Social construction?

It is common to say that various things are “socially constructed”. Gender and race are socially constructed, technology is socially constructed, pain and illness are socially constructed. I am inclined to think that these various statements are reasonable — but that they mean substantially different things and are true in very different ways. So it is important to be more explicit about what we mean when we refer to social construction.

There is one broad distinction that is most fundamental in this context — the distinction between the construction that happens in the formation of knowledge and that which occurs in the social process involving self- and other-representing agents. The distinction is one between the observer and the observed, and it is not absolute. Participants are themselves knowledge producers, and what we will recognize as their social construction involves their creation of schemes of representation. Nonetheless, there is an important line to draw between the constructions of the observer and the participant.

The crux of the issue is whether social reality is the creation of the men and women who make it up, or whether the reality is shaped and created by the conceptual lenses through which the observer frames the social phenomena. As a social realist, I want to maintain the separation between the social reality as constituted and experienced by the actors and the conceptual schemes of the observer. This position implies rejection of the epistemological version of social constructivism, the view that the observer’s concepts determine social reality.

There is a complication that needs to be addressed but that doesn’t change the basic perspective of realism. This is the point that in some unusual circumstances it is the case that scientific concepts and theories feed back into behavior and thought of participants. The definition of some mental illnesses is a good example, as is the form of a variety of human institutions such as the factory or the prison: concepts constructed by social theorists and critics feed back into the design of the institution with the result that the next iteration of the institution is indeed partially the construction if the theorist. But these are exceptions, not the rule.

So in what sense are gender, race, or technology instances of social construction from a realist perspective? It is a social reality that societies embody identities for various groups of individuals and these identities are framed by the thoughts, behavioral, and strategies of people in society. Moreover, these thoughts and behaviors change over time as a result of the contestation that occurs around the identities. So the formulation of the identity of “African-American professional,” “Jewish garment worker,” or “gay Texan” is ultimately the result of a process of contestation, repression, and interactive social behavior. It is socially constructed through visible social processes and mechanisms. And it is constructed, not by the external observer, but by the active and subjective participants.

And what about technology? In what sense is the evolution of a technology like the bicycle or automobile socially constructed? (Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change) What historians of technology usually mean by this assertion is a denial of the idea that there is an inherent pathway of technology change that is implied by efficiency and the natural properties of materials and designs. Against this inevitable-ism of function, historians note that the actual path of technology development is most commonly driven or constrained by cultural preferences and expectations. Young men wanted an exciting adventure in their automobile in the 1910s — and so the boring electric car was doomed (Gijs Mom, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age). Weapons designers shared a culture of precision — and so inertial navigation superceded radio-guided systems (the predecessor of GPS) (Donald Mackenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance). In other words — technologies are socially constructed by the imperatives of culture in the surrounding society.

So there is a sense in which social constructivism is true and informative — and thoroughly consistent with social realism. And there is another sense in which the phrase is extreme, philosophical, and inconsistent with an empirical and realist study of social reality.

(Ian Hacking has an interesting take on these issues in The Social Construction of What?.)

Coverage of the social sciences

Suppose we took the view that the social sciences ought to provide sufficient conceptual and methodological tools to analyze and explain any kind of social behavior. This would be a certain kind of completeness: not theoretical or explanatory completeness, in the sense of having a finished set of theories that can explain everything, but conceptual completeness, in the sense that there are sufficient conceptual resources to give a basis for describing every form of social behavior, and methodological completeness, in the sense that for every possible research question there are starting point for inquiry in the social sciences. And, finally, suppose we stipulate that there are always new hypotheses to be discovered and new theories to be invented.

If this is one of the ultimate aspirations for the social sciences, then we can ask — how close is the current corpus of social science research and knowledge to this goal?

One possible answer is that we have already reached this goal. The conceptual resources of anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology serve as a “fish-scale” system of conceptual coverage that gives us a vocabulary for describing any possible configuration of social behavior. And the most basic ideas about empirical research, causal reasoning, hypothetical thinking, and interpretation of meaning give us a preliminary basis for probing and investigating any of the “new” phenomena we might discover.

Another possible answer goes in the opposite direction. The concepts of the social science disciplines are parochial and example-based. When new forms of social interaction emerge we will need new concepts on the basis of which to describe and represent these social behaviors. So concepts and empirical knowledge must go hand in hand, and new discoveries will stimulate new concepts as well.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose the social sciences had developed to this point minus micro-economics. The reduced scheme would involve many aspects of behavior and thought, but it would have omitted the category of “rational self-interest.” Is this a possible scenario? Would the reduced set be complete in the sense described above? And what kind of discovery would be required in order for these alternative-world social scientists to progress?

