Showing posts with label social construction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label social construction. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Elder-Vass on social realism


Dave Elder-Vass's arguments for the real causal powers of social structures have been considered here several times (link, link).  Elder-Vass's recent book, The Reality of Social Construction, addresses this subject from a different point of view.  Here he is interested in the question of the collision of social realism and social constructivism, generally thought of as being incompatible perspectives on the nature of the social world.  E-V does not believe they are in fact incompatible, and the thrust of the current book is to make the case for this point of view.
This book, however, develops and substantiates the critical realist argument that social scientists should be both realists and social constructionists. (3)
Here are some of the ideas he offers as aspects of social constructionism:
If there is one claim that is definitive of social constructionism, it is the argument that the ways in which we collectively think and communicate about the world affect the way that the world is. (4) 
Social constructionisms derive their force from a further claim: that changing the ways in which people collectively think and/or communicate about the world in itself constitutes a change with significance for the social world. (5) 
Radical constructionists tend to deny any such distinction [between what depends upon how we think about it and what does not], on the grounds that everything depends on the ways in which we think about it, or at least to include in the socially constructed category things that realists would not. (6)
And here is social realism:
Realism … may be taken as the belief that there are features of the world that are the way they are independently of how we think about them. (6)
E-V rejects the exclusionary position, which holds that realism and constructivism are incompatible. Instead, he thinks there is a way of interpreting social ontology that makes the position of realist social constructionism a coherent one.
This book argues for a realist social constructionism -- or, if you prefer, a socially constructionist realism…. I hope this book will encourage more realists to embrace a moderate social constructionism and indeed to recognize that many of them already do so implicitly; that it will encourage social constructionists to recognize the value of realism and their own need for it; and that it will show those with no previous commitment to either tradition that they can be combined fruitfully. (7)
So what are the social items that need to be interpreted both as real features of the social world and as socially constructed? E-V highlights several fundamental kinds of things -- norms, language, meaning, cultural practices, and institutions, for example.

E-V's position requires that we answer two symmetrical questions: How is it that things like these can be thought to be socially constructed? And in what sense are they "real"?  Elder-Vass's most basic answer to the first question is to say that they are socially constructed because they depend unavoidably on intensional representations embodied in what he calls norm circles. Basically, a norm circle is a group of people who interact with each other and who reinforce each other's behavior with respect to one or more social rules of conduct (22). Demonstration of behavior that conforms to a certain norm, and positive or negative feedback to others depending on their conformance or deviance from the norm, creates a situation in which individuals come to internalize these rules of behavior into their own practical rationality.
I argue that a norm circle is an entity with the emergent causal power to increase the dispositions of individuals to conform to the norm endorsed and enforced by the norm circle concerned…. What norm circles produce in individuals is a set of beliefs or dispositions regarding appropriate behavior; the influence of the norm circle, we may say, is mediated through these beliefs or dispositions. (26, 27)
E-V believes that this construct helps to formulate the description of a wide range of social phenomena, including linguistic, cultural, and epistemic social behavior.

So what is "socially constructed" about a norm? And in what sense is there a person-independent social reality to a norm? The social construction part of the story seems straightforward. In order to have a normative expectation about a certain kind of behavior in a certain social context, it is necessary first to have a cognitive frame or representation for the behavior.  This is an intensional attitude on the part of the actor. To know how to behave when one is introduced to the Queen of England, we need to have a set of beliefs about royalty, monarchy, social roles, and particular persons.  Without mental frameworks involving these sorts of things, we cannot entertain the notion of a norm governing behavior in such a circumstance.  The situation of "being introduced to the Queen of England" is dependent on our conceptual system.

