I’m just doing some late stage proof reading for the collection of Margaret Archer’s papers I’ve edited with Tom Brock and Graham Scambler. This passage from the revised introduction to the Social Origins of Educational Systems really jumped out to me, both because of the forcefulness with which it sets out her intellectual project and also the austere clarity which I really value about her writing style:

A social ontology explains nothing and does not attempt to do so; its task is to define and justify the terms and the form in which explanations can properly be cast. Similarly, the Morphogenetic Approach also explains nothing; it is an explanatory framework that has to be filled in by those using it as a toolkit with which to work on a specific issue, who then do purport to explain something. Substantive theories alone give accounts of how particular components of the social order originated and came to stand in given relationships to one another. The explanatory framework is intended to be a very practical toolkit, not a ‘sensitization device’ (as ‘structuration theory’ was eventually admitted to be); one that enables researchers to advance accounts of social change by specifying the ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘where’ and avoiding the vagaries of assuming ‘anytime’, ‘anyhow’ and ‘anywhere’.

I just came across this superb introduction produced by the Cambridge Social Ontology group:

The term ontology3 derives from Greek, with “onto” meaning “being”, and “logos” usually interpreted as “science”; so that ontology, as traditionally understood, is the science or study of being4.

The word being has at least two senses:

1)  Something that is, or exists;

2)  What it is to be or to exist;

It follows that if ontology is the study of being it includes at least the following:

1) The study of what is, or what exists, including the study of the nature of specific existents

2) The study of how existents exist. This twofold conception is adopted here

http://www.csog.econ.cam.ac.uk/documents/AConceptionofSocialOntology.pdf

We’re now up to book number 4. This is the first one I’ve contributed to personally & it’s due to be published in early 2016. These are the first three volumes in the series:

Social MorphogenesisLate Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenic SocietyGenerative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order

Here’s the coverage of the books that I know of. Please do let me know if you come across something else! I’ll keep this list updated over the coming months:

Centre for Social Ontology PhD/ECR Conference
June 23rd, University of Warwick, 10am – 4pm

Social ontology is integral to the study of society. It is impossible to inquire into the social world without some understanding, at least tacitly, concerning the entities which make up that world and their properties and powers. However social ontology remains an often confused and contentious matter within the social sciences.

The first Centre for Social Ontology PhD and ECR conference seeks to address this matter through papers exploring the role of social ontology within sociology.

The conference is open to all PhD students and Early Career Researchers with an interest in social ontology.

Schedule

9:30 to 10:00 — Welcome and coffee

10:00 to 11:30 — 3 papers

• Jonathan Beacham: Mixed Method Ontologies and Dialectical Futures
• Adam Wood: Why Architecture Needs a Social Ontology
• Giulia Lasagni: Mutual Recognition and Social Commitment

11:30 to 11:45 – Coffee

11:45 to 12:45 – 2 papers

• Janet Lord: What does it mean to be a teacher? A critical realist approach.
• Kalok Yip: IHL and IHRL – Convergence of Laws, Conflation of Ontologies

12:45 to 13:30 – LUNCH

13:30 to 15:00 — 3 papers

• Gry Cecilie Høiland: Using a critical realist approach for studying the implementation of a work inclusion policy measure at the front lines of the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Agency – methodological implications
• Michael Bauwens: What is social ontology (not)?
• Michael Edward Walsh: titlte TBC

15:00 to 15:30 – Coffee

15:30 to 16:30 – 2 papers

• Maryam Al Mohammad: Towards building a researcher methodological habitus
• Sara Melo: Exploring the ontology of patient safety

This event is funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation

 

This innovative conference brings together leading figures from a variety of fields which address issues of digital technology and digital data. We’ve invited speakers with a range of intellectual perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds who engage with questions relating to digital data and digital technology in their work. Our suggestion is that social ontology, however this might be construed, represents a potential common ground that could cut across this still rather siloed domain of inquiry into the social dimensions of digital technology.

