The social model of disability as a case study of social ontology

Picture of a staircase
Photo by Alessia Cocconi on Unsplash

Social ontology is a branch of philosophy that tries to understand the building blocks of the social world. Debates in social ontology can be abstract and seem pointless. Even defining social ontology, and how it differs from, say, sociology, is a challenge (see Epstein, 2021). There has been a case to “rid social sciences of ontology altogether – of all philosophized metaphysics of how the social world is” (Kivinen and Piiroinen, 2007, p.99). This brief post tries to show why social ontology is important, using the social model of disability as an example.

In 1975, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, a group of disability activists, published a series of fundamental principles which challenged the ontology of disability:

“In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. […] For us as disabled people it is absolutely vital that we get this question of the cause of disability quite straight, because on the answer depends the crucial matter of where we direct our main energies in the struggle for change. We shall clearly get nowhere if our efforts are chiefly directed not at the cause of our oppression, but instead at one of the symptoms.”

Here a distinction is made between impairment and disability. From this perspective, it makes no sense to say that someone “has a disability”; individual people can have impairments, but it is society that determines whether someone is disabled. A vivid example of this is how common it still is for buildings not to be wheelchair accessible – or only partly so, e.g., wheelchair users can enter a building but not use its toilets. Note how the conceptualisation is used to unite people behind a social struggle. It has a practical purpose rather than only adding to our knowledge.

A related example is illustrated by the difference between deaf and Deaf identity:

“To be ‘deaf’ (small d) is to fit into the medical definition of deafness as something to be cured and eradicated. Being deaf means you have a hearing loss, but you choose or don’t feel able to function within the Deaf Community. […] Deaf – with a capital “D” (and occasionally with capital E, A and F too) – is used to refer to people who are culturally Deaf. These people actively use British Sign Language; they see themselves as being culturally Deaf and part of the Deaf community. […] I consider myself to be culturally Deaf; this is my Deaf Identity. […] I don’t see it as a disability – there is nothing I feel I cannot do – rather, I see it as an important aspect of my character that makes and shapes me.”

These conceptualisations of impairment and disability, social barriers, adjustments, aids, community, and Deaf identity, concern social ontology. Debates on these topics occur naturally in social struggles and discussions of social policy and identity, whether or not explicitly articulated as being about ontology. They also have clear implication for how social science is carried out and how research findings are used.

More posts on social ontology


Epstein, B. (2021). Social Ontology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Kivinen, O., & Piiroinen, T. (2007). Sociologizing Metaphysics and Mind: A Pragmatist Point of View on the Methodology of the Social Science. Human Studies, 30, 97–114.

Disease vs. drug-centred model of psychiatric medication

“The disease-centred model suggests that psychiatric drugs work because they reverse, or partially reverse, the disease or abnormality that gives rise to the symptoms of a particular psychiatric disorder. Thus ‘antipsychotics’ are thought to help to counteract the biological abnormalities that produce the symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia… the ‘drug-centred’ model suggests that far from correcting an abnormal state, as the disease model suggests, psychiatric drugs induce an abnormal or altered state. Psychiatric drugs are psychoactive substances, like alcohol and heroin… The drug-centred model suggests that the psychoactive effects produced by some drugs can be useful therapeutically in some situations. They don’t do this in the way the disease-centred model suggests by normalising brain function. They do it by creating an abnormal or altered brain state that suppresses or replaces the manifestations of mental and behavioural problems.” 

Blog post by Joanna Moncreiff