Upcoming Talk at ENPOSS

I’ll admit it upfront, I’m joining the illustrous club of academics who present on the same topic twice in a row. Attendees of the ENPOSS conference in Cracow can look forward to a talk revealing the weakness of attempts to analyse group membership as mereological parthood. In particular, I look at nested groups just as I did at the ENSO V. However, I promise that the audience will hear new material. I got feedback at the ENSO conference and will try to address it in my talk (although I will have only so much time to respond to potential criticisms).

I talk on Thursday 21st of September (see program).

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Am I a Group Agent?

Presumably not, but maybe it’s more difficult to tell than it seems.

Kirk Ludwig attended my recent talk at the ENSO V conference and raised an interesting issue during the Q&A. I argued against analysing being a group member as being a part of a group (plus a restriction to individuals). He suggested that there is an easier argument against analysing group membership as such a restricted parthood: Even if I had a part who was an agent, I would not be a group agent. Say it turned out that one of my body parts was an agent, this body part would not be a member of me and I would not be a group. At least that is what Ludwig proposed.

I tentatively replied that perhaps one might consider the body part a member after all and I might turn out to be a group, but Ludwig wasn’t swayed by my bold assertion and we left it there. After all, his point wasn’t threatening my argument. It only provided further support for my overall conclusion. Nonetheless, I keep thinking about Ludwig’s argument and I’m not sure I agree with him. Continue reading “Am I a Group Agent?”

Gilbert’s Contribution to Group Ontology

Margaret Gilbert’s “Walking Together: A Paradigmatic Social Phenomenon” is a seminal paper in the analytic debate on joint action. On 14 pages it summarises what Gilbert considered the most important insights from her book On Social Facts.

The paper has earned its position in the literature. It was a path-breaking contribution and remains worth reading more than two decades after publication. But to all students out there: Do not start your papers like that! First Gilbert presents her paper as a contribution to the philosophy of the social sciences, then she frames it as an analysis of groups, before she turns to a rather special case of joint action. In other words, Gilbert first asks a question about the social sciences, then switches to a question about social groups in general, to then actually discuss a special case of social groups: The group of two people walking together. Continue reading “Gilbert’s Contribution to Group Ontology”

Necessary Group Members, Group Size, and Intuitions about Social Ontology

I am still thinking about the group membership relation (for more on the topic see here and here). Today I wondered about the following question: Do some groups have essential members? I do not want to get into a debate about essentiality, so I instead turn to the simpler question: Are there groups which have a member in all possible worlds in which the group exists? In the following, I always mean the property of having the same member across all possible worlds, when I say that a member is essential. Microsoft or the group of males continue to exist even if all their members change, but does this hold for all groups?

Expect no final answer to that question in this post. Instead I want to note that our intuitions vary with group size, or at least mine do. (In case you do not like the talk of intuitions, read “pre-reflective judgements” instead.) The two of us go for a walk together and thereby form a group. My intuition is that this would not be the same group if either of us was replaced. On the other hand, if a group of twohundred went for a walk, I would maintain that it remains the same group if you exchange any of the members. I would even intuitively judge that if you replace a hundred of the twohundred members, it remains the same group. My intuitions do not concern the proporation, but about the absolut numbers. (Any experimental philosopher out there wanting to test the universality of this intuition with me?) Continue reading “Necessary Group Members, Group Size, and Intuitions about Social Ontology”

Group Ontology and Nation States

The analytic debate on social ontology can sometimes be far removed from what happens in the social sciences, so I am happy to have found a potential overlap. I currently work on my upcoming group ontology talk. My talk will concern what the metaphysical limits of group membership.

Group membership is a pecular thing from the perspective of metaphysics. As has been argued by various authors (Uzquiano 2004, Effingham 2010, Ritchie 2013) it cannot be reduced to set membership or mereological parthood. My talk will hopefully reveal more about its ontological role.

But group membership might also play an important role in the history of European nation states. I presume the following (simplified) historical picture taken from or at least inspired by Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States: The European nation states grew out of numerous armed conflicts and outright wars. A large number of small municipialities, dukedoms, city-states and the occassional empire, fought against one another until those left standing became modern nation states.

To survive this selection process, the states had to draw as many resources as feasible from their population. To make the people willing to support the war, they had to be co-opted in one way or another. The states increasingly provided services to their population and offered them a voice – or perhaps one should say that without starting to listen to their subjects states could not acquire the resources they needed. Continue reading “Group Ontology and Nation States”

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.

 

 

 

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.