The incompleteness of alternative-world social science is fairly evident. There would be important ranges of behavior that would be inscrutable without the concept of rational self-interest (market equilibria, free-rider problems). And the solution would appear fairly evident as well. These gaps in explanatory scope would lead investigators to ask, what is the hidden factor we are not considering? And they would be led to discover the concept of rational self-interest.

The moral seems to be this: it is always possible that new discoveries of anomalous phenomena will demonstrate the insufficiency of the current conceptual scheme. And therefore there is never a point at which we can declare that science is now complete, and no new concepts will be needed.

At the same time, we do in fact have a rough-and-ready pragmatic confidence that the social sciences as an extended body of theories, concepts, and results have pretty well covered the primary scope of human behavior. And this suggests a vision of the way the social sciences cover the domain of the social as well: not as a comprehensive deductive theory but rather as an irregular, overlapping collection of concepts, methods, and theories — a set of fish-scales rather than an architect’s blueprint for all social phenomena.

Social description as science

Descriptive research and writing in the social sciences is generally looked at with a degree of condescension. The complaint is that science should be explanatory, and descriptive work is both shallow and trivial. We can almost hear the doctoral supervisor responding to the candidate who has spent a year in primary research in the field and in tax offices in Indonesia, producing a finely detailed descriptive study of how the fiscal institutions actually work across levels and regions: “That’s well and good, but what do you make of your findings? What patterns have you discovered? Why do the variations you’ve documented occur as they do? Where’s your theory?”

The “shallow and trivial” criticism is unfounded and unjust. Our talented field researcher will have found an enormous and surprising range of variation among the institutions and practices he has studied. And these variations cannot be inferred from some general theory of fiscal institutions. They must be discovered and documented on the ground. Further, we can’t come up with any useful theory of institutions in the absence of some rigorous, concrete, and particular descriptions of a variety of institutions. We need the complexity and texture of good, rigorous description to help produce genuinely explanatory theories. (Robert Klitgaard’s treatment of corruption fits this description nicely; Controlling Corruption.)

So detailed descriptive research is important — because the social world is unruly and varied, and there is no single rule or law that generates this diversity; and it is difficult, in that it requires extensive and disciplined efforts at observation and discovery. Moreover, descriptive research is theoretical in one important respect: deciding upon the features of the phenomena that are worth recording is itself the result of preliminary hunches about what is salient or significant. (Of course there is no such thing as pure description.)

At the same time, the critic is right in one important respect: having documented variation in practices and local implementation of the basic fiscal institutions, it is quite reasonable to expect the researcher to try to find some explanations of this variation. Our graduate student now needs to reconsider the manuscript and try to determine whether any of the variation and particularity makes sense from the point of view of known social mechanisms. Why did the Indonesian fiscal system evolve into the variegated structure it now consists of? And this is where social theory is most useful — not as a grand explanatory scheme, but as many small bits of theory capturing some relevant features of behavior and institution-building in these particular circumstances. So, for example, our graduate student may notice that principal-agent problems are endemic in fiscal institutions. Given that taxes are being assessed and paid, all the participants have some motivation to subvert the process. So it may be that some observed variants can be explained as strategic efforts to solve principal-agent problems. Or as another example — limited and unreliable forms of communication may exist in some parts of the country under study, and features of the fiscal system in these under-served regions may have been selected because they are less reliant on swift, accurate communication.

Maybe this gives a basis for assessing the role of descriptive inquiry in the social sciences.

  • Because social phenomena are heterogeneous and plastic, there is an important and enduring role for careful descriptive inquiry. The task of discovering and documenting the variety and diversity of social phenomena is both important and intellectually challenging.
  • Because social phenomena emerge from purposive human agency, there are an open-ended number of social mechanisms that are potentially relevant to the diversity that is discovered.
  • And because we are ultimately interested in explaining as much variation as we can, it is desirable to bring those theoretical widgets to bear on various elements of the diversity that is discovered in the descriptive research.

And, finally, it is unrealistic to imagine that either description or theorizing can be conducted solely independently. Instead, description requires theorizing and conceptualizing, and theorizing requires some accurate descriptions of the world to work with. As Kant wrote in a different context, “Concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts are blind.”

(As I imagine the hypothetical example above I think of Alfred Russel Wallace’s fine and detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of the Malay archipelago, and the role that this detailed natural history played in the formation of his own and Darwin’s theories of natural selection. The purpose of the theory was to find some degree of order in the intricate diversity of the biological domain. But the biology of species had a major advantage over the sociology of institutions and practices: there was in fact only one governing mechanism, random variation and selection, so it was possible to encompass the full range of observed diversity under a single ecological theory. The case is different in the social world because there are multiple independent causes leading to social differentiation.)

