Ásta Kristjana Sveinsdóttir is an associate professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. She holds a BA in mathematics and philosophy from Brandeis, AM in philosophy from Harvard, and a PhD in philosophy from MIT. Recent papers include “The Social Construction of Human Kinds” (Hypatia), “Knowledge of Essence” (Philosophical Studies), “Who’s Afraid of Feminist Metaphysics?” (APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy), and “Social Construction” (Philosophy Compass). She is at work on a monograph entitled Categories We Live By: the construction of gender, sex, race, and other social categories, which is under contract with Oxford UP. Her website: online.sfsu.edu/asta
Metaphysics of the Social
Ásta Kristjana Sveinsdóttir
Thank you, Meena, for inviting me to contribute to your blog and to say a little bit about what I am working on and how I have come to work on it.
I am writing a monograph on the metaphysics of social categories, entitled Categories We Live By: the construction of gender, sex, race, and other social categories. This is a project at the intersection of metaphysics, social philosophy, social ontology, and feminist theory. Camping out at that intersection can be a lonely and cold endeavor: your metaphysics friends think their job is to describe the fundamental structure of reality and the social cannot be fundamental; your social ontology friends simply want to describe social reality in an entirely value-neutral way, unhindered by any political commitments; and your feminist and social philosophy friends either think metaphysics is an ideological part of the oppressive regimes we are fighting against or simply unnecessary baggage. I have my work cut out for me.
I believe that there are social harms that are distinct from individual moral harms on the one hand and institutional, political harms on the other. Theorizing those harms requires theorizing the landscape those harms occur in and the entities and agents involved. Social categories are a big part of that landscape.
While social categories can be a positive source of identity and belonging, often they are oppressive and membership in them can put serious constraints on a person’s life options. So, in offering a theory of social categories, the aim is to reveal the cogs and belts and arrangements of parts in machines that often are oppressive. Doing so also serves to support work done in the humanities and social sciences on the role of social construction in generating and upholding oppressive practices and institutions.
What kinds of creatures are social categories? How do they come into being and how are they sustained? A metaphysics of social categories aims to take on those questions.
In Categories I give an account of social categories by offering a framework that can account for social properties, like being a woman or being a waiter. A social category is then the collection of things that share that property, the collection of women, or waiters, in this case. The framework I offer to make sense of this I call a “conferralist” framework, and I think that social properties are conferred properties; they are conferred by subjects under certain conditions. I then use the conferralist framework in two ways: by articulating a certain conception of social construction, which I call social construction as social significance; and by giving specific accounts of certain social categories like gender, sex, race, and disability.
How did I get to work on those topics?
Sometime when I was in graduate school I was asked by a friend who had observed that all our friends who were pursuing a PhD abroad had chosen topics they had some special affinity or relationship to: they had chosen some topic that was related to our native Iceland or to their personal circumstances. Why was I studying philosophy in a foreign language in a country where the political values were alien to me? Did I have some special affinity or relation to what I was studying?
Although psychological motivations don’t always translate into philosophical projects, I can see a clear trajectory from being a child who grew up in the theater, obsessed with what couldn’t be spun around with a clever maneuver, to the adolescent focused both on mathematics and poetry, to the budding young philosopher writing her BA thesis on the possible, and now to the tenured philosopher writing on the metaphysics of social categories. To put it broadly, I have always wanted to understand what is the case and whether and how it could be different. There is much in our social and material reality that is harmful and unjust. We need to see it for what it is, we need to understand how it works, and change it.