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The Social Construction of What? [Paperback]

Ian Hacking
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 15 2000 0674004124 978-0674004122

Lost in the raging debate over the validity of social construction is the question of what, precisely, is being constructed. Facts, gender, quarks, reality? Is it a person? An object? An idea? A theory? Each entails a different notion of social construction, Ian Hacking reminds us. His book explores an array of examples to reveal the deep issues underlying contentious accounts of reality.

Especially troublesome in this dispute is the status of the natural sciences, and this is where Hacking finds some of his most telling cases, from the conflict between biological and social approaches to mental illness to vying accounts of current research in sedimentary geology. He looks at the issue of child abuse--very much a reality, though the idea of child abuse is a social product. He also cautiously examines the ways in which advanced research on new weapons influences not the content but the form of science. In conclusion, Hacking comments on the "culture wars" in anthropology, in particular a spat between leading ethnographers over Hawaii and Captain Cook. Written with generosity and gentle wit by one of our most distinguished philosophers of science, this wise book brings a much needed measure of clarity to current arguments about the nature of knowledge.


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From Library Journal

To what extent are our claims to knowledge supported by reality? To what extent are they social constructs? Hacking (philosophy, Univ. of Toronto; Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses) is one of the best philosophers of science and society of our time. Here, as usual, he argues from carefully researched examples. Hacking refuses to be bullied into taking either side of the debate on science vs. objective truth, but he recognizes that a dizzying process started with the attempt (which he finds in Kant) to see morality as a human construct. The idea that all knowledge might be a construct inevitably follows. Unfortunately, Hacking does not explore the part played by the separation of the good from the true in the press-ganging of much science into the service of the military industrial complex; his weak chapter is on weapons research. Despite this glaring deficiency, this is a delightful bookAevenhanded, fun to read, and packed with information on everything from nuclear physics, nanobacteria, and madness to the deification of Captain Cook. For all academic libraries.ALeslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

[A] spirited and eminently readable book… Hacking's book is an admirable example of both useful debunking and thoughtful and original philosophizing—an unusual combination of good sense and technical sophistication. After he has said his say about the science wars, Hacking concludes with fascinating essays on, among other things, fashions in mental disease, the possible genesis of dolomitic rock from the activity of nanobacteria, government financing of weapons research, and the much-discussed question of whether the Hawaiians thought Captain Cook was a god. In each he makes clear the contingency of the questions scientists find themselves asking, and the endless complexity of the considerations that lead them to ask one question rather than another. The result helps the reader see how little light is shed on actual scientific controversies by either traditionalist triumphalists or postmodern unmaskers. (Richard Rorty The Atlantic)

Hacking is a Canadian philosopher of science, with important studies of probability and psychology to his name. He is no less at home in Continental philosophy and social theory than in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. His ability to leap with enviable facility from one to the other qualifies him well to bring some order into this intellectual quagmire. (Daniel Johnson New York Times Book Review)

Ian Hacking is among the best philosophers now writing about science… He discusses psychopathology, weapons research, petrology, and South Pacific ethnography with the same skeptical intelligence he brings to quarks and electron microscopy. It is not his aim to enter a partisan controversy, still less to decide it. Instead, he clearly explains what is at stake—nothing less than the intellectual authority of modern science. (Barry Allen Science)

The Social Construction of What? explores the significance of the idea of social construction, not simply in science but also in other arenas… Hacking's arguments are important. (Kenan Malik The Independent)

The commonplace idea of science as the construction of models caught fire in the 1970s. It became—as Ian Hacking notes in his intelligent miscellany, The Social Construction of What?—a rallying cry for the radical optimists who relished the thought that social forms are transient and resented any attempt to freeze them for eternity on the authority of something called 'science'… [Hacking] prefers to explore the territory that lies between the banalities. He concentrates on phenomena such as 'child abuse' or 'women refugees', wondering in what sense they existed before they were conceptualised as such and noting the 'looping effects' through which objective realities can be moulded by intellectual artefacts and hence by transient political and conceptual interests or even facts. (Times Higher Education Supplement)

Hacking's good humour and easy style make him one of those rare contemporary philosophers I can read with pleasure. (Steven Weinberg Times Literary Supplement)

A welcome and timely arrival. Both a philosopher of science and a contributor to constructionism, Hacking speaks across the great divide. As his book title implies, he finds that the terms of this intellectual engagement vary considerably from case to case, and that the terminology of this engagement has all too often been sloppily employed on both sides. Examining an eclectic range of examples, from a nasty ethnographic spat over Captain Cook's murder on a Hawaiian beach to the influence of weapons research on the related hard sciences, he teases out the finer points that constitute the middle ground… By meting out credit while illuminating complexities, nuances, and missteps on both sides, Hacking's work implicitly urges a truce in the science wars. (Kenneth Gergen Civilization)

While informed by a sophisticated grasp of the issues, [The Social Construction of What?] is accessible, witty, and good-humored in tone. There are fascinating discussions of social constructionist claims regarding subjects are diverse as gender, Zulu nationalism, quarks, and dolomite. (T. A. Torgerson Choice)

Hacking is one of the best philosophers of science and society of our time. Here, as usual, he argues from carefully researched examples… This is a delightful book—evenhanded, fun to read, and packed with information on everything from nuclear physics, nanobacteria, and madness to the deification of Captain Cook. (Leslie Armour Library Journal)

[Ian Hacking] dispute[s] the claims of leftist professors, who try to fight oppression by showing that race, gender and sexuality, far from being legitimate bases for discrimination, are hardly real at all and merely the results of 'social construction.' In The Social Construction of What? the distinguished philosopher looks at how this kind of argument works, and particularly at cases—in the natural sciences, and with social phenomena like child abuse in which it can endanger a clear sense of what 'reality' is. (Publishers Weekly)

In his Preface, Hacking describes this book as a kind of primer for noncombatants in the culture wars, understood as being fought between the 'social constructionists' who hold that knowledge is constitutively and importantly a social product, and those who see knowledge as being importantly distinct from the social realm (scientists being the exemplary instances of the latter). I especially like his discussion of the social sciences and their peculiar relation to their objects—the discussion of 'interactive kinds' and the 'looping effect' through which people can reflexively react to social science descriptions by, for example, acting out and upon such descriptions. There is an interesting line of development here concerning the difference between the social and the natural sciences, and the different senses of 'construction' that might be appropriate to each. The book accomplishes its chosen task in clarifying what constructionism is about and why people get excited about it. I might add that besides noncombatants in the culture wars, the book should interest and inform some of the combatants, too—it should help the anticonstructionists get clearer on the actual contours of their enemy's position. Hacking is one of the most important philosophers working today. (Andrew Pickering, author of Constructing Quarks and The Mangle of Practice)

This book offers a helpful contribution to the discussion of social constructionism and its limits, both for hard scientists who feel threatened by it and for those who practice it. This is a fun book, as Hacking takes pokes at social constructionists and clarifies what they are about. (Matthew P. Lawson Health, Illness, and Medicine)

An interesting and invaluable frontline perspective on the causes and results of the revolution from someone close enough to it to understand it and explain it to the rest of us. Its chief merits are its linguistic clarity, intellectual scope, and self-referentiality… Communication scholars who know little about social construction will find this a very readable introduction to the major ideas being debated. (Scott R. Olson Journal of Communication)

