Masterclass: The nature of the social world: Foundations and applications

Meisterkurs: The nature of the social world: Foundations and applications mit Brian Epstein (Tufts University)
Universität Zürich
09:00 - 19:00


The claim that basic kinds and categories in the world are ‘socially constructed’ is perennially debated in philosophy and social theory. Over the years, lots of categories – races, genders, sexes, morality, commodities, corporations, and many more – have been put forward as cases of social construction. But what is the social world, and how are we to understand the various senses in which it is ‘built’ or ‘constructed’? In this course, we will discuss historical and contemporary approaches to the nature of the social world. Our main aim will be to understand and develop general theories of the social world, using a variety of examples to inform our broader theorizing.

Session 1 begins by introducing the topic and considering some general frameworks for understanding the building of the social world. We will also discuss the distinction between the ‘causal’ and ‘constitutive’ construction of entities. Session 2 introduces one important tradition, which largely arose from work in the social sciences aimed at ‘decomposing’ social entities into their parts. We will discuss debates over methodological individualism and ontological individualism, as well as questions of reduction in the social sciences. In section 3, we will discuss recent critiques of ontological individualism, as well as the variety of approaches to the ‘parts’ of social entities.

On the second day, we turn to a different tradition in the building of the social sciences, focused on the sources or ‘social construction’ of the social world. In session 4, we introduce this tradition and consider some widely discussed approaches to it. In session 5, we discuss the idea of ‘anchoring’ and the unified ‘grounding-and-anchoring’ model for the nature of social entities. And in session 6, we move beyond simplistic theories of social construction and consider the variety of factors involved in socially constructing or ‘anchoring’ the social world.