What is a social object?

Social objects are collective abstractions used to navigate material reality and construct social reality.

We live in a world that we cannot and do not fully understand—a world that grows exponentially more complex each day. If we were to devote ourselves to fully understanding every feature of our world, we wouldn’t be able to function.

Abstractions, referred to here as “social objects,” provide representations to collectively navigate and coordinate within complexity. Social objects circulate in two distinct ways: coordinated beliefs which are used to create objective facts in the world, and coordinated representations derived from, but independent of, objective facts in the world.

Coordinated beliefs used to create facts; Facts used to create coordinated beliefs

Example: The Internet

When we say “the Internet,” this abstracted representation does not express the volume of labor, equipment, maintenance, governance and complexity that go into creating it. The referent is a representation so simplified, it mostly constitutes what one believes “the Internet” to be, independent of what it actually “is.”. Something as complex as “the Internet” may have no singular existence to refer to at all except in its form as abstracted representation.

(1) The Matrix (2) Worker and data cables (3) 550,000 miles of submarine cables (4) Workers updating fiber optic cables.

1. Social object as coordinated belief

A social object can be any coordinated and widely circulated belief used to organize material reality and our relationships within it. Let us take the broad concept of “value.” George Soros, in his theory of reflexivity, articulates that within financial markets there is no process to objectively “know” a valuation the same way an empirical fact would be known—enduring experiments of disproof long enough to become an accepted fact. There is no method to objectively disprove the value of a stock because any attempt to measure it is reflexively within the space of producing and affecting its value; the act of measuring reifies the coordinated belief that it “exists” at all. However, as we know, “value” and the coordinatinated belief of it is used to actualize relationships to and within material reality: the allocation and organization of resources, labor, debts and social relations—all material realities, organized via a social object.

2. Social object as coordinated representation

A social object can be any coordinated and widely circulated representation through which material reality is navigated but is not dependent on material reality for verification. In conversation, we blame “the politicians” for the latest drop in market values. Our invocation of politicians does not require specific politicians in order to function—the universalized abstraction is its own referent and circulates independently of anything we can prove or disprove about any individual politician. While these references present as objective, they are representations of beliefs about the world and not inherently aligned with the objective world itself. 

In this terrain, material realities become coordinated representations which we cannot disprove the same way we would disprove an objective fact; circulating in parallel to material reality, but as a distinct belief of reality—as a social object.

Few things are ever more political or more secretively powerful than the (mis)construction of social objects.

Edward LiPuma, “The Social Life of Financial Derivatives”

The term “social object” is borrowed from the financial anthropologist Edward LiPuma and his work The Social Life of Financial Derivatives. His use of the phrase refers to the organizing power of belief among financial traders to make abstractions, like derivatives, “real.” For LiPuma, coordinated belief provides an “analytic tool” by which the industry organizes, circulates and reifies its own abstraction. While LiPuma offers no further clarification, we propose the following definition of “social object”:

  1. a coordinated and widely circulated belief with the ability to organize material reality via a collective belief of reality;
  2. a mitigating representation, distinct from material reality, but through which material reality is perceived and communicated and which individual actors believe is commonly understood by others at scale.