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Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Impolite Feud Properly Gerrymandered Oct. 19 2003
Format:Paperback
For about forty years now there's been a war between two groups of knuckleheads. One group uses social constructionism (or constructivism) to deflate the necessity and relevance of their pet peeves - science is sometimes one of the peeves. The other group of knuckleheads, usually professional peevers, argue back that social constructionists are a bunch of knuckleheads. The practical result of this feud has been significant shifts in social policies, research grant funding, tenure, education programs and a host of tangible issues that bother a lot of knuckleheads, like me.
Professor Hacking tries to take the middle ground in this debate. In a series of disjointed chapters (some of which were published before in different contexts) he explains social constructionism in a way that both (a) deflates some of the bad armchair constructionist-speak and (b) makes good sense of constructionism to skeptics of the *discipline* - who really can't be blamed after all. I mean, since Berger and Luckmann's outstanding treatise so much poop has been published under that rubric.
Professor Hacking admirably accomplishes this mediation by clarifying, loudly and slowly as it were, exactly what social constructionism IS NOT. This is a handy way to quell mis-directed criticisms, hopefully. Less ink is spent telling us what it IS in any way that wasn't already (mis)understood by its critics. It's not a bad idea to have some basic understanding of the sociology of knowledge going into this - and I don't mean the kind of knowledge one gleans from reading books which APPLY constructionism; they're usually the poop.
The chapter about Child Abuse and the chapter about Weapons Research (and parts of the one on Natural Sciences) are worth the price of the book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Balanced and helpful, but also frustrating Feb. 27 2001
Format:Paperback
In the neverending battle to define "what is real" for each other, to persuade each other of what is good, bad, and important, one disturbing trend in academia is to jump on the bandwagon of things considered "socially constructed." The banner of social construction has become a lightning rod of sorts for all sorts of bizarre things that represent what the author refers to in terms of "rage against reason." X was socially constructed, and therefore is unreal, and even bad, and should be modified or replaced by Y.
Emotions, knowledge, the mind, the economy, the deficit, gender, mental illness, even facts and reality, all have been subjected to literary claims that they are "socially constructed."
Hacking provides an interesting perspective on this whole trend by de-emphasizing the social aspect and focusing on the construction aspect. He views this simply as a way of arguing against the inevitability of something. For example, arguing about 'social construction' of our understanding of quarks in physics, part of the standard model, the question becomes whether an alternate equally successful science could have arisen that had no such concept as a quark. Hacking then struggles with what a successful science means, and how we would recognize it. There are many examples that follow this pattern, each discussed in terms of whether X was inevitable, and thus how else it could have been constructed in our minds and in culture.
Hacking goes as far as an offhanded treatment of nominalism and essentialism relevant to this inevitability question (essential qualities are those that are seen as inevitable). He breaks down difficult questions into relatively simple ones using this same kind of straightforward procedure.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is there a social constructionist at 30,000 feet? Jan. 22 2012
Format:Paperback
Prominent scientists, notably Steven Weinberg, have spoken out against the social construction fad. You can't treat inexorable laws of nature like that! Scientific results are the deepest truths we know, and hold regardless of society and its constructions. "Any intelligent alien anywhere," Weinberg says, "would have come upon the same logical system as we have to explain the structure of protons and the nature of supernovae."

How could he know that? If intelligent aliens were as common as blackberries, someone like Weinberg might know what he claims to. But they aren't, and he doesn't. Weinberg oversteps the limits of serious expertise, and expects the same authority he commands on specialist turf. For all his accomplishments, however, Weinberg knows no more about how aliens think than you or I do. His stance differs from the social constructionism he criticizes only in its unexamined metaphysical assumptions.

Coleridge said that everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. Hacking's contention is that today's "science wars" also rehearse this "profound and ancient philosophical dispute." Bruno Latour and Steven Weinberg represent philosophical attitudes "that have opposed each other for at least 2300 years." Weinberg is in the tradition of High Rationalism, from Plato to Steven Hawking. The social constructionists are modern-day Sophists. They see convention everywhere that the platonists see nature, and they are more interested in the rhetoric of persuasion than the proof of truth. "Although social constructionists bask in the sun they call postmodernism, they are really very old fashioned."

