This is the first in a series of posts in which I define some of the tenets of comparative ontology, in order try to flesh out its significance to the work of making and using RDF vocabularies.
The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from the ethnographic record is that human beings are surprisingly structured in their thinking and behavior, even when that behavior seems to be random and non-linear. Although it is a commonplace to observe that social life is inherently messy, unpredictable, and resistant to capture by physics-like laws (post-Einsteinian included) it remains true that patterns of culture are remarkably widespread and persistent. Languages, marriage practices, calendar systems, gift exchange systems, markets, etc. — essentially, any functional human institution — all rely on shared categories and rules to operate, and these are discoverable and describable. The mistake of the structuralists was to conceive of these categories and rules as logical in a formal, almost scholastic sense, like a plan that agents follow strictly. Instead, it is more likely that they exist as dispositions that constrain behavior and encourage improvization, as Bourdieu describes in his idea of the habitus (which he got from Mauss, by the way).
To the extent that formal RDF ontologies are meant to mediate human-computer interaction (and not simply allow computers to share information), ontologies should be designed to interdigitate with the categories of their human participants. Machine ontologies should be interoperable with human ontologies. They should be designed to encourage the symbiotic development and evolution of human collective representations (to use Durkheim’s expression), given the role of the networked computer and computer network as an institution in its own right.