Guest post by Gianluca Pozzoni on political entities

Gianluca Pozzoni is a PhD Candidate in Political Studies at the University of Milan, Italy. His interests span the foundations of the social sciences, and he has written on Marxism, methodological individualism, and the status of social structures. Thank you, Gianluca, for contributing this stimulating guest post.


Daniel Little’s recent post on Assemblage theory as heuristic raises important and thought-provoking issues for social theorizing.

As Little understands it, Manuel DeLanda’s theory put forth in A New Philosophy of Society can be seen as a manifesto for non-essentialist and non-reductionist social theories. In this view, social entities do not have a fixed place in a vertical hierarchy that moves from the building blocks of the social world (e.g. agents) all the way up to large-scale structures (e.g. global markets).

Instead, the components of the social world differ according to the “assemblages” under consideration. So, for instance, organizations are assemblages of people; nation-states are assemblages of cities, people, and organizations; cities are assemblages of people, organizations, as well as buildings and infrastructures; and so on. Thus understood, assemblage theory allows for no basic constituents of the social because it does away with the very idea of society as a structured totality with a “basis” and a “summit”.

This seems to go in the direction of a “flat social ontology” as described by Daniel Little here. A flat model of the social reality would position actors and their interaction networks (e.g. organizations) all at the same level, without further assumptions as to how some causal powers are “emergent” on others (if at all).

This perspective has undeniable attractiveness. For one thing, it is theoretically parsimonious. It does away with somewhat obscure or ill-defined notions of “emergence” while at the same time allowing for aggregate social entities to be irreducible to their components, for instance by assuming that they have at least an independent functioning. Furthermore, it does not presuppose an abstract layering of the social world, let alone one metaphysically pre-ordered into “higher” and “lower” levels.

Nonetheless, Little has already detailed some limitations of the flat-ontology perspective. For Little, conceiving social reality as flat ultimately boils down to assuming an ontology like the one associated with spare versions of methodological individualism.

Here I wish to point out a different problematic aspect of this approach.

Even setting aside the depth ordering of social aggregates, social theory often makes use of broad categories that help group together heterogeneous classes of phenomena for explanatory purposes. These are, for instance, “the polity”, “the economy”, “the military”, and the like.

What ontological status do these categories have? Let us consider politics. In his Contentious Performances (2008), Charles Tilly writes:

We enter the realm of politics when we interact with agents of governments, either dealing with them directly or engaging in activities bearing on governmental rights, regulations, and interests. (p. 6)

However restrictive this definition may be, it is able to identify the political domain in terms of the typology of networks involved – namely, governmental institutions. Accordingly, Tilly et al. (2001) could use it to group together and explain phenomena as diverse as the Watergate scandal and the Mau Mau rebellion in 1950s Kenya under the common label of “contentious politics”.

In a layered social ontology, governmental institutions can be seen as making up a level of the social in its own right. As Little puts it:

For example, might the state be a level-2 entity, in that it encompasses organizations and individuals and it possesses new causal properties not present at level 1? In principle this seems possible. The state is a complex network of organizations and individuals. And it is logically possible that new causal powers emerge that depend on both base and level 1, but that do not require reduction to those lower-level properties.

If this can be granted, politics can be ontologically grounded onto a level of the social. Specifically, we may confine political ontology to all phenomena that involve government-level causal powers.

Flat social ontologies, however, reject the very notion of “levels” of the social. At best, compound social entities exist as relations among their components; they may well have an independent functioning (link), but no “higher-level” or “emergent” causal powers. So do states, governments, and the like.

What then would a flat political ontology look like? Perhaps it may be helpful to refer to Adrian Leftwich’s distinction in What is Politics: The Activity and its Study between politics as “process” and politics as “arena”:

The latter, or arena, approach tends to have a narrower and sharper focus (normally the state and the institutions of government and local government – sometimes, in a more comparative context, including kings, chiefs or emperors and their courts and their relations with the public). (p. 13)

The theory of politics as arena seems to fit quite nicely the stratified approach to social ontology. The arena metaphor suggests that governmental institutions – national or otherwise – make up a relatively autonomous set of interactions quite distinct from other forms of interaction. This can be supported from an ontological point of view by assuming that such institutions are endowed with causal powers that are all situated at one specific level.

Leftwich contrasts the arena model of politics with the idea of politics as “a general process [or set of processes – G.P.] which is not confined to certain institutional arenas or sites” (p. 14). This dynamic idea may seem appealing to those who do not wish to build political ontology as a “regional ontology”. The processual definition of politics does not make reference to the causal powers of any specific entities and therefore does not necessarily require an ontological layering of them.

However, the obvious question then arises as to what makes processes political as opposed to, say, economic. This question seems to be of crucial relevance if the category of politics is to serve explanatory purposes. As Leftwich puts it:

… does such an encompassing view mean that every human interaction is political in some respect? If so, and if politics is thus so broadly defined, what is left that is distinctive about it? (p. 14)

A catch-all definition of politics, then, seems to be redundant and to have little explanatory use. Unfortunately, the flat theory of society alone hardly provides any guidance for further theorizing along this line.

[Query from Dan Little in response to the final question from Leftwich: Is it possible that the difference between economic and political processes is not after all an ontological difference, but rather a pragmatic difference of classification for us? In other words, it is not a fact about the world but about our interests that “constitution” and “wage labor” are classified as “political/legal” and “economic”.] 

%d bloggers like this: