Social ontology is a branch of ontology. Ontology is the philosophical study of being and existence; social ontology, specifically, examines the social world, and the entities that arise out of social interaction. A primary concern of social ontology is social groups, whether or not they exist (and if so, in what way), and if so, how they differ from any given collections of people. Much of social ontology is conducted within the social sciences, and is concerned with many of the same entities, such as institutions, socio-economic status, race, and language. [1]

Notable contemporary philosophers who study social ontology include John Searle, Margaret Gilbert, Amie Thomasson, Tony Lawson and Ruth Millikan.[1]

Lynne Rudder Baker's Just What Is Social Ontology

In this paper, Lynne Rudder Baker presents John Searle's account of social ontology, with the "startling discovery" that his social ontology is entirely epistemic (rather than ontological). She then presents her own view of "social reality, on which social phenomena are ontologically significant".

Rudder Baker rejects Searle's physicalism, favoring instead pluralism. She believes that all concrete objects in the world are composed of physical particles; however, that "does not imply that the world 'entirely consists of physical particles'".

She defines reality as all entities that are required for us to understand what we perceive and interact with. She notes that not all entities have always existed, so we can only have time-indexed ontology; for something to exist at any given time, it must 1) not be able to be reduced to anything other than itself (within that given time), and 2) and it must not be able to be eliminated (within that given time). For her, we have no access to total ontology (that is, an exhaustive catalogue of all entities that have ever existed and will ever exist). She includes in her ontology "commonsense" entities and theoretical entities.

Primary Kinds

There are three features of her conception of the natural world. "(i) primary kinds, (ii) the relation of constitution, and (iii) the existence of intention-dependent phenomena." Every entity has a primary kind property; it is whatever makes that entity essentially what it is--whatever makes a table a table, and whatever makes a person a person.

The Relation of Constitution

She considers "constitution" to be "a time-indexed, contingent relation of unity between items of different primary kinds" at any given time. Constitution, for her, is a "vehicle of ontological novelty"; it is neither identity nor a part-whole relation. To illustrate, she describes a piece of sheepskin (x), which at a given time (t) might come to constitute a new object--a diploma(y).

The Existence of Intention-Dependent Phenomena

Our world is populated by things--things which could not exist without beings that have beliefs, intentions, and desires. She calls these things intention-dependent (ID) objects, and as examples she gives kitchen utensils, precision instruments, and credit cards. Intention-dependent phenomena, similarly cannot exist without beings with beliefs and intentions. All social phenomena are ID phenomena. She believes that being intention-dependent does not diminish ontological status.

Social Ontology

Social ontology includes two social kinds: social individuals and social complexes. She writes, "a property is social if and only if its instantiation requires that there exist communities of creatures with attitudes (like believing. desiring, and intending)." Human beings are social individuals. Social complexes are things like institutions, universities, and teams. Social complexes are constituted by social individuals at any given time (t). Social complexes can be constituted by a different set of social individuals at different times. She illustrates this using the example of a baseball team. When a player is traded, there is still an aggregate number of players who constitute the team, at any given time.

Constitution of social complexes requires (i) a constituter and (ii) a particular set of circumstances (which circumstances are needed is dependent on what kind of social complex is being constituted). She uses S to name any given social entity (individual or complex). S requires S-favorable circumstances to be constituted.


She argues that institutions are primary kinds (and therefore belong in ontology). They are irreducible and ineliminable (at a given time). They also (i) their instantiation requires social entities, and (ii) their instantiation requires social communities. Different institutions have different S-favorable circumstances.

For example, universities have the primary kind property of engaging in teaching and research. It is constituted by (fluctuating) aggregates of students, professors, staff, etc. Social complexes have causal powers that the social individuals who make them up do not have. A university has the power to grant a degree; an individual professor or administrator does not possess that power. The university is ineliminable so long as University-favorable conditions exist.


She writes, "The fact that we create the social world does not call for any consternation or special explanation. Why shouldn’t we persons – with our abilities, imaginations, and desires – be able to create genuinely new kinds of things?" She likens it to how beavers build dams. She believes that human contributions to ontology include mind-dependent entities, and since mind-dependent entities are irreducible and ineliminable, they should not be considered ontologically inferior to mind-independent entities.

"Social theories had better contain properties like living in poverty, being a bureaucracy, and participating in political elections that we all pre-theoretically recognize. Since ontology limits reality, ontology matters." She concludes with, "Finally, just what is social ontology? Social ontology, on my view, is that part of a nonredundant inventory of reality that includes social individuals, properties and kinds. The relation of constitution, with different social S-favorable circumstances for different social entities, provides a schema for the whole “motley crew” that belong to social ontology."[2]


  1. ^ a b Epstein, Brian (2018). "Social Ontology". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
  2. ^ Baker, Lynne Rudder (2019-02-25). "Just What is Social Ontology?". Journal of Social Ontology. 5 (1): 1–12. doi:10.1515/jso-2019-2001. ISSN 2196-9663.