Towards Digital Social Ontology

This is a brief write up of a talk I gave at the first meeting of the Digital Social Science Forum in January 2016. Digital Social Ontology should be an important part of how we approach Digital Social Science given the ISRF’s commitment towards a “better understanding of social entities and processes” that can be used to solve “subject specific problems”.

Part of the problem facing the Digital Social Sciences is the vast array of disciplines and approaches being subsumed under this term: Digital Sociology, Digital Anthropology, Digital Geography, Social Informatics, Human-Computer Interaction, Web Science, The Digital Humanities, Data Science, Critical Data Studies, Platform Studies, Software Studies. As a whole these represent a profound restructuring of knowledge production and even academic labour, if we see the ascendancy of Data Science through the lens of the Sociology of Work.

This is why a Digital Ontology to accompany the Digital Social Sciences holds such promise. I would understand Ontology quite straight forwardly as the study of what exists and what existent things have in common. But I think Tony Lawson’s distinction between Ontology in this sense and Ontographology is very useful: the former being the study of things and the latter the study of how those things are theorised.

Given their rapid proliferation, comparative Ontographology could be an important exercise in clarifying the internal structuring of the Digital Social Sciences, as well as identifying convergences and divergences in how they conceive of their often overlapping objects. But it could also be a tool of productive criticism, for instance drawing out contradictions between implicit and explicit ontological commitments.

This would be a matter of mapping ontological issues being confronted across disciplines and fields, asking fundamental questions of philosophical ontology informed by the questions of regional or scientific ontology already being asked within specific disciplines and fields. The concern here would therefore by taxonomic: bringing clarity across fields of study and elucidating key issues where the impulse towards clarification is contentious.

Part of the ambition here would be meta-theoretical: mapping the diversity of different approaches to these questions and bringing them into the same argumentative space. Rather than their current existence as incommensurable paradigms, not permitting of intellectual advancement through dialogue with alternative understandings.