The Structures of Social Structural Explanation: Comments on Haslanger’s What is (Social) Structural Explanation?

Rachel Katharine Sterken 1
  • 1 University of Oslo


In a recent paper (Haslanger 2016), Sally Haslanger argues for the importance of structural explanation. Roughly, a structural explana- tion of the behaviour of a given object appeals to features of the struc- tures—physical, social, or otherwise—the object is embedded in. It is opposed to individualistic explanations, where what is appealed to is just the object and its properties. For example, an individualistic explanation of why someone got the grade they did might appeal to features of the essay they wrote—its being well-written, answering the set question, etc. But if the class is graded on a curve, then a better explanation will appeal to features of the class—of the social structure in which the student is embedded. That she wrote a better paper than 90% of the class explains better than that she wrote a well-argued paper. In this paper, I get clear as to various candidate concepts of structure that we might appeal to in structural explanations, argue that Haslanger’s preferred account is lacking, and present an alterna- tive that is more conducive to social structural explanation.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Barnes, E. 2016. Realism and social structure. Philosophical Studies 174(10): 2417–33. DOI 10.1007/s11098-016-0743-y.

  • Belnap, N.; and Steel, T. 1976. The Logic of Questions and Answers. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Crenshaw, K. 1989. Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139–67.

  • Cudd, A. 2006. Analyzing Oppression. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Dorr, Cian; and Hawthorne, John. 2014. Semantic plasticity and speech reports. Philosophical Review 123(3): 281–338.

  • Dretske, F. 1988. Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Epstein, B. 2017. What are social groups? Their metaphysics and how to classify them. Synthese. DOI:

  • Epstein, B. 2015. The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Garfinkel, A. 1981. Forms of Explanation: Rethinking the Questions in Social Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Haslanger, S. 2014a. Social meaning and philosophical method. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 88: 16–37.

  • Haslanger, S. 2014b. Race, intersectionality, and method: a reply to critics. Philosophical Studies 171: 109–19.

  • Haslanger, S. 2016. What is (social) structural explanation? Philosophical Studies 173: 113–30.

  • Haslanger, S. 2015. Theorizing with a purpose. In Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice (History and Philosophy of Biology), ed. by Catherine Kendig, pp. 129–145. Routledge.

  • Jones, K. 2014. Intersectionality and ameliorative analyses of race and gender. Philosophical Studies 171: 99–107.

  • Katz, J.J. 1972. Semantic Theory. New York: Harper and Row.

  • Keenan, Edward L.; and Hull, Robert D. 1973. The logical presuppositions of questions and answers. In Präsuppositionen in Philosophie und Linguistik, ed. by J. S. Petöfi and D. Franck, pp. 441–66. Frankfurt: Athenäum.

  • Kratzer, A. 1995. Stage-level and individual-level predicates. In The Generic Book, ed. by G. Carlson and J. Pelletier. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Okin, S. 1989. Justice, Gender and the Family. NY: Basic Books.

  • Reckwitz, A. 2002. Toward a theory of social practices: a development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory 5(2): 243–63.

  • Roberts, C. 2011. Solving for interpretation. Ms., Ohio State University.

  • Shapiro, S. 1997. Philosophy of Mathematics: Structure and Ontology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Journal + Issues