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The Social Ontology of Power

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Social ontology is a rapidly growing research field which is about the foundation of society, or the nature and structure of social phenomena. In other words, social ontology is concerned with the metaphysics of the social world, for example, by trying to understand the nature of events such as the French Revolution, entities such as nations and companies, and institutions such as private property, or monarchy.

Power viewed as an ability can capture domination since you can be subject to someone’s arbitrary will even if power is not exercised over you. In contrast, a view of power as only existing when exercised would be too narrow to capture this important phenomena.

Åsa Burman is passionate about philosophy, human rights, and implementing good ideas. She has a broad background and professional experience from business, academia, and social entrepreneurship. Most of her research is about the concept of social power as well as providing a taxonomy of different kinds of power. She is currently engaged in work on the normativity of the social world, e.g. in viewing human rights from the perspective of social ontology. Other work consists both of a conceptual analysis of social entrepreneurship, drawing on definitions in the research literature, and viewing the field of social entrepreneurship from an ethical perspective, asking a central question: Are social entrepreneurs moral? Here she discusses social ontology, social power, the narrowness of current conceptions of deontic power, four ways of understanding social power, power as an ability, power to do and power over and why conflict of interest is not a necessary condition of power.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Åsa Burman: Looking back, I believe this journey began one special Christmas morning in my younger teens quite some time ago…

My parents gave me a philosophy book called Sophie’s World by the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder. I recall that I completely lost track of all other activities that Christmas because I was so curious and intrigued by the questions and the proposed answers in that book. In high school I was lucky to have very good teachers in the social sciences and philosophy which made my interest grow even more. So I decided to study philosophy at Lund University in Sweden.

But before that I studied political science and economics and then history of ideas. The first course in political science was about political theory and I thought I was at exactly the right place! Rawls’s Theory of Justice was discussed and of course the issue of just institutions. But I did not get an answer to the question: What is an institution? These institutions played such a big role both in Rawls’s theory of justice and within political science and economics as well, but I still did not have an answer to that fundamental question. It would take a few more years until I got an answer in Berkeley…

I spent some years of my undergraduate and graduate education at Berkeley and took several classes on the philosophy of social science. This was at a time when John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality was starting to get a lot of attention and I finally got an answer to my initial question: an institution is a system of constitutive rules. At this time, the field of social ontology started to grow as well and I decided to write my dissertation in this field.

3:AM: You’re interested in social power based on developments in social ontology. So to start with, can you say what we’re to understand by the term ‘social ontology’?

AB: Social ontology is a rapidly growing research field which is about the foundation of society, or the nature and structure of social phenomena. In other words, social ontology is concerned with the metaphysics of the social world, for example, by trying to understand the nature of events such as the French Revolution, entities such as nations and companies, and institutions such as private property, or monarchy. A related area in this field addresses social groups – what distinguishes a social group from a collection of individuals? – and how should we analyze collective action?

Other important phenomena to analyze is gender and race (analyzed by many philosophers in this field as social kinds) and of course social power which was the topic of my dissertation Power and Social Ontology (Bokbox Publications 2007)

To make some of the questions of social ontology more concrete/tangible, you can reflect on your day so far: On your way to work or university, you had the right to travel by bus or train because you paid the ticket. And if you, for instance, are a teacher at a university you have a right to a salary and an obligation to correct your students’ exams within a certain timeframe due to being employed by the university, while your students have a right to receive their grade within the time frame. And on your way home from work you might have read some news about Britain’s Prime Minister.

The fact that Theresa May is Britain’s prime minister or that you are employed by the university are examples of so-called institutional facts, that is, facts that depend on a society to exist, or more precisely, institutions to exist. Societies consist largely of such institutional facts, or ”status functions”. Examples of status functions is that someone is a student at the LSE or that someone is a UK citizen. And with these status features come new rights and obligations, so-called positive deontic powers (e.g. the right to receive the exam result within a certain time frame) and negative deontic powers (e.g. the obligation to grade the exam within the time frame), which in turn regulates our behavior and thus make society possible.

3:AM: What do you mean when you say that different types of social power are explained by the social phenomena they depend on to exist? Can you give an example of this?

AB: Sure. In the story above I mentioned one type of power – deontic power – which is a type of power which is necessarily known or transparent to the participants of the society in question. This type of power is dependent on status functions to exist as illustrated by the teacher example. But there are other types of power in society; power which is unknown, or opaque, to the participants in a society, e.g. a class structure or a gender structure. This type of power – opaque power- depends of the existence of opaque kinds of social facts, that is, kinds of facts which are unknown, or opaque, to people. These types of facts in turn depend on institutional facts to exist. To make this clearer, it is helpful to think about it in terms of ”first-order” and ”second-order” social facts, that is, in terms of a distinction between social facts which are directly dependent on collective intentionality to exist and social facts which are indirectly dependent on collective intentionality to exist. In the former case, collective beliefs about that very kind of social fact, say money, is partly constitutive of the social phenomena in question, while the latter exists due to collective beliefs about other social phenomena. For example, a recession can exist without any collective beliefs that the economy is in a state of recession, but it cannot exist without any collective beliefs about money.