Having said this, it is also open to us to notice the relative stability and permanence of the patterns of behavior that surround this situation.  Most people observe the correct protocol, and those who do not are admonished by others for their breaches.  So "protocols of behavior surrounding introduction to the Queen" functions as a social reality that is independent from the individual.  The radical egalitarian who regards the concept of royalty as delusion and self-deception, is no less governed by the norm. So there is a crucial component of actor-independence that is possessed by the normative system as embodied in the norm circle. Here is how E-V summarizes this point:
Rules and norms, therefore, may still feature in our causal accounts of culture, but not as entities with causal powers, not as ideas that exist externally to the individual actors concerned, and not as beliefs that are completely and precisely homogenized across the norm circles concerned. Since it is not norms themselves but the norm circles that endorse and enforce them that are the bearers of the causal powers concerned, none of these constraints undermines the causal account of normatively outlined in this chapter and the previous one…. Culture, it has argued, is produced by norm circles, and indeed culture and normatively are one and the same. (53, 54)
So norm circles play a crucial role in E-V's social ontology.  If we were to distill the idea down to its simplest form, it seems to go along these lines: individuals have the capacity to form ideas, rules, and representations of various kinds. They reinforce their ideas and beliefs through interactions with other individuals who (approximately) share those mental representations. This is what makes a given norm system or conceptual framework a social feature rather than simply an individual feature. The representations are constantly tuned through interactions with other members of this representation-sharing group. These representations include ideas, conceptual frameworks, beliefs, and norms.  The groups of people who share these and interact on the basis of them constitute a norm circle.

This formulation brings Elder-Vass's view into parallel with those of Margaret Archer and her concept of "morphogenesis" (link). In thinking about the reality of social structures, E-V writes the following:
Over a period of time, individuals may act in ways that tend to reproduce the structure more or less unchanged, or they may act in ways that tend to transform it. In analysing how these structures work and how they develop, we must take account not only of the collective power that they have but also of the ways in which individual participation in them jointly produces and influences the collective outcome. (254)
And this in turn means that E-V is in a position to deny two distinct polarities: between social construction and realism, and between agent and structure.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sociology of knowledge: Berger

I've treated several approaches to the sociology of knowledge in the past month.  Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann describe their book, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, as fundamentally a contribution to this subject as well.  So this post will examine the assumptions they make about the topic.  Berger and Luckmann link their theorizing to George Herbert Mead and the "so-called symbolic-interactionist school of American sociology" (17).  This is a very suggestive link, and a promising starting point for an analysis of ordinary commonsense knowledge.  My complaint will be that Berger and Luckmann don't in fact carry it off.

Berger and Luckmann want to show that reality is socially constructed.  This can mean two things: that the objective features of the world have assumed the shape they have as a result of social action; and the features of the objective world can only be understood through one or another conceptual schemes that are both incommensurable and irrefutable.  What they actually show pertains to the first interpretation, not the second. The most enduring contribution they make is to work out the case for this proposition: We as persons, and the social relations and processes within which we act, are iteratively created by previous social processes and individual actions.  So the book isn't about knowledge; it's about social reality.

It is apparent from page 1, that Berger and Luckmann have a non-standard conception of "knowledge".  They define knowledge as "the certainty that phenomena are real and that they possess specific characteristics."  This definition has more to do with the degree of subjective confidence that persons have in their beliefs, and less to do with the nature of those beliefs themselves. And yet the topic of knowledge, whether philosophical or sociological, is really only interesting if it sheds light on the ways in which cognitive entities arrive at and formulate representations of the world around them.

Berger and Luckmann want the sociology of knowledge to focus on commonsensical beliefs, not specialist or scientific knowledge.  "The sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people 'know' as 'reality' in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives" (15).  This is a perfectly legitimate point.  But it doesn't erase the need for conceptual analysis: what is the structure of commonsense knowing?  How do ordinary people "parse" their daily experiences into an organized representation of their worlds?  These questions are just a much of a philosophical issue for commonsensical knowledge as they are for Kant in his consideration of all empirical knowledge.

Much of the social world that we confront and about which we form beliefs has to do with institutions. Berger and Luckmann have a particular and narrow definition of an institution. "Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution" (53).  The examples they give of institutions are practices that have grown up organically -- e.g. conventionalized ways that a traditional village may have come to have organized the annual stag hunt.  But it would seem that there are many things that we would call "institutions" that fall outside this paradigm.  For example, the Internal Revenue Service is an institution. It consists of hundreds of thousands of employees, organized by a set of rules, disciplinary processes, and oversight mechanisms.  It is true that this institution specifies regular forms of conduct by the various people who are part of the institution.  But it certainly didn't come about as the "sedimentation" of simpler forms of practice. More generally, their definition of an institution doesn't seem to do justice to the social realities represented by organizations.

