Ontology is the study of what kinds of entities there are in the world and how they relate to each other. As Effingham (2013, p.1) explains, “You will not find ontologists rummaging around your wardrobe” cataloguing everything they find. Rather, the idea is to conceptualise more broadly the kinds of things there are, including material and abstract “things” like numbers and colours. Social ontology concentrates on entities relevant to social theorising at various levels of explanation from the sub-personal (including unconscious processes like those controlling finger tips on keyboards) to people, their interactions, institutions and beyond.
Debates in social ontology, such as on ontological individualism or emergentism, can be abstract and their relevance hard to grasp. There has even been a case to “rid social sciences of ontology altogether – of all philosophized metaphysics of how the social world is” (Kivinen and Piiroinen, 2007, p.99). This short post tries to make it clearer why it’s important to think about ontology, using an example from disability activism.
In 1975, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, a group of disability activists, published a series of fundamental principles which challenged the ontology of disability:
“In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. […] For us as disabled people it is absolutely vital that we get this question of the cause of disability quite straight, because on the answer depends the crucial matter of where we direct our main energies in the struggle for change. We shall clearly get nowhere if our efforts are chiefly directed not at the cause of our oppression, but instead at one of the symptoms.”
Here a distinction is made between impairment and disability. From this perspective, it doesn’t make sense to say that someone “has a disability”; individual people can have impairments, but it is society which determines whether someone is disabled. Note how the conceptualisation is used to unite people behind one social struggle.
“… we live in a society that’s designed by, built for, and used by non disabled people. Because of poor historic attitudes to disabled people […] disabled people were effectively locked away in hospitals, sanatoriums, in care homes or other kinds of institution.
“And that meant that we were excluded from the development of the way our society works, the way our buildings are designed, transport systems, education systems, machines and appliances, leisure activities and the world of work anything really that you care to think about was designed at a time when disabled people weren’t included in the process.
“And that means that all these things don’t work in a way that enables us to use them.
“And the upshot of all that is that in hundreds of different ways, some big, some seemingly small, its difficult for us to take a full part in all kinds of activities that non-disabled people take for granted.
“So we believe that its not our impairments that disable us, it is the social barriers that disable us. Our own impairments we can adapt and/or use aids to overcome, but social barriers are out of our control.”
Whether someone with a particular impairment becomes disabled is also affected by scientific and technological advances. For instance, many people who have a visual impairment wear glasses or contact lenses and wouldn’t consider themselves disabled (see Slorach 2016, p. 37).
A related example is illustrated in this piece on the difference between deaf and Deaf identity:
“To be ‘deaf’ (small d) is to fit into the medical definition of deafness as something to be cured and eradicated. Being deaf means you have a hearing loss, but you choose or don’t feel able to function within the Deaf Community. […] Deaf – with a capital “D” (and occasionally with capital E, A and F too) – is used to refer to people who are culturally Deaf. These people actively use British Sign Language; they see themselves as being culturally Deaf and part of the Deaf community. […] I consider myself to be culturally Deaf; this is my Deaf Identity. […] I don’t see it as a disability – there is nothing I feel I cannot do – rather, I see it as an important aspect of my character that makes and shapes me.”
These conceptualisations of impairment and disability, social barriers, adjustments, aids, deaf and Deaf identity, concern ontology. The debates on these topics occur naturally in social struggles and discussions of social policy, whether or not explicitly articulated as being about ontology. They also have clear implication for how social research is carried out and understood.
Effingham, N. (2013). An introduction to ontology. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kivinen, O., & Piiroinen, T. (2007). Sociologizing Metaphysics and Mind: A Pragmatist Point of View on the Methodology of the Social Science. Human Studies, 30, 97–114.
Slorach, R. (2016). A very capitalist condition: a history and politics of disability. London: Bookmarks Publications.