With this terminology in place, we can say that deontic power is dependent on first-order social phenomena to exist while opaque power is dependent on second-order social phenomena to exist.

Now, let’s return to an example with a gender structure : In a much discussed article in Nature researchers Agnes Wold and Christine Wennerås showed that women had to be 2.5 times more productive than men to receive the same scientific competence score (in the context of post doc applications). Before the publication few people in Swedish society knew about this fact. And if we take this fact as an indication of a gender structure in Swedish (research) society, then we can see how this opaque power, which was disadvantageous to women and advantageous to men, depends on a gender structure to exist.

This example also illustrates one of my main claims; that the current notion of deontic power in some major works in social ontology is way too narrow; to adequately account for these and other similar examples, we must add other forms of power into the picture such as opaque power. In other words, I emphasize that we/social ontologists must also take forms of power dependent on second-order social facts into account, and then I propose an account of social power that does so.

3:AM: So it seems that there are several competing theories of power to the one you propose. So, first could you say something about the choices on offer in social ontology?

ÅB: Sure. The above example actually illustrates one of my main claims; that the current notion of deontic power present in much research in social ontology, (e.g. John Searle’s view, which is much discussed by Raimo Tuomela and Frank Hindriks among others), is way too narrow. The reason is that to adequately account for examples like the gender case above, we must add other forms of power into the picture such as opaque power. In other words, I emphasize that social ontologists must also take forms of power dependent on second-order social facts into account, and then I propose an account of social power that does so.

3:AM: So what is social power according to you? And can you sketch for us the competing positions?

ÅB: There are at least four central dividing lines in philosophical discussions of power:

a) Is power an ability, or does power exist only when it is exercised?

b) Is power about having the power-to do certain things or having power-over others?

c) Does exercising power necessarily include an intention on behalf of the power-holder?

d) Is conflict of interests necessary for power?

The general definition of power I suggest is this: An agent A has social power if and only if A has an ability, which is existentially dependent on collective intentionality, to effect a specific outcome. This definition manages to capture both deontic power and opaque power.

3:AM: Why do you think this is the best way of understanding the phenomenon? & what role, if any, do social structures and other social facts have in social power analysis?

ÅB: The definition implies that power is an ability and that it is always agents that have power. So social structures per se do not have power but they are still extremely important since they serve to enable some agents’s social powers while it reduces some other agents’ power, as in the previous example with the gender structure.

3:AM: Why do you think this is the best way of understanding the phenomenon? Doesn’t your view risk becoming too broad since it implies that agents can have power even though it is never exercised?

ÅB: A reason why I regard power as an ability rather than as only existing when exercised is that I think social ontologists should be able to capture the phenomena of domination in line with Philip Pettit’s view of domination as being subject to someone’s arbitrary will. This kind of power – domination – consists in a relation between actors, but this relation is necessarily of an asymmetric kind.

Power viewed as an ability can capture domination since you can be subject to someone’s arbitrary will even if power is not exercised over you. In contrast, a view of power as only existing when exercised would be too narrow to capture this important phenomena.

3:AM: It looks like your view runs contrary to Steven Lukes’s influential works on power, for example his first edition of Power: A Radical View. His view presupposes that a conflict of interest between a power-holder and a subject is necessary for there to be a power relations, while this is not the case according to your definition.

ÅB: Yes, indeed. Your point also relates to the second question – is power about having the power-to do certain things or having power-over others? – since I have a broader notion of power than Lukes has in mind. I am interested in both the power-to do certain things and having power over others while Lukes is interested in the latter notion. Having the power-to do certain things does not necessarily involve a conflict of interest, since you can have many abilities to do things without there being any conflicts of interests with other agents. For example, when grocery shopping, which involves different powers to do things, it is in the interest of both the cashier and other customers that you buy enough items for him to keep his job and the store to be kept open.

The same holds, however, for power-over, i.e. I do not think that a conflict of interest is necessary here either, due to two reasons. First, we must recognize that people can be powerful by advancing someone’s interests, e.g. a social worker arranging housing for a client. Second, given certain conditions, you can have power over someone even if they would perform a certain action anyway. Consider a football team. The star player would run five kilometers a day even if the coach did not push her to do it, while the other players run five kilometers because the coach orders them to do so. Does the coach have power over all the players including the star player? I think it is plausible to say that she does; the sports coach is in a position of authority in relation to all players. Authority (a form of power) is here understood as the right to command, given one’s formal position. We need to account for the ways in which one’s formal position in an organization gives rise to the right to command, whether or not the subject of the authority would perform that action anyway. So, I do not view a conflict of interest as a necessary condition for power, either for power-to or for power-over, although, of course, in many cases a power relation does involve a conflict of interests.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world?

AB:

Sally Haslanger Resisting Reality

Katharine Jenkins Ontic Injustice

Amie L. Thomasson Ontology Made Easy

Brian Epstein The Ant Trap

John Searle Making the Social World

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 15th, 2018.