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The Social Construction of What? Paperback – Nov 15 2000
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[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)
<i>The Social Construction of What?</i> 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, <i>The Social Construction of What?</i>—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, [<i>The Social Construction of What?</i>] 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 <i>The Social Construction of What?</i> 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)
From the Back Cover
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.See all Product description
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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).
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?....
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In his typical upbeat tone, making use of short, almost staccato sentences, Hacking reviews several possible meanings of the phrase 'social construction', notes the "sticking points" that are the core of the disagreement, and takes some cases from sociology, geology, anthropology and physics to illustrate the problematic. Although Hacking is a fine and accessible writer, and anyone at all can read this book with pleasure, he does tend to be meandering; there is little overall structure to the book, which reads more as a series of musings by an intelligent observer on a difficult question than as a definitive stance on the issue, which Hacking doesn't really have. It's also not always clear what the relation is between the examples of scientific research and debate he cites and the philosophy of science question of social construction.
Nonetheless, his philosophical talk is always entertaining and interesting to read, and some people will definitely find a virtue in the fact Hacking never pushes an opinion on the reader, preferring to 'teach the controversy' instead. If there's a sort of philosophical popular science, this would be it.
More of a good inspirational read for instructors.
During coffee break I was told by others that Haraway was a "postmodernist" who was "deconstructing" modern biology, showing that biological theory is "socially constructed." I was still confused, because obviously all of modern science is "socially constructed." What else could it be? The next speaker was the formidable Professor Stanley Fish, now a brilliant commentator for the New York Times, but then the guru of the postmoderns, told us that even arithmetic is socially constructed. His example was the venerable denizen of the lumber yard, the two-by-four, which was in fact one-and-a-half by three-and-a-half. He concluded that "two" means "one-and-a-half" sometimes, so numbers don't mean what they say. During question and answer, I confronted him not with a question but a statement: the "two" in "two by four" refers to the unmilled size of the stock, not the milled size, so "two" does really mean "two." Similarly, the "four" really does mean (unmilled) "four."
I came home from Davis only to find a paper written by an old anthropologist friend asserting that smallpox vaccination in India was an "imperialist social construction" perpetrated to weaken Indian culture. My cozy world of rational intellectual exchange had been turned completely upside-down.
Ian Hacking's goal in this book is to explain and criticize the notion of "social construction" using the traditional tools of the professional philosopher. He begins by explaining the concept in everyday academic discourse, and then seeks its philosophical roots. He notes that when the postmodernist calls X a "social construction," he means that "X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable." (p. 6) Hacking adds that usually the critic adds that "X is quite bad as it is. We would be much better off if X were done away with or at least radically transformed." So, for instance, gender, race, emotions, mental illness, modern science, and many other things are "social constructions" and thus subject to the above critique. "Constructionists," says Hacking, "tend to maintain that classifications are not determined by how the world is, but are convenient ways in which to represent it." (p. 33)
Now of course there are social constructions that perfectly fit this definition. Social ideologies that justify racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious discrimination, or that suppress scientific truth in the name of a religious creed, are clearly social constructions, and in my view social constructions of the worst sort. But the general categories of race, ethnicity, religion, and science are not social constructions, but rather have a substantive reality independent of our wills.
Truth? The postmodernists are fond of denying any absolute notion of truth. Rather, there is truth-for-me and truth-for-you, and there is no secure way to adjudicate between our truths. For this reason, Hacking argues that constructionism is a form of philosophical nominalism, but he does not pursue this issue far, and it seems wrong to me. Nominalism vs. realism is a metaphysical issue dealing with the existence of universals, whereas postmodernism asserts that one can build up more than one total view of the world, and these views are hermetically sealed an incapable of cross-communication. This is a little like Willard van Orman Quine's theory of the indeterminacy of translation, but that also is not what the postmodernists mean. What they mean is that there is no realm of truth with which we poor humans have sufficient contact to overcome our tendency to build world-views that are to our liking, and to defend these world-view however deficient they may be in really explaining the world.