That said, this definition of an institution gives concrete meaning to one sense in which Berger and Luckmann mean to say that "social reality is a construction": the institution itself is socially created by a group of people. "It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity" (60).  This is certainly correct.  But it doesn't support or convey the other important implication of "social construction" -- the idea that the world we experience is fundamentally constructed in terms of the concepts that we impose upon it.  This is the sense implied by Whorf and other conceptual relativists; but it doesn't find expression in B-L's analysis.

My overall assessment of the arguments offered by Berger and Luckmann here is somewhat negative: I don't think they are offering a "sociology of knowledge" at all.  Instead, they are offering an interpretation of the actor (constituted by processes of socialization before biology is even completely finished) and of the social world in which we act (created by the practices, actions, and habits of concrete human beings over time).   It is essentially a sociological theory of the actor-in-social-context.  The discussions of primary and secondary socialization are empirically useful, in that they help steer us towards the concrete situations through which individuals learn about the roles and values they "should" recognize.  Seen from that perspective, the key chapters (II and III) are interesting and helpful.

But the book has very little to do with the problem of mental representation; and it doesn't have much to say about social cognition.  And the recurring theme, that there are alternative social realities, needs to be understood as relating to the social-stuff side rather than the knowledge side: social relations, habits, and patterns of social behavior could have unfolded differently.  There is nothing inevitable about the specific forms of interaction "our" society has codified.  We could have created different institutions.  But given the institutions and practices we've got, the task of knowledge is determined: we need to discover through participation and practice how they work.

So I'm not too excited about this book as one that contributes to a better understanding of cognition -- I don't find Berger and Luckmann's analysis of knowledge and the social world very helpful.  The problem is, that they don't have anything like a nuanced analysis of the relationship between thought and the world: the nature of conceptual schemes, the relationship between concepts and observations, and something like a naturalized analysis of evidence and belief acceptance.  In other words, they aren't doing enough of the philosophical work that is needed in order to have a genuinely insightful basis for talking about the social construction of beliefs.  We need to know what goes into beliefs about the world before we can get very specific about how those belief systems are socially conditioned or constructed.  They acknowledge this limitation of their approach:
We therefore exclude from the sociology of knowledge the epistemological and methodological problems that bothered both of its major originators. By virtue of this exclusion we are setting ourselves apart from both Scheler's and Mannheim's conception of the discipline, and from the later sociologists of knowledge (notably those with a neo-positivist orientation) who shared the conception in this respect. (14)
They don't seem to think this avoidance of philosophical issues reduces their ability to shed light on the topic.  Unfortunately, I think they were mistaken.

In fairness, I should acknowledge that the kind of analysis I'm looking for isn't wholly absent.  Here is a statement that comes closer to the kind of analysis that I find generally lacking in their book:
I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are prearranged in patterns that seem to be independent of my apprehension of them and that impose themselves upon the latter. The reality of everyday life appears already objectified, that is, constituted by an order of objects that have been designated as objects before my appearance on the scene. … In this manner language marks the co-ordinates of my life in society and fills that life with meaningful objects. (21)
This is the beginnings of a philosophy of knowledge.  It provides place-holders for some of the chief aspects of cognitive representation: the identification of permanent "objects", a field of inter-related objects and relations, and a language in terms of which these items are represented and in terms of which one's beliefs about them can be formulated.  Or in other words: this paragraph postulates concepts, a conceptual system, and an intensional orientation of the  subject towards the world (applying language to the "objects" around him or herself). And this world is "intersubjective" -- other people share concepts and language with me, and are in similar relationships of interaction with the stuff of the world we inhabit (22).

So we have a start on the more conceptual side of the problem.  Unfortunately, this strand of thought is not further developed throughout the rest of the book.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Garfinkel on social competence


Harold Garfinkel made highly original contributions to the field of micro-sociology in the form of his program of ethnomethodology, and the fruits of these contributions have not been fully developed. His death a few weeks ago (link) has led quite a few people to look back and re-assess the importance of his contributions. This renewed attention is very much warranted. Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967) is the primary place where his ideas reached a broad public, so let's take a look at some of the ideas advanced there.

