There are movements in philosophy to focus on the social domain vs. the personal one: groups rather than individuals. This is very well developed in the fields of Feminist and Gender Theory which look at the female/male social constructions and much broader issues including race and justice theory. Taking from philosophers such as Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, and Luce Irigary MIT philosopher / Women’s and Gender Studies professor Sally Haslanger is doing interesting work on these constructs.
In an interview with MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences Haslanger points out how Gender and Race issues create a gap for minorities in education, the job force and inhibit opportunities to advance socially, politically and economically. She details an important distinction between “natural” and “social” determinations. She finds some characteristics such as eye color to be acceptably ‘natural’ without overt social construction but draws the line at physical features such as hair texture and skin color. What Haslanger has found in her studies is a dynamic that is so deeply rooted it is hard to escape and which causes inequality in opportunity.
What I theorize about is: what could race be if it isn’t a set of purely natural differences between us? Can it be understood primarily in terms of social difference? Not really, because there is a presumed connection to the biological. These are the kinds of categories I’m most interested in, where perceived or imagined physical differences are such that they give rise to social differences in a particular context. The belief or the perception of someone having a particular skin color has an effect on what their social opportunities are and how they’re positioned socially in relation to others.
If socially constructed categories create inequality under the guise of being ‘scientific’ then dealing with them becomes an issue of social justice, not simply a theoretical philosophical exercise. By eliminating what has been taken for granted – the underlying social prejudices that are unconsciously developed in our Eurocentric minds – Haslanger hopes to create a more equitable future. Her recent book Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique is a collection of essays on these issues.