Empirical constraints on sociological theories

What makes sociology “scientific”? An important component of a reply is that assertions, hypotheses, and theories are subject to the test of empirical evidence. Hypotheses need to be evaluated in terms of observations of how the real world behaves. We should evaluate our assertions in terms of their fit with the empirical facts. This is the “empiricist” constraint.

Post-positivist philosophers of science have noticed that these simple ideas raise many of puzzles, however. Consider these points:

  • No set of observable facts guarantees the truth of a scientific assertion.
  • There is no sharp distinction between observation and theory; our observations of the empirical facts commonly depend upon the assumption of some elements of scientific theory. Observations are “theory-laden”.
  • Even the empirical “facts” are subject to multiple interpretations; it is often possible to redescribe a set of observations in a way that appears to support contradictory hypotheses.

In the social sciences there are additional complexities about how to arrive at empirical observations and measurements.

  • Social observations require us to “operationalize” the empirical facts we want to observe. For example, we may want to observe the standard of living of the working class. But we cannot achieve this directly. Instead, we need to arrive at “proxies” that are plausibly indicative of the property in question. So the wage basket that can be purchased with a given average money wage may be the index we use for measuring the standard of living. But there are other defensible ways of operationalizing the standard of living, and the various criteria may yield results that behave differently in given times and places.
  • Social observation requires aggregation of measurements over a diverse group of individuals. We have to make judgments and choices when we arrive at a process for aggregating social data — for example, the choice of using the gini coefficient rather than the share of income flowing to the bottom 40 percent as a measure of income inequality, or using the median rather than the mean to observe changes in income distribution. These choices must be made — and there are no decisive empirical reasons that would decide the issue.
  • Social concepts are needed to allow us to break down the social world into a set of facts. But there are plausible alternative conceptual schemes through which we can understand the nature and varieties of social phenomena. So, once again, we cannot hold that “observation” determines “theory”.

These are familiar logical difficulties with the basic requirement of empiricism. However, they are not fatal difficulties. At bottom, it remains true that there is such a thing as social observation. It is necessary to accept that observations are theory-laden; that no observation is uncontrovertible; and that empirical evaluation depends upon judgment. All this accepted, there is a range of social observation that is relatively close to the ground and to which we can attribute some degree of epistemic warrant. Finally, there is available to us a coherence epistemology that permits a holistic and many-sided process of conveying warrant.

My view, then, is that the situation of sociology is less like physics (highly dependent on long chains of reasoning in order to assess empirical warrant) and more like journalism (grounded in careful and reasoned constructions of observations of the social world). The social world is reasonably transparent. We can arrive at reasonably confident observations of a wide range of social facts. And we can provide a logical analysis of the degree of credibility a given sociological theory has, given a fixed set of (corrigible) observations. Much of sociology is closely tied to descriptive inquiry, and the epistemic challenges come in at the stage of building our observations rather than our theories.

Moreover, the common views that natural science theories are “under-determined” by all available evidence (so that multiple theories can be equally well supported) and that scientific theories can only be supported or undermined as wholes (with no separate confirmation for parts of theories) appear to be largely inapplicable to the social sciences. Rather, social theories are more commonly of the “middle range”, permitting piecemeal observation, testing, and empirical evaluation.

This also means that the celebrated hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation is less crucial in the social sciences than the natural sciences. The key explanatory challenge is to discover a set of causal processes that might explain the observed social world. And sophisticated observation is often the bulk of what we need.

(See “Evidence and Objectivity in the Social Sciences” for a little more on this topic. Ian Shapiro’s recent book, The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences, is a tough critique of excessive formalism and theor-ism in the social sciences.)

What kind of knowledge can philosophy offer?

Let us say that knowledge is “a set of true statements based on compelling reasons.” (This is the same as the familiar definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”.) Philosophers offer a variety of claims, and they offer arguments for their positions. But do they offer knowledge about anything? Is it possible to say that “Philosophical statement P is true”, or only that “Philosophical statement P is supported by strong and compelling reasons”? Are philosophical topics within the domain of things concerning which we can have knowledge at all?

We know what kind of knowledge empirical science provides: factual knowledge about the world and inferences or theories supported by empirical observation. We also know what kind of knowledge is offered by mathematics and logic : deductive knowledge derived from a set of axioms in one or another of the fields of mathematics. And we can specify the nature of the knowledge provided by linguistics and semantics: expository knowledge of the meanings of various words and phrases in ordinary usage. Putting these areas of inquiry very crudely, we might summarize them as “inductive knowledge,” “deductive knowledge,” and “semantic knowledge.” But what does philosophy add to our knowledge and understanding of human experience and knowledge?

Notice that knowledge and truth are interrelated. Truth, in turn, has to do with correspondence and reference. Statements refer to things and properties; statements are true or false depending on whether the things to which the statement refers in fact possesses the properties attributed to it. So a statement cannot be a piece of knowledge if it does not permit of correspondence to some independent set of facts.

