Friday, August 15, 2008

Social construction is not arbitrary

In a rather stupid discussion on tggp's blog I managed to articulate a point about social construction that I have not previously seen made in any reasonable and concise form, so I'm pulling the thought out and expanding on it here, for the edification of the world.

The point I was trying to make is that while many things are socially constructed, that doesn't imply that they are 100% arbitrary. We make the world but we do not make it just as we please. Whatever is constructed must conform to the structure of physical reality and of human cognition. So, for instance, while religion is a paradigmatic example of a socially constructed system, with different cultures having very different religions, they all have some broad similarities based on the cognitive and cultural role of religion (eg, to use one of Boyer's examples, all religions posit supernatural agents that care about human action -- there is no religion that has indifferent supernatural beings).

When it comes to the social construction of science, there is a great deal more confusion, which I'm not going to clear up in a blog post. Without going into the details, suffice it to say that even the most radical of constructionists of science (like Bruno Latour) don't believe that scientists can just make science anything they want to.

The subject of the original discussion was the ontological status of mental illness, which seems like a great example -- it's clearly a socially constructed category, since what counts as a mental illness varies greatly over time (homosexuality used to be, now it's not, for instance). Yet it's also quite clear that in at least some forms of mental illness there is something objectively physical going wrong, although we don't know what it is. So our categories for them, as detailed in the DSM-IV, are quite obviously made up but also reflect something going on in reality. People like Thomas Szasz argue that it's entirely made up and therefore illegitimate, but anyone who has had to deal with a genuinely disturbed person is not likely to buy into his view.

Anyway, here's the interesting parts of the earlier discussion, initiated and provoked by the sort of rampaging halfwit-convinced-of-their-own-genius that one finds on the internet.

melendwyr:

Do you believe agents of the Party can fly around the room if they so will?

me:

Saying something is socially constructed does not meant that it is wholly arbitrary. This is a common confusion.

The quote about “agents of the Party” is funny and telling. You assume that society is some oppressive outside force. It isn’t. You’re soaking in it. You make it and it makes you.

And, to back off a little bit — not everything is a social construct. Reality is what it is (an instantiation of the Schrödinger equation, let’s say). Some concepts are biologically innate (color, objects, up vs down). But everything interesting that we talk about is a sociocultural construct. Not arbitrary, because it all rests on the other layers, but highly malleable and subject to all sorts of primate politics

This produced some sputtering insults from melendwyr that I won't bother to reproduce. Me again:

Let’s see. You said that social construction implies that people can fly at will. I pointed out that that is not, in general, what social constructionists believe. To repeat, Saying something is socially constructed does not meant that it is wholly arbitrary. You haven’t produced anything that supports your position over mine.

...There should be no doubt that some things are socially constructed. Institutions like the US Government or Microsoft are built out of people’s social practices, and obviously could be constructed differently than they are — but not arbitrarily (it would be hard, for instance, to have a government with sovereignty over left-handed people rather than over a particular geographic area).

To take a more challenging example, take Newton’s laws of motion. Are these social constructs? Well, sort of — that’s why we attribute them to Newton, and he himself admitted to standing on the shoulders of giants who presumably were also part of society. Also, the fact that we call them “laws” — an implied and imperfect metaphor based on human law is significant, as is the fact that they are an imperfect approximation to the actual regularities of the physical world. But, that doesn’t mean that Newton pulled them out of his ass, or that he could have just as easily come up with an inverse-linear or inverse-cube law of gravity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well-written!

Hopefully Anonymous
http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com