The conference aims to explore this possibility by assembling a diverse range of perspectives and drawing them into a dialogue about a common question, without assuming a shared understanding of the topic at hand. Our aim is to extend this digitally via twitter, podcast and blog beyond the event itself, in order to facilitate an extended conversation that will draw more people into its remit as it circulates after the conference itself.

To this end, we invite each speaker to address this theme (the social ontology of digital data & digital technology) in whatever way they choose. Each speaker will have 30 mins to talk and 15 mins for questions. We’ll have an accomplished audio editor on hand to record each talk as a podcast. These will be released on www.socialontology.org and will be circulated on social media in order to try and stimulate a continuing debate around the issues raised at the conference. The hashtag for the day will be #socialontology.

Confirmed Speakers:

  • Noortje Marres (Goldsmiths) – Does Digital Sociology have a Problem?
  • Jochen Runde (Cambridge) – Non-materiality and the Ontology of Digital Objects
  • Alistair Mutch (NTU) – title TBC
  • Susan Halford (Southampton) – title TBC
  • Nick Couldry (LSE) – title TBC
  • Another speaker TBC

Eventbrite - The Social Ontology of Digital Data & Digital Technology

Centre for Social Ontology PhD/ECR Conference
June 23rd, University of Warwick, 10am – 4pm

Social ontology is integral to the study of society. It is impossible to inquire into the social world without some understanding, at least tacitly, concerning the entities which make up that world and their properties and powers. However social ontology remains an often confused and contentious matter within the social sciences.

The first Centre for Social Ontology PhD and ECR conference seeks to address this matter through papers exploring the role of social ontology within sociology. This could include but is by no means limited to:

  • The relationship between tacit assumptions concerning social ontology and reflective theoretical positions
  • Social ontology and the formulation of research questions
  • Social ontology as a topic standing at the interface between the social sciences and philosophy
  • The methodological implications of social ontology
  • The ontological assumptions implied by research methods
  • The social ontology of particular areas of inquiry e.g. social movements or digital technology
  • Disciplinary differences in approaches to social ontology
  • Social ontology and philosophical under-labouring
  • The limits of social ontology and where under-labouring has to stop
  • New directions in sociological research through questions of social ontology

The conference is open to all PhD students and Early Career Researchers with an interest in social ontology.

Please send abstracts of 200 words or less and a short biographical note to socialontology@warwick.ac.uk by May 1st

Registration will be free and a limited number of small travel bursaries will be available to support attendance at the conference.

Centre for Social Ontology PhD/ECR Conference
June 23rd, University of Warwick, 10am – 4pm

Social ontology is integral to the study of society. It is impossible to inquire into the social world without some understanding, at least tacitly, concerning the entities which make up that world and their properties and powers. However social ontology remains an often confused and contentious matter within the social sciences.

The first Centre for Social Ontology PhD and ECR conference seeks to address this matter through papers exploring the role of social ontology within sociology. This could include but is by no means limited to:

  • The relationship between tacit assumptions concerning social ontology and reflective theoretical positions
  • Social ontology and the formulation of research questions
  • Social ontology as a topic standing at the interface between the social sciences and philosophy
  • The methodological implications of social ontology
  • The ontological assumptions implied by research methods
  • The social ontology of particular areas of inquiry e.g. social movements or digital technology
  • Disciplinary differences in approaches to social ontology
  • Social ontology and philosophical under-labouring
  • The limits of social ontology and where under-labouring has to stop
  • New directions in sociological research through questions of social ontology

The conference is open to all PhD students and Early Career Researchers with an interest in social ontology.

Please send abstracts of 200 words or less and a short biographical note to socialontology@warwick.ac.uk by May 1st

Registration will be free and a limited number of small travel bursaries will be available to support attendance at the conference.

