On the ontology of social problems (1)

The absence of ‘social problems’ as a distinct ontological category in the extensive literature on social ontology is a notable oversight. This one and the following entry aim to shed light on this absence and explore the interconnectedness of social problems with both the positive and normative aspects of social reality and thought. In doing so, I shall introduce the idea of a ‘social-problem-based social ontology’ where the normative and positive aspects naturally coexist as integral components of the social world and our understanding of it.

social problems
Photo: Ev / Unsplash

Despite the broad scope of social ontology literature, exemplified by Brian Epstein’s “Social Ontology” entry in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘social problems’ are conspicuously missing as a category. This omission is intriguing since many of the listed topics (like Group Agency, Organizations, Money, Race, Gender, and Disability, etc.) are inherently linked to various social problems. Epstein himself, not an ontological reductionist, places emphasis on processes and facts over ‘entities’, making the absence of social problems even more puzzling, if the reason of the absence were a possible fixation of social ontologists with ‘entities’. Examining other recent books in the field, such as Raimo Tuomela and Tony Lawson, reveals that ‘social problems’ are also notably absent. This dearth of attention to social problems is also reflected in academic databases like The Philosopher’s Index, which yield zero results when searching for “social ontology” and “social problem” together.

It is essential to note that the neglect of social problems within the realm of social ontology is not due to a lack of significance attached to them by social scientists themselves. Disciplines like economics and sociology recognize the centrality of social problems and have dedicated a lot of branches for their study, with their own professional associations, congresses, journals, and textbooks. For instance, Vincent Parillo’s Encyclopedia of Social Problems demonstrates the breadth of this field, spanning literally hundreds of areas from aging to substance abuse. There is even an old, but still active academic “Society for the Study of Social Problems”, founded in the 1950s!

Before delving into the possible reasons behind the absence of the notion itself of “social problem” from the philosophical discussions on social ontology, it is crucial to define what constitutes a social problem. One common definition posits that a social problem is any condition or behavior with negative consequences for a large number of people, generally recognized as necessitating action. This definition underscores that social problems are not entities but rather facts or situations, in alignment with Wittgenstein’s claim that “the world is the totality of the facts, not of the things”. A century-old definition, but more accurate, by Hornell Hart adds that a social problem affects large numbers of people in a common way, necessitating concerted or organized human action for resolution. This emphasizes the need for collective and organized action to address social problems.

So, why is it that the notion of ‘social problem’ has been so thoroughly ignored in the field of social ontology? One partial explanation may be that, more than because ‘facts’ or ‘situations’ have been considered as a much less glamorous concept for a metaphysical discussion than ‘entities’ or ‘agents’, the main reason has probably been that the dominant ‘ontology’ on the basis of which a big deal of social research is carried out (at least in the fields considered more ‘scientific’ by most of the analytic philosophers that are working on social ontology) has severe troubles to conceptualise the very notion of social problem, and even the simpler notion of ‘problem’ tout court. I’m referring, of course, to Rational Choice Theory (RCT). Try to think how would you define a ‘problem’ in terms of RCT, in the sense of a criterion that allows to distinguish those choice situations that constitute ‘a hard problem’ for the agent making the choice, from those choice situations that are not ‘as problematic’ as the former. Choices can be more or less complex, involve more or less uncertainty, and lead to outcomes more or less desirable (in terms of the ‘utility levels’ attainable at the end of each branch of the decision tree), but I don’t see a clear line dividing decision trees that represent ‘serious problems’ from those that do not. Imagine, for example, that I broke my leg the day before starting an important trip; I would say that in such a circumstance ‘I have a problem’, but the problem does not consist in my new decision tree being ‘intrinsically more complex’ than the one I faced till yesterday; it is simply the case that some of yesterday’s branches have now been pruned down, and others that I hadn’t even consider, are now visible and prominent. Furthermore, the experience of ‘having a problem’ usually contains the fact of not finding out a way of solving it (nor a ‘solution’ that is better than just not solving it). Problems tend to be something we are stuck into, in a way in which no ‘rational agent’ will ever be when confronting a ‘decision tree’, for making a choice in front of its clearly defined branches amounts, according to RCT, to mathematically solve a maximisation problem. ‘Problem? What problem?’, we can imagine the homo oeconomicus cheering each time we put him under any choice situation.

Multi-agent choice situations, or games, could seem a priori more suitable to illuminate the ‘essence’ of social problems (though, since social problems are a species of problems in general, I would tend to doubt of a definition that were capable of explicating the nature of social problems but gave no hint at all about what makes of a non-social problem –say, in a ‘one-person game against nature’– a problem). In fact, game theory is full of ‘dilemmas’ and other interactions in which things tend to result in ‘non-optimal’ ways, and we might be tempted to ‘define’ social problems as just those situations in which the game theoretic equilibrium is not Pareto-optimal, or something like this. Of course, many social problems are surely examples of ‘the prisoner dilemma’, or of ‘the battle of the sexes’, or of any other ‘problem’ studied by game-theorists as co-ordination or cooperation failures. But one can doubt that all social problems are necessarily problems either of inefficiency, or of co-ordination; some may be similar to our former example of breaking a leg: think about earthquakes or epidemics; surely, many co-ordination and efficiency problems may arise in our attempts to solve these problems, but these are not necessarily what make of it a problem, nor even a social problem. Furthermore, other social problems (for example, those related to inequality, discrimination or exploitation) seem not necessarily related to Pareto-inefficiency or to co-ordination failure, but simply to cases in which there is an unjust, but nevertheless Pareto-efficient and easily co-ordinated equilibrium. Hence, my conjecture is that the idea that social facts have to reduce in some way to interactions between rational players may have been one possible factor in making the notion of ‘social problem’ a blind spot for social ontologists.


Epstein, B., 2018, “Social ontology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-ontology/

Hart, H., 1923, “What is a social problem”, American Journal of Sociology, 29.3, 345-352.

Lawson, T., 2019, The nature of social reality, London, Routledge.

Parrillo, V., 2008, Encyclopedia of social problems, London, SAGE Publications.

Treviño, J., 2016, Social problems: Continuity and change, Minneapolis, Univ. of Minnesota.

Tuomela, R., 2013, Social ontology. Collective intentionality and group agents, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Written by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *