For the purpose of this essay, in consideration of social ontology, we will assume several general ontological and epistemological features in accordance with “philosophical materialism,” the position under-girding critical realism.1 The doctrine of philosophical materialism is composed of three interlocking principles:
Cogito ergo material girl
First, reality’s “being” occurs solely within an immanent plane of possibilities, bounded by its spatial and temporal dimensions. Such immanence entails ontological materialism, which asserts the stratification of reality and emergence2 of independent properties and causal powers at each level. Higher levels supervene on the lower in a relationship of unilateral dependence, but are not reducible to them in terms of the laws that govern the lower. Consequently, the social unilaterally depends on agental practice and psychology, which in turn is presupposed by more fundamental levels: biology, chemistry and physics. The theory of emergence is an axiom of such a stratified model of reality, and suggests, for instance, psychology is not merely applied biology, nor chemistry applied physics. The stratified nature of reality and theory of emergence counters reductionist models such as “eliminative materialism” in philosophy of the mind and scientific reductionist models that ultimately seek to explain all being in terms of particle physics, string theory or some other master explanans. As well, the reductionist project to link individual and group behavior to natural selection and genetics, undertaken most vigorously within evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, is problematized.
The concept of structure having independent causal power qualifies it as ontological in nature. In the social world, the ontological question revolves around the nature of social reality for all peoples in all times. Such a social ontology is related to the more general conception of ontology as a branch of metaphysical speculation concerned with the question of “being” of all things existent within reality
Quarks Upon Turtles
(quarks, emotions, truth, chairs, planets, universe(s), God and so forth). Ontology seeks to understand the generative principles accounting for the extension of all existing things, including inquiry into what appears to be basic coordinates of being: time and space and action of being, that is to say, causation. General ontological questions include speculation on possible modes and categories of being, the qualities of being and what necessary and sufficient conditions presuppose being. Consequently, general ontological questions presuppose social ontological ones, or conversely, social ontological features supervene on the general.
Coming to terms with the meaning of “structure” is a problem. The term is used ubiquitously throughout the social sciences, often causally, but also with a specific definition or logic in relation to the particular social theoretical tradition employed. Structures are generally identified as having a more or less discreet set of relationships among component parts. We use structure as a synonym for a building, as in “what is that structure over there?” We can inquire into the structure of the US government, a cell or the parts of
speech in language. In the mid-20th century, “structural functionalism,” a social scientific philosophy prevalent in sociology and anthropology, understood society as a set (structure) of inter-related elements (norms, beliefs, practices, values, institutions) that “function” together, producing a stable and coherent collective entity. In addition, consider the titles of two works of epistemology: Thomas Kuhn’s infamous, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and Lawrence Bonjour’s, The Structure of Empirical Knowledge (1985).1 Kuhn attempts to uncover the archetypical process through which scientific revolutions unfold and the consequential incommensurability of different paradigms of scientific knowledge. Bonjour argues in favor of a “coherence theory of truth,” to combat skepticism and to critique foundationalist accounts of empirical knowledge. Structure, as used by Kuhn and Bonjour in their titles, is deployed to signify that their epistemological investigations account for all core features, processes and practices relevant to full knowledge (in their view) of their subject matter: scientific paradigm shifts or a coherentist account of empirical knowledge justification. The examples given above are unproblematic usages of the term, “structure,” employed as an analytical device to make sense of a complicated world of entities and processes within it (a cell, society or knowledge production, etc.). It denotes more or less coherent and bounded sets of relationships among component parts of a larger whole or process. Complications and controversies arise for “structure” when a definition or understanding of it grants structure ontological reality and emergent causal powers. Structure, in this sense, is not merely a heuristic device to aid analysis and understanding, but rather, out of the relationships among the elements held in structure (however defined), emerges an independent causal power not reducible to its component parts.