The interest that I take in his work flows from the idea of agent-centered sociology that I've found so appealing -- the idea of the situated actor, the idea that we need to have a substantially richer set of concepts in terms of which to characterize the actor's thought processes, and the idea that current conceptions of the rational actor or the cultural actor are inadequate (link). In order to provide a basis for explanations of social outcomes deriving from the interactions of purposive agents, we need a developed and nuanced set of ideas about how agents tick. And theorists like Garfinkel and Goffman provide substantial resources in this area. (Here are discussions of Goffman; link, link.)

Here is a key statement of Garfinkel's research goals in Studies in Ethnomethodology:
The following studies seek to treat practical activities, practical circumstances, and practical sociological reasoning as topics of empirical study, and by paying to the most commonplace activities of daily life the attention usually accorded extraordinary events, seek to learn about them as phenomena in their own right. (1)
A central empirical interest of Garfinkel's is the nuance of the ordinary knowledge -- commonsense knowledge -- that people use to navigate their daily lives and tasks.  What presuppositions about actions and motives do jurors rely on as they reach judgments about truth and falsity of testimony?  What ellipses occur in ordinary conversations that are nonetheless intelligible to the participants because of unspoken background knowledge?  What implicit beliefs and standards do coders for the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center use to classify unexpected deaths (11 ff.)?

Here is Garfinkel's explication of a conversation between husband and wife about their son's putting a penny in the parking meter:
An examination of the colloquy reveals the following. (a) There were many matters that the partners understood they were talking about that they did not mention. (b) Many matters that the partners understood were understood on the basis not only of what was actually said but what was left unspoken. (c) Many matters were understood through a process of attending to the temporal series of utterances as documentary evidences of a developing conversation rather than as a string of terms. (d) Matters that the two understood in common were understood only in and through a course of understanding work that consisted of treating an actual linguistic event as "the document of," as "pointing to," as standing on behalf of an underlying pattern of matters that each already supposed to be the matters that the person, by his speaking, could be telling the other about. (39-40)
Garfinkel devised an experimental method for probing presuppositions that he referred to as "breaching" experiments: interactions with subjects that deliberately challenged their conversational or practical expectations. For example, a subject was invited to play the game of tic-tac-toe; and the researcher erased the subject's first move and placed the subject's mark in another location. The subject was incensed.  Another example:
My friend said to me, "Hurry or we will be late." I asked him what did he mean by late and from what point of view did it have reference. There was a look of perplexity and cynicism on his face. "Why are you asking me such silly questions? Surely I don't have to explain such a statement.  What is wrong with you today? Why should I have to stop to analyze such a statement? Everyone understands my statements and you should be no exception!"
Garfinkel takes the discomfort and irritation expressed by the subjects in these experiments to be an indicator of their expectations about normal social interaction. Here is one of his reflections about this dynamic:
Despite the interest in social affects that prevails in the social sciences, and despite the extensive concern that clinical psychiatry pays them, surprisingly little has been written on the socially structured conditions for their production. The role that a background of common understandings plays in their production, control, and recognition is, however, almost terra incognita. (49)
Here is a summary statement of Garfinkel's goals:
I have been arguing that a concern for the nature, production, and recognition of reasonable, realistic, and analyzable actions is not the monopoly of philosophers and professional sociologists. Members of a society are concerned as a matter of course and necessarily with these matters both as features and for the socially managed production of their everyday affairs.  The study of common sense knowledge and common sense activities consists of treating as problematic phenomena the actual methods whereby members of a society, doing sociology, lay or professional, make the social structures of everyday activities observable. (75)
The way that I would like to paraphrase Garfinkel's work is that he is offering an empirical research program designed to fill in a rich theory of the human actor's "competence" in engaging in ordinary social interactions. What does the actor need to know about immediate social relationships and practices in order to get along in ordinary social life? And how can we study this question in empirically rigorous ways? The program of ethnomethodology is intended to focus attention on the knowledge of rules and practices that ordinary people employ to make sense of their social surroundings.

