (...)
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  3. Eliminating Group Agency.Lars J. K. Moen - forthcoming - Economics and Philosophy:1-24.
    Aggregating individuals’ consistent attitudes might produce inconsistent collective attitudes. Some groups therefore need the capacity to form attitudes that are irreducible to those of their members. Such groups, group-agent realists argue, are agents in control of their own attitude formation. In this paper, however, I show how group-agent realism overlooks the important fact that groups consist of strategically interacting agents. Only by eliminating group agency from our social explanations can we see how individuals vote strategically to gain control of their (...)
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  4. Disagreement About the Kind Law.Muhammad Ali Khalidi & Liam Murphy - 2020 - Jurisprudence 12 (1):1-16.
    This paper argues that the disagreement between positivists and nonpositivists about law is substantive rather than merely verbal, but that the depth and persistence of the disagreement about law, unlike for the case of morality, threatens skepticism about law. The range of considerations that can be brought to bear to help resolve moral disagreements is broader than is the case for law, thus improving the prospects of reconciliation in morality. But the central argument of the paper is that law, unlike (...)
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  5. Metaphors of Intersectionality: Framing the Debate with a New Image.Maria Rodó-Zárate & Marta Jorba - 2020 - European Journal of Women's Studies.
    Whereas intersectionality presents a fruitful framework for theoretical and empirical research, some of its fundamental features present great confusion. The term ‘intersectionality’ and its metaphor of the crossroads seem to reproduce what it aims to avoid: conceiving categories as separate. Despite the attempts for developing new metaphors that illustrate the mutual constitution relation among categories, gender, race or class keep being imagined as discrete units that intersect, mix or combine. Here we identify two main problems in metaphors: the lack of (...)
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  6. Ontology, Experience, and Social Death: On Frank Wilderson's Afropessimism.Patrick Donnell - 2020 - APA Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience 20 (1).
    This is a long critical discussion of Frank Wilderson's Afropessimism, focusing primarily on Wilderson's claim that Blackness is equivalent to Slaveness. The article draws out some strengths of the book, but argues that the book's central arguments often rest on shaky methodological, metaphysical, epistemic, and political grounds. Along the way, we consider some complications endemic to the project of evaluating a text so clearly geared towards Black audiences from the perspective of a non-Black reader.
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  7. The Metaphysics of Legal Organisations.Rachael Mellin - 2020 - In Raimo Tuomela & Rachael Mellin (eds.), Social Ontology, Normativity and Law. Berlin, Germany: pp. 159-178.
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  8. Corona E Communis: Imunidade, Comunidade E o COVID-19.Maurício Fernando Pitta - 2020 - Voluntas: Revista Internacional de Filosofia 11:e32.
    Diante da pandemia do Novo Coronavírus, muitos foram os problemas levantados pela filosofia a partir do modo “imunitário” com o qual a civilização industrial lidou com a crise, e muito tem sido aventado sobre a necessidade de se repensar o sentido da noção de comunidades de apoio e de resistência. Exemplos disso não faltam; dentre os filósofos que abordaram a crise, encontram-se desde Giorgio Agamben a Paul B. Preciado, entre outros. Neste artigo, pretendemos partir da discussão sobre imunologia e paradigma (...)
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  9. Social Ontology. Emotional Sharing as the Foundation of Care Relationships.Guido Cusinato - 2018 - In S. Bourgault & E. Pulcini, Emotions and Care: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Peeters.
    The origin of the concept of “emotional sharing” can be traced back to the first edition of Sympathiebuch [1913/23], in which Max Scheler paved the way to a phenomenology of emotions and to social ontology. The importance of his findings is evident: consider the central role of emotional sharing in Michael Tomasello’s analysis and the lively debate on social ontology and collective intentionality.
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  10. Instituutioiden olemassaolosta eli filosofinen saunailta Searlen ja Hegelin seurassa.Heikki Ikäheimo - 2005 - In Jussi Kotkavirta (ed.), Muoto ja metodi. pp. 163-173.
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  11. Redundant Group Agency.Lars J. K. Moen - 2019 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 49 (5):364-384.
    According to group-agent realism, treating groups as agents with their own intentional states, irreducible to those of the group members, helps us explain and predict the groups’ behavior. This pap...
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  12. Phi Beta Kappa Romanell Lectures.Marilyn Frye - manuscript
    Phi Beta Kappa Romanell Lectures, given at Michigan State University, February 2008.