The issues between them, however, are real. Hacking does not try to debunk either side.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
106 of 107 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Analytical Tour de Force Jan. 5 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Social Construction of What? marks Ian Hacking's first book-length foray into the pitched battle over the nature and status of the natural, medical and social sciences. It's a truly stunning work: elegant, analytical, insightful. It also represents a useful introduction to the various themes which characterise the collected work of arguably the greatest living philosopher of the Western world.
For the most part I endorse the thoughtful review sent in by the reader from London. I want to make a gentle amendment to her/his careful characterisation of the book. I'm not so sure that Hacking is 'Clearly on the side of the constructionists'. To put it thus is, of course, a useful corrective to the absurd implications of Daniel Johnson's review of this book in the New York Times Book Review. There Johnson tries to portray Hacking as sharing Johnson's own contempt for social constructionists, which Hacking clearly does not. But I see Hacking as doing something more than simply siding with one group against the other.
In this book Hacking carefully disentangles the various arguments being made by both parties in the culture/science 'wars'. Unlike those who indulge in knee-jerk scepticism about constructionism (a.k.a., many believe, 'postmodernism'), he finds much of value in the consciousness-raising motivations of social constructionists. He also applauds their attention to historical detail and their treatment of intellectual/theoretical pursuits like the natural and social sciences as ongoing social activities, with important, often unintended effects on our everyday lives. On the other hand, Hacking suspects that much of the current vogue for the language of social construction is simply a case of bandwagon-jumping, and explicitly states that he has seldom found that language useful in his own work. He does not hesitate to expose certain claims made by both sides as 'tomfoolery', but is careful in so doing to point out that there is an important kernel of insight in the reasoning of thinkers as starkly at odds as Steven Weinberg and Bruno Latour. As Hacking makes clear in his chapter on the natural sciences, there are important intuitions buried in the metaphysical convictions of scientists and constructionists. When it comes down to putting his money where his mouth is, Hacking's self-evaluation puts his own commitments squarely in the middle. He scores himself a 2, 3 and 4 out of 5 on the three 'sticking-points' that are at the heart of the disagreement over social construction in the sciences.
But is Hacking just sitting on the fence? I don't think so; in fact, I think he offers us a third way, so to speak. You get a taste of this third way in his discussions of 'interactive kinds', 'forms of knowledge', 'styles of reasoning', 'self-vindication', 'making up people', 'looping effects', and other unfamiliar concepts. These make up part of Hacking's own attempt to grapple with human knowledge, and they are subsumed by neither social constructionism nor mainstream analytic philosophy -- which isn't to say he hasn't drawn a lot from both.
A word to the prospective reader: be careful when interpreting Ian Hacking. His clear and polished prose can be deceptive. His own views are so sophisticated and fine-grained that it is easy to pigeon-hole him into irrelevant categories. But don't let that stop you from reading him yourself -- with some patience, you will find your efforts well rewarded.
115 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to take imperfect knowledge seriously Jan. 14 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
One of the things Hacking has taken from Wittgenstein is his aversion to grand theory-making in philosophy. Unlike some philosophers, Hacking has learned from mistakes of the past and is not doomed to repeat them. Those who want grand, clear-cut theories in their philosophy are liable to be frustrated by the present book, and come up short in their interpretations of it (see the reviews in the Economist and the NY Times Book Review, for example). It's not that Hacking does not have a position, it's just that, as the reviewer from New York wrote, his distinctions are finely-spun and less subtle minds may have trouble getting a grip on them. Hacking is too humane and takes the world, people, and people's coping far too seriously to be glib about things (_pace_ the one-star reviewer below). Indeed, his writings, from the earlier books on probability and scientific realism to his paper on "Styles of reasoning" and his later books on psychiatric issues, can all, I think, be illuminated by the rubric "how to take imperfect knowledge seriously".
Those rare science warriors, on either side of the debate, who polemically espouse the perfection of their cause will therefore be disappointed. For the rest of us, Hacking's careful commentary on the issue comes like a gust of fresh air. Hacking really admires science, and he understands it pretty well, too. But remember the rubric: "taking imperfect knowledge seriously". Hacking certainly doesn't think that all that's true and can be said about science is said by science or dogmatic scientists themselves. Some of the social constructionists have exposed important if imperfect historical truths, too.
Those who are interested in broader debates on social constructionism will certainly profit from this book. I will not say more, as I think the reviewers from New York and London have summed things up well. Although this book is topical and has a nice, shiny cover, I will say that if you are mainly interested in getting acquainted with Hacking's style of philosophy, one of his earlier books will serve you better. Representing and Intervening is probably your best bet.
One more thing: while Hacking is serious, as the reviews suggest, he can also be extremely funny, if in a dry way. Hacking's books, unlike some philosophy, are a joy to read.
74 of 80 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Balanced and helpful, but also frustrating Feb. 27 2001
By Todd I. Stark - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In the neverending battle to define "what is real" for each other, to persuade each other of what is good, bad, and important, one disturbing trend in academia is to jump on the bandwagon of things considered "socially constructed." The banner of social construction has become a lightning rod of sorts for all sorts of bizarre things that represent what the author refers to in terms of "rage against reason." X was socially constructed, and therefore is unreal, and even bad, and should be modified or replaced by Y.
