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.


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.


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

Establishing identity in cishet gatherings

In cishet majority social situations, people are rapidly sorted into the men and the women, the he and she. The apparently obviously gay are also picked out based on stereotypes. Anyone in a relationship is assumed monogamous. For those not falling into these buckets or incorrectly assigned, the work begins.

Bisexual people can wait until someone mentions dating and share their own stories, strategically traveling through genders their dates had. Dating stories also provide an opportunity to mention nonmonogamy through any inevitable misunderstandings that have arisen when meeting someone for the first time.

Trans and nonbinary people who have been misgendered can allude to the pervasive transphobia in the media, state their correct pronouns, and escape to the bar for a bit. They can try to anticipate and prevent any awkwardness with the people sitting closest by introducing their pronouns alongside their name. But after a few drinks, people aren’t always able to notice or remember these details.

Cishet monog people get this gender, sexuality, and relationship orientation sorting out of the way automatically. Kahneman would call it System 1 thinking, which is very fast and sometimes very wrong. Enter any variations from the cishet norms and more energy is required to establish the basics, and often to try to explain what it all means.

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.


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

Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind

“There’s something incredibly powerful – revolutionary, even – about challenging someone’s understanding of gender with your very existence.”
Emily Brehob

According to dominant ideas in “the West”, your gender ultimately reduces to whether you have XX or XY chromosomes, as inferred by inspecting your genitals at birth, and there are only two possibilities: woman or man. Yes, you will hear how sex is biological and gender is social, but under the dominant norms, (specifically chromosomal) sex and gender categories are defined to align.

The existence of transgender (trans) people challenges this chromosomal definition, since their gender differs from male/female sex category assigned at birth. People whose gender is under the non-binary umbrella challenge the man/woman binary since they are neither, both, or fluctuate between the two.

It is tempting for researchers to ignore these complexities since most people are cisgender (cis for short), that is, their gender aligns with their sex category at birth, and they are either a woman or a man. As the male/female demographic tickboxes illustrate, many do ignore the complexity.

A few years ago, analytic philosophers, having for centuries pondered questions such as “what can be known?” and “is reality real?”, discovered that theorising gender offered intellectual challenges too and could be used to support human rights activism. Although plenty of writers have pondered gender, this corner of philosophy offers clear definitions, so is perhaps easier to understand and critique than other approaches. I think it is also more compatible with applied social research.

One of the politically-aware analytical philosophers who caught my eye, Robin Dembroff, recently published a paper analysing what it means to be genderqueer. Let’s sketch out how the analysis goes.

“… the gendeRevolution has begun, and we’re going to win.”

Genderqueer originally referred to all gender outliers – whether cis, trans, or other. Its meaning has shifted to overlap with non-binary gender and trans identities as per the Venn flags below.

Both genderqueer and non-binary have become umbrella terms with similar meaning; however, genderqueer carries a more radical connotation- especially since it includes the reclaimed slur “queer” – whereas non-binary is more neutral and descriptive, even appearing in HR departments’ IT systems.

The data on how many people are genderqueer thus far is poor – hopefully the 2021 census in England and Wales will improve matters. In the meantime, a 2015 UK convenience sample survey of non-binary people (broadly defined) found that 63% identified as non-binary, 45% as genderqueer, and 65% considered themselves to be trans. The frequency of combinations was not reported.

This year’s international (and also convenience sample) survey of people who are neither men nor women “always, solely and completely” found a small age effect: people over 30 were eight percentage points more likely to identify as genderqueer than younger people.

Externalist versus internalist

Dembroff opens with a critique of two broad categories of theories of what gender is: externalist (or social position) theories and internalist (or psychological identity) theories.

Externalist theories define gender in terms of how someone is perceived by others and advantaged or disadvantaged as a result. So, someone would be genderqueer if they are perceived and treated as neither a man nor a woman. However, this doesn’t work for genderqueer people, Dembroff argues, since they tend to reject the idea that particular gender expressions are necessary to be genderqueer; “we don’t owe you androgyny” is a well-known slogan. Also, many cis people do not present neatly as male or female – that does not mean they are genderqueer.

One of the internalist accounts Dembroff considers, the norm-relevancy account by Katherine Jenkins, defines gender in terms of what gender norms someone feels are relevant to them – e.g., how they should dress, behave, what toilets they may use – regardless of whether they actually comply with (or actively resist) those norms. Norm relevancy requires that genderqueer people feel that neither male nor female norms are relevant. This is easiest to see with binary gendered toilets – neither the trouser nor skirt-logoed room is safe for a genderqueer person. However, it is unlikely that none of the norms for men or women would be felt as relevant. So the norm-relevancy account, Dembroff argues, would exclude many genderqueer people too.

Critical gender kinds

Dembroff’s proposed solution combines social and psychological understandings of gender. They introduce the idea of a critical gender kind and offer genderqueer as an example. A kind, in this sense, is roughly a collection of phenomena defined by one or more properties. (For a longer answer, try this on social kinds by Ásta.) Not to be confused with gender-critical feminism.

A gender is a critical gender kind, relative to a given society, if and only if people who are that gender “collectively destabilize one or more core elements of the dominant gender ideology in that society”. The genderqueer kind destabilises the binary assumption that there are only two genders. Dembroff emphasises the collective nature of genderqueer; as a kind it is not reducible to any individual’s characteristics and not every genderqueer person need successfully destabilise the binary norm. An uncritical gender kind is then one which perpetuates dominant norms such as the chromosomal and genital idea of gender outlined above.

