Social Ontology

How and when social facts such as artifacts (e.g., scissors) or institutional facts (e.g., a judge's bar) are used is something, which we learn from others. In contrast, the affordances of natural facts (e.g., a rock) can be explored individually.


Dependent on which aspect of an object we focus, we may perceive different affordances, including

  1. sensorimotor affordances that are determined by the object's physical aspects such as height, weight, etc. (e.g., a heavy stone affords breaking a window);
  2. intentional affordances that are determined by the object's intentional aspects, i.e. the conventional purpose wherefore the object has been designed (e.g., scissors have been designed to cut things); and
  3. institutional affordances that are determined by the object's institutional aspects, i.e. the status function that an object has in a given institutional context (e.g., a judge's bar affords making a judgment in the institutional context of a court).


Unlike sensorimotor and intentional affordances, we only perceive institutional affordances in institutional contexts. On a desert island, a postbox may still afford to climb unto (sensorimotor affordance) or to store letters (intentional affordance) but not to send letters (institutional affordance) if the institutional context of a post is missing. Moreover, perceiving affordances needs to be understood as a relational enterprise, consisting not only of an environment relatum (including physical, intentional and institutional aspects) but also an animal relatum (including body percept and body default as well as social identity) (Fiebich 2014).

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© Anika Fiebich