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The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology (Review)

Review of Lawson, T. (2019). The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology. London and New York: Routledge.

This review by Yannick Slade-Caffarel was originally published on the Developing Economics blog on June 2, 2020.

Ontology is the study of being. Social ontology is the study of social being or, in other words, the study of the nature and basic structure of social reality. We all do ontology all of the time, economists included, whether we like it or not. For all practices carry ontological presuppositions. Economists only have a choice between doing ontology explicitly or implicitly. Tony Lawson’s contributions stand out and are of such profound significance precisely because he explicitly grounds his analysis in an account of social ontology. It is only by redressing the ontological neglect that has for some decades characterised the discipline that a productive transformation of economics is at all feasible. 

Lawson is perhaps best known amongst heterodox economists for his critique of the mainstream emphasis on mathematical modelling. Lawson shows that the implicit ontological presupposition of an insistence of mathematical modelling is a world of isolated atoms and argues that, as the social realm is not characterised by isolated atoms, the mainstream approach will produce largely irrelevant research. However, it would be wrong to consider this critique to be his major contribution. Rather, it is but one of an increasing number of powerful (sometimes startling) results derived from Lawson’s three-decade project of developing and defending, along with other participants of the Cambridge Social Ontology Group, an account of the nature of social reality. 

The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology provides the latest developments that Lawson has made in the field of social ontology. Here, he sets out an account of social ontology that has come to be regularly referred to as a theory of social positioning, demonstrating its explanatory power. An exciting feature of the book is that it sets out the theory of social positioning in its most advanced form to date and then puts it to work through analysing the nature of the corporation, money and emancipatory practice. Whilst Lawson is pursuing themes in social ontology at an advanced level, he takes great pains to ensure that the analysis is everywhere accessible. The detailed and provocative accounts of the corporation and of money provide ample illustrations of the enormous potential of the social positioning framework.  

The theory of social positioning clarifies in particular the manner in which social phenomena are constituted through identifying the basic principles involved. To summarise, all social totalities are constituted through two steps: 

  1. The opening of a position through the elaboration of sets of matching rights and obligations that will orient the element that is positioned towards serving a function of the totality.
  2. The allocation of people, things and communities to those positions through:
    1. The practical placement of the positioned element as a component of a totality
    2. The harnessing of pre-existing capacities to serve the function of the position
    3. The allocation of a status to those elements that are so positioned. 

For example, Lawson argues that a corporation is a positioned community that qua an entity is allocated rights and obligations in the manner in which individual human beings are. Through the legal fiction of legal personhood, the positioned community itself—as though disembodied from its constitutive human beings—comes to bear rights and obligations. Lawson shows that by allocating rights and obligations in this way, corporations can in a particular sense become dangerously out of control. 

Lawson also deploys his general framework to develop a sophisticated and compelling positioning theory of the nature of money. Whilst currently, at least in the UK, money is a form of positioned bank debt, that is not to say that all debt (or credit) is so positioned, or that debt/credit in itself is money. Money is constituted when a phenomenon gets positioned and is everywhere accepted as a general means of payment.  It functions successfully when community participants expect it to retain its value and be easy to pass to others. Lawson shows that there are historical instances where the phenomenon positioned has been a commodity and others when it has been debt. But key to an understanding of money, as with all other social phenomena, is positioning. A positioned X is always more than the X.  In an important intervention to the history of monetary analysis, Lawson provides a sustained evaluation and critique of the credit theory of money, as interpreted by A M Innes, demonstrating the greater plausibility and explanatory power of his own positioning theory of money. 

Lawson concludes by considering the implications of his particular conception of social ontology for our understanding of emancipatory practice. He introduces an ethical framework, which he refers to as Critical Ethical Naturalism, of which perhaps the key tenet is that individuals are only able fully to flourish if all other individuals are flourishing—and we all, to some extent, recognise this. Lawson posits that there is therefore a tendency towards human flourishing present in most of our most basic actions. 

Currently, numerous obstacles prevent a situation of generalised human flourishing, orienting our actions in different directions, where we often end up causing harm to others (and so ourselves as well). Lawson argues that, given such a situation, the aim of emancipatory practice must be to transform or remove such obstacles to human flourishing.  These are typically manifest as sets of specific positional rights of obligations, including those that bear on the manner that the more facilitating ones are accessed.  Lawson argues that currently, where obstacles to flourishing appear particularly pervasive, our best bet in seeking conditions of flourishing may often be by way of creating localised communities of care or resistance, these being relatively protected sub-communities in which, for the time being, relevant obstacles on flourishing are minimal or absent.

In short, over many years Lawson has influentially shown that the continuing problems of the discipline of economics stem from a neglect of social ontology. In The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology, Lawson indicates how, and the extent to which, an engagement with social ontology in an explicit systematic and sustained fashion can not only rectify matters but swiftly move everything forward. At the heart of it, and most importantly, he sets out a theory of social positioning that provides an explanatory powerful, highly general, framework for advancing the discipline, and our understanding more generally, very significantly.

Yannick Slade-Caffarel is a Lecturer in Social Science at King’s Business School. He tweets at @ysladecaffarel.