Balihar Sanghera (Kent)
Tuesday, February 17th

5:00 PM to 6:30 PM, R1.04
Ramphal Building, University of Warwick

This paper examines how charitable giving is an outcome of different interacting elements of lay morality. Charitable giving reflects people’s capacity for fellow-feeling (or sympathy), moral sentiments, personal reflexivity, ethical dispositions, moral norms and moral discourses. An eclectic account of lay morality and charitable giving is warranted because of the complex nature of the object. Though ordinary people engage in ethical reasoning, they often think and act in piecemeal fashion, so that confusion and inconsistencies can occur. This is particularly evident when gender, class and ‘race’ shape people’s feelings and evaluations of others, their attention and care for others, and their understanding of responsibility and blame for social issues. Morality is further complicated because it takes place in the mundane world of everyday life that can result in inconsistent and confusing judgements and actions on giving.

All welcome! E-mail socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with any questions

​​Centre for Social Ontology Seminars: Spring Term 2015

January 27th: Dave Elder-Vass (Loughborough University) R1.15
Prosumption, appropriation and the ontology of economic form

February 3rd: Beth Weaver (University of Strathclyde) R1.15
The Relational ‘We’ in Social Morphogenesis

February 17th: Balihar Sanghera (University of Kent) R1.04
Lay ethics, distortions and charitable giving

March 10th: Alistair Mutch (Nottingham Trent University), R1.04
Routines and Reflexivity: Consequences of Developments in Organizations for Morphogenesis

See our poster for full abstracts

All Seminars Take Place 5pm – 6:30pm in the Ramphal Building on the University of Warwick Campus

All welcome! Contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with any questions.

http://www.socialontology.org

All welcome! There’s information here about getting to the University of Warwick. Contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk if you have any questions or want help finding your way to the campus. We’ll be recording the talks subject to the speaker’s permission.

November 11th: Graham Scambler (University College London)

S0.13

‘Margaret Archer, reflexivity and an interdisciplinary approach to the ‘structuring of agency’

Margaret Archer’s recent contributions to our understanding of reflexivity in late capitalist society provide useful resources for theorizing across the substantive domains of sociology. Using illustrations from my own work on the sociology health inequalities in general, and my ideal type of the ‘vulnerable fractured reflexive’ in particular, I examine some of the pros and cons of adopting an interdisciplinary approach to the structuring of agency. I conclude with a skeletal research programme involving interdisciplinary collaboration.

December 9th: Alistair Mutch (Nottingham Trent University) 

S2.81

Routines and reflexivity: consequences of developments in organizations for morphogenesis

Much of the debate occasioned by the development of ideas about reflexivity and morphogenesis has turned on the status of habit. Whilst recognising the importance of this debate, this seminar takes an alternative tack. Returning to Bhaskar’s formulation of ‘position-practices’, it reviews recent work on organizational routines. Developing a position which sees routines as a key emergent property of organizations, recent developments in information technology are seen to cement autonomous reflexivity. Accompanied by an increasing discourse of ‘strategizing’, this might limit the development of meta reflexivity.

January 27th: Dave Elder-Vass (Loughborough University)

R1.15

Prosumption, appropriation and the ontology of economic form

Prosumption – the unpaid performance of productive work by ‘consumers’ who thus help commercial businesses to generate a profit – is perhaps the most studied of the many hybrid forms of economic practice that have proliferated in the digital economy. A number of critical accounts have analysed prosumption in terms of Marx’s labour theory of value, suggesting for example that as prosumers do useful work for free they are infinitely exploited by the firms that profit as a result. But such accounts analyse the digital economy in terms that were derived from the nineteenth century factory – and terms that were highly questionable even in that context.

The spectacular mismatch between this model of capitalism and the case of prosumption exposes the inadequacy of the standard monolithic conception of capitalism as a homogeneous and universal contemporary economic form – a conception that at a certain level is also shared by the marketised discourse of mainstream economics. We need a new ontology of economic form that goes beyond the totalising concepts of mode of production and market economy and instead provides us with tools for understanding the sheer diversity of forms of economic practice in the contemporary economy. This paper offers the concept of appropriative practicesas a contribution to such an ontology and applies it to the case of prosumption.