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  13. David Braybrooke, Ed., Social Rules: Origin; Character; Logic; Change. [REVIEW]Raimo Tuomela - 1997 - Philosophy in Review 17:3-5.
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  14. Raimo Tuomela, The Philosophy of Social Practices: A Collective Acceptance View Reviewed By.Theodore R. Schatzki - 2003 - Philosophy in Review 23 (6):409-411.
  15. Tuomela, Raimo, The Philosophy of Social Practices – A Collective Acceptance View, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 274 Pp. + Xi. [REVIEW]Thomas Søbirk Petersen - 2005 - SATS 6 (1).
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Approaches to Social Ontology
  1. Aspiration and Self-Realization: The Ameliorative Projects of Steve Biko.David Miguel Gray - forthcoming - Philosophy of the Social Sciences.
    Work on the conceptual amelioration of race concepts is usually negative or critical: it uncovers social features that contribute to racial hierarchies. Much less focus has been placed on how ameliorative accounts contribute to positive change. Using an account of race developed by Steve Biko during South African apartheid, I will argue that we can extract a novel account of positive amelioration in which racial categories can have normative or aspirational force, contributing to positive change.
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  2. Same-tracking real kinds in the social sciences.Theodore Bach - 2022 - Synthese 200 (2):1-26.
    The kinds of real or natural kinds that support explanation and prediction in the social sciences are difficult to identify and track because they change through time, intersect with one another, and they do not always exhibit their properties when one encounters them. As a result, conceptual practices directed at these kinds will often refer in ways that are partial, equivocal, or redundant. To improve this epistemic situation, it is important to employ open-ended classificatory concepts, to understand when different research (...)
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  3. Motivating a Pragmatic Approach to Naturalized Social Ontology.Richard Lauer - forthcoming - Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie:1-17.
    Recent contributions to the philosophy of social sciences have motivated ontological commitments using appeals to the social sciences. These arguments rely on social scientific realism about the social sciences, the view that our social scientific theories are approximately true. I apply a distinction formulated in metaontology between ontologically loaded and unloaded meanings of existential quantification to argue that there is a pragmatic approach to naturalized social ontology that is minimally realist but that is ontologically austere. I argue that the extant (...)
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  4. Ontology of Plays for Autonomous Teaming and Collaboration.David Kasmier, Eric Merrell, Robert Kelly, Barry Smith, Curtis Heisey, Donald Evan Maki, Marc Brittain, Ronald Ankner & Kevin Bush - forthcoming - Proceedings of the 14th Seminar on Ontology Research in Brazil (ONTOBRAS 2021), CEUR 3050, 9-22.
    We propose a domain-level ontology of plays for the facilitation of play-based collaborative autonomy among unmanned and manned-unmanned aircraft teams in the Army’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) mission domain. We define a play as a type of plan that prescribes some pattern of intentional acts that are intended to reliably result in some goal in some competitive context, and which specifies one or more roles that are realized by those prescribed intentional acts. The ontology is well suited to be extended (...)
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  5. Filosofia e Direito: Estudos.Daniel Pires Nunes, Jayme Paviani & Gabriel Guilherme Frigo - 2020 - Caxias do Sul - Galópolis, Caxias do Sul - RS, Brasil: EDUCS.
    “O estudo de questões jurídicas, em seus aspectos filosóficos, é um modo de compreender um dos fenômenos mais completos da vida humana, da vida em sociedade, embora os aspectos legais sejam diferentes em cada grupo social. Nesse sentido, Filosofia e Direito: estudos é uma contribuição que serve para aprofundar a presença jurídica de bases filosóficas. É preciso recordar que as distinções servem para a compreensão humana e para melhor entender a unidade dos fenômenos. Enquanto a ciência estuda os aspectos dogmáticos (...)
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  6. Beyond Team-Directed Reasoning: Participatory Intentions Contribute to a Theory of Collective Agency.Duijf Hein - 2017 - Logique Et Analyse.
    Philosophical accounts of collective intentionality typically rely on members to form a personal intention of sorts, viewed as a mental state. This tendency is opposed by recent economic literature on team-directed reasoning, which focuses on the reasoning process leading up to the formation of the members’ intentions. Our formal analysis bridges these paradigms and criticizes the team- directed reasoning account on two counts: first, team-directed reasoning is supposed to transcend traditional game and decision theory by adopting a certain collectivistic reasoning (...)
