Chapter: social order overview
Ontologies of other orders: natural order, techno order

Definition & Chapter Scope

A "social order" is a relatively stable system of institutions, patterns of interactions and customs, capable of continually reproducing at least those conditions essential for its own existence. The concept refers to all those facts of society which remain relatively constant over time. These conditions could include both property, exchange and power relations, but also cultural forms, communication relations and systems of values and norms[1].

In the chapter on social order the focus is on those aspects of the social order that are related to interactions and their sustainability, equity and capability. Although regulations are continuously being added and modified (changing norms), we consider them to be part of the social order.

The distinction between social order and techno order is gradual: in the latter the institution objects, and the claims that persons have on them are more complex.

Let's now address the ontological underpinnings of social order.

Ontology of semiotic-material interactions

Semiotics forms a key ingredient of the language use that facilitates the emergence and evolution of quite complex social orders.

The jargon of Actor-Network Theory is used to give precise and expressive illustrations of the language use.

On the other hand, we must also pay attention to the relationships that social orders establish among their members, and between the members and their natural environment. This topic is addressed under the heading of Claims and Contracts.

A multi-stratum onto-epistemic structure

In a multi-stratum onto-epistemic structure we distinguish several uses of signs, depending on their referents. It is therefore convenient to define a semiotic pattern, and then apply this to express the various semiotic systems that matter in a social order.


The Semiotic Pattern serves as a template for any semiotic system. Each semiotic system is defined by binding entity sets to the domain (object) and range (sign) connectors, and an interpretant group to the users connector. The interpretant must be capable to perform (or understand) the activities of representing the object by the sign.

xSS = SEMPAT with {domain = …; range = …; users =…}
xSS.Create : the activity of creating a sign for an object
xSS.Denote : the activity of denoting an object by a sign
xSS.Forget : the activity of forgetting the sign (and its meaning)

Semiotic systems involving the natural order

In the natural order ontology the Material Stratum (MS) is introduced. Entities and activities in MS form a first referent of the language constructs that humankind has evolved to express views on their habitat, their natural environment, and themselves.

The set of words (tokens) that persons use to refer to MS entities is part of the Token Stratum (TS) (which itself is part of the Content Stratum (CS).

Nouns and verbs

In the explanation of the Material Stratum, natural language has been used to create an image for the reader of the material stratum dynamics.

Now this natural language use will be “formalized” in a step-wise manner. A first concern is with the naming of the entities, activities and surfaces, and with the utterances of these names. For this we note that the distinction between verb and noun, draws on the classical distinction between continuants and occurrents[2] and can be traced back to syntactic categories in natural language, appearing as early as in Plato’s (427-347 BC) Sophist Dialogue.

Meaningful statements or propositions (logos) are obtained by joining on the one hand a token that is called the verb (or predicate) and represents an action, and on the other hand there is a token that is called the noun and represents the agent that performs, or the object that undergoes the action.

Natural and Communicative Semiotic Systems

Let's now apply the SEMPAT pattern to describe two different semiotic systems:

  • the Natural Semiotic System (NSS) with objects in MS and signs in Token Stratum; and
  • the Communicative Semiotic System (CSS) with object in Token Stratum and sign (utterance) in MS.

NSS = SEMPAT with {domain = MS.Material; range = TS.Token; users =MS.Person}

CoSS = SEMPAT with {domain = TS.Token; range = MS.Tokenutterance; users=MS.Person}

We note that the users connector for both semiotic systems coincides. The communicative utility derives from the joint use of both NSS and CoSS by a coinciding user community. For the CoSS user, we assume that he or she has access to the Token instances in TS. Usually not all users will be creating Token instances, rather this will be a privilege of authorized persons who will ensure that there is no confusion (i.e. there are no identical Tokens denoting different MS elements) and no junk (different Tokens denoting the same MS element). For CoSS users there are no such requirements. The NSS.Create is effectively a definition of a Token instance in TS, and the CoSS.Create is a use activity of the Token instance defined in NSS that creates a Tokenutterance instance in the MS. The latter instance will not only denote the Token, but also its denotation in MS. Using a functional notation we can write:

NSS.Denote o CoSS.Denote: MS.Tokenutterance → MS.Material

This function will also be represented as Denote’.

Language Conventions

The interpretants — these are the entities that perform the semiotic activities — could collaborate or work on their own, within particular domains. In the collaborative domain, they will benefit from sharing. A community of speakers of the same language will rely upon a stock of shared “Denote relations” that can be expressed in a Language Convention. Two ways of using tokens are considered: speaking and listening, or writing and reading. Each use has its own characteristics: spoken tokens are only heard in the proximity of where they are spoken, and written tokens can only be read as long as they exist on their carrier, hence they inheret their persistence from the carrier on which they are stored. On the other hand, we prefer not to forget Token instances (convention). For each instance of Token, multiple TokenUtterance instances are produced in MS, by expression in activities (e.g., speaking), or on carriers (writing). As for the identity criteria: all Token instances are different and correspond to different material instances. Different TokenUtterances that denote the same Token instance may coexist.

Language and Norms

Semiotic systems are used to express and construct claims, norms and contracts.

2. Guarino, N., The Role of Identity Conditions in Ontology Design. In C. Freska, D.M. Mark (Eds.) COSIT’99, LNCS 1661, pp. 221-234, 1999, Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg.