On Organised and Feature Groups

For my upcoming talk on group ontology I am re-reading key papers on the topic. One of the most recent contributions is Brian Epstein’s “What Are Social Groups?“. Brian wrote one of the most advanced and wide-ranging text on the topic, but I will focus on a minor point from his paper.

Right at the beginning Brian discusses Katherine Ritchie’s distinction between organised and features groups. Microsoft is an organised group and males are a feature group. An organised group is characterised by a structure and a feature group by a feature, such as being male. You are a member of Microsoft if you fill a node in Microsoft’s structure and you are a member of the group males if you have the property to be male. Ritchie complicates the analysis slightly by arguing that the feature must be socially constructed, but that will remain secondary for my post.

Brian raises a number of serious problems for Ritchie’s distinction between the two group types. I look at one of those problems and suggest that it is not a problem after all. Here is the central quote:

“A key challenge for this approach is how to understand a “feature” in the latter category. Which sorts of features that members possess count for such groups, and which are ruled out? Ritchie needs to balance this carefully: if we include all properties, including extrinsic ones, then even the property being a person filling in a node of such-and-such a structure counts, so all groups would be feature groups and the intended contrast between the categories would collapse. If, on the other hand, the “features” were restricted to only intrinsic properties, then we would leave out the archetypal groups Ritchie highlights, such as races and genders.” (p. 4)

Brian argues that filling a node in a certain structure is a property and that therefore you cannot distinguish organised groups from feature groups.

The first few times I read the quoted passage Brian convinced me. Since then I’ve changed my mind. I now look at it this way: Brian is right, to fill a node of such-and-such a structure is a feature. I even grant it is the kind of feature that individuates a feature group. So there is a feature group of those individuals who have the feature to fill nodes of such-and-such a structure. There is the feature group of people who fill the nodes of Microsoft’s corporate structure, which I call the Microsoft-feature-group for short.

But admitting this feature group does not undermine the distinction between feature and structure groups at all! There are just two groups: an organised group and a feature group. There is the group Microsoft, an organised group, and there is the Microsoft-feature-group. They are two groups of two types.

Sure, being a member of Microsoft entails being a member of the Microsoft-feature-group and vice versa. But why is that a problem? The two groups share all their members at all times, but Brian allows for such coinciding groups in his paper. Even in different possible worlds the groups always have the same members, but they diverge in other features. Microsoft is part of S&P 500 index, but the Microsoft-feature-group is not.

Brian also doesn’t worry too much about parsimony, so he should not have a problem with the increasing number of groups. Having two coinciding groups does not undermine the distinction between types of groups.

Brian could try to argue that the Microsoft-feature-group has the same structure as Microsoft. Organised groups are individuated by their structure, so if the Microsoft-feature group had the same structure as Microsoft, it would be identical with Microsoft.  At least in her 2015 paper Ritchie does not provide identity conditions for feature groups, therefore the argument cannot run the other way. Brian must show that the Microsoft-feature-group has the same structure as Microsoft.

The best reason I see for assuming that the two groups have the same structure, is that they coincide at all times. However, I don’t think that he wants to commit to the claim that if two groups coincide they have the same structure. If the Supreme Court coincides with a golfing club, does the Supreme Court have the structure of the golfing club and vice versa? Probably not. (Admittedly Microsoft and the Microsoft-feature-group coincide over all possible worlds, but I don’t see why that makes a difference.) So, the Microsoft-feature-group could lack all functional structure, although it coincides with Microsoft. At least Brian would have to give us a different reason to think that the Microsoft-feature-group has the same structure as Microsoft.

We have two groups of two distinct types. If I’m right, this challenge to Ritchie’s account fails.




Quote of the Week: L. A. Paul on Having Children

I conclude that having your first child, in many ways, is like becoming a vampire.

– L. A. Paul, Transformative Experience, p. 82

This quote invites jokes and Paul makes one in a footnote. (You have to get the book to find out what the punchline is. It is not that great.) But she also has a serious point. Both choices, having a child or becoming a vampire pose problems to normative decision theory. Can we ever rationally choose to become parents or rationally choose against it? The decision would lead to unforeseeable experiences, which transform our own motivations.