February 3rd Beth Weaver (University of Strathclyde)

R1.15

The Relational ‘We’ in Social Morphogenesis

This paper discusses my empirical application of a relational realist analytic framework to illuminate the role of social groups or collectives, as social relations, in shaping and affecting outcomes for individuals and for groups. Using the morphogenetic sequence developed by Archer, to illustrate the conceptual schema progressed by Donati (2011), this framework affords equal recognition to individual actions, social relations and social systems. To empirically capture the relational ‘we’ in social morphogenesis, however, requires taking the social relation as a central unit of analysis. This means empirically conceptualising the social relation as both context and as interaction, and it means analysing the shifting dynamics and influences on the form and shape of a given social relation. Such an analysis can reveal what triggers reflexivity, what different forms of reflexivity entail, and how social relations can shape and influence outcomes for individuals and groups as well as how such processes shape and alter the relations themselves. Using examples from my own research examining the dynamics of desistance from crime, I will show how both individual and relational contributions are interconnected, and how the manner of relating and the reciprocal orientation of individuals-in-relation towards the maintenance of a given social relation are significant in understanding the relational ‘we’ in social morphogenesis.

February 17thBalihar Sanghera (University of Kent)

R1.04

Lay ethics, distortions and charitable giving

This paper examines how the nature of lay normativity can involve both disinterested judgements about moral commitments and distortions by social inequalities and discourses. Lay ethical practices are always contradictory and confusing, largely as a result of mixed moral sentiments, incommensurable moral concerns and fallible evaluations of human needs and situations. The social ontology of human being offered in this paper goes beyond the liberal view of an actor as rational, self-interested and autonomous. The paper will particularly focus on how charities are embedded in people’s lives with different degrees of meaning and importance, and how individuals over- and under-value charitable causes and practices in their struggle for symbolic dominance. Individuals’ evaluations of what is worth giving to can be inflected by social divisions, including class and ‘race’, resulting in bias and non-giving.

March (Day TBC): Bob Carter (University of Leicester

Title and abstract TBC

March (Day TBC): Michelle Farr (University of Bath)

Title and abstract TBC

There’s a great post on Daniel Little’s blog which uses a critique of analytical sociology and critical realism to explore a premise which he argues they both share: ontology dictates methodology. As he frames the issue:

Both groups have strong (and conflicting) ideas about social ontology, and both think that these ideas are important to the conduct of social-science research. Analytical sociologists tend towards an enlightened version of methodological individualism: social entities derive from the actions and nature of the individuals who constitute them. Critical realists tend toward some version or another of emergentism: social entities possess properties that are emergent with respect to the individual activities that constitute them.

Both groups tend to design social science methodologies to correspond to the ontological theories that they advance. So they tacitly agree about what I regard as a questionable premise — that ontology dictates methodology.

I want to argue for a greater degree of independence between ontology and methodology than either group would probably be willing to countenance. With the analytical sociologists I believe that social facts depend on the availability of microfoundations at the level of ensembles of individuals. This is an ontological fact. But with the critical realists I believe that it is entirely appropriate for social scientists to examine the causal and structural properties of social entities without being forced to attempt to provide the microfoundations of these properties. This is an observation about the locus and nature of explanation. There are stable structural and causal properties at the social level, and it is entirely legitimate to investigate these properties in full empirical detail. Sociologists, organizational theorists, and institutional researchers should be encouraged to investigate in detail the workings, arrangements, and causal properties of the regimes that they study. And this is precisely the kind of investigation that holds together researchers as diverse as Michael Mann, Kathleen Thelen, Charles Perrow, Howard Kimmeldorf, and Frank Dobbin. (Use the search box to find discussions of their work in earlier posts.)

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/ontology-and-methodology.html

This is an issue I’m very interested in but have struggled to come to any firm conclusion about. My most serious attempt to think through these issues is this working paper. On the one hand, I find Margaret Archer’s argument that social ontology regulates the kinds of entities which can be admitted into explanation intuitively plausible. On the other hand, I find myself intuitively hostile – even actively irritated by – the style of social theory that someone like Dave Elder-Vass sometimes lapses into, in which he appears to argue that sociological investigation is unable to proceed adequately until social theorists have provided the domain specific ontology sociologists need to undergird their activity.