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  7. Searle on Collectively Intending Symbolic Social Institutional Status.Dale Jacquette - 2014 - Balkan Journal of Philosophy 6 (1):21-32.
    Searle’s social ontology is criticized on two grounds: that Searle’s arguments do not adequately support his commitment to logically and conceptually irreducible collective-to-individual intentionality, and his formulation of the constitutive rule of collective intentionality conferring symbolic social status on intended objects does not express the required concept as clearly, unequivocally, or economically as available alternatives. Two corresponding positive recommendations are offered in response to both criticisms for developing a conservatively improved neo-Searlean philosophy of social phenomena,practices and institutions.
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  8. Anchoring Versus Grounding: Reply to Schaffer.Brian Epstein - 2019 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 99 (3):768-781.
    In his insightful and challenging paper, Jonathan Schaffer argues against a distinction I make in The Ant Trap (Epstein 2015) and related articles. I argue that in addition to the widely discussed “grounding” relation, there is a different kind of metaphysical determination I name “anchoring.” Grounding and anchoring are distinct, and both need to be a part of full explanations of how facts are metaphysically determined. Schaffer argues instead that anchoring is a species of grounding. The crux of his argument (...)
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  9. Felsefe ve nörobiyolojide bir problem olarak benlik.John R. Searle - 2015 - Ethos: Dialogues in Philosophy and Social Sciences 8 (2).
    Psikoloji, nörobiyoloji, felsefe ve diğer pek çok disiplinde benliğe ilişkin çok sayıda farklı problemler var. Nörobiyolojide, çalışılan benlik problemlerinin pek çoğunun patolojinin çeşitli formlarıyla ilgili olduğu izlenimine sahibim –dürüstlükteki sorunlar, tutarlılık veya benliğin işlevi. Bu patolojiler hakkında söyleyecek hiçbir şeyim yok çünkü neredeyse onlar hakkında hiçbir şey bilmiyorum. Ben bu patolojilere yalnızca ayrık-beyin hastaları gibi doğrudan benliğin problemleriyle ilgiliyseler değineceğim.
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  10. Social Ontology.Brian Epstein - 2018 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    Social ontology is the study of the nature and properties of the social world. It is concerned with analyzing the various entities in the world that arise from social interaction. -/- A prominent topic in social ontology is the analysis of social groups. Do social groups exist at all? If so, what sorts of entities are they, and how are they created? Is a social group distinct from the collection of people who are its members, and if so, how is (...)
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  11. John Searle: Od aktów mowy do rzeczywistości społecznej.Barry Smith - 2003 - Roczniki Filozoficzne 51 (1):265-292.
    Polish translation of "John Searle: From Speech Acts to Social Reality", -/- We provide an overview of Searle's contributions to speech act theory and the ontology of social reality, focusing on his theory of constitutive rules. In early versions of this theory, Searle proposed that all such rules have the form 'X counts as Y in context C' formula – as for example when Barack Obama (X) counts as President of the United States (Y) in the context of US political (...)
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  12. Language and Society.Frank Hindriks - 2011 - In Ian Jarvie Jesus Zamora Bonilla (ed.), The Sage Handbook of the Philosophy of Social Sciences. pp. 137.
  13. Ontological Individualism Reconsidered.Brian Epstein - 2009 - Synthese 166 (1):187-213.
    The thesis of methodological individualism in social science is commonly divided into two different claims—explanatory individualism and ontological individualism. Ontological individualism is the thesis that facts about individuals exhaustively determine social facts. Initially taken to be a claim about the identity of groups with sets of individuals or their properties, ontological individualism has more recently been understood as a global supervenience claim. While explanatory individualism has remained controversial, ontological individualism thus understood is almost universally accepted. In this paper I argue (...)
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  14. John Searle and His Critics.Ernest Lepore (ed.) - 1991 - Cambridge: Blackwell.
    For more than three decades John Searle has been developing and elaborating a unified theory of language and mind. What has emerged is an impressive and detailed account of intentionality embracing both mental states and linguistic behaviour. Though the developing theory has been presented in a steady stream of books and articles over the last thirty years, two items stand out as major landmarks: the publication of Speech Acts in 1969 and of Intentionality in 1983. Both of these seminal books (...)
