Ontology and Social Science Theories: The Case of Group Formation

CFS lecture by Patrik Aspers, Professor of Sociology, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Social science theories make claims about reality, and the presumption is that these are true. Some of these claims are explicitly or implicitly ontological. With what has been called “the ontological turn” the issue of ontology of social science theories has become problematized. Several different social science approaches that explicitly discuss ontology exist. Critical realism and Actor Network Theory as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s work are different ontological approaches, and these are presented and analyzed. These incommensurable approaches represent different ontologies, and they suggest, taken together, that the issue of ontology is unclear in the social sciences.

The argument is made that it only makes sense to speak of one ontology, not ontologies. Building on the works of Husserl and Heidegger, it is possible to give an ontological account that is constituted with self. This is to say that man is not “outside” of ontology, but at its core, together with ties and institutions. This position stand in contrast to the social science approaches that extract ontology from social science theories, empirical work or a combination thereof. The consequence is that social science theories are not ontologically true. The argument is made that social science theories are better seen as “styles” that apply as an account of behavior and can be applied also by performing actors under certain empirical conditions. Styles are, in other words, sometimes applicable or can be used as accounts of behavior, but these are neither inherently false nor true. The results are shown by studying two social science theories of groups, such as Farell’s collaborative circle theory and Bourdieu’s theory of social group formation.