Another key ingredient is the distinction between principled and existential destabilising – roughly, whether you are personally oppressed in a society with particular enforced norms. Someone who is happy to support and use all-gender toilets through (principled) solidarity with genderqueer people has a different experience to someone who is genderqueer and feels unsafe in a binary gendered toilet.

In summary, genderqueer people collectively and existentially destabilise the binary norm. Some of the many ways they do this include: using they/them or neopronouns, through gender expression that challenges dominant norms, asserting that they are genderqueer, challenging gender roles in sexual relationships, and switching between male and female coded spaces.

Although Dembroff challenges Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account, to me the general idea of tuning into gender norms is helpful for decoding your gender, and neatly complements Dembroff’s account. Maybe a trick is to add, and view as irrelevant, norms like “your genitals determine your gender” rather than only male and female norms. Additionally, adding probabilities rather than using binary true/false classical logic seems helpful to revise the account too. The externalist accounts are also relevant since they map out some ways that genderqueer people resist binary norms and dominant ways that (especially cis) people perceive and treat others.


Dembroff, R. (2020). Beyond Binary: Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind. Philosophers’ Imprint, 20(9), 1–23.

Jenkins, K. (2018). Toward an Account of Gender Identity. Ergo, 5(27).

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)

Agential identity

How can we make sense of the idea of being “out” as queer, varying the salience of queer identity depending on whether we’re in an LGBTQ+ bar or with queerphobic family, and what it means to have a strongly-felt and clearly expressed identities invalidated?

These are example phenomena addressed by Robin Dembroff and Cat Saint-Croix‘s new paper, “Yep, I’m Gay”: Understanding Agential Identity. Their idea is to bridge how we understand ourselves to be (self-identity) and what others take us to be (social position) using the concept of agential identity.

Agential identification with a particular social group follows this pattern:

  1. You self-identify as a member of the social group.
  2. You make that self-identity externally available
    (a) consciously or unconsciously;
    (b) by behaving a particular way and/or displaying perceivable features; and
    (c) those behaviours/features manifest or are intended to manifest social properties associated with the group.
  3. You accept or allow that others take you as belonging to the group.

Self-identity isn’t necessarily established effortlessly and it depends on the people around you. Dembroff and Saint-Croix draw on Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account in which we decode which groups we belong to by tuning into the norms which seem relevant to us – even if we disagree with those norms. The extent to which this process is deliberate – for instance, in terms of how much research someone does on a particular social group and its history – can lead to stronger or weaker self-identity. We may not even have a name for a particular identity; it’s possible to be polyamorous or bisexual without using those terms or even being militantly opposed to “labels” (see also: label aren’t glitter).

Agential identity involves some attempt to broadcast self-identity. Dembroff and Saint-Croix explore variation in how this can be done and emphasise that the social processes involved are often complex. For instance, agential identity can vary in how salient it is (pp. 583-584):

“consider a gay teenager who comes out to his parents, but otherwise acts conservatively at home in order to minimize the salience of his gay identity. This same teenager might, in other contexts, deliberately talk and behave in ways that persistently signal and emphasize his gay identity.”

A strong self-identity and salient attempts to establish a matching agential identity may not be taken up in a particular context; someone could persistently signal their trans identity in all contexts but it is only accepted in LGBTQ+ spaces and ignored by transphobic colleagues. Agential identity depends on self-identity and consent to belong to a particular social group – these are key conditions – and expresses preferred social group membership. However, that preference may not be accepted.

Metaphysical isms and theorising gender

I had tried to avoid engaging in grand metaphysical “ism” talk, but it seems that resistance is futile! So here are brief thoughts, in the context of theorising gender.

We can safely assume that there is a reality to people’s gender-relevant experiences and biochemistry which exists independently of our understandings. Taking this (to me obvious) stance is known as ontological realism. Theorising, about gender or otherwise, is done by people who have imperfect and indirect access to reality and theories evolve over time. Our vantage point—beliefs, biases, values, experience, privilege and oppression—has an impact on our theories, so two gender theorists doing the best they can with the available evidence can produce very different explanations (epistemic relativism). This is true of any science where multiple theories are consistent with evidence; in other words, the theories are underdetermined by evidence. It is also true when we theorise about ourselves and try to work out our own gender.

Even with this relativist mess, manifesting as bickering in scientific journals and conferences, consensus can arise and one theory can be declared better than another (judgemental rationality). However, there are often many different ways to classify biological, social, and other phenomena, even with impossibly perfect access to reality (this has a great name: promiscuous realism).

The underdetermination of theories means that something beyond evidence is needed to decide how and what to theorise. Scholars in the critical theory tradition are required to pick a side in a social movement, for instance feminism, anti-racism, trans rights, or an intersectional composition thereof. It is not enough for a critical theory to be empirically adequate; it also has to help chosen social struggles make progress towards achieving their aims. Two theories may be empirically indistinguishable but one transphobic; from a trans rights perspective, the transphobic theory should be discarded.

(For more on epistemic relativity, ontological realism, and judgemental rationality, see Archer et al. (2016).)

Now we can make sense of what it means to be assigned female or male at birth. What is assigned is a sex category. This is not arbitrary, but based on socially agreed and – for cisgender people – reliable biological criteria. However, those criteria could have been otherwise, for instance using a broader range of biological features and more than two categories. Also the supposedly biological male/female sex category quickly takes on a social role that is independent of genitals and operates even when they are hidden.

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