Thinking and theorizing about living together through the concept of social ontologies





This is an invitation to think and theorize living together in different places and constellations on the planet through the conceptual tool of social ontologies. Social ontologies contain information on what a group, a collective, a community, the social or even a society is. As we understand it, social ontologies are the most encompassing and most deeply embodied meaningful structures that define what we are with others and which entities can become a part of the respective collective body, even if only implicit.

Because our theoretical engagement with social ontologies was partly inspired by reflections on Southeast Asian social formations , but yet has failed to develop its full theoretical potential for the field, we invite scholars working in the context of Southeast Asia to critically think and engage with the concept and discuss its analytic value in face of their own fields of expertise.

Overall, the notion ‘social ontology’ has resonated with a variety of discourses in very different fields in the past and it does so until today. While a conceptual history in the social sciences is relatively recent, it represents an established category for example in (analytic) philosophy (Haslanger 2012; Liebsch 2013; Hofner 2020). In most cases, its introduction or application corresponds with a missing theoretical foundation or the search for an underlying categorical structure. As an example: Because social ontologies render social inequality practically meaningful, we think that any study of social inequality without an in-depth understanding of social ontology is like the study of language without grammar .

Due to its foundational nature (on how something exists in the world) the concept has taken very different forms, from largely Eurocentric renderings in classical occidental academic fields to emancipatory and liberating critiques of colonial and racial oppression in the Caribbean, Black Radical or Black feminist tradition (Fanon 2016; Wynter 2003). Without necessarily being labeled as such, it similarly has gained a life of its own in discourses on indigenous political, epistemological and ontological activism in the context of the Americas and beyond (Kopenawa und Albert 2013, Cadena 2015, Castro 2017, Krenak 2020). As such social ontologies provide a conceptual entry point for both, transregional approaches, as well as theoretically conscious new area studies.

Especially through the asymmetrical and violent relationship between the hegemonic naturalist paradigm of living together and any other “Southern” or oppressed formation of collectively and socially being in the world, arises the demand for an epistemological and ontological decolonization of any theoretical endeavor . As such, social ontologies take non-western forms of social existence (human and more than human) serious and therefore provide a possibility for the ongoing process of decolonization of ones own or ones community’s thinking.