REL 316
Social Ontology Fall 2021
Division II
Cross-listed STS 316
This is not the current course catalog

Class Details

What is society? What is the social world made of? The obvious answer–individual people–was for a long time dominant in the social sciences. Indeed, many theorists argued that there was no such thing as society distinct from individual humans and their intentional actions. While this mode of theorizing had some advantages, it has recently fallen out of vogue because of its inability to explain group norms, institutions, corporations, and other collectives. Explanations at the individual level are not necessarily incorrect, but rather philosophers have increasingly come to see them as incomplete. Society seems to more than an aggregate of individuals. Hence, philosophers have increasing turned to questions of social ontology and produced fresh theories about the nature of the fundamental constituents of the social world. We will explore this research, but with the added intuition that looking beyond humans to other social animals can provide a fresh theoretical vantage. We will set out from the idea that the social world is composed not just out of humans, but also out of materialized signs produced by social animals (e.g., a no-smoking sign or an ant’s chemical trail). This seminar will offer an advanced survey of current debates about the ontology, methodology, and aims of the humanities and social sciences. We will address questions such as: Is there a difference between explaining and understanding social actions? Should explanation in the humanities and social sciences follow the model of explanation in the natural sciences, or are there peculiarities about social phenomena that demand a different approach? What are social structures, practices, norms, institutions? How might social structures exist over and above individuals? Do social groups have agency in their own right? What are social kinds and what is their relationship to natural kinds? How do debates in the social sciences look different if we attend to other social animals and their materialized signs? Course readings will come from a variety of areas including: sociology, semiotics, feminist theory, philosophy of science, and philosophy of mind. When possible, we will supplement these with readings on research into animal behavior.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 15
Expected: 10
Class#: 1740
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Attendance and participation. Weekly critical responses/comments. 10-12 page final research paper.
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: STS concentrators, Religion or Biology majors, and then other students majoring/concentrating in DIV II areas.
Unit Notes: advanced theory seminar with difficult readings.
Distributions: Division II
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
REL 316 Division II STS 316 Division II

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