Roles and their three facets: A foundational perspective

Applied ontology 16 (2):161-192 (2021)
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Roles remain nebulous entities, notwithstanding their extensive interdisciplinary research. This paper argues through a meta-ontological conceptual tool of grounding that there are three key facets of roles: a role position, a role specification, and a role potential. A foundational perspective on roles can be specified by “role choices” as to which facet of roles is primary. Role choices are illustrated with theories of roles that are built in compliance with four well-known upper ontologies: GFO, DOLCE, BFO, and UFO. The relationship between such three facets of roles and the GFO-based three kinds of roles (relational, processual, and social) is closely examined. These three facets are also comparatively studied from linguistic (e.g. ‘have a role’ versus ‘play a role’) and methodological (realism versus conceptualism regarding ontology design) perspectives. Furthermore, the family resemblance view of roles as “epistemic trackers” is proposed: the general notion of role is merely (partially) unified by its three facets and helps to keep track of some entity with respect to its role-related aspects. Finally, defining characteristics of roles in conceptual modeling are considered in terms of the three-facet theory. This work provides the grist for future practical development of an ontological module for generic role representation.



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