One objection that some purists might offer of this formulation is that it puts the object of investigation "inside the head," rather than in the behavioral performances -- primarily conversations and classificatory tasks -- that Garfinkel primarily studies. It is thought that Garfinkel's method is formal rather than mentalistic.  It is true that he says repeatedly that he is not interested in getting inside the head of the individuals he studies. But the logic of his findings still has important implications for the cognitive systems of the individuals, and this is in fact the only reason we would be interested in the research. So I want to understand his research along the lines of a Chomskian linguist: making inferences about psychologically real "competences and capacities" on the basis of analysis of non-mental performances (utterances).

On this approach, Garfinkel did not pretend to offer a full theory of agency or actor consciousness; instead, his work functioned as a sort of specialized investigation of one aspect of social cognition -- the competences, rules, and practices we can attribute to specific actors on the basis of careful analysis of their observable performances.

(John Heritage's Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology is generally recommended as a highly insightful survey and discussion of Garfinkel's work.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Components of one's "social identity"

A social identity is a complex thing. It involves the ways in which one characterizes oneself, the affinities one has with other people, the ways one has learned to behave in stereotyped social settings, the things one values in oneself and in the world, and the norms that one recognizes or accepts governing everyday behavior. And it profoundly affects the ways we behave and respond to the world.

So a social identity invokes a number of different areas of psychological competence: knowledge, motivation, perception, memory, personality, and emotion, to name a few. And yet one's social identity seems to stand a bit apart from any of these psychological concepts singly. Cognitive psychology focuses on some aspects of this mix; social psychology and personality psychology focuses on other aspects; but there is no area of psychology that attempts to capture all of "social identity" as a psychological real process or structure.

Moreover, a social identity is embodied in an individual; and yet it is produced by the experiences we have in relations to other individuals and groups. A social identity can be said to be a feature of a group or a community as much as it is a feature of particular individuals within a given community. And this fact is causally important: we can't explain the individual's identity without reference to the sustained and fairly consistent features of the group with respect to its social identity. So a social identity has an aspect of "social-ness" that cautions us against a narrowly psychological interpretation of the concept.

We might single out a number of aspects of a social identity as a psychologically real construct, embodied in a particular person through a particular body of experience and a specific location within a community:
  • an epistemic frame in terms of which I understand the social world
  • an element of my psycho-cognitive-emotional apparatus
  • a model of how to behave in certain common social settings
  • a self-ascription defining the features of action and comportment that are most defining of "me" in the world
  • a self-valorization of the things that are most worthwhile to me
  • an account of who I'm related to and similar to; who my affinity groups are
  • a map expressing my location within a particular extended community

In addition, it is important to recognize the feature of "intersectionality" that characterizes social identities: the ways in which one's identity involves a crossing of different grounds of identity and affinity. (University of Michigan social psychologist Elizabeth Cole has published a useful recent article called "Coalitions as a Model for Intersectionality: From Practice to Theory" in Sex Roles; here is a link. I also found the Wikipedia article on intersectionality to be valuable.)

Identities aren't "pure" expressions of one particular feature of one's location in the social world; instead, features of sexual identity, geographical identity, class identity, racial and ethnic identity, professional identity, and cohort identity all play a role in constituting one's overall identity. This means that it is important to give concrete attention to the multiple forms of social influence and immersion through which a given individual comes to embody a complex social identity; we need to look to the microfoundations of identity formation. (See more on this approach here.)

And this point about intersectionality also raises the likelihood of internal conflict. One's identity as an Asian American may be in some conflict with features of identity derived from one's location within the hip-hop generation or one's professional status as a junior member of an accounting firm. And the modes of behavior implicated by one strand may be at odds with those created by the other strands.

Innovative efforts to provide fresh approaches to the study of social identities are emerging in several fields. Paula Moya and Michael Hames-Garcia's Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism is an introduction to a genuinely innovative approach to the study of identities that attempts to bring literary criticism, race and gender studies, and social theory into one extended discussion.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Realism for the social sciences?


Scientific realism is the idea that scientific theories provide descriptions of the world that are approximately true. This view implies a correspondence theory of truth -- the idea that the world is separate from the concepts that we use to describe it. And it implies some sort of theory of scientific rationality -- a theory of the grounds that we have for believing or accepting the findings of a given area of science. (See a brief article on the basics of scientific realism including some useful references here.) Realism, objectivity, and facts go together. We can interpret a theory realistically just in case we believe that there is a fact of the matter concerning the assertions contained in the theory. (See earlier postings relevant to this topic, Concepts and the World and Social Construction.)