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Grounding and Anchoring in Social Ontology
  1. Open Questions in the Metaphysics of Habitable Categories.Axel Barceló - 2021 - EurAmerica 4 (50):669-707.
    My purpose in this text is to offer a general roadmap for navigating most current debates in the metaphysics of social categories regarding what sort of fact it is for a person to inhabit one social category or another—for example, what makes a person Mexican, or gay, or rich. With this goal in mind, I propose classifying the debating positions into three broad camps: common sense theories, socio-historical accounts, and performative theories. I characterise their main differences, identifying the main challenges (...)
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  2. Social Inconsistency.Thomas Brouwer - forthcoming - Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy.
    Though the social world is real and objective, the way that social facts arise out of other facts is in an important way shaped by human thought, talk and behaviour. Building on recent work in social ontology, I describe a mechanism whereby this distinctive malleability of social facts, combined with the possibility of basic human error, makes it possible for a consistent physical reality to ground an inconsistent social reality. I explore various ways of resisting the prima facie case for (...)
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  3. Social Ontology and Model-Building: A Response to Epstein.Nadia Ruiz - 2021 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 51 (2):176-192.
    Brian Epstein has recently argued that a thoroughly microfoundationalist approach towards economics is unconvincing for metaphysical reasons. Generally, Epstein argues that for an improvement in the methodology of social science we must adopt social ontology as the foundation of social sciences; that is, the standing microfoundationalist debate could be solved by fixing economics’ ontology. However, as I show in this paper, fixing the social ontology prior to the process of model construction is optional instead of necessary and that metaphysical-ontological commitments (...)
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  4. Explaining Ideology: Mechanisms and Metaphysics.Matteo Bianchin - 2020 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 50 (4):313-337.
    Ideology is commonly defined along functional, epistemic, and genetic dimensions. This article advances a reasonably unified account that specifies how they connect and locates the mechanisms at work. I frame the account along a recent distinction between anchoring and grounding, endorse an etiological reading of functional explanations, and draw on current work about the epistemology of delusion, looping effects, and structuring causes to explain how ideologies originate, reproduce, and possibly collapse. This eventually allows articulating how the legitimating function of ideologies (...)
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  5. The Creation of Institutional Reality, Special Theory of Relativity, and Mere Cambridge Change.Tobias Hansson Wahlberg - 2021 - Synthese 198 (6):5835-5860.
    Saying so can make it so, J. L. Austin taught us long ago. Famously, John Searle has developed this Austinian insight in an account of the construction of institutional reality. Searle maintains that so-called Status Function Declarations, allegedly having a “double direction of fit”, synchronically create worldly institutional facts, corresponding to the propositional content of the declarations. I argue that Searle’s account of the making of institutional reality is in tension with the special theory of relativity—irrespective of whether the account (...)
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  6. Comments on Brian Epstein’s The Ant Trap.Katherine Hawley - 2019 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 62 (2):217-229.
    ABSTRACTThe Ant Trap is a terrific book, which opens up new opportunities to use philosophical methods in the social realm, by drawing on the tools and techniques of contemporary metaphysics. Epstein uses concepts of dependence, constitution, and grounding, of parts and whole, of membership and kindhood, both to clarify existing accounts of social reality and to develop an account of his own. Whilst I admire the general strategy, I take issue with some aspects of Epstein’s implementation, notably his distinction between (...)
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  7. Grounding and Anchoring: On the Structure of Epstein’s Social Ontology.Mari Mikkola - 2019 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 62 (2):198-216.
    ABSTRACTBrian Epstein’s The Ant Trap is a praiseworthy addition to literature on social ontology and the philosophy of social sciences. Its central aim is to challenge received views about the social world – views with which social scientists and philosophers have aimed to answer questions about the nature of social science and about those things that social sciences aim to model and explain, like social facts, objects and phenomena. The received views that Epstein critiques deal with these issues in an (...)
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  8. Epstein on Groups: Virtues of the Status Account.Frank Hindriks - 2019 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 62 (2):185-197.
    ABSTRACTEpstein compares models of group agents that focus on their internal organization to models that focus on the statuses they have. He argues that status models are inadequate because agency is not something that can be attributed by fiat. Even if this is true, however, certain agential powers can be attributed to group agents. I argue that Epstein’s arguments stand to benefit a lot from recognizing that some group agents have statuses and constitute corporate agents. For instance, only corporate agents (...)
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  9. Social Construction and Grounding.Aaron M. Griffith - 2017 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 97 (2):393-409.
