Personally I can name two scientifically oriented examples:

  1. In critical realism (M. Archer, T. Lawson, D. Elder-Vass, etc.) social relations are being studied on an intersubjective level as "an accepted set of rights and obligations holding between and connecting, two or more positions or occupants of positions" (Lawson 2012).

From WP: Critical realism... combines a general philosophy of science ... with a philosophy of social science... Also, in the context of social science it argues that scientific investigation can lead directly to critique of social arrangements and institutions (emphasis mine), in a similar manner to the work of Karl Marx.

  1. In dialectical materialism (Marx, Engels, Perphilev, etc) social relations are being determined as various connections between social subjects that appear during their [collective] action. I am interested in finding out philosophical (and ontological) approaches towards social relations especially the ones that offer distinct definitions and not just a description of the phenomena. I would appreciate any kind of help!:)

From WP: Dialectical materialism is a philosophy of science and nature developed in Europe and based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.1 Marxist dialectics emphasizes the importance of real-world conditions, in terms of class, labor, and socioeconomic interactions (emphasis mine).

  • 1
    See Social philosophy for reference Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 7:51
  • Thank you for a tip, but I am interested in finding out whether there any approaches to social relations in social ontology other then the two that I stated above.
    – Evgeniya
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 8:03
  • Obviously Max Weber and E.Durkhein. But relevant also Georg Simmel Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 8:04
  • Critical realism and its approach to social relations are based on Weber's and Durkhein's ideas. Plus, the founder of transcendental realism, Roy Bhaskar (on whose philosophical theory Archer, Lawson and others try to build their social ontology) used Kant's and Hume ideas to synthesize his own theory. So Simmel is not really relevant here. It is not as obvious as you think) Frankly, I am not sure that it is possible to find a significantly different approach to social relations in philosophy/social ontology other then those two.
    – Evgeniya
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 8:53
  • Read this book , Identity and Control: How Social Formations Emerge - Second Edition, Harrison C. White. He talk about three forms of molecules, Arena, interface, councils which each of these deciplines evolve together with ordering. An Identity evolve in social interaction; it is here that the most central Idea of "relational sociology" appear in white's thinking. Identities and ties emerge together and ties make up network alexandria.unisg.ch/260579
    – user47436
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 15:33

3 Answers 3


What philosophical approaches towards social relations do we know?

This is a somewhat unclear question because it is too vague. Social Philosophy can just mean the social sciences in general, ethics, political philosophy, and far far beyond.

I assume you meant social sciences

The development of Economics, Political Science, Anthropology, Sociology all take philosophical positions and then apply methods on first principles which purport to explain large-scale social behavior. Their is a closed loop of sorts in that each field takes both disagreements on method and outcome together-Economics explanations both apply to, and only to generally economics models. There is a problem of how inter-field translation on how economic explanations apply to sociological explanations. This exists because we don't understand how fundamental causation exists in biological systems at an acute enough level to apply it to the human domain.

Then there is a huge field called the philosophy of social sciences which studies the meta-theoretical underpinnings of those fields in themselves, and as they related to general problems in philosophy as a discipline.

The more acute position might be: What basic types of methods are applied to social scientific theories?

  1. Methodological individualism as in Economics viz. Rational Choice Theory who model individuals under ideal and bounded rational constraints viz mathematical modeling. You can see how Liberals and the analytic tradition of philosophy who belief in persons and rationality mix with this view as a primitive level

  2. Methodological holism as in Sociology who assume that individuals actions are guided by and explained from by relation to social forces. This is how you get notions like structuralism who posted individual agents actions as functions of deeply simplified version of group-selection. Marxists, Behaviorists and Post-Structuralists who reject agent-based causation work nicely in this form.

The fundamental problem with social casual explanations is that we don't understand what, how, or if the basic descriptive accounts of social behavior can be modeled in a unifying fashion. So there is a disunity of the social sciences due to fundamental disagreements about how to model humans beliefs in social environments, and the extent to which our first-person beliefs are compatible with a correct casual model reconfigured in social situations.

There is a translation problem. And issue of "fitting" common sense views of causes with bona fide causes.


Short Answer

Fascinatingly broad question, and not really my cup of tea, so I'll give some works I have and try to link them to your interest. I'm interested in the Analytical tradition, so this question seems more bent to the Continental side of philosophy. I've never really thought about what traditions there are in sociology so bear with me. I would say approaches in social relations include phenomenological and existential, structural, critical theoretical (Frankfurt), Chicago social, and others listed in detail below.