Phrased in this way, postmodern social constructionism harbors some powerful, self-critical insights. Whole books have been written validating that people can build world-views with only the slimmest relationship to reality and without any serious empirical support, and defend these views blindly in the face of the facts. Hacking, however, does not deal with this sociology of knowledge issue, but rather focuses on one critical area, natural science, where he argues forcefully against the social construction position. I will not go over his arguments, because it is clear to any reasonable person that natural science is not a social construction in the above sense, however forcefully the social constructionists have argued the opposite position. Rather, I want to consider two less clear-cut areas: public opinion and social science.
Is public opinion swayed by the facts in such contentious areas as global warming, the safety of nuclear power, and the possession of hand guns? Dan Kahan and is coauthors, in "Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus," Yale Law School Working Paper 205, 2011, for instance, conclude that "scientific opinion fails to quiet societal dispute...not because members of the public are unwilling to defer to experts but because culturally diverse persons tend to form opposing perceptions of what experts believe. Individuals systematically overestimate the degree of scientific support for positions they are culturally predisposed to accept." In other words, on contentious issues, people believe there is less scientific consensus than there really is, and place high regard for those scientists who agree with their position.
The phenomenon isolated by Kahan et al. is of course a very powerful one indeed. Moreover, there have been widely accepted yet incorrect scientific theories, often accepted without serious evidence in favor of them. For instance, social psychologists overwhelmingly supported "repressed memory" theories of child molestation as the cause of adult mental dysfunction for many years, yet the theory never had a factual basis. Similarly, autism was for decades treated as the effect of poor mothering, again without supporting evidence. Thus it is healthy for the public to take a skeptical stance with respect to scientific orthodoxy, although obviously this can be carried too far, as when parents reject vaccinations for the children even after exhaustive and thorough research has assured their overwhelmingly net positive contribution to the health of children.
Social constructionism is thus a useful theory for us to add to our box of tools for interpreting social events relating to science, although it is ultimately a fully self-destructive doctrine: if people entertain the possibility that the "authorities" are building sand-castles in the air, their critical capacities will ensure that in the long run the truth, unsullied by ideology, will win out. We should thus never underestimate the wisdom of the public in a free society where the public has access to all the facts, in addition to the pseudo-facts and non-facts.
The second area worth discussing is the behavioral sciences. Although all the behavioral disciplines pay serious attention to the gathering and analysis of the facts, most support several or even many alternative theoretical frameworks that cannot or do not talk to each other, and which one accept according to personal taste. This is true of sociology, social psychology, and anthropology, and biology, the latter taking the form of alternative models of the evolution of human society. While these disciplines refer to the facts, the facts never seem to convince proponents of one view that this view is wrong and an alternative view is correct. If one is a true scientist, one should not accept a theory as more than a working hypothesis, unless warranted by the facts. This is broadly violated in the above disciplines. Two stars for social construction theory.
Economics used to be in the same position as the other behavioral sciences, but there has been a "shake-out" in recent years that has left neoclassical economics the only game in town. This is not because the evidence supports neoclassical economics, but rather because neoclassical economics supports capitalism and capitalism has become the only game in town. But if you read neoclassical economic theory, it is often bizarre in the extreme, far from the facts, and the major neoclassical theorists are frequently arrogantly dismissive of those who point out its weaknesses. Practitioners and policy analysts care little about Grand Theory, use a small subset of basic neoclassical principles, supplemented by practical knowledge of what has worked in the past and what has not. To the extent that there are "paradigms" of social policy (free markets, limited interventionism, social democracy, etc.), they do fit the social construction theory. Free market enthusiasts, for instance, work on pure ideology, as there has never been a successful modern economy without a strongly interventionist state.
I am not happy to say that the behavioral sciences fit the social constructionist model. Note that I am not asserting that the behavioral sciences are riddled with sexism, racism, greed, self-aggrandizement, or some other fatal ingredient to good science. Rather, the behavioral sciences are rather young, and I expect them to graduate from social construction to science in coming decades. Certainly most behavioral scientists are motivated by the standard values of scientific research, including the belief that the is a single reality out there, that it is our job to discover it, and that we should be as free from personal bias as possible in our research activities. If there is a single major fatal flaw in postmodern social construction theory, it is the assertion that success in this endeavor is prima facie impossible.