Realism raises all kinds of interesting questions when we consider applying it to the social sciences. For one thing, it requires a useable distinction between the world and the knower. This raises the question: is there an objective social world independent from the perceptions and concepts of observers? And this also is a complicated question, because the persons who make up social processes at the micro-level are themselves "knowers" of the social world. So there is a question about the objectivity of the social world and a corresponding question about social construction of social reality. If all social phenomena are socially constructed, then how can it be the case that some statements about social phenomena are objective and independent from the conceptual schemes of the observer?

Scientific realism got its impetus from the fact that physical theories invoke theoretical concepts that are not themselves directly observational -- muon, gravity wave, gene (at an early stage of biology). So the question arose, what is the status of the reference and truth of scientific sentences that include non-observational concepts -- for example, "muons have a negative electric charge and a spin of -1/2"? Since we can't directly inspect muons and measure their charge and spin, sentences like this depend for their empirical confirmation on their logical relationships to larger bits of physical theory -- and ultimately upon a measure of the overall degree to which this physical theory issues true experimental and observational predictions. And the empirical confirmation of the theory as a whole, the story goes, provides a rational basis for assigning a reference and truth value to its constituent sentences. So the fact that "muon" is embedded within a mathematical theory of subatomic reality and the theory is well confirmed by experimental means, gives us reason to believe that muons exist and possess approximately the characteristics attributed to them by muon theory.

But all of this has to do with esoteric physical theory. Is there any relevant application of realism in the social sciences? Here's one important difference: the social sciences are barely "theoretical" at all in the sense associated with the natural sciences. The concepts that play central roles in social theories -- charisma, bureaucratic state, class, power -- aren't exactly "theoretical" in the sense of being non-observational. And social concepts aren't defined implicitly, in terms of the role that they play in an extended formal theoretical structure. Rather, we can give a pretty good definition of social concepts in terms of behavior and common-sense attributes of social entities. In the social sciences we don't find the conceptual holism that Duhem and Quine attributed to the natural sciences (Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory; W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object). Instead, both meaning and confirmation can proceed piecemeal. So if realism were primarily a doctrine about the interpretation of theoretical terms, there wouldn't be much need for it in the social sciences.

But here are several specific ways in which scientific realism is useful in the social sciences, I think. And they all have to do with the kinds of statements in the social sciences that we think can be interpreted as expressing facts about the world, independent of our theories and concepts.

Causal realism. We can be realist about the meaning of assertions about causation and causal mechanisms. We can take the position that there is a fact of the matter as to whether X caused Y in the circumstances, and we can assert the objective reality of social causal mechanisms. On the realist interpretation, social causal mechanisms exist in the social world -- they are not simply constructs of the observer's conceptual scheme. And the statement that "Q is the process through which X causes Y" makes a purportedly objective and observer-independent claim about Q; it is an objective social process, and it conveys causation from X to Y. Q is the causal mechanism underlying the causal relationship between X and Y.

Structure realism. We can be realist about the existence of extended social entities and structures -- for example, "the working class," "the American Congress," "the movement for racial equality." These social entities and structures have some curious ontological characteristics -- it is difficult to draw boundaries between members of the working class and the artisan class, so the distinctness of the respective classes is at risk; institutions like the Congress change over time; a social movement may be characterized in multiple and sometimes incompatible ways; and social entities don't fall into "kinds" that are uniform across settings. But surely it is compelling to judge that the Civil Rights movement was an objective fact in the 1960s or that the Congress exists and is a partisan environment. And this is a version of social realism.

Social-relations realism. If we say that "Pierre is actively involved in a network of retired French military officers", we refer to a set of social relations encapsulated under the concept of a social network and composed of many pair-wise social relations. Here too we can take the perspective of social realism. It seems unproblematic to postulate the objective reality of both the pair-wise social relations and the aggregate network that these constitute. Each level of social relationship can be investigated empirically (we can discover that Pierre has regular interactions with Jean but not with Claude), and it seems unproblematic to judge that there is a fact of the matter about the existence and properties of the network -- independent of the assumptions and concepts of the observer.

