Definitions

Social constructionism

Social constructionism

Social constructionism and social constructivism are sociological and psychological theories of knowledge that consider how social phenomena develop in particular social contexts. Within constructionist thought, a social construction (social construct) is a concept or practice which may appear to be natural and obvious to those who accept it, but in reality is an invention or artifact of a particular culture or society. Social constructs are generally understood to be the by-products (often unintended or unconscious) of countless human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature. This is not usually taken to imply a radical anti-determinism, however. Social constructionism is usually opposed to essentialism, which defines specific phenomena instead in terms of transhistorical essences independent of conscious beings that determine the categorical structure of reality. Although both social constructionism and social constructivism are concerned with ways social phenomena develop, they are distinct. Social constructionism refers to the development of phenomena relative to social contexts while social constructivism refers to an individual's making meaning of knowledge relative to social context. For this reason, social constructionism is typically described as a sociological construct whereas social constructivism is typically described as a psychological construct. Social constructivism has been studied by many educational psychologists, who are concerned with its implications for teaching and learning. For more on the psychological dimensions of social constructivism, see the work of A. Sullivan Palincsar.

A major focus of social constructionism is to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the creation of their perceived social reality. It involves looking at the ways social phenomena are created, institutionalized, and made into tradition by humans. Socially constructed reality is seen as an ongoing, dynamic process; reality is reproduced by people acting on their interpretations and their knowledge of it.

Constructionism became prominent in the U.S. with Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's 1966 book, The Social Construction of Reality. Berger and Luckmann argue that all knowledge, including the most basic, taken-for-granted common sense knowledge of everyday reality, is derived from and maintained by social interactions. When people interact, they do so with the understanding that their respective perceptions of reality are related, and as they act upon this understanding their common knowledge of reality becomes reinforced. Since this common sense knowledge is negotiated by people, human typifications, significations and institutions come to be presented as part of an objective reality. It is in this sense that it can be said that reality is socially constructed. The specific mechanisms underlying Berger and Luckmann's notion of social construction are discussed further in social construction.

Precursors

Marvin Carlson believes that our lives “are structured according to repeated socially sanctioned modes of behaviour” and this “raises the possibility that all human activity could potentially be considered as performance.”(Marvin Carlson, “What is Performance?”) This includes the idea of social construction, this is the unnatural way in which people act in public society to conform. In the tradition of sociology of knowledge, what seems real to members of a social class arises from the situation of the class, such as the capitalist or working classes, especially with respect to the economic fundamentals which affect the class. According to the theories advanced by Karl Mannheim, who formulated the classic theories of sociology of knowledge, intellectuals occupy a special position which is to some extent free of the intellectual blinders imposed by the social position of other classes.

Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony both prefigures and enriches current social constructionist discourse. As a Marxist, Gramsci was interested in the way inequities between classes are maintained, and the role of knowledge in this process. Marx himself recognized the important role of knowledge in the maintenance of class structure, observing that the prevailing ideology in society tends to be the ideology of the ruling class, and proposing that the proletariat are suppressed by a social structure which gave a ‘false consciousness’. Whilst previous Marxist thinkers saw hegemony in terms of political and ideological leadership, Gramsci took the idea of hegemony as ideological dominance and expanded it to the common sense knowledge of the everyday. In Gramsci’s view, the interests of the ruling class are not only reflected in politics and ideologies, but also in the taken-for-granted, assumed-as-natural knowledge that appears as common sense. By accepting a version of common sense that protects the interests of the bourgeoisie as natural and inevitable, the proletariat ‘consent’ to domination: revolution is prevented and the social order is maintained. Michel Foucault's influential idea of "discourse" (and "discursive formation") can also be seen to contribute to and connect with social constructionist thought.

Sociologist Talcott Parsons used the concept of gloss to discuss the idea that 'reality' is constructed, that we are all actors on a stage.

Social constructionism in sociology and cultural studies

Berger and Luckman's work has been influential in the sociology of knowledge, including the sociology of science, where Karin Knorr-Cetina, Bruno Latour, Barry Barnes, Steve Woolgar and others use the ideas of social constructionism to relate what science has typically characterized as objective facts to the processes of social construction, with the goal of showing that human subjectivity imposes itself on those facts we take to be objective, not solely the other way around. A particularly provocative title in this line of thought is Andrew Pickering's Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics.

Social Constructionism has also left its mark on the Social Shaping of Technology field, especially on the Social construction of technology, or SCOT, and authors as Wiebe Bijker, Trevor Pinch, Maarten van Wesel etc.

Despite its common perception as objective, mathematics is not immune to social constructivist accounts. Sociologists such as Sal Restivo and Randall Collins, mathematicians including Reuben Hersh and Philip J. Davis, and philosophers including Paul Ernest have published social constructivist treatments of mathematics.

An illustrative example of social constructionist thought at work is, following the work of Sigmund Freud and Émile Durkheim, religion. Freud argued that the basis for religion is rooted in our psyche, in a need to see some purpose in life. A given religion, then, does not show us some hidden aspect of objective reality, but has rather been constructed according to social and historical processes according to human needs. Peter L. Berger wrote an entire book exploring the social construction of religion, The Sacred Canopy.

