Social Categories are Natural Kinds, not Objective Types (and Why it Matters Politically)

Journal of Social Ontology 2 (2):177-201 (2016)
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There is growing support for the view that social categories like men and women refer to “objective types” (Haslanger 2000, 2006, 2012; Alcoff 2005). An objective type is a similarity class for which the axis of similarity is an objective rather than nominal or fictional property. Such types are independently real and causally relevant, yet their unity does not derive from an essential property. Given this tandem of features, it is not surprising why empirically-minded researchers interested in fighting oppression and marginalization have found this ontological category so attractive: objective types have the ontological credentials to secure the reality (and thus political representation) of social categories, and yet they do not impose exclusionary essences that also naturalize and legitimize social inequalities. This essay argues that, from the perspective of these political goals of fighting oppression and marginalization, the category of objective types is in fact a Trojan horse; it looks like a gift, but it ends up creating trouble. I argue that objective type classifications often lack empirical adequacy, and as a result they lack political adequacy. I also provide, and in reference to the normative goals described above, several arguments for preferring a social ontology of natural kinds with historical essences.

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Theodore Bach
Bowling Green State University Firelands, Philosophy


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