Meaning realism. Now, how about the hardest case: meanings and the objectivity of interpretation. Can we say that there is ever a fact of the matter about the interpretation of an action or thought? When Thaksin offends Charat by exposing the bottoms of his feet to him -- can we say that "Charat's angry reaction is the result of the meaning of this insulting gesture in Thai culture"? Even here, it is credible to me that there is a basis for saying that this judgment expresses an objective fact (even if it is a fact about subjective experience); and therefore, we can interpret this sentence along realist lines: "Thaksin's gesture was objectively offensive to Charat in the setting of Thai culture." It is evident that many of our interpretations of behavior and action are substantially underdetermined by context and evidence; so it may be that much interpretation of meaning does not constitute a "fact of the matter." But this seems to be a fact about particular judgments rather than a universal feature of the interpretation of meanings.

So it seems that it is feasible and useful to take a social realist perspective on many of the assertions and theories of the social sciences; and what this says, is that we can interpret social science statements as being approximately true of a domain of social phenomena that have objective properties (i.e. properties that are independent from our conceptualization of them).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Social construction?

It is common to say that various things are "socially constructed". Gender and race are socially constructed, technology is socially constructed, pain and illness are socially constructed. I am inclined to think that these various statements are reasonable -- but that they mean substantially different things and are true in very different ways. So it is important to be more explicit about what we mean when we refer to social construction.

There is one broad distinction that is most fundamental in this context -- the distinction between the construction that happens in the formation of knowledge and that which occurs in the social process involving self- and other-representing agents. The distinction is one between the observer and the observed, and it is not absolute. Participants are themselves knowledge producers, and what we will recognize as their social construction involves their creation of schemes of representation. Nonetheless, there is an important line to draw between the constructions of the observer and the participant.

The crux of the issue is whether social reality is the creation of the men and women who make it up, or whether the reality is shaped and created by the conceptual lenses through which the observer frames the social phenomena. As a social realist, I want to maintain the separation between the social reality as constituted and experienced by the actors and the conceptual schemes of the observer. This position implies rejection of the epistemological version of social constructivism, the view that the observer's concepts determine social reality.

There is a complication that needs to be addressed but that doesn't change the basic perspective of realism. This is the point that in some unusual circumstances it is the case that scientific concepts and theories feed back into behavior and thought of participants. The definition of some mental illnesses is a good example, as is the form of a variety of human institutions such as the factory or the prison: concepts constructed by social theorists and critics feed back into the design of the institution with the result that the next iteration of the institution is indeed partially the construction if the theorist. But these are exceptions, not the rule.

So in what sense are gender, race, or technology instances of social construction from a realist perspective? It is a social reality that societies embody identities for various groups of individuals and these identities are framed by the thoughts, behavioral, and strategies of people in society. Moreover, these thoughts and behaviors change over time as a result of the contestation that occurs around the identities. So the formulation of the identity of "African-American professional," "Jewish garment worker," or "gay Texan" is ultimately the result of a process of contestation, repression, and interactive social behavior. It is socially constructed through visible social processes and mechanisms. And it is constructed, not by the external observer, but by the active and subjective participants.

And what about technology? In what sense is the evolution of a technology like the bicycle or automobile socially constructed? (Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change) What historians of technology usually mean by this assertion is a denial of the idea that there is an inherent pathway of technology change that is implied by efficiency and the natural properties of materials and designs. Against this inevitable-ism of function, historians note that the actual path of technology development is most commonly driven or constrained by cultural preferences and expectations. Young men wanted an exciting adventure in their automobile in the 1910s -- and so the boring electric car was doomed (Gijs Mom, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age). Weapons designers shared a culture of precision -- and so inertial navigation superceded radio-guided systems (the predecessor of GPS) (Donald Mackenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance). In other words -- technologies are socially constructed by the imperatives of culture in the surrounding society.

So there is a sense in which social constructivism is true and informative -- and thoroughly consistent with social realism. And there is another sense in which the phrase is extreme, philosophical, and inconsistent with an empirical and realist study of social reality.

(Ian Hacking has an interesting take on these issues in The Social Construction of What?.)