We’ve all heard the term “socially constructed.” It usually comes up like this: “well you know [so-and-so] is just a social construct anyway.”
The giveaway, of course, is the word “just.” Folks who use the term this way are trying to tell you, in a fancy way, that they regard the category under discussion as some combination of arbitrary, artificially (which is to say, inappropriately) imposed, invented, hypothetical, fictitious (which tells you how little they think of literature) or just outrightly false.
Race, gender, sexuality, all get tossed into the intellectual meat grinder (instead of salad spinner) this way. Of course, nobody really howls until science gets tossed in there.
What, science? Holy Science?
A Rascally Aside
Folks who know me know I’m no Luddite. I rely on science every day, and frankly wish I knew a lot more about it. What I’m against is scientism, the unquestioned belief in the superiority of natural scientific claims to truth over all others, such as those that come from the humanities.
In a scientistic culture, we do an awful lot of pretending there’s only one form of truth. What’s funny is we do so understanding perfectly well that truth works differently (or means qualitatively different things) in different fields such as math, the natural sciences, literature, history, and the arts.
We know, for example, the difference between telling the truth, being true to oneself (or another) and a true work of art. We know intuitively there’s a difference between factual, literary, mythological, psychological, existential, and spiritual truth.
If you’re of the opinion that the arts and humanities provide a perfectly legitimate form of truth, just not the same one you find on the chalkboard or in the laboratory, then you’re with me. If so, you may also think it’s a cheap way for disciplines (or people) to puff themselves up by bringing others down. In this way I think saying things like “we scientists have access to the truth, unlike those Chaucer scholars,” or “when has the study of philosophy ever cured anyone of malaria?” are just silly examples of scientism.
In short, I think we can be scientists as well as scholars. It follows that I don’t think being a scientist is any more incompatible with being a lover of God than it is with being a lover of the arts or literature.
Yes, science. Here’s how the cocktail party discussion typically goes down. Again, I wish people got this upset when other things get pureed, but anyway:
“So you think science is a social construct.”
“Yes, I do.”
“What about the theory of gravity? That’s part of science, isn’t it?”
“All right, if gravity is socially constructed, I dare you to walk out this window right now.”
The howls of derisive laughter are not obligatory. The smug look, however, is.
Of course no one thinks gravity — or science — is fake. But to those poor souls infected with scientism, that’s exactly how the non-science world (e.g., of religion and the humanities) looks: vacuous, deliberately obscurantist, and just plain silly, what with all these “perspectives” on Shakespeare.
So what’s going on here? My take is this: I don’t think the term “socially constructed” is trying to say anything about a concept’s reality. It’s aiming instead at its objectivity. Here’s what I mean.
In school, one of the first things we’re taught is that 2 + 2 = 4. All well and good. But then they throw you a curveball, followed by a fastball and slider.
The curveball goes like this: since mathematical objects such as 2 + 2 = 4 are universal (true on Earth as well as Mars), they are independent of perspective. And since perspectives are held by people (OK, sentient beings), they must also be independent of human needs, concerns, and agendae.
The word we use for this most felicitous condition is “objective.” On the other side of the railroad tracks, of course, are “subjective” notions, such as opinions, which are entirely dependent on perspective.
Then comes a fastball: scientific laws, dates, particular interpretations (of history, religion, the body politic) are also packaged as “facts” and sold as enjoying the same status as mathematical objects.
Finally, the slider: these “objective facts” are then presented as the gold standard of truth. You are now invited to worship these “objective” truths the way a previous age (which we look down our historical nose at) worshipped God.
Why? Well, because only heathens, you see, coerce one another with deities, threats, and rifles. We civilized folks coerce one another with the force of logic, the “better argument,” rational assent, and this thing called the consent of the governed (which curiously seems to depend on your being Mr. Spock rather than Dr. McCoy).
Now when we say something is socially constructed we’re not questioning 2 + 2 = 4, we’re questioning the curveball. Sure the law of gravity applies to everyone, but does that mean it exists independent of human concerns? Does it stand outside the flow of culture and human history? Not at all – the law is meaningless absent the human (all right, all right, sentient) effort to predict, control, and influence nature.
For further giggles, take away measurement altogether from the human experience (I know it’s tough, but work with me here). Guess what else disappears now? That’s right: mathematical objects.
By my reckoning, the only people ever to claim something was fully independent of anything human referred to that property as transcendence and attributed it to the Divine. Now that’s fine if that’s where you think science wants to go, but my sense is that a lot of scientists might disagree.
Look, I don’t think there’s any question that things like race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity exist. The intellectually interesting question is: in what way? The same way as gravity?
We can be more specific. What is the nature of such concepts? What is their philosophical status? And what is their relationship to human living? Those are the questions opened up by social constructionism; at least, as I understand it.
I don’t think it takes away from the reality of scientific laws to say they arise from human efforts to predict, control, or influence. I happen to think that’s a very important part of who we are as a species.
Let’s just not pretend that such laws exist in a universe separate from our own, that we need a special kind of passport to cross from the universal to the particular. We don’t.
Worst of all, let’s not pretend that if a truth isn’t mathematical and/or immediately clear it isn’t a real truth. Life, literature, and love are chock full of vital lessons for us, very few of which make it to our ears the first time around.
This next part is for my more religiously inclined readers, particularly those with some exposure to Christianity. Saying something is “socially constructed” is arguing that its universality comes by way of immanence rather than transcendence. That is to say, 2 + 2 = 4 becomes universal by being of this earth, not fleeing from it.
Sound like anybody you know?
Ok, back to earth. For me the most important thing is that social constructionism isn’t a finger in the eye of the sciences. It is, instead, a call to look at the ways in which we create theoretical objects, particularly our most useful and cherished ones, and for what reasons.
That’s all. 🙂
Coming soon: What is Theory?