Social constructionism and postmodernism

Social constructionism can be seen as a source of the postmodern movement, and has been influential in the field of cultural studies. Some have gone so far as to attribute the rise of cultural studies (the cultural turn) to social constructionism.

Within the social constructionist strand of postmodernism, the concept of socially constructed reality stresses the on-going mass-building of worldviews by individuals in dialectical interaction with society at any time. The numerous realities so formed comprise, according to this view, the imagined worlds of human social existence and activity, gradually crystallised by habit into institutions propped up by language conventions, given ongoing legitimacy by mythology, religion and philosophy, maintained by therapies and socialisation, and subjectively internalised by upbringing and education to become part of the identity of social citizens.

Degrees of social construction

Though social constructionism contains a diverse array of theories and beliefs, it can generally be divided into two camps: Weak social constructionism and strong social constructionism. The two differ mainly in degree, where weak social constructionists tend to see some underlying objective factual elements to reality, and strong social constructionists see everything as, in some way, a social construction. This is not to say that strong social constructionists see the world as ontologically unreal. Rather, they propose that the notions of "real" and "unreal" are themselves social constructs, so that the question of whether anything is "real" is just a matter of social convention.

Weak social constructionism

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes that "some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist. Examples include money, tenure, citizenship, decorations for bravery, and the presidency of the United States."

In a similar vein, Stanley Fish has suggested that baseball's "balls and strikes" are social constructions.

Both Fish and Pinker agree that the sorts of objects indicated here can be described as part of what John Searle calls "social reality". In particular, they are, in Searle's terms, ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective. "Social facts" are temporally, ontologically, and logically dependent on "brute facts." For example, "money" in the form of its raw materials (rag, pulp, ink) as constituted socially for barter (for example by a banking system) is a social fact of "money" by virtue of (i) collectively willing and intending (ii) to impose some particular function (purpose for which), (iii) by constitutive rules atop the "brute facts." "Social facts have the remarkable feature of having no analogue among physical [brute] facts" (34). The existence of language is itself constitutive of the of social fact (37), which natural, or brute, facts do not require. Natural or "brute" facts exist independently of language; thus a "mountain" is a mountain in every language and in no language; it simply is what it is. John Searle

Searle illustrates the evolution of social facts from brute facts by the constitutive rule: X counts as Y in C. "The Y terms has to assign a new status that the object does not already have just in virtue of satisfying the Y term; and there has to be collective agreement, or at least acceptance, both in the imposition of that status on the stuff referred to by the X term and about the function that goes with that status. Furthermore, because the physical features [brute facts] specified by the X term are insufficient by themselves to guarantee the fulfillment of the assigned function specified by the Y term, the new status and its attendant functions have to be the sort of things that can be constituted by collective agreement or acceptance."

Finally, against the strong theory and for the weak theory, Searle insists, "it could not be the case, as some have maintained, that all facts are institutional [i.e., social] facts, that there are no brute facts, because the structure of institutional facts reveals that they are logically dependent on brute facts. To suppose that all facts are institutional [i.e., social] would produce an infinite regress or circularity in the account of institutional facts. In order that some facts be institutional, there must be other facts that are brute [i.e., physical, biological, natural]. This is the consequence of the logical structure of institutional facts."

Ian Hacking, Canadian philosopher of science, insists, "the notion that everything is socially constructed has been going the rounds. John Searle [1995] argues vehemently (and in my opinion cogently) against universal constructionism" . "Universal social constructionism is descended from the doctrine that I once named linguistic idealism and attributed, only half in jest, to Richard Nixon [Hacking, 1975, p. 182]. Linguistic idealism is the doctrine that only what is talked about exists, nothing has reality until it is spoken of, or written about. This extravagant notion is descended from Berkeley's idea-ism, which we call idealism: the doctrine that all that exists is mental" "They are a part of what John Searle [1995] calls social reality. His book is titled the Construction of Social Reality, and as I explained elsewhere [Hacking, 1997], that is not a social construction book at all"

Hacking observes, "the label 'social constructionism' is more code than description" of every Leftist, Marxist, Freudian, and Feminist PostModernist to call into question every moral, sex, gender, power, and deviant claim as just another essentialist claim -- including the claim that members of the male and female sex are inherently different, rather than historically and socially constructed. Hacking observes that his 1995 simplistic dismissal of the concept actually revealed to many readers the outrageous implications of the theorists: Is child abuse a real evil, or a social construct, asked Hacking? His dismissive attitude, "gave some readers a way to see that there need be no clash between construction and reality" , inasmuch as "the metaphor of social construction once had excellent shock value, but now it has become tired" . Informally, they require human practices to sustain their existence, but they have an effect that is (basically) universally agreed upon. The disagreement lies in whether this category should be called "socially constructed". Ian Hacking argues that it should not. Furthermore, it is not clear that authors who write "social construction" analyses ever mean "social construction" in Pinker's sense. If they never do, then Pinker (probably among others) has misunderstood the point of a social constructionist argument.

