What is social ontology?, by Tony Lawson

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We already know that social reality is in part constituted by social rules. Indeed I think that identifying them is one of the less contentious contributions of scientific ontology; social rules (or rule systems) may even constitute the most significant and pervasive features of social reality. I think too we know their form.

Social rules can be conceptualised as generalised procedures of action, procedures that, under suitable transformations at least, can be expressed as injunctions of the form:”if x do y under conditions z”. For example, “if wishing to speak at a crowded seminar, hold your hand up, when in twentieth century Britain”. The stipulation `under conditions z’ will often be dropped or unacknowledged in any explicit formulation but will always be implicated. All action, for example, takes place over limited regions of time and space and in specific socio-cultural contexts.

This formulation is quite general and intended to apply equally to semantic, moral, constitutive, regulative, etc., forms, or aspects, of rules alike. The `do y’ in other words is to be interpreted widely and to include such injunctions as `interpret … as’, `count … as’ `take … to mean’, and so on. Of course, any rule only carries normative or legitimating or facilitating (constitutive/regulative/moral/semantic)

But there are aspects of these rules and their conditions that warrant elaboration before we can claim to have a conception of them that is at all adequate.
We can start by noting that social rules are ontologically distinct from social practices13. A recognition of this follows once we observe, and enquire into the conditions of possibility of, the fact that practices governed by rules are not always, or on average, in conformity with our formulations of these rules.

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Tony Lawson’s primary field of interest is the Philosophy of Social Science, and in particular Social Ontology. Trained as a mathematician, and formerly a member of the Cambridge Growth Project under the leadership of Professor Sir Richard Stone, Lawson, who current holds a Professorial Fellowship of the Independent Social research Foundation, is also Reader in Economics at the University of Cambridge and Professor of Economics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Lawson sits on numerous Editorial Boards including the Cambridge Journal of Economics, and Feminist Economics, and is sole editor of the Routledge book series Economics as social Theory. For over twenty years now Lawson has chaired the Cambridge Realist Workshop, and for more than ten years he has chaired the Cambridge Social Ontology Group. He is also former direct of the Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies. Lawson has long been highly critical of the course of modern economics. Amongst his numerous publications are the books Economics and Reality (1997) and Reorienting Economics (2007). His various contributions are widely debated in scholarly journals and similar outlets including in Edward Fullbrook’s (2009) Ontology and Economics: Tony Lawson and his Critics.

Posted in Ideas and Papers.

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