Some social entities are compact and well bounded — FEMA as a federal emergency bureau, the IBM Corporation, the Southern Poverty Law Center. In each case we can identify the people, institutions, and powers that constitute the entity. But what about social configurations that don’t have this degree of coherence? Can we nonetheless regard these sprawling and heterogeneous social configurations as “things” in the social world?
Take as an example the sprawling worldwide phenomenon of competitive soccer. Soccer is an amalgam of many kinds of social things. It a sport governed by a set of internationally recognized rules. It is a set of firms (teams) which employ persons (players) to compete with each other. It is an extended network of youth leagues that engage in organized competition. It is a complex and shifting set of images and representations in media, film, and popular culture. It is a much larger population of children and youth who play pick-up games with each other, cheer for their favorite professional teams, and wear sports gear representing various athletes and teams.
(2) Second, there is a distributed body of knowledge through a very diverse and multinational population. Various people have expert knowledge of the rules and tactics of the sport. A wider group of people have a fund of knowledge of these rules and tactics, and also a fund of knowledge about the teams and players. There are sports marketers, entrepreneurs, schedulers, trainers, and agents who support the business activities of the sport, and they too have bodies of specialized knowledge.
(3) There are countless specialized individuals throughout the world who play distinctive roles and who orient their behavior to the reality of soccer as it confronts them: players, owners, coaches, physicians, officials, agents, promoters, investors, and so on.
(4) There are institutions and practices through which participants learn their roles and refine their skills.
These various bodies of social activity also have a number of systemic relations with each other. Children learn about soccer through television, school competition, and interactions with each other. Owners influence the evolution of the rules of the game. Apparel makers promote the stars. The workings of the mass media and the schooling institutions have important effects on the knowledge system of young players and fans.
The institutions governing the professional play of the game interact with the commerce of the game: broadcasters, networks, sports agents. These interactions take the form of dynamic networks of individuals with interests and resources through which they pursue their interests. These are social-causal relations that proceed through the strategic efforts of individuals with varying levels of power and influence.
This analysis seems to work for a wide range of other social nouns as well: the theatre world, cybercrime, higher education, human trafficking, and so on, more or less indefinitely. We know what we are talking about when we use these nouns. But they refer to widely heterogeneous sets of social activity, practice, and institution. It is hard to think of analogous terms in the natural sciences, but perhaps some concepts from biology come closest. Concepts like habitat, ecology, and predator-prey system seem to encompass some of the same features of complexity and open-endedness that characterize “soccer”. It is not a perfect analogy, however, and the social umbrella terms ontology seem substantially more open-ended.