Emotions, knowledge, the mind, the economy, the deficit, gender, mental illness, even facts and reality, all have been subjected to literary claims that they are "socially constructed."
Hacking provides an interesting perspective on this whole trend by de-emphasizing the social aspect and focusing on the construction aspect. He views this simply as a way of arguing against the inevitability of something. For example, arguing about 'social construction' of our understanding of quarks in physics, part of the standard model, the question becomes whether an alternate equally successful science could have arisen that had no such concept as a quark. Hacking then struggles with what a successful science means, and how we would recognize it. There are many examples that follow this pattern, each discussed in terms of whether X was inevitable, and thus how else it could have been constructed in our minds and in culture.
Hacking goes as far as an offhanded treatment of nominalism and essentialism relevant to this inevitability question (essential qualities are those that are seen as inevitable). He breaks down difficult questions into relatively simple ones using this same kind of straightforward procedure. In analyzing the social construction of X for many examples, he looks for those elements of X that were inevitable, and those that serve "extra-theoretical" purposes and could have been constructed differently.
One particularly unique aspect of hacking's work here, the prototype of social constructionism here is not the sociology of science in general. He uses Pickering, LaTour, and Woolgar as his prime examples, rather than folks like Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, who are often considered in the same category. Hacking considers them distinct for his purposes, and this reveals some interesting distinctions.
What I liked best about this book is that while it is carefully done, there is an offhanded air about the points Hacking makes. He makes some very difficult analyses seem very easy by pulling particularly useful examples from the literature. He navigates a lot of difficult philosophy by asking deceptively simple questions, like "what is the point ?" rather than "what is the meaning ?"
There are some interesting sweeping gestures here like claiming that social construction can simply by thought of as an argument against the inevitability of X, and then analyzed for how committed the author is to claiming X is bad and overturning X. Another interesting example is Hacking's description of essentialism as simply a way of talking about inevitability.
This book is somewhat disappointing if you're looking for simple answers to each of the questions posed, "is X socially constructed or not ?" However, it provides an extremely helpful way of looking at each case and trying to decide whether a 'social construction' critique actually has any value, or whether it just gives the history of the topic. Perhaps most useful is Hacking's "3 sticking points" with which to address the construction of a concept: contingency, nominalism, and stability.
This is a thinking person's book, but not nearly as incomprehensible to the layman as most works of modern philosophy, and much easier to read and more helpful than most of the "social construction" literature itself.
I'd go as far as to say that in many cases, we could replace the "social construction of X" arguments with Hacking's style of analysis about inevitability and the 3 sticking points, and come up with a more enlightening answer about the reality of the X in question.
If there is any flaw that I found here it is that I didn't think there was enough detail provided on any one topic to resolve the questions asked, they are pretty much all examples, and more questions are raised than answered. That can get maddening when you are just getting interested in the topic.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Are the Science Wars a Social Construction? March 31 2003
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Like many people might, I looked at the title of this one and fell in love. "Social construction of what?" I'm in, I said to myself, for a great 'take em down' kind of book a la Dawkins and Sokal and, honestly, I love those kind of books. Well, I used to; untill Hacking took all the fun out!!
Why do I say that? Because I've been fooled all these years by gross caricaturizations of social constructionism (which, as were told, ALWAYS must be synonymous with relativism). This book, the only neutral one I've seen, is devoted to explaining, I think, to both sides of the debate (if you want to call it that!) that there is much more middle ground than is realized. Like most answers to most questions, the most likely answer to "Are you a social constructivist?" should be "It depends on the circumstance".
Hacking, a philosopher of science, goes through different meanings of social construction: on the less contreversial side, we have laws and I.Q. Not many will say these aren't real in the sense that they work, but besides that they don't really exist. You can't hold them, directly observe them; they are social tools. In the middle, you have mental disorders and averages. Like the others, they don't exist outside of our classification of them. (one might make a case for mental retardiation, but ask five psychiatrists what "schizophrenia" is and you will get five different answers). The most contreversial, of course, are things like gender and physical matter. Both of these things are observable, thus, it is hard t osee how social construction can change anything with them. Hacking calmly explains how some people suggest you can.
Anyhow, Hackings point is that most of us, however small a degree, are social constructionists about something; we just didn't know it. For my part, on Hackings three part quiz (try it, you'll like it!) I scored a 4-5-1. I never would've realized that by reading more of the polarized books about the science wars and the straw-men therein. Makes me woner...Are the science wars social constructs?....
29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Pacifist in the Culture Wars May 4 2000
By David Ozonoff - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is terrific. Humane, balanced, measured observations of the battle between those who see science as socially constructed and those who hew to a more naive realism (most scientists, like myself), written by a self-professed non-combatant. The views expressed are insightful, sophisticated and very informative for those not familiar with this kind of internecine warfare. Some of the chapters were written at other times and do not fit completely, but there is enough here to satisfy anyone wanting to know what the fuss is all about and how it might be understood. A really wonderful book that deserves a wide readership.

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