On Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What, ch 1 & 2 (1999); Peter Berger’s “Religion and World Construction,” i.e., the beginning of The Sacred Canopy (1967), and Ron Mallon’s “Naturalistic Approaches to Social Construction” (2008, rev. 2019) from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Guest Coleman Hughes from the Dilemma podcast joins us to survey the ways and purposes for which people argue that various practices are socially constructed. These are roughly divided in popular discourse between the “culture wars” (e.g., race, gender) and the “science wars” (are scientific findings destined to be discovered because of the objectivity of truth or a matter of contingent social histories). In the former case, when people are given labels, these labels themselves have effects on the people involved, whereas in the latter case, the objects of natural science of course aren’t aware of or affected by the labels we give them. A key lesson is that something can be both socially constructed and objective: Money is no doubt something given value only by human agreement, but when this agreement exists, the value is objectively there.
However, Hacking gives us a nice breakdown of the different steps in a possible social construction argument to show how these arguments differ. First, you argue that a practice that many take for granted as natural could have been different. You might stop there, the point being just to understand why we are the way we are. Or you might go on to argue that the practice is bad for us. But still, maybe now that we have it, there’s not much we can do about it, so the point might be just to bemoan our fate. A full social construction argument will say further that the practice can and should be changed. And if you say it should be changed, you may in effect deny the reality of the practice—of course it’s something people believe, and so in that sense a social reality, but not referring to anything real in the world—or you might acknowledge the social construct as an objective, social fact that you’d like to change to a different social fact.
Many of the social practices at issue involve a mix of nature and nurture that is difficult if not impossible to untangle. The fact that different societies have different practices certainly gives evidence that a practice is socially constructed, but one might instead interpret these differences as one case being the natural tendency coming to fruition, while in other cases something has gone wrong. Perhaps making an argument about social construction in fact isn’t really trying to state facts at all, but instead to stake out a social position. We’ll explore this idea more in our next episode (also with Coleman) on the social construction of race in particular.
Berger may well have invented this term in his book, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), and the chapter of his following book that we read sums up this work. He describes the nature of humanity as “incomplete,” unlike animals. Animals get their whole world dictated to them by instinct, but people require socialization. He describes society as a dialectical process (i.e., back-and-forth interaction between individuals and social practices) determined in three steps: people act publicly and thus this action is externalized; these actions spread and get objectivated in customs, including group-held habits of perceiving the world and beliefs about it; and then internalization, where individuals through socialization acquire these customs. So when we think we’re reporting our raw intuitions, we’re really just spitting back what we’ve internalized.
Applying Hacking’s division of types of social construction argument to Berger, I think Berger might be in the second category: We have these socially constructed practices, but it’s human nature that these practices be constructed in some way or other, and these shared practices literally make up what it is to be human for us. If we deviate from them, if we throw off the veils that society has placed on us, we don’t cut through to truth and reality, but instead find ourselves in a void of meaninglessness: we go crazy, lose any sense of purpose, and probably want to kill ourselves. This is, of course, existential terror, which the existentialists themselves tell us that we must learn to live with if we’re honest with ourselves, but it’s not clear from what we read that Berger thinks we can really take this further step. We can acknowledge that our beliefs and practices are socially conditioned but can’t get rid of them (at least not very many of them; perhaps the plurality of society provides an opening for rebellious behavior through identification with other members of a minority group).
Buy Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? or try this online version. Buy Berger’s The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, or this PDF has most of what we read.
Read Mallon’s Stanford article or check out his 2009 article “A Field Guide to Social Construction.” For more about the “war on science” part of the argument, we had an optional article in Paul Boghossian’s article “What Is Social Construction?” Another optional reading that contributed a key distinction Hacking used (between epistemic objectivity/subjectivity vs. metaphysical objectivity/subjectivity) was John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality (which, interestingly, Hacking insists does not describe a process of social construction, but rather the construction of the social itself).
Image by Solomon Grundy.