Remarks on the Relation between Social Ontology and the Social Sciences

16 December 2019

At the most recent social ontology conference I attended a session on cooperation with the social sciences.[0] Everyone had the best intentions and just wanted to know how to do it better. I see two prerequisites to enable better cooperation between social ontology and the social sciences.

The first requirement is the one which comes easily to mind, namely better institutional support, providing opportunities for philosophers and social scientists to engage with each other on a regular basis. To make cooperation happen we need interdisciplinary conferences, workshops, and grants with adequate funding and career benefits.

The second requirement is much more challenging. Different norms of discourse and scientific inquiry have developed in philosophy and social sciences. As a consequences, many efforts for interdisciplinary cooperation end in disappointment or have little effect on one of the involved disciplines.

During the session on cooperation, I told about my effort to write a report of the 2016 collective intentionality conference for an online sociology magazine. On the face of it, I should have been in an excellent position to write it. In addition to working on my PhD in philosophy, I had received an undergraduate degree in sociology. Nonetheless, I utterly failed at this task. I composed a draft of the report trying to summarize what I considered to be of interest, but my editor’s response showed that I missed the mark. After some back-and-forth, drafting and re-drafting, we agreed to scrap the project. He didn’t see the point in what I wrote, and I didn’t know how to convey it in a much different form.

It’s been a while and I hope that I now have a better grasp on what went wrong. Part of the difficulty was my conviction that especially the more theoretical parts of the social sciences, those that should be closest interest for philosophical collaboration, dominated by mistaken approaches.[1]

On the other hand, it is hard to deny that some of the recent work in ontology simply does not matter for the purposes of the social sciences. I don’t think that the question whether three-dimensional or four-dimensional mereology is better suited for analysing social groups has any bearing whatsoever on sociology, economics, cultural anthropology. Likewise, many of the normative interests motivating researchers in social ontology are foreign to the social sciences. All the talk about shared responsibility for climate change can perhaps inform what policies should be investigated, but is otherwise tangential to the research of sociologists working in the area.

Hence, it is not just that it is difficult for philosophers to understand the interests of social scientists, there is also a conflict of interest. Or perhaps it would be better to say there is a conflict about the correct interests that serve us to understand the social. In my attempt to report the 2016 social ontology conference to social scientists, I failed to bridge this gap. And while I hope that I would do better now, the systematic way of addressing the challenge lies in institutional change, which brings us back to the first point.

In a sense, institutional change is easier. You give me the money and I set up interdisciplinary events, organizations, and grants. If they are of sufficient scale and duration, they will lead to improvements on the problem of discourse and inquiry. Over time interests will converge.

I fear, however, that the efforts need to be more substantial than one might believe. If I am correct that the differences in approach and interests are deeply engrained in the disciplines, then the interdisciplinary institutions would need to be exceptionally strong to have impact on the differences. They would need to be able to move the needle in both philosophy and at least one discipline of the social sciences. Changing the established standards of research and success across such a broad swath of academia is extremely difficult.

Having provided the reason for my overall pessimism on this front, I want to end on a slightly more positive note. Persistent individuals who put exceptional effort into bridging the gap still can have some success. In particular, when they can draw on shared methods, e.g. game theory. This is no idle hope, because there are examples. While these individuals often pay a price in terms of the recognition they receive within their own discipline, they are the seed from which collaboration can grow. If it weren’t so self-serving, I would propose that supporting these individuals is the first step we should take.


[0] That philosophers often discuss the social sciences as one unified block already conveys some of the disconnect between the fields.

[1] While I am itching to provide names, I will resist the temptation on this occasion. It would distract from the main point.