Response to Little by Dave Elder-Vass

[Dave Elder-Vass accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of his recent book, The Reality of Social Construction (link). Elder-Vass is senior lecturer in sociology at Loughborough University and author as well of The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency, discussed here.  Thanks, Dave!]

Social construction and the reliability of knowledge
by Dave Elder-Vass

Daniel, thank you for a very constructive and accurate post, as always! Rather than picking on some detail to disagree with, I’d like to add something, if I may. In addition to the larger argument you’ve covered in your post, my recent book The Reality of Social Construction seeks to apply this argument to various contentious questions of social theory, and it might be useful to illustrate one of these. Perhaps the example that fits best with your interests is the discussion of the social ontology of knowledge.

One of the big issues in late C20 social theory was generated by poststructuralism’s tendency “to challenge conventional assumptions about knowledge by exposing the dependence of knowledge claims on unacknowledged social influences” (207). But these challenges were knowledge claims themselves, and it was never clear “how they might attain some kind of reflexive equilibrium in which they contribute productively to our understanding of knowledge without undermining their own epistemic status” (207). 

I try to resolve this by developing an ontology of knowledge that explores how it might simultaneously be socially constructed and also potentially reliable (though never absolutely indubitably certain) because it is also influenced by the phenomena that it is about. 

The relevant chapter argues that knowledge is a kind of authorised belief: beliefs are accepted as being knowledge when they have been formed in accordance with knowledge forming practices that are socially approved (normatively endorsed) for the kind of knowledge concerned. We are prepared, for example, to accept knowledge claims about empirical facts when they are plausibly justified on the basis of observation reports. I know that a black car just went by my window because I saw it, and others would be perfectly willing to accept this claim (unless they had reason to doubt that I really did see it) because observation is considered a suitable knowledge forming practice for claims of this sort: this is an epistemological norm, supported by an epistemological norm circle. 

I began with a non-scientific example, as I wish to swim against the tide that sees scientific knowledge as the paradigm case of all knowledge; the assumption that it is may obscure important features of knowledge understood more generally. But scientific knowledge is also an important case, and a complex one, as there are several distinct but interrelated sets of knowledge forming practices implicated in it. A student may claim to know that biological species evolve because she has read this in a suitable textbook, and most of us would be willing to accept this claim because reading from reputable scientific books is considered a suitable knowledge forming practice for claims of this sort. (There is also, in this case, a competing epistemological norm circle that supports the claim that species do not evolve on the grounds that this is an issue where reading from religious books is the appropriate knowledge forming practice). Practising scientists, on the other hand, who are generally engaged with less stable claims than those to be found in the textbooks, take a somewhat different approach. They tend to accept those claims that are endorsed by those individual scientists who are considered authorities in the area concerned. This, too, is a socially authorised knowledge forming practice. At a third level, we have those knowledge forming practices employed by the ‘authorities’ themselves; clearly these vary enormously depending on the object of study, but we may generalise and say that the critical element is that knowledge claims are ultimately to be judged by consistency with the observed empirical facts, although there are reasons, familiar from the work of Kuhn, Quine and others, why this may not be the case in the short term. 

Knowledge is therefore dependent on the normative endorsement of specific practices as being appropriate for producing beliefs that may be labelled with the honorific ‘knowledge’. It is thus socially constructed and certainly dependent on social influences. But does that make it unreliable? That depends on how effective the practices concerned are in producing reliable knowledge claims. When the practices are such that their conclusions are strongly influenced by the causal impact of the objects that the resulting belief is about, I suggest they are more likely to produce accurate knowledge. 

But knowledge forming practices are not only shaped by such considerations. Most significantly, perhaps, those with social power tend to enforce standards of belief that favour their own legitimacy. Knowledge forming practices in strongly patriarchal societies, for example, may tend to endorse knowledge claims that support the balance of gender power even though they fly in the face of other types of evidence, as numerous feminist writers on science have demonstrated. We are still too close to that kind of society to be complacent about the accuracy of all of our scientific knowledge claims, but at the same time the massive technological development of modern society indicates that in many respects our scientific knowledge-forming practices have been unprecedentedly accurate about the world they seek to explain. 

The issue here is not that social influence undermines the reliability of knowledge: all knowledge by its very nature depends on social influence, in the sense that claims only come to be accepted as knowledge if they have been obtained in socially approved ways. But some kinds of knowledge forming practices (and thus some kinds of social influence) may produce more accurate knowledge than others. In strongly differentiated modern societies, there is perhaps space for more accurate knowledge forming practices to develop in some domains, such as the natural sciences and everyday empirical knowledge, even when those in others remain more contestable. 

This leaves us with a perspective on knowledge that recognises it is always at risk of being wrong, but also accepts that some knowledge claims may be well founded. This is not a perspective that undermines itself, but it is certainly one that demands humility over the possibility of error. 

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