Most Helpful First | Newest First
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is there a social constructionist at 30,000 feet?,
This review is from: The Social Construction of What? (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. Instead, he patiently sifts their disagreements to identify three philosophical sticking points, where the two sides fall apart on issues of long standing.
Richard Dawkins quipped that nobody is a social constructionist at 30,000 feet. Clever, but inept. The constructionist claim is not that scientific propositions are false, nor artifacts built with them unreliable. The target is not the logical truth of scientific propositions, but the social sources of their credibility, and of scientific authority. Showing an important discovery (quarks, microbes) to be "socially constructed" is not supposed to make us skeptical about quarks or microbes. It is instead an invitation to rethink the idea that Science is a bastion of objective knowledge, or the Scientist a guardian "of the most important truths about the world," truths which the laity should receive with "pious reverence."
Ian Hacking is among the best philosophers now writing about science. His book is about more than an ephemeral Kulturkampf. 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. It is nothing less than the intellectual authority of modern science. "Fuzzy dragon" that it may be, social constructionism poses a serious argument. To answer it, philosophers and scientists will have to think hard about how science works and why it is important.
This review originally appeared in Science 285 (9 July 1999).
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Impolite Feud Properly Gerrymandered,
This review is from: The Social Construction of What? (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. For me it didn't get going 'till about half way through. Professor Hacking's style was sometimes strained to be neutral. The book did not flow well from chapter to chapter - and I was surprised that he could write a chapter called "Madness: Biological or Constructed?" with only a glance toward Thomas Szasz. Maybe I'm just old fashioned.
I gained a lot of respect for the author while reading this. The book both educated me on the state and history of the feud AND provided me with a better understanding of where Professor Hacking is coming from. This knucklehead gives it 4 stars.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Balanced and helpful, but also frustrating,
This review is from: The Social Construction of What? (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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Are the Science Wars a Social Construction?,
This review is from: The Social Construction of What? (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?....
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking (Paperback - Nov 15 2000)
CDN$ 29.03 CDN$ 18.77