I guess a lot depends on what we take the claim about ‘regulation’ to mean. Does ontology regulate methodology? Should ontology regulate methodology? Could ontology regulate methodology? I think a similar ambiguity can be found in Little’s own framing of the relationship between ontology and methodology in the aforementioned post:

Ontology is not irrelevant to methodology; but it provides only weak constraints on the nature of the methodologies social scientists may choose in their pursuit of better understanding of the social world.

Is this an empirical statement about sociological practice? If so then we’re in the domain of the sociology of social theory – a notion that I’ve played around with in the past and at some point in my life, when I’ve read an awful lot more than I have at present, intend to come back to. If it’s not an empirical claim of this sort then what is it? This is the question that interests me and it’s one I don’t feel I have a sufficiently firm grip on to try and answer – descriptive claims about sociological practice unavoidably include normative claims within their scope (i.e. describing what sociologists actually do includes descriptions of what their theories tell them they should do) and yet as such a purportedly neutral sociology of social theory comes to constitute a move within the same game.

I’m very interested in the possibility of an ethnographic study of how sociologists actually use theoretical concepts as part of the research process. But at the same time I find the possibility of the neutrality this would entail to be rather implausible… I guess this is why I’m so confused (and yet fascinated) by questions like the relationship between ontology and methodology. The tendency seems to be for explicitly normative claims about what the methodological implications of social ontology should be. My problem is not with the normativity here but rather with the slipperiness of the grounding, if any, in facts of the matter about sociological practice. I’m interested in the sociology of social theory as a normative project – how do sociologists actually use theoretical resources and what conclusions can we draw about how they should use them in light of such a state of affairs? This is a project which unavoidably confronts a messy reality, in which an underlying impulse towards theoretical tidiness (which I think animates the work of many social theorists even if they reflectively deny it – I’ve had a post about the psychodynamics of social theory which I’ve intended to write for ages) runs headfirst into the tangled reality of empirical research.

I guess what I’m saying comes down to this: can we incorporate what sociologists actually do and what social theorists think they should do within a unified frame of reference? 

What’s the Point of Social Ontology?
PhD Workshop at the University of Warwick
18th June 2014, 10am – 5:30pm

Ontology can often prove a contested and confusing issue within social research. Everyone has an ontology, explicit or otherwise, but the process of drawing this out and thinking through its implications for research can often be a confusing part of the PhD process. This participatory workshop explores the practical significance of ontological questions for social research, inviting participants to reflect on their own research projects in a collaborative and supportive context. It aims to help participants negotiate the sometimes abstruse matter of social ontology, linking theory to practice in the context of their own research projects. The main focus throughout the day will be on how ontological questions are encountered in social research, the questions posed by such encounters and how engaging explicitly with social ontology can often help resolve such issues.

All participants will offer a brief (5 minute) presentation of their research project and the ontological questions which have been or are expected to be encountered within it. Those still early in the PhD process are welcome to substitute this for a discussion of their research interests and potential project. We’d like to ask all participants to reflect in advance on their own social ontology and how it pertains to their project. Uncertainty here is not a problem, in fact it will be a useful contribution to discussions on the day!

We also invite two more substantial presentations (10 mins) for the first afternoon session, reflecting on your engagement with ontological questions in your own project in order to help begin a practical engagement which encompasses the entire group. If you would be interested in leading the discussion in this way then please make this known when registering.