Strong social constructionism

Strong social constructionists oppose the existence of "brute" facts. That a mountain is a mountain (as opposed to just another undifferentiated clump of earth) is socially engendered, and not a brute fact. That the concept of mountain is universally admitted in all human languages reflects near-universal human consensus, but does not make it an objective reality. Similarly for all apparently real objects and events: trees, cars, snow, collisions. This leads to the view that all reality is a social construction, which is close to the view of many post-modernist philosophers like Jean-François Lyotard, who claim that our view of reality is really a narrative, a discourse rooted in consensus.

In particular, science does not have any ontological primacy; all scientific constructs, physical laws, or concepts like mass, or quark, are essentially arrived at by consensus (possibly because they satisfy some mutually-agreed criteria, such as the Occam's razor), and are social constructs:

Science is a highly elaborated set of conventions brought forth by one particular culture (our own) in the circumstances of one particular historical period; thus it is not, as the standard view would have it, a body of knowledge and testable conjecture concerning the real world. It is a discourse, devised by and for one specialized interpretive community, under terms created by the complex net of social circumstance, political opinion, economic incentive and ideological climate that constitutes the ineluctable human environment of the scientist. Thus, orthodox science is but one discursive community among the many that now exist and that have existed historically. Consequently its truth claims are irreducibly self-referential, in that they can be upheld only by appeal to the standards that define the scientific community and distinguish it from other social formations.

The anatomy of a social constructionist analysis

"Social construction" may mean many things to many people. Ian Hacking, having examined a wide range of books and articles with titles of the form "The social construction of X" or "Constructing X", argues that when something is said to be "socially constructed", this is shorthand for at least the following two claims:

(0) In the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted; X appears to be inevitable.

(1) X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.

Hacking adds that the following claims are also often, though not always, implied by the use of the phrase "social construction":

(2) X is quite bad as it is.

(3) We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed.

Thus a claim that gender is socially constructed probably means that gender, as currently understood, is not an inevitable result of biology, but highly contingent on social and historical processes. In addition, depending on who is making the claim, it may mean that our current understanding of gender is harmful, and should be modified or eliminated, to the extent possible.

According to Hacking, "social construction" claims are not always clear about exactly what isn't "inevitable", or exactly what "should be done away with." Consider a hypothetical claim that quarks are "socially constructed". On one reading, this means that quarks themselves are not "inevitable" or "determined by the nature of things." On another reading, this means that our idea (or conceptualization, or understanding) of quarks is not "inevitable" or "determined by the nature of things".

Hacking is much more sympathetic to the second reading than the first. Furthermore, he argues that, if the second reading is taken, there need not always be a conflict between saying that quarks are "socially constructed" and saying that they are "real". In our gender example, this means that while a legitimate biological basis for gender may exist, some of society's perceptions of gender may be socially constructed.

The stronger first position, however, is more-or-less an inevitable corollary of Willard Van Orman Quine's concept of ontological relativity, and particularly of the Duhem-Quine thesis. That is, according to Quine and like-minded thinkers (who are not usually characterized as social constructionists) there is no single privileged explanatory framework that is closest to "the things themselves"—every theory has merit only in proportion to its explanatory power.

As we step from the phrase to the world of human beings, "social construction" analyses can become more complex. Hacking briefly examines Helène Moussa’s analysis of the social construction of "women refugees". According to him, Moussa's argument has several pieces, some of which may be implicit:

  1. Canadian citizens' idea of "the woman refugee" is not inevitable, but historically contingent. (Thus the idea or category "the woman refugee" can be said to be "socially constructed".)
  2. Women coming to Canada to seek asylum are profoundly affected by the category of "the woman refugee". Among other things, if a woman does not "count" as a "woman refugee" according to the law, she may be deported, and forced to return to very difficult conditions in her homeland.
  3. Such women may modify their behavior, and perhaps even their attitudes towards themselves, in order to gain the benefits of being classified as a "woman refugee".

Hacking suggests that this third part of the analysis, the "interaction" between a socially constructed category and the individuals that are actually or potentially included in that category, is present in many "social construction" analyses involving types of human beings.

Environmental Leftist social constructionism

The Postmodern social constructionist of nature is a theorem of postmodernist continental philosophy that poses an alternative critique of previous mainstream, promethean dialogue about environmental sustainability and ecopolitics. Whereas traditional criticisms of environmentalism come from the more conservative "right" of politics, leftist critiques of nature pioneered by postmodernist constructionism highlight the need to recognise "the other". The implicit assumption made by theorists like Wapner is that a new "response to eco-criticism would require critics to acknowledge the ways in which they themselves silence nature and then to respect the sheer otherness of the nonhuman world."

This is because postmodernism prides itself on criticizing the urge toward mastery that characterizes modernity. But mastery is exactly what postmodernism is exerting as it captures the nonhuman world within its own conceptual domain. That in turn implies postmodern cultural criticism can deepen the modernist urge toward mastery by eliminating the ontological weight of the nonhuman world. "What else could it mean to assert that there is no such thing as nature?" . Thus, the issue becomes an existentialist query about whether nature can exist in a humanist critique, and whether we can discern the "other's" views in relation to our actions on their behalf. This theorem has come to be known as "The Wapner Paradigm."

References

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