The Social Ontology of Capitalism

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The second and more controversial assumption is that social relations have independent normative properties that cannot be reduced to nor derived from the normative properties of either individuals or structures. These normative properties need to be investigated in their own terms. This section deals cursorily with the first better known assumption, and the next section explains in what sense social interaction have distinctive normative properties.

Social interactionist ontologies share the idea that one cannot account for the complexity of reality by assigning explanatory priority to either individual or structural entities. They suggest, instead, to inscribe individual phenomena such as beliefs and actions and structural ones such as institutions, norms, and cultures within the flux of social dynamics — transactions, interactions, associations, practices, processes unfolding in time.

Temporality matters insofar as individuals and institutions are seen as constantly evolving through interactions, so that more than their ontological constitution, what determines their normative properties are the consequences of interactions. Interactionists contend that social interactions play a constitutive role also in shaping normative orders. Interactions, rather than individual agents or structures, are then ontologically primitive. If we are going to find the agency of social life, it will be here. Here reside the energy of movement and change, the glue of solidarity, and the conservatism of stasis.

Here is where intentionality and consciousness find their places; here, too, is the site of the emotional and unconscious aspects of human interaction.


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Social interactionists construe social reality as the result of interaction-based processes of individualization and institutionalization which find their focus within social situations. So conceived, interactions do not only shape individual identity, as scholars in this tradition have since long established, but also the nature of organizations and institutions.

Social interactions acquire then a methodological priority insofar as they are seen as the generative core of social life. On the one hand, by positing social interactions rather than individual action as the basic social act, individual attributes appears as the results of social interactions. On the other hand, institutional forms are seen as the progressive stabilization and formalization of patterns of social interaction.

In both ways, what is emphasized is the generative force of social interactions in constructing social life and the normative orders that govern it, as well as the function of individual habits, social patterns, and forms of organization in providing social life with the regularity without which no social unit can exist. The upshot is that if interactions among individuals within socially situated settings is the fabric of social life and if, moreover, situations have laws or processes of their own, then exclusive focus on pre-social autonomous individuals or on formal institutions misses a decisive feature of how social life unfolds.

Social interactionist approaches put this basic feature into focus. My proposal, further explained in Sections 5 and 6 below, consists in seeing social reality as being constituted by processes of habitualization and institutionalization propelled by three main social springs: individual habits, patterns of social interaction, and organizational forms.

Taken together, they help stabilize social interactions, which would otherwise fail to acquire the stability and predictability required by social life. Patterns of social interaction reproduce themselves through their inscription in individual dispositions as well as through their embodiment in social institutions and structures. Social norms succeed in steering social life only through their actuation via these social mechanisms. Interactionist ontologies propose then to see under a different light how social orders are formed and evolve in time, how social norms concretely steer social life by becoming embedded in habits, patterns, and forms, how their effects are transmitted through different social spheres.

Indeed, one of the advantages of interactionist social ontologies consists in avoiding the idealist traps related to the idea that norms are endowed with causal powers. Democracy as a norm can successfully steer social life not because norms possess some mysterious causal power, but because they are embedded in habits, patterns of interaction, and forms of organization. They provide, rather, a better understanding of how individual phenomena and institutional practices can do the normative work they do.

Social Ontology of Capitalism

Integrating all these dimensions into a unified picture is therefore a necessary step to fully understand what do we mean when we say that democracy is a norm for steering of social life. So far I have provided a quick overview of interactionist ontologies and pointed to some of their advantages for studying social reality, explaining why from a social interactionist standpoint exclusive focus on individual and structural properties ends up with incomplete accounts of political reality.

In this section I examine the normative implications of these ontological assumptions, by explaining in what sense social interactions can be said to bear normative relevance. I begin by discussing a conceptual distinction more familiar to philosophers, introduced by John Rawls in Here Rawls distinguishes between two functions of rules, the one explaining existing regularities, the other referring to the practices that institute them.

In the case of penal law discussed by Rawls, it is the difference between justifying a system of sanctions for the sake of the common good of society, and justifying a penal sanction because someone has violated a law. The difference between these two practices calls for two distinct modes of justification which, in turn, points to two distinct normative logics. According to the summary view, rules are summaries of past decisions, so that the principles that justifies the individual occurrence and that which justifies the general rule are the same.

Social order and individual action follow the same normative logic: what holds for individuals separately, holds for society collectively. The practice conception of the rule, on the other hand, conceives of social order not as the result of the sum of individual actions, but as the result of a constitutive act which institutes the order itself. In the case in point, a system of legal sanctions can be justified on utilitarian grounds, whereas what provides the norm for individual conduct individual action or application of the law is compliance with the social order.

The individual must obey the law in the specific case not because this action would increase utility, but because the generalized compliance with the law does. In that sense justifying the action and justifying the practice follow two distinct normative logics.

The two conceptions points to two conceptions of the relation between individual action and social order. According to the first, social order is the spontaneous result of individuals applying the same rules in the same manner. According to the second, it is the results of individuals accepting certain rules as defining the practice within which they act. In one case, the practice is the casual result of independent interactions.

In the second, actions achieve a collective consistency because they articulate a pre-existing shared practice which defines the meaning of the actions themselves. Rawls contends that both conceptions have their own appropriate field of application, and troubles derive from misapplication. In the footsteps of J. Rawls, Anne Rawls has further developed this distinction so as to make it the basis of an interactionist theory of action.