Long Answer

Sociology is a broad topic that includes institutions of journalism, science, law, education, and politics, so what you have is a tall ask. If I had to say for foundations from my own paper library, political, legal, educational, and economic science before or during the 19th century, some important works for social relations broadly are:

You're probably familiar with those works, but maybe you've missed one or two.


From the European traditions, phenomenology and existentialism are very individual-centric but can touch upon social themes. Derrida is known for his deconstruction which is a very continental approach to language, which is in my opinion the most important social enterprise. (I'll touch on that later.)

I would suggest critical theory is a major school on social relations which was articulated by the Frankfurt School and is very much in opposition to the logical positivists who favored empiricism very heavily. The only two I've read anything of are Habermas and Adorno. I've read The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and some educational essays tied to it when I was a teacher, but I do have The Theory of Communicative Action queued up and it looks promising.

From the Continental movement of Structuralism, the only one I'm familiar with is Saussure because of my interest in semiotics and philosophy of language. I know Levi-Strauss is a staple for anthropologists, but I've only read excerpts.

There are a number of Europeans on this site who have more insight.


From my education days, I've come across Auguste Comte who is famous for his positivism, Ronald Dworkin who is famous for his legal positivism; I've got A Theory of Justice by Rawls sitting around unread, and from my hometown, works by George Herbert Mead and John Dewey whose books were required reading in classes I took at the University of Illinois. They were part of the Chicago school and are part of the powerhouse of education and economic intellectuals which regrettably I don't have much of a taste for. In the Marx tradition Pedagogy of the Oppressed was big with educators and that got me reading about but not primary works of liberation theology which looks at the intersectionality of religion and socio-economic status and was big in South America in the '70's. Friere and others are part of an educational philosophy known as social reconstructionism or critical pedagogy which includes Friere, George Counts, and Theodore Brameld. Never read anything by the last two. I liked whatever I read about Piaget and Vygotsky, selections and summaries mostly. That seems to do it for education. There are other learning theory and philosophy of education works in learning theory like Allan Bloom, John Holt, and Bruner who certainly aren't giants in philosophy but were champions of progressive education.

I would also suggest that there are two other approaches, which are philosophy of science-related and sociobiological-psychological for lack of a term.

If one wants to understand the biopsychosocial basis for human relations, I'd suggest reading On Human Nature and The Social Conquest of Earth both of which purport to show the evolutionary origins of human relations. I love everything I have by E.O. Wilson. An ethologist who works in the philosophy of the biological foundations of social relationships would be Frans de Waal. He takes a philosophical look at primates' eusocial behavior and ties it to political science and morality. I love his Chimpanzee Politics and The Bonobo and the Athiest. Science since Darwin has made tremendous strides in showing how much intentionality animals manifest and making Descartes and his presumption about animals being automatons. If you're touching on the philosophy of mind there seems to be a deep undercurrent of solipsism woven into philosophy before Gilbert Ryle and W.V.O. Quine.

And speaking of social relations, one would be remiss to talk about sociolinguistics and John Searle who is considered a social philosopher as well as philosopher of language. I'm familiar with his works from the linguistic side because of my interest in speech acts. The four books that Searle has written are Speech Acts, Intentionality, The Construction of Social Reality, and I started reading Making the Social World. Late Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Philosophical Investigations is highly influential because of his connection of logic, language, and intentionality and his discussion of language games and public and private languages.

My interests in cognitive science have me invested heavily in the intersection of the biological and cognitive linguistical basis of mind and society.

Oh, and as far as the intersection of sociology and the philosophy of science, of course the most famous would be Kuhn and his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He exposed the lack of objectivity in science that the logical positivists tried to prove existed. Blackwell's Companion to the Philosophy of Science has two entries The Social Factors in Science and Social Science, Philosophy of, and I'll mention some names that are pretty common to see in the entries: Hacking, Latour, and Fuller. It's about time I got some of their work on social epistemology.

And I read The Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann which claims to draw heavily from Max Scheler and is considered important in the sociology of knowledge.

Anyway, I hope something in this pile of words is of help. Good luck, and thanks for the interesting question!


There are many variations here! But there are two important approaches I might pick out —

  1. “Deconstructive” approaches to the social relation, which emphasize decentered textual practices and “the syntax of the real”, permitting the critical interpretation of social relations as assembling a structural matrix involving terms like ethics and politics; yet the “true” meanings of these terms are never “finalized” but perpetually marked by erasure, differentiation or deferral
  2. “Performative” approaches emphasizing the dynamic construction of the social relation, i.e., the way formation of identities inevitably depends on a double-articulation of decisions, such that the context of every decision must itself be conditioned by prior decisions; identities do not pre-exist the social but are made and re-made relationally, in specific decisional contexts which themselves depend on prior conditioning

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