For more see my discussion of Paul’s book.

Talk: Nested Groups at ENSO V

It is still a while away, but if you are planning your summer trips you might want to include the fifth conference of the European Network on Social Ontology or ENSO V for short. It takes places in Lund from the 30th of August until the 1st of September (program).

I will speak on the 31st of August on the topic of nested groups. Don’t be afraid if you have never heard the phrase “nested groups” before, the terminological choice was mine. I am going to talk about groups which are in some sense within other groups. For example, marketing departments are usually nested within larger corporations. My talk revolves mostly around unpacking the way in which groups can be nested within one another.

My paper remains work-in-progress, so I do not want to get too specific at this point. Generally I want to defend that groups can be parts and members of other groups. That sounds innocent at first, but only at first. As so often philosophy becomes difficult when one tries to get the details straight.

Reading: Transformative Experience

L. A. Paul’s Transformative Experience has received unusually broad praise for a contemporary work in analytic philosophy. How many proper philosophy books come with a quote from a Slate interview on the back?

Paul’s book deserves the attention, whether or not you are convinced by its conclusion. It presents an issue of decision theory in clear terms and with accessible examples. At the heart of the book lies the question how we can rationally choose in light of a transformative experiences, such as turning into a vampire or having a child. Continue reading “Reading: Transformative Experience”

Quote of the Week: Misak on Peirce and Peirce on Doubt and Action

In Peirce’s view, what is wrong with the state of doubt is not that is uncomfortable, although it is in fact uncomfortable. What is wrong with doubt is that it leads to a paralysis of action.

-Cheryl Misak, The American Pragmatists, p. 33

I consider Misak one of the best current scholars of pragmatism and in this quote she captures a distinctive feature of pragmatist thought. Many philosopher have produced theories about belief and knowing, but the pragmatists have their own theory of doubt, which they turned against the Cartesian scepticism.

Misak’s quote points out the strong connection between doubt and action, or rather paralysis of action. I wonder, however, whether we should say that causing paralysis of action is wrong. Is it not the function of doubt to stop action? And in many situations such a pause to action in light of doubt might be advisable. If in doubt whether the bridge will carry the weight of my car, I should stop in front of it.

However, the pragmatists seem to think that the paralysis is always something to be overcome. At least until the end of the universe, action has primacy. Doubt plays a role in redirecting the action, giving it a secondary role.

Quote of the Week: Amartya Sen on Revealed Preferences

I do not find it difficult to believe that birds and bees and dogs and cats do reveal their preferences by choice; it is with human beings that the proposition is not particularly persuasive. An act of choice for this social animal is, in a fundamental sense, always a social act.

– Sen, “Behaviour and the Concept of Preferences”, p. 253

Continue reading “Quote of the Week: Amartya Sen on Revealed Preferences”

Blumer’s Ontological Claims and the Curious Absence of Any Argument

I am currently re-reading some foundational texts on Symbolic Interactionism (the school of sociology) for my thesis. One of the most influential is Herbert Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionism and I am struck by Blumer’s ontological claims and the curious absence of any argument for them. Consider the following passage:

For purposes of convenience one can classify objects in three categories: (a) physical objects, such as chairs, trees, or bicycles; (b) social objects, such as students, priests, a president, a mother, or a friend; and (c) abstract objects, such as moral principles, philosophical doctrines, or ideas such as justice, exploitation, or compassion. (Blumer 1969: 10)

Blumer proposes three categories for objects and we can discuss this proposal, but Blumer does not provide any argument for it. He just moves on. From my own research into social ontology I know that such categories are far from uncontroversial. I would also object to the examples Blumer offers. Consider the bicycle (or the chair), which he proposes as an example for a physical object: A bicycle has a teleological function. All bicycles necessarily have the purpose of serving as means of transportation. Electrons do not have a necessary teleological function. One might make the argument that only social objects can have such functions. But Blumer does not even attempt to defend his categorisation. Continue reading “Blumer’s Ontological Claims and the Curious Absence of Any Argument”