On the ontology of social problems (2)

One possible and relatively trivial explanation of the absence of the category of “social problem” in the list of topics that have deserved some interest in the social ontology literature, is that perhaps social problems are intuitively seen as being too far from the ‘ground’ or the ‘bottom’ of social reality. According to this hypothesis, it wouldn’t be that social ontologists have ignored social problems, but that these seem to be too complex an entity as to be considered a ‘fundamental’ ingredient of the social world. The case would be similar as if in a materialist physical ontology you analyse the status of things like particles, atoms or fields, but fail to mention mountains or rivers: you simply include the latter into the class of things the former have to be a foundation, but not of something being the ‘ontological foundation’ of anything else. In this sense, perhaps social problems are seen as entities whose own ontological constituents have to be illuminated, but not as something that is itself an ontological constituent of anything.

social problems
Photo :Clay Banks / Unsplash

Regarding this idea, I shall precisely devote the rest of this series to defend a stronger thesis than that of the mere necessity of having ‘an ontology of social problems’: what I am going to do is to entertain the conjecture that social problems are not only worthy of ontological consideration along with the most typical items in the relevant literature (things like collective agents, institutions, and the like), but that they might be in fact one fundamental notion in an appropriate social ontology. Or, to state it with a simple phrase:

Social ontology could make important progress by exploring what we might call a social-problem based social ontology.

Some arguments in favour of the ontological centrality of social problems are the following: first, in many philosophical theories, from pragmatism to existentialism, ‘reality’ is not merely a question of, say, ‘brute existence’, but something that emerges in front of humans as a kind of resistance (or, as Heidegger would have put it, as a kind of Unzuhandenheit). In this sense, problems would probably be the ‘most real’ things for humans (and perhaps for living beings in general, for, as Karl Popper wrote, “all life is problem solving”). Social problems would count, in this view, amongst the ‘hardest’ social facts we can encounter as inhabitants of the social world. Something similar happens at the level of the social sciences, whose main direct motivation is very likely the attempt of understanding the social world in order to help to solve some of the problems that afflict the members of the societies to which social scientists themselves belong. This argument would point to the conclusion that the most reasonable approaches to the ontology of social problems will have to pay considerable attention to items and ideas coming from phenomenology (see, e.g., Salice and Schmid, 2016), even if, of course, insights from other approaches will also be needed. Another philosophical idea that can be useful in highlighting this fundamentally phenomenological reality (and phenomenological fundamentality) of social problems would be Bruno Latour’s famous distinction between ‘matters of fact’ vs ‘matters of concern’ (Latour, 2004).

A second argument in favour of accepting the ontological centrality of social problems is that it allows to make relatively trivial a couple of aspects of social reality and of social scientific concepts that have caused no little confusion and debate in the philosophical literature. One is the old distinction between the positive and the normative, the other is the discussion about whether basic social categories and facts are ‘socially constructed’. I shall comment with more detail about both questions in the next entry, so I will only mention now that the advantage that the notion of ‘social problem’ may have in order to clarify the debates about these two issues is that social problems are uncontroversially a mix of ‘positive’ and ‘normative’ aspects, and also something whose reality and identity uncontroversially depends on what people think about them. The category of social problem may serve, in a way, as a kind of Archimedean ‘fulcrum’ from which to build a more constructive debate in connection with these two controversial issues.

The third, and strongest argument in favour of social problems’ ontological centrality is, however, the fact that most other social entities (collective agents, institutions, norms, statuses, etc.) might be primarily understood as tentative ‘solutions’ to some social problem or problems. I do not mean that these solutions are necessarily ‘planned’ in a conscious and deliberate way, for they may have unintentionally evolved, or, more frequently, may be due to a process in which the deliberate and the unintended will be strongly intermingled. I also do not imply that the ‘solutions’ need be ‘optimal’ in any clear way (many of them can actually be very inefficient), nor in an ethical sense (they may be simply imposed by winners to losers), though probably they will tend to constitute game-theoretical equilibria, at least to the extent that they become stable and perdurable. Institutions (both in the sense of standardised rules of behaviour –say, the Catholic mass-, and in the sense of more or less incorporated collectives –say, the Church-; and both in the case of intentionally created institutions –say, the parliament-, and in the case of other more ‘natural’ ones –say, the family-) are one obvious kind of social entity whose existence and properties depend on such a process of ‘solving social conflicts or social demands’ (see, e.g., Hindriks and Guala (2015), and Guala (2016)), but also norms (including social roles, statuses, and the like) and even social categories (as employed by social agents themselves, not as created by social scientists) can be seen as something that emerges out of people’s struggle for tackling the difficulties posed by life in common.

Social problems and games

This can be connected to what we mentioned a few pages above on the difficulty of conceiving the most general idea of ‘social problem’ within the bare framework of standard rational choice and game theory. Think, for example, of the prisoner’s dilemma, in which the optimal choice of each player leads to an inefficient situation. In practice, real cases like these are usually ‘solved’ by changing the game in such a way that agents are ‘forced’ to make their non-optimal choice (collectively reaching, hence, a new Pareto-optimal outcome); this new choice, contrarily to the ‘selfish’ first one, is, from the point of view of the players, as something they would not freely choose if they were left to themselves (if this were not the case, we wouldn’t have a ‘dilemma’, nor a ‘social problem’, to begin with), and hence, as something that from their point of view becomes a social obligation. My point is simply that the variegated categories and conceptualisations according to which the solutions to materially different but structurally similar situations to that of our example are used by agents themselves, and by the societies they belong to, in order to understand their own predicament, and to know how to act, are ultimately ways in which people react in order to transform a situation (a game, say) into another, and this was in big part what explains the inability of game theory to account for the notion of ‘social problem’: social problems are something people react to by creating or modifying games, by imagining and defining the actions and strategies that constitute the new games, and often by creating the concepts through which these new actions are to be described and understood.


Guala, F., 2016, Understanding institutions, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Hindriks, F., and F. Guala, 2015, “Institutions, rules, and equilibria: a unified theory”, Journal of Institutional Economics, 11(3), 459-480.

Latour, B., 2004, “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern”, Critical Inquiry, 30.2, 225-248.

Salice, A., and H. B. Schmid (eds.), 2016, The phenomenological approach to social reality: History, concepts, problems, Dordrecht, Springer.

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