“An influential line of thinking in behavioral science, to which the two authors have long subscribed, is that many of society’s most pressing problems can be addressed cheaply and effectively at the level of the individual, without modifying the system in which individuals operate. Along with, we suspect, many colleagues in both academic and policy communities, we now believe this was a mistake. Results from such interventions have been disappointingly modest. But more importantly, they have guided many (though by no means all) behavioral scientists to frame policy problems in individual, not systemic, terms: to adopt what we call the “i-frame,” rather than the “s-frame.” The difference may be more consequential than those who have operated within the i-frame have understood, in deflecting attention and support away from s-frame policies. Indeed, highlighting the i-frame is a long-established objective of corporate opponents of concerted systemic action such as regulation and taxation.”
And the confessional conclusion:
“… if the right s-frame solutions were available but not implemented all along, it is likely that behavioral scientists’ enthusiasm for the i-frame has actively reduced attention to, and support for, systemic reform, as corporations interested in blocking change intend. We have been unwitting accomplices to forces opposed to helping create a better society.”
Many have just noticed that the digital and the “real world” are not as separable as they may have thought. For large sections of society, this is new. But we already lived in a world where people interact on social media and find relationships on apps like Bumble and Grindr. Online dating has changed dramatically over even the last decade. LGBTQ+ people rely heavily on online worlds to meet each other and build communities – especially important for trans people given the hostile media environment.
Up until recently, these digital worlds were frowned upon by mainstream cishet society. Research frequently appeared in the media claiming that digital life was harmful (correlational research). That has collapsed. It has become the norm for people to work and socialise only online now. People go on Zoom to work and to play.
Rather than thinking in terms of what (implicitly, detrimental) “impact” relying more on digital ways of living has had, let’s ponder how society has developed. What does social connection really mean? What is sexuality like now and how do people cope without physical contact? How many people have chosen to move in together because of lockdown who might not have done otherwise and what is that like? How many covertly use Uber?
Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell is a thought-provoking book, written pre-pandemic, on how online and offline worlds are interwoven. The author introduces the term “AFK” – away from keyboard – to work towards “undermining the fetishisation of ‘real life,’ helping us to see that because realities in the digital are echoed offline, and vice versa, our gestures, expressions, actions online can inform and even deepen our offline, or AFK, existence.”
In other words, for some, the heavy reliance on online worlds is new – maybe even surprising in how it works. But there are others for whom this is not at all new – who skipped merrily between IRC and pub. There are already experts out there from whom the dominant digitally-naive majority can learn.
There is another digital divide of sorts, which is most apparent when we enter lockdowns. There are people who must still physically travel to work – supermarket workers, cleaners. There are others who are furloughed, so highly dependent on what the Treasury can offer. There are others who can work as before, their means of income hardly affected, many of whom were already working from home and online.
Finally, another phenomena which has become more apparent in recent months is the variety of closed yet huge online worlds – private Facebook and WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels – where people can support each other, live and even love, but where in some cases conspiracy theories can thrive, such as the bizarre claim that 5G causes Covid. Again these “online” worlds impact life AFK – leading to protests and people refusing to wear masks. But how can we understand these communities? Do any existing theories of AFK society help? What do people get from being in these groups? (See also Escape the echo chamber, by C. Thi Nguyen.)
Social ontology is a branch of philosophy that tries to understand the building blocks of the social world. Debates in social ontology can be abstract and seem pointless. Even defining social ontology, and how it differs from, say, sociology, is a challenge (see Epstein, 2021). There has been a case to “rid social sciences of ontology altogether – of all philosophized metaphysics of how the social world is” (Kivinen and Piiroinen, 2007, p.99). This brief post tries to show why social ontology is important, using the social model of disability as an example.
“In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. […] For us as disabled people it is absolutely vital that we get this question of the cause of disability quite straight, because on the answer depends the crucial matter of where we direct our main energies in the struggle for change. We shall clearly get nowhere if our efforts are chiefly directed not at the cause of our oppression, but instead at one of the symptoms.”
Here a distinction is made between impairment and disability. From this perspective, it makes no sense to say that someone “has a disability”; individual people can have impairments, but it is society that determines whether someone is disabled. A vivid example of this is how common it still is for buildings not to be wheelchair accessible – or only partly so, e.g., wheelchair users can enter a building but not use its toilets. Note how the conceptualisation is used to unite people behind a social struggle. It has a practical purpose rather than only adding to our knowledge.
“To be ‘deaf’ (small d) is to fit into the medical definition of deafness as something to be cured and eradicated. Being deaf means you have a hearing loss, but you choose or don’t feel able to function within the Deaf Community. […] Deaf – with a capital “D” (and occasionally with capital E, A and F too) – is used to refer to people who are culturally Deaf. These people actively use British Sign Language; they see themselves as being culturally Deaf and part of the Deaf community. […] I consider myself to be culturally Deaf; this is my Deaf Identity. […] I don’t see it as a disability – there is nothing I feel I cannot do – rather, I see it as an important aspect of my character that makes and shapes me.”
These conceptualisations of impairment and disability, social barriers, adjustments, aids, community, and Deaf identity, concern social ontology. Debates on these topics occur naturally in social struggles and discussions of social policy and identity, whether or not explicitly articulated as being about ontology. They also have clear implication for how social science is carried out and how research findings are used.