What is a social fact? The grounding-anchoring model

Society depends on social facts, which seem rather different to facts about, say, physics and chemistry. Statements we may wish to evaluate to determine whether they are indeed facts include:

  • Putin is a war criminal.
  • Channel 4 produces excellent TV series.
  • This person’s name is Alex.
  • Alex is a cis man.

How do we go about evaluating these? Brian Epstein’s (2015) grounding-anchoring model aims to help us.

According to Epstein, there are two kinds of social fact which represent extremes along a continuum:

Type 1 facts are relatively straightforwardly defined in terms of facts about individual people. For instance, a social fact, “the gang ran down the street”, depends on facts about each person in the gang running down the street.

Type 2 facts cannot be defined in this reductive way. For instance, I go to the corner shop for emergency chocolate supplies and exchange an elaborate polymer sheet for the chocolate. The social fact “this elaborate polymer sheet is a valid Bank of England banknote” cannot be reduced to facts about physically smaller units of anything.

As Epstein explains, it’s more complicated than this. The Type 1 facts need something more than only a description of the individual people running. We also need some sort of agreed understanding of what constitutes a gang. Consider different groups of people running down a street. How do they know each other? Are they running away from danger or to try to catch a bus? What age and gender are they? How menacing do they appear? Consider the following dictionary definition:

“a group of young people, especially young men, who spend time together, often fighting with other groups and behaving badly”

Note the “especially” and the “often” in this. Who decides what constitutes bad behaviour?

Ingredients of a social fact

I like Epstein’s approach because it neatly organises the problem of pondering social facts by drawing out different elements involved, making it easier to see what the arbitrary choices are.

The banknote fact, “this elaborate polymer sheet is a valid Bank of England banknote”, depends on other facts. For instance, the note has to look a particular way and be made of a particular material. But it wouldn’t suffice for me to print it this way in my flat. The Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 would land me in trouble if I were caught doing so. A valid polymer banknote should be produced by a special print works near Debden tube station in Essex.

Epstein likes to give his social entities names, so consider Poly the polymer bank note. Poly is a valid banknote if (a) Poly is made of the correct material and (b) Poly was produced at Debden Printing Works. These facts about Poly ground the social fact that Poly is a valid banknote. They are said to be grounding conditions.

The more general principle, of which this fact about Poly is an instance, is the frame principle. For all b, if b is made of the correct material and produced at Debden Printing Works, then b is a valid Bank of England banknote.

Now the interesting question is why on earth does this – let’s admit it, arbitrary sounding – frame principle work? This leads to the final ingredient: the social facts that anchor the frame principle (anchoring facts). In the case of banknotes, laws are important. There is also a more general anchoring fact that seems to apply for many non-legal social facts: “we collectively take it to be the case that…”. Note that anchoring facts do not explain how or why the frame principle came to be, just what justifies it now.

The diagram below (Epstein, 2015, p. 84) illustrates these ingredients:

So, a lot was going on when I handed Poly the polymer banknote to the shop keeper and received a bar of chocolate (and handful of metal) in return. Something else to ponder is how rapidly transactions like these happen. Much is taken on trust, e.g., the shopkeeper didn’t run through a checklist of half a dozen features to verify that Poly was valid.

Unenrolled deed polls provide another intriguing example. You print a short incantation saying things like:

“BY THIS DEED OF CHANGE OF NAME made by myself the undersigned … I ABSOLUTELY and entirely renounce, relinquish and abandon the use of my said former name…”

Get it signed in wet ink with two witnesses and, as if by magic, thereafter you have a new name and a new social fact. You have also entirely renounced, relinquished and abandoned another social fact and call on others to do the same. This signed sheet of paper can be presented at your bank and lead to them issuing you with a card under your new name, even though – since it is unenrolled – the signed document is not officially filed anywhere. Insert that card in a bank machine, and out come more sheets of polymer. Exercise to the reader: think through what the frame principle, grounding conditions, and anchoring facts are for this example.

Summary

Epstein defines social facts in terms of frame principles, which are recipes for grounding conditions concerning specific entities. Another set of anchoring facts justify the frame principle: they anchor the frame principle and hence grounding conditions.

References

Epstein, B. (2015). The ant trap: Rebuilding the foundations of the social sciences. Oxford University Press.

Two flavours of “ontology” in critical realism – and why it doesn’t matter

 

Bhaskar’s critical realism emphasises a distinction between intransitive and transitive objects. I think the easiest way to see how the distinction works in social science (as opposed to say, geology) is as follows. Find all the social theorists and make them and their books and journal articles vanish. The things that are left are intransitive objects, e.g., people and social institutions likes banks and governments, and all the things they do even though no theorists are around to observe. The things that vanish with the theorists are all the transitive objects – the fallible accounts of how the various intransitive objects “work”.

It should be recognised that the theorists and their theories are intransitive objects too and theories influence social life, e.g., through the pop psychology jargon people use when they talk to each other. Also everyone theorises, not just professionals. But let’s not get tied up in knots.

Ontology is about the kinds of things that exist, including material and abstract “things” like numbers. Cruickshank (2004) argues that ontology is defined in two different ways by critical realists. Sometimes it refers to all the things, knowable and not, in the intransitive sense. Other times ontology refers to critical realists’ theories of what there is – these theories are transitive objects.  But reducing what there is to what is known (philosophically) about what there is commits what Bhaskar called the epistemic fallacy – one of the key fallacies critical realists are trying to help us avoid.

Cruickshank concludes that Bhaskar shoots himself in the foot by making critical realist theories of ontology inevitably commit the epistemic fallacy (Cruickshank, 2004, p. 572):

“The problem though is that in defining the epistemic fallacy as the transposing of questions about being [ontology] into questions about knowing, Bhaskar has defined the said fallacy so broadly that any reference to what we know of reality (which may well be knowledge claims with a high degree of veracity) must commit this putative fallacy. Indeed the only way to avoid this fallacy would be to step outside knowledge to ‘see’ reality in itself.”

It’s a challenging debate, aiming for precise understandings of concepts like ontology and exploring the possibilities and limits of philosophical reasoning, but it seems unhelpful for the day-to-day work of doing social science.

Perhaps more helpful – and bigger than critical realism – is to emphasise the role of creativity in doing science. We can’t just go out and rigorously observe reality (whether social life or the cosmos) and somehow perceive theories directly. Although rigorous observation is important, science involves speculating about what might be out there and then working out what evidence we would expect to see if we were correct or if plausible alternative theories were correct.

My favourite analogy comes from cryptanalysis. We can systematically analyse letter and word frequencies in cyphertexts to try to spot patterns. But it helps to guess what people might be trying to say to each other based on something beyond the ciphertext, and to use those guesses to reduce the search space of possible encryptions.

References

Cruickshank, J. (2004). A tale of two ontologies: An immanent critique of critical realism. Sociological Review, 52, 567–585.

Politicians do social metaphysics

“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

—Margaret Thatcher (Sept 23, 1987), then Prime Minister of the UK, Interview for Woman’s Own

 

“The reality is international law is a set of political constructs which actually countries abide by or depart from in a number of circumstances – including the Euroepan Union itself. For example it didn’t apply WTO rules on Airbus. Arguably that’s a violation of international law but the EU did it because the EU felt it was inappropriate to do that.

“It is not unusual for there to be disputes over international law, it is not unusual in certain limited limited circumstances for countries not to comply with all obligations under international law.”

—Theresa Villiers (Sept 14, 2020), Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Sky News (as reported by Jon Stone in the Independent)