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On the one hand, to how social regularities can be explained as ex post results of the rational conduct of individuals. This is what happens, for example, when we contend that political legitimacy derives from the aggregation of individual preferences through vote or other mechanisms.

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On the other hand, summary order refers to a concept of social order in which meaning and coordinate individual action are produced by the structural operating of super-ordained institutions. This is what happens, for example, when we assume that well designed political institutions — J. Under the influence of this conception of social order, individuals and institutions are the sole entities endowed with legitimate normative power. The constitutive power of interactions, social interactionists contend, derives neither from macro-level social structures, nor from micro-level individual agency, but is based on constraints and normative expectations which emanate from the interaction situation itself.

What is missing from institutional accounts of social order, is precisely an account of how social order is not produced through the top-down operating of formal institutions or application of norms, nor through the aggregation of individual actions but, rather by the logic of interaction itself. Whilst social interactionists concur that social institutions cannot be reduced to sets of interactions, they nevertheless contend that interactions, too, cannot be reduced to the enactment of institutional norms and values.

Both kinds of orders — the institutional and the interaction — are necessary for a social unit to exist, insofar as each of them refer to a different way of producing normative power. The concept of order of interaction elaborates J. Social practices, as J. Rawls has noted, creates normative orders by establishing rules of conduct whose respect is a constitutive feature of the practices themselves. Actors participating in practices do not act out of autonomous judgments, nor under the pressure of external coercion, but because they comply with rules that are constitutive of the practice to which they participate.

These rules are immanent to the interaction itself. This working consensus is the source of the normative legitimacy of the order of interaction. Social expectations and orientations are, therefore, produced and entertained by and through interactions, without the necessary intervention of ex-ante stipulative conventions social contracts.

They are incumbent on participants in an interaction solely on the basis of their engagement in interaction, irrespective of any institutional status or role which they may claim. These constraints, moreover, are indispensable for the furtherance of the interaction. Orders of interactions are practices in the sense that they are constituted by systems of expectations which define the meaning and value of any event related to them.

The interactions among stranger waiting in a line to catch a bus, or exchanging excuses in a public place creates normative orders which are, at least partially, autonomous from individual wills and social norms, as the furtherance of the interaction exacts upon them specific requests.

The Powers of the Exploited and the Social Ontology of Praxis

Besides individuals and institutions, interactions emerge, therefore, as a primitive sources of normative order within social life. Scholars in the interactionist tradition from Durkheim to Rawls and Collins have, for example, emphasized the importance of rituals in giving social interactions their normative consistence. Rituals such as greetings or code dress confirm social members about the norms that govern their intercourse, and their breach is usually faced with normative sanctioning by other members. Interactions confirm and reinforce, or contest and undermine, socially shared normative expectations and to this extent have a normative force of their own.

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Patterns of social interaction as these are emergent in the sense that their normative properties — what hold as valid norms of appropriate behavior — cannot be derived from either individual or institutional properties. Emergence has to be understood in two senses. According to to the second, the interaction itself is the arena where, in partial autonomy from external normative expectations and constraints, a normative order is produced through the give and take among those individuals which take part to the interaction itself.

Far from denying the impact of rational individual action and institutional operation, social interactionists contend that there is an additional source of normative order whose effects and implications have not been adequately taken into account. This approach lends credit to the idea defended in this paper that in-between individual expectations such as political preferences and actions on the one hand, and structural normative demands such as those imposed by formal political institutions on the other, there lies a complex intermediate system of normative expectations which emerge out of social interactions which can be reduced to neither.

There is, therefore, no valid justification to limiting our account of political norms and values to the normative role played by individual and structural phenomena. As I will explain in Section 5, not only because habits are more important guides for action than beliefs.

Moreover, because social interactions is what politics is all about: we want people to have democratic beliefs, and we want democratic political institutions not for their own sake, but because we prize certain ways of being together, we assign values to how individuals treat each others: not only how representatives treat us in our capacity as citizens but, more generally, how we interact in all the walks of life: as employer and employee, professor and student, public officer and citizen, parent and children, and so on.

The lesson that can be drawn from the previous two sections is that interactionist approaches are relevant for democratic theory for at least two reasons, one empirical and the other theoretical. On the one hand, in modern societies characterized by increasing levels of individual autonomy, formal institutions play a diminished role in steering social life. Insofar as social coordination is increasingly based on individual autonomy within egalitarian interactions that depend on a lesser extent from predefined social statuses, individuals as well as groups and organizations are increasingly pressed to autonomously establish the terms of their mutual interactions.

On the other hand, if political institutions are but one of the factors shaping the normative order of a political community, and if orders of interaction contribute as much as political institutions to fashioning social life, then the political quality of a social unit will depend as much on the one as on the other. Drawing on social interactionism, we can say that the orders of interaction govern everyday social life in at least three ways. First, they help specify and adjust to local circumstances the explicit rules set up by formal institutions.

Second, they establish tacit patterns of interaction which produce social coordination in settings not covered by formal rules.

Third, they provide the basis upon which processes of institutionalization are built. All three ways are relevant for a theory of democracy, although for different reasons. Social interactionists among others have investigated how the concrete everyday functioning of institutions of any kind depend more directly on tacit orders of interaction than on formal rules. In political science, studies of political culture have developed a similar argument, showing to what extent formal institutions can be hollowed out by informal practices that contradict them.

Indeed, it is by engaging in everyday patterns of social interactions that individuals make sense of incompletely specified rules and institutional expectations.