Towards an ontology of social problems.


The category of social problems (things like gender violence, racial discrimination, unemployment, corruption, etc.), centrally important as it is both from the practical (political) and theoretical (scientific) points of view, is curiously almost absent from the main philosophical discussions about social ontology. To remedy this situation, the goal of this paper is twofold. In the first place, it elaborates a tentative explication of the ontology of social problems within some standard social ontology accounts, like plural-subject or collective-responsibility theories (Gilbert, Schmid, etc.), or game-theoretic views of institutions (Guala, Hindriks, etc.). This includes both an analysis of those elements of reality that make of a concrete situation (in the Aristotelian sense of ‘first substance’, or particular thing, so to say) a ‘social problem’, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, a reflection on what is it what makes of a particular situation an ‘example’ or ‘case’ of the social-problem-kind it belongs to, or what is it what makes that two different situations are cases of ‘the same’ social problem (in the Aristotelian sense of ‘second substance’, or general type), here employing particularly insights from Hacking’s views on the construction of social kinds.

The second part of the paper addresses a more ambitious goal. It explores the conjecture that ‘social problems’ are not only an important element of social ontology, but constitute in a sense the cornerstone of ‘the social’, or at least one the most fundamental ingredients of social ontology. The idea, basically, is that most other ‘social facts’, ‘social kinds’ and ‘social categories’ may be basically understood as arising (in their character of ‘social entities’) as an outcome of the responses that people try to give to social problems. In a certain sense, the conjecture lies midway from more ‘substantialist’ (e.g., Searle, Tuomela…) and more ‘processualist’ social ontologies (e.g., Livet & Nef, Epstein…). A social problem is essentially seen as a situation that, first, ‘puts a question’ to a group of people (it demands to confront it collectively in some way or other), but, second, it does it in such a way that different people tend to prefer conflicting ‘answers’. ‘The social’, be it a group, an institution, a norm, a category, etc. would emerge, in a sense, as the outcome of the collision/encounter/negotiation/deliberation between those mutually contradictory responses.

The paper finishes by sketching a map of a some theoretical tools and their possible interactions, both from philosophy and from the social sciences, that may be employed to illuminate, develop, criticize and apply that conjecture, making of this inquiry a nice example of interdisciplinary research. Amongst the philosophical ideas we may cite Latour’s ontological concept of ‘matters of concern’, Brandom’s normative inferentialism (especially as formulated by Kukla and Lance regarding the performativity of questioning), and other philosophical theories about questioning, like Meyer’s ‘problematology’ or Hintikka’s interrogative semantics. Amongst social science models that can be put to use, some of them are social choice or public choice theory (from economics), and collective action theory or McPhail ‘assemblig perspective’ (from sociology).


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