    The aim of this paper is to bring recent work on metaphysical grounding to bear on the phenomenon of social construction. It is argued that grounding can be used to analyze social construction and that the grounding framework is helpful for articulating various claims and commitments of social constructionists, especially about social identities, e.g., gender and race. The paper also responds to a number of objections that have been leveled against the application of grounding to social construction from Elizabeth Barnes, (...)
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  10. Replies to Hawley, Mikkola, and Hindriks.Brian Epstein - 2019 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 62 (2):230-246.
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  11. Book Review: Epstein Brian The Ant Trap : Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 298 Pp. $36.04. ISBN 978-0-19-938110-4. [REVIEW]Francesco Di Iorio & Catherine Herfeld - 2018 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 48 (1):105-128.
  12. Social Construction: Big-G Grounding, Small-G Realization.Aaron M. Griffith - 2018 - Philosophical Studies 175 (1):241-260.
    The goal of this paper is to make headway on a metaphysics of social construction. In recent work, I’ve argued that social construction should be understood in terms of metaphysical grounding. However, I agree with grounding skeptics like Wilson that bare claims about what grounds what are insufficient for capturing, with fine enough grain, metaphysical dependence structures. To that end, I develop a view on which the social construction of human social kinds is a kind of realization relation. Social kinds, (...)
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  13. Epstein on Anchors and Grounds.Guala Francesco - 2016 - Journal of Social Ontology 2 (1):135-147.
    The distinction between anchors and grounds is one of the most innovative contributions of The Ant Trap. In this commentary I will argue that the distinction suffers from an ambiguity between tokens and types. This leads Epstein to endorse pluralism about anchors and grounds, a position that is not justified in the book and to which there are plausible alternatives.
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  14. Précis of The Ant Trap.Epstein Brian - 2016 - Journal of Social Ontology 2 (1):125-134.
    This article summarizes The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences. The book develops a new model for social ontology, applies it to groups and collective intentionality, and criticizes various forms of individualism. Part One of the book presents two traditional approaches to social ontology and unifies them into the “grounding–anchoring model” for the building of the social world. Part Two shows that individualism is mistaken even for basic facts about groups of people, challenges prevailing views of group (...)
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  15. Replies to Guala and Gallotti.Epstein Brian - 2016 - Journal of Social Ontology 2 (1):159-172.
    This article responds to comments by Francesco Guala and Mattia Gallotti on The Ant Trap. In the replies, I address the relation of new advances in cognitive science to the study of collective attitudes, clarify distinct questions we might ask about grounding and about anchoring in social ontology, defend various forms of pluralism about grounds and about anchors, and discuss the type-token distinction as it applies to social entities.
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  16. Brian Epstein, The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences: New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Hardcover € 32,04, 298 Pp.Andrés Martos - 2017 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 20 (3):689-691.
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  17. The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, Brian Epstein. Oxford University Press, 2015, Viii + 298 Pages. [REVIEW]Mantas Radzvilas - 2016 - Economics and Philosophy 32 (3):553-560.
  18. Brian Epstein, The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences. Reviewed By.James K. Swindler - 2016 - Philosophy in Review 36 (3):103-108.
    In The Ant Trap, Brian Epstein proposes a bold new systematic strategy for developing social ontology. He explores the history and current state of the art and provides pointed critiques of leading theories in the field. His framework, incompassing frames that provide principles for grounding social facts, is developed in some detail across a variety of social practices and applied to revealing real world as well as hyporthetical examples. If Epstein's account holds, it should provide new directions and standards of (...)
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  19. The Social Ontology Trap: Brian Epstein: The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundation of the Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, Pp 298 HB.Mark Risjord - 2016 - Metascience 25 (1):135-137.
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  20. A Framework for Social Ontology.Brian Epstein - 2015 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 46 (2):147-167.
    This paper sets out an organizing framework for the field of social ontology, the study of the nature of the social world. The subject matter of social ontology is clarified, in particular the difference between it and the study of causal relations and the explanation of social phenomena. Two different inquiries are defined and explained: the study of the grounding of social facts, and the study of how social categories are “anchored” or set up. The distinction between these inquiries is (...)
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  21. The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences.Brian Epstein - 2015 - Oxford University Press.
    We live in a world of crowds and corporations, artworks and artifacts, legislatures and languages, money and markets. These are all social objects — they are made, at least in part, by people and by communities. But what exactly are these things? How are they made, and what is the role of people in making them? In The Ant Trap, Brian Epstein rewrites our understanding of the nature of the social world and the foundations of the social sciences. Epstein explains (...)
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