To register please contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with a brief description of your research and your interest in social ontology (500 words or less) by May 15th. The event is free but places are limited. Travel bursaries are available, please ask for more details.

www.socialontology.eu

What’s the Point of Social Ontology?
PhD Workshop at the University of Warwick
18th June 2014, 10am – 5:30pm

Ontology can often prove a contested and confusing issue within social research. Everyone has an ontology, explicit or otherwise, but the process of drawing this out and thinking through its implications for research can often be a confusing part of the PhD process. This participatory workshop explores the practical significance of ontological questions for social research, inviting participants to reflect on their own research projects in a collaborative and supportive context. It aims to help participants negotiate the sometimes abstruse matter of social ontology, linking theory to practice in the context of their own research projects. The main focus throughout the day will be on how ontological questions are encountered in social research, the questions posed by such encounters and how engaging explicitly with social ontology can often help resolve such issues.

All participants will offer a brief (5 minute) presentation of their research project and the ontological questions which have been or are expected to be encountered within it. Those still early in the PhD process are welcome to substitute this for a discussion of their research interests and potential project. We’d like to ask all participants to reflect in advance on their own social ontology and how it pertains to their project. Uncertainty here is not a problem, in fact it will be a useful contribution to discussions on the day!

We also invite two more substantial presentations (10 mins) for the first afternoon session, reflecting on your engagement with ontological questions in your own project in order to help begin a practical engagement which encompasses the entire group. If you would be interested in leading the discussion in this way then please make this known when registering.

To register please contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with a brief description of your research and your interest in social ontology (500 words or less) by May 15th. The event is free but places are limited. Travel bursaries are available, please ask for more details.

www.socialontology.eu

What’s the Point of Social Ontology?
PhD Workshop at the University of Warwick
18th June 2014, 10am – 5:30pm

Ontology can often prove a contested and confusing issue within social research. Everyone has an ontology, explicit or otherwise, but the process of drawing this out and thinking through its implications for research can often be a confusing part of the PhD process. This participatory workshop explores the practical significance of ontological questions for social research, inviting participants to reflect on their own research projects in a collaborative and supportive context. It aims to help participants negotiate the sometimes abstruse matter of social ontology, linking theory to practice in the context of their own research projects. The main focus throughout the day will be on how ontological questions are encountered in social research, the questions posed by such encounters and how engaging explicitly with social ontology can often help resolve such issues.

All participants will offer a brief (5 minute) presentation of their research project and the ontological questions which have been or are expected to be encountered within it. Those still early in the PhD process are welcome to substitute this for a discussion of their research interests and potential project. We’d like to ask all participants to reflect in advance on their own social ontology and how it pertains to their project. Uncertainty here is not a problem, in fact it will be a useful contribution to discussions on the day!

We also invite two more substantial presentations (10 mins) for the first afternoon session, reflecting on your engagement with ontological questions in your own project in order to help begin a practical engagement which encompasses the entire group. If you would be interested in leading the discussion in this way then please make this known when registering.

To register please contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with a brief description of your research and your interest in social ontology (500 words or less) by May 15th. The event is free but places are limited. Travel bursaries are available, please ask for more details.

www.socialontology.eu

Any social researcher has a finite set of beliefs, whether implicit or explicit, concerning the properties of the phenomena they’re investigating. Give the manifold ways in which these beliefs can influence the investigation, it’s valuable to work towards rendering them in a maximally consistent and explicit way. The absence of this doesn’t mean that good social research is impossible, far from it, only that its virtues emerge in spite of the ontology which has informed it. What is so contentious about this? To me it’s a point about the practice of social research yet I’ve never heard a counter-argument that isn’t to some degree abstracted from that practice – ironically so, given the force of the attack is often aimed at the abstraction of ontology itself.

There’s obviously much more to ontology than this. Particularly the questions of philosophical ontology and how domain specific ontology of the sort advocated above is shaped by, as well as shaping, research within that domain. But I don’t see how social research can entirely dispense with ontology. It can avoid it, suppress it or ignore it but there’s an encounter with ontological questions inherent in the practice of social research itself. My inclination is to try and explicate this dimension as thoroughly as possible. I can completely understand other responses to the dimension. I just can’t understand the denial of the dimension itself, at least assuming we believe that social research is about something ‘out there’. I don’t see how one can hold the belief that social research is concerned with the production of knowledge and yet deny the ontological questions inherent in that productive activity.