Now consider the kinds of reasoning and statements that occur within philosophy.

First, philosophy offers assertions based on rigorous analysis of concepts and conceptual relationships. This exercise looks a bit like the linguistics/ semantics option above; but philosophers offer “value-added” by providing rational reconstruction of the concepts they consider. They reconstruct and improve upon the concepts of everyday language.

Second, philosophy may provide constructive analysis and further development of the methods and conceptual systems of various disciplines, including the empirical sciences. Here the philosopher is purporting to offer substantial findings that will improve upon the epistemic characteristics of existing scientific practices. Crudely, a deeper understanding of the logic of evolutionary explanation and the mathematics of natural selection is a philosophical effort, and it is a substantive contribution to the philosophy of biology and to biological theory. Here, we must ask whether there is a credible basis for the contribution. In what respect does the philosopher possess a distinctive basis for providing rational assessment and recommendations about the structure and practice of empirical science? Typically, philosophers would respond by saying that philosophical argumentation about the methods of science gains credibility through the understanding of rationality and reasoning that philosophers possess.

Third, philosophy can construct ethical theories that possess some degree of justification, beyond ordinary moral opinions. When John Rawls asks, “What is justice?”, he begins with some ordinary associations with the concept, but then builds out a theory of justice that goes far beyond ordinary language. And he offers a range of philosophical justifications in support of his theory of “justice as fairness”.

A major problem in answering the key question, what is the nature of philosophical knowledge, is the fact that we ordinarily divide knowledge into “empirical/contingent” and “formal/necessary” (or what Quine calls the “analytic/synthetic” distinction). But philosophers seem to advance their theories in a way that implies they are neither empirical nor purely formal. Kant puts this point in the form of a category of knowledge that is “synthetic a priori” — that is, knowledge that is based on purely philosophical reasoning but that is nonetheless not purely formal. (Kant’s claim that the statement “reality is spatially organized in Euclidean three-dimensional space” is true synthetic a priori asserts that the statement is necessarily true but is not a truth of logic.)

One possible stance that we might take is to restrict the concept of “knowledge” to statements about empirical states of affairs (where truth and falsity are possible), but to then postulate other categories of belief that have a degree of rational credibility without correspondence to the empirical world. On this approach, empirical statements, suitably supported, can constitute knowledge of the empirical world. Philosophical statements — statements about scientific method, the nature of beauty, or ethical principles — can be offered with rational justification but do not have the referential structure that would permit them to be “true” and do not count as knowledge. If we take this approach, then we may be justified in accepting the proposition “Justice is fairness,” but we would not be justified in thinking it is “true.” And therefore the statement is not an example of “knowledge”.

This approach sounds a bit parallel to the position of early twentieth-century logical positivism, which maintained the verificationist theory of meaning — the meaning of a sentence is the set of conditions that establish its truth or falsity — with the result that theology, philosophy, or ethics are strictly speaking meaningless. However, the two views are not the same, because this view permits that philosophical discourse is meaningful and rational; it simply denies that the statements that philosophers make either correspond or fail to correspond with facts about the world.

The conclusion to this line of thought is somewhat startling: philosophy does not offer knowledge at all. However, it does provide opinions and statements that are founded on good reasons, and we have rational grounds for believing these statements.

New approaches to social research?

I believe we need to create significantly new approaches to the study of the social. Positivistic sociology, formalistic political science, highly mathematicized economics–these dominant paradigms in several disciplines proceed on the basis of misleading or overly narrow conceptions of science and the social. We need to do a much better job of crafting theories and research methods to the particular features of a social research topic. And we need to be much more open to the innovations and new perspectives that are emerging in various areas of the social sciences (for example comparative historical sociology). This means that there needs to be a freeranging, innovative consideration of the ways in which it is possible to study and explain various social phenomena. (See “The Heterogeneous Social” for more discussion of this critique.)

(Ian Shapiro’s The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences is an interesting contribution.)

International social research?

I find it intriguing to imagine the sociological insights that might come from a discussion of a specific social problem that brings together the perspectives of some of the international visitors to this web site. How would observers from Manila, Lagos, Shanghai, and Detroit be able to contribute different perspectives on the issue of rising income inequality? Or the issue of racial discrimination? Or the issue of corruption? Or the challenge of an aging population?

Is there a place in the task of creating a new discipline of sociology, for the networked intelligence of observers throughout the world?

Does existing sociological theory and practice give us a basis for analyzing the important social problems that surround us — or do we need to seek out new theories, new perspectives, and new methods?

Can the richness that is present within a distributed community of thoughtful observers be the basis for a better science of sociology?

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