(cited in Gillies’ “Philosophical theories of probability”):
“Against this view [operationalism] it can be shown that measurements presuppose theories. There is no measurement without a theory and no operation which can be satisfactorily described in non-theoretical terms. The attempts to do so are always circular; for example, the description of the measurement of length needs a (rudimentary) theory of heat and temperature-measurement; but these in turn involve measurements of length.” (Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 1963)
“The address that Moore delivered to the British Academy, entitled ‘Proof of an External World,’ caused him a great deal of torment in its preparation. He worked hard at it, but the concluding portion displeased him, and he could not get it right as the time approached for his appearance before the Academy. On the day of the lecture he was still distressed about the ending of the paper. As he was about to leave the house to take the train to London, Mrs. Moore said, in order to comfort him, ‘Cheer up! I’m sure they will like it.’ To which Moore made this emphatic reply: ‘If they do, they’ll be wrong!’” — Norman Malcolm (hat tip: Martin Kusch).
I’m finding it tricky to make sense of all this. Here are some starting premises:
- Any assessment of sex work needs to take place in the wider context of exploitation inherent in labour. Much work is dull or damaging. No doubt some sex work is too – but that doesn’t mean that all work – including sex work – is, or necessarily must be.
- Plenty of jobs require workers to feign interest, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions. For instance psychotherapy: “Just as prostitutes, for the good of their business, will often have to fake an erotic enthusiasm far from their actual feelings, so psychotherapists will spend many hours of boredom, frustration and at times even irritation, that they will, quite properly, be at pains to conceal from their clients” (Smail, 1995. Love for Sale: ‘Psychotherapy as Prostitution’ Revisited.)
- There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with body-work. Take the examples of builders and life models.
- There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with benefiting financially from arousing emotions in people – including sexual emotions. Take musicians, performance artists, ballet dancers, writers.
- Stigmatisation is one of the main causes of emotional distress – including that experienced by sex workers.
- We just don’t know how most sex workers feel about their work.
- Also it’s not clear how sex workers could feel, if working circumstances were improved and sex workers offered the same rights and opportunities as workers with “respectable” jobs such as hedgefund managers.
- Some people enjoy sex work, e.g., participant 532 in Rhoda Grant’s consultation:
- “I chose to escort for money. I enjoy it. I do not feel exploited or dehumanised. I feel liberated, excited, expressive, creative and earning good money. I am one of very few people who ACTUALLY enjoys their job. This job has allowed me to support myself, allow myself to explore things i wouldnt have been able to otherwise and opens opportunities for me for further education. I feel that i am able to do so much more with my life in every sense since i chose to work in this line of work. I have a mortgage, i’m supporting myself, i went full time when i got made redundant in march. I haven’t claimed benefits and putting additional pressure against the welfare. I work hard and proud. I have NEVER been in danger with my job as i use the necessary precautions along with an advice network of working girls across the UK. I work as a stand alone worker and not for a pimp/organisation and pay my taxes. I would also like to add that by doing this line of work, it does not make me feel any less equal to the opposite sex. By me acting as an escort i very much have dignity and sexually empowered. I believe that any negitive perceptions about what i do is from people who are not in my line of work and are either threatened or are simply judgemental of something they know nothing about.”
- Some people hate non-sex-work. (Listen to most conversations in most pubs.)
“The road from scientific law to scientific measurement can rarely be traveled in the reverse direction. To discover quantitative regularity one must normally know what regularity one is seeking and one’s instruments must be designed accordingly; even then nature may not yield consistent or generalizable results without a struggle. […] I venture the following paradox: The full and intimate quantification of any science is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Nevertheless, it is not a consummation that can effectively be sought by measuring. As in individual development, so in the scientific group, maturity comes most surely to those who know how to wait.” (Kuhn, 1961, pp. 189-190)
Statistics is about trying to infer a pure, imaginary, nonexistent, often massively multidimensional structure which relates different quantities to each other, together with estimates of how uncertain the estimates are of the shape of this structure. This inference is based on the statistician’s expression of their best guess of the qualitative nature of this structure (based on substantive theory, experience wandering around the world…), combined with data which is used to constrain this best guess and estimate quantitative parameters describing the shape.
George Box said “All models are wrong…” (if they’re models then they’re imaginary and they’re intended to simplify reality) “… some are useful…” (they help us understand some phenomena, or to make predictions, when combined with, say, psychosocial theory; they relate in some way to the – or at least a – reality out there…).
Shuzan held out his short staff and said: “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”
If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. It cannot be expressed with words and it cannot be expressed without words. Now say quickly what it is.
Holding out the short staff,
He gave an order of life or death
Positive and negative interwoven,
Even Buddha’s and patriarchs cannot escape this attack.