What’s the Point of Ontology?
PhD Workshop at the University of Warwick
18th June 2014, 10am – 5:30pm

Ontology can often prove a contested and confusing issue within social research. Everyone has an ontology, explicit or otherwise, but the process of drawing this out and thinking through its implications for research can often be a confusing part of the PhD process. This participatory workshop explores the practical significance of ontological questions for social research, inviting participants to reflect on their own research projects in a collaborative and supportive context. It aims to help participants negotiate the sometimes abstruse matter of social ontology, linking theory to practice in the context of their own research projects. The main focus throughout the day will be on how ontological questions are encountered in social research, the questions posed by such encounters and how engaging explicitly with social ontology can often help resolve such issues.

All participants will offer a brief (5 minute) presentation of their research project and the ontological questions which have been or are expected to be encountered within it. Those still early in the PhD process are welcome to substitute this for a discussion of their research interests and potential project. We’d like to ask all participants to reflect in advance on their own social ontology and how it pertains to their project. Uncertainty here is not a problem, in fact it will be a useful contribution to discussions on the day!

We also invite two more substantial presentations (10 mins) for the first afternoon session, reflecting on your engagement with ontological questions in your own project in order to help begin a practical engagement which encompasses the entire group. If you would be interested in leading the discussion in this way then please make this known when registering.

To register please contact socialontology@warwick.ac.uk with a brief description of your research and your interest in social ontology (500 words or less) by May 15th. The event is free but places are limited. Travel bursaries are available, please ask for more details.

The Centre for Social Ontology
http://go.warwick.ac.uk/socialontology/

Consider the Sociology Department of Warwick University. What is itThe department is not just the individuals within it. If you took all the staff and students from the department and plonked them down in a field in the middle of nowhere, you’d no longer have a sociology department, you’d have a gaggle of confused academics, support staff and students in a field. If this was not a random act of God but instead some sort of collective journey to the countryside, it might be possible to enact organisational roles in the field: meetings could be had, lectures could be taught, administrative work done. Or could it? Certainly there are some functions which coud be sustained, albeit fallibly, however others clearly require a material infrastructure drawn upon by individuals in enacting their roles within an organisation e.g. there would be no computers in the field.

But what if everyone bought their own laptops, tablets etc? it depends on the people who are enacting the roles and the relationships between them. It would be easier  for people who’ve worked together for years to go and pretend to be an academic department in a field than it would be for a collection of strangers. Furthermore, there’s more material infrastructure than computers. Over and above this though, the individualised allocation of resources and the organisational allocation of resources are unlikely to be coterminous over time: people might be able to meet the functional needs of their roles sometimes (and for some time) but the pattern of the distribution, as well as the capacity to meet it, isn’t homologous with that of an organisation allocating resources more or less rationally on the basis of financial capacity and functional need (as much as this often limits activity in practice).

So what if everyone in the department packed up all the stuff that’s in there, trucked it over to the field and worked hard to build a passible facsimile of the department there? It might work, possibly, up until the point where some function requires interaction with other elements of the university or anything in the wider world i.e. there’s no IT services, no payroll, no library and, well, it’s a building in a field… no students are going to want to enroll.

Obviously it’s a silly example. But I think this kind of counter-factual approach is useful to understand the composition of organisations. It helps delineate different dimensions to what an organisation is and how it works:

  • The individuals who populate the organisation
  • The lived trajectory of interactions between these individuals and their personal & social meanings
  • The roles individuals enact within the organisation (and the causal relationships between the enactment of these roles by individuals)
  • The material infrastructure they draw upon in their enactment of those roles
  • The department as an emergent entity able to exercise powers of constraint and enablement over the individuals and networks within it
  • The broader organisational structures into which that department, as emergent entity, is causally interlocked: enactment of roles at the individual level, sustaining action at the collective level, presupposes all sorts of causal relations with other entities within the university and with the university itself as a much larger emergent.