Monday, December 12, 2005

Against social constructionism

Which might seem like an odd title for a post in a context that has repeatedly stressed the point that "symbols", aka "concepts", are in fact "socially constructed", and has maintained that "language-based consciousness is an inherently social phenomenon". If you compare that with, for example, the Wikipedia's rather bland characterization of "the focus" of social constructionism -- "to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the creation of their perceived reality" -- you could certainly be forgiven for assuming that the stance of this blog is implicitly social constructionist. But that assumption would be wrong, in all but a rather weak sense. In fact, of course, there are a number of different varieties of this school, as there are for most, but it's possible, here as elsewhere, to distinguish two general strains or strengths. One is a relatively "weak" version that simply isolates a particular phenomenon as a focus of sociological investigation -- knowledge as a social construct; the other is a stronger, more sweeping, and usually political version that makes claims, or at least has implications, about the nature of the phenomena -- knowledge is a social construct. The former version seems fairly innocuous in that it seems clear enough that knowledge, whatever it may be, is in fact socially produced and disseminated. And even the latter isn't inherently wrong -- it accords, in fact, with at least a portion of the "epistemological inversion" I've been proposing, in which "knowledge" or explanation is seen not as congruence with an external reality but rather as a more or less effective structure (i.e., construction) built out of phenomenal experience. But the problem is that social constructionism is a sociological theory, and as such, its followers have, understandably, tended to set aside epistemological and philosophical issues generally in order to concentrate on the purely sociological issues involved. This setting-aside of epistemology, in combination with a strong claim about the nature of knowledge, and -- it needs to be said -- with an obvious political and ideological temptation, has lead social constructionism into serious difficulties and a kind of hubristic error. For some of its practitioners, I think, and at least for a time, it began to seem as though sociology (particularly in a politicized form) could provide a critique of all knowledge, scientific as well as popular. And then came the Social Text debacle, aka "Sokal's Hoax", and a quiet, chastened retreat.

So what, after all, is the real problem with social constructionism? It's that, in neglecting epistemology, it's neglecting half the equation, so to speak. That other half is what gives meaning to the term "objectivity" -- the immersive environment that's independent of any human construction. Without that as a backstop -- that is, as long as we stay solely in the realm of social interactions -- it can appear as though concepts and knowledge are indefinitely plastic. And then, within a political or ideological context, it can seem as though "reality" has been constructed merely for political ends, and so can be re-constructed at will to serve different political ends. But the fundamental and ultimate criterion for knowledge, given its constructed nature, is its effectiveness within a natural environment, a criterion which goes far beyond politics. Social constructionism is correct to note that, as opposed to versions of platonism, abstractions are cultural constructions (though in this they are already well beyond politics alone), not objects inhering in nature ("nature" itself being just one of those constructions). But it goes fatally wrong in failing to see that, as Marx said of history (and as I've noted before), we do not make such constructions just as we please. It ends up, ironically, becoming a kind of cultural idealism.


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