Looking for better definitions of institutional objects for the social sciences – Fellows’ seminar by JP Smit

6 May 2020

What makes something an institutional object? The generally accepted answer would be that we collectively agree that some natural object is an institutional object. An answer that STIAS fellow JP Smit of the Department of Philosophy at Stellenbosch University says is wrong and “bad for social science”.

STIAS Fellow JP Smit presented his webinar on 30 April 2020

“For example, Somaliland is a democratically governed, autonomous region that defends its borders, holds elections, has an army and issues currency and passports in its own name. Yet it has not been officially recognised as a country by any state-level actors. Instead it is considered an ‘autonomous region of Somalia’. This case forces us to ask the question ‘what makes something a country’? The default answer is that X is a country if, and only if, regulative bodies consider it a country. Of course, such regulative bodies have also declared that ketchup is a vegetable and that Microsoft is a person. Botany and psychology have ignored these uses of ‘vegetable’ and ‘person’ to no ill effect. So why should we care what regulative bodies have to say about countries?”

His project, which he is undertaking with collaborators Flip Beukens and Stan du Plessis, considers the question of what criteria social scientists should use when choosing theoretical categories (like ‘country’, ‘money’, border’, etc.) for studying the social world. “We argue that the standard view is wrong and that we need a better way to think about choosing the categories that illuminate our social world,” he said.

Returning to the example of Somaliland he said: “Somaliland has all the things normally associated with a country but is not recognised as a country by the United Nations and African Union.”

“From the point of view of social science it is incontrovertibly a country,” he pointed out and one that you might want to study as such.

“A standard answer is that a country is a country if the UN considers it a country. But the UN may have political, regulatory and normative reasons for describing something as a country or not. There may be political motives – like fear of secession or the ability of a country to receive foreign aid. It’s therefore not a good idea for social science to adopt the terminologies used in law.”

Smit described the field as social ontology – the study of social objects. He described objects as entities that have power and duty – like countries, kings, presidents or even traffic lights and driver’s licences. “Power is conferred to a thing by an institution,” he added.

“John Searle invented the field. He believed something is an object if we collectively agree that it is.”

“I don’t believe this works across disciplines.”

“Searle claims that his theory of institutional reality is particularly suitable as a theoretical foundation for work in the social sciences. This is not the case. Institutions individuate the social world in order to regulate, whereas the social sciences individuate the social world in order to describe. This makes the schemes of individuation adopted by institutions unsuitable for descriptive purposes.”

“We reject the view that you cannot reduce an institutional to a non-institutional reality,” he added.

“My first objection is based on the fact that institutional judgments have constrained revisability criteria. My second objection is that institutions amend their declarative judgments based on the syntactic properties of the judgments and in response to regulatory pressure, and not based on semantic properties and in response to matters of descriptive adequacy.”

“The law uses language in specific ways for largely regulatory reasons,” he continued. “Any legal term has both descriptive and legal content, and is subject to revision. When laws are changed over time the language changes for regulatory not descriptive purposes.”

Real-world realities

He highlighted other examples where categorisation does not necessarily match reality.

“England, Scotland and Wales are recognised as countries yet in terms of power and responsibility they are more like provinces in South Africa or states in the US.”

He also pointed out that in many European countries monarchs no longer have real power but only symbolic value – “in effect they are glorified mascots” – yet they are still categorised as monarchs. Whereas political leaders – like Kim Jong-un in North Korea – or even drug lords in some parts of the world have the kind of power that defined monarchs yet are not categorised as such.

“We must beware of adopting terminology wholesale. Institutional language may be okay but it also may not be. We need to rethink institutional categorisations for social science. Social science needs definitions that make sense for the purposes of study.”

In discussion, he pointed out that his theory gives an easy way of taking power, action and incentive into account. “Collective acceptance can be forced at gunpoint but, of course, it can also be based on moral agreement based on moral factors and everything in between. You are incentivised to perform certain actions. Incentives can be both physical and moral. Society only works if most people do the right thing.”

Asked about the role of evidence-based research he said: “In theory, facts and values are distinct. There is nothing wrong with evidence-based policies as long as they also take account of whether we want something or not. Empirical research can’t tell us what we ought to do – facts don’t necessarily speak for themselves. There is the ‘is/ought’ gap.”

He also examined the issue of the consequences of descriptions in the current crisis.

“We know, for example, that countries have different testing methods and reach when it comes to COVID-19 testing – so comparatively the numbers don’t really mean anything – they are purely descriptive. However, when they are used to describe the countries with the ‘worse rates and therefore in need of assistance’ they become institutional and regulatory, and this may have consequences.”

The issue around personal protective equipment and the possibility of a future court case in the UK provided another example – “the factual descriptive part is about protecting people from transmission but the regulatory part will come down to who can be blamed and punished”.

Concluding on the power of descriptions when they get transported into institutions, he said: “Even if we have known for a long time that race has no biological basis, racial descriptions have real-world consequences when they become the basis for informal institutions.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Supplied

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