What is a social fact? The grounding-anchoring model

Society depends on social facts, which are quite different to facts about, say, physics and chemistry. Statements we may wish to evaluate to determine whether they are indeed facts include:

  • The gang ran down the street.
  • This person’s name is Alex.
  • Alex is a woman.
  • Spain won the World Cup.
  • This elaborate polymer sheet is a valid Bank of England banknote.

Brian Epstein’s (2015) grounding-anchoring model aims to help us. According to Epstein, there are two kinds of social fact which represent extremes along a continuum:

Type 1 facts are relatively straightforwardly defined in terms of facts about individual people. For instance, a social fact, “the gang ran down the street”, depends on facts about each person in the gang running down the street.

Type 2 facts cannot be defined in this reductive way. For instance, I go to the corner shop for emergency chocolate supplies and exchange an elaborate polymer sheet for the chocolate. The social fact “this elaborate polymer sheet is a valid Bank of England banknote” cannot be reduced to facts about physically smaller units of anything.

As Epstein explains, it’s more complicated than this. The Type 1 facts need something more than only a description of the individual people running. We also need some sort of agreed understanding of what constitutes a gang. Consider different groups of people running down a street. How do they know each other? Are they running away from danger or to try to catch a bus? What age and gender are they? How menacing do they appear? Consider the following dictionary definition:

“a group of young people, especially young men, who spend time together, often fighting with other groups and behaving badly”

Note the “especially” and the “often” in this. Who decides what constitutes bad behaviour?

Ingredients of a social fact

I like Epstein’s approach because it neatly organises the problem of pondering social facts by drawing out different elements involved, making it easier to see what the arbitrary choices are.

The banknote fact, “this elaborate polymer sheet is a valid Bank of England banknote”, depends on other facts. For instance, the note has to look a particular way and be made of a particular material. But it wouldn’t suffice for me to print it this way in my flat. The Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 would land me in trouble if I were caught doing so. A valid polymer banknote should be produced by a special print works near Debden tube station in Essex.

Epstein likes to give his social entities names, so consider Poly the polymer bank note. Poly is a valid banknote if (a) Poly is made of the correct material and (b) Poly was produced at Debden Printing Works. These facts about Poly ground the social fact that Poly is a valid banknote. They are said to be grounding conditions.

The more general principle, of which this fact about Poly is an instance, is the frame principle. For all b, if b is made of the correct material and produced at Debden Printing Works, then b is a valid Bank of England banknote.

Now the interesting question is why does this arbitrary sounding frame principle work? This leads to the final ingredient: the social facts that anchor the frame principle (anchoring facts). In the case of banknotes, laws are important. There is also a more general anchoring fact that seems to apply for many non-legal social facts: “we collectively take it to be the case that…”. Note that anchoring facts do not explain how or why the frame principle came to be, just what justifies it now.

The diagram below (Epstein, 2015, p. 84) illustrates these ingredients:

So, a lot was going on when I handed Poly the polymer banknote to the shop keeper and received a bar of chocolate (and handful of metal) in return. Something else to ponder is how rapidly transactions like these happen. Much is taken on trust, e.g., the shopkeeper didn’t run through a checklist of half a dozen features to verify that Poly was valid.

Unenrolled deed polls provide another intriguing example. You print a short incantation saying things like:

β€œBY THIS DEED OF CHANGE OF NAME made by myself the undersigned … I ABSOLUTELY and entirely renounce, relinquish and abandon the use of my said former name…”

Get it signed in wet ink with two witnesses and, as if by magic, thereafter you have a new name and a new social fact. You have also entirely renounced, relinquished and abandoned another social fact and call on others to do the same. This signed sheet of paper can be presented at your bank and lead to them issuing you with a card under your new name, even though – since it is unenrolled – the signed document is not officially filed anywhere. Insert that card in a bank machine, and out come more sheets of polymer. Exercise to the reader: think through what the frame principle, grounding conditions, and anchoring facts are for this example.

Summary

Epstein defines social facts in terms of frame principles, which are recipes for grounding conditions concerning specific entities. Another set of anchoring factsΒ justify the frame principle: they anchor the frame principle and hence grounding conditions.

References

Epstein, B. (2015). The ant trap: Rebuilding the foundations of the social sciences. Oxford University Press.

Mildly revised on 30 August 2023