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?.)

How can race be a cause of something like asthma?

Though I’ve posed this posting around the question of “race and asthma,” the question here isn’t really about public health. It is rather concerned with the general question, how can a group characteristic be a causal factor in enhancing some other group characteristic?

Suppose the facts are these: that African-Americans have a higher probability of developing asthma, even controlling for income levels, education levels, age, and urban-suburban residence. (I don’t know if the facts support this statement, but it is the logic that I am concerned with here.) And suppose that the researcher summarizes his/her findings by saying that “being African-American causes the individual to have a higher risk of developing asthma.” How are we supposed to interpret this claim?

My preferred interpretation of statements like these is to hypothesize a causal mechanism, presently unknown, that influences African-American people differentially and produces a higher incidence of asthma. Here are a few possibilities:

  • (a) African-Americans as a population have a lower level of access to quality healthcare and are more likely to be uninsured. Asthma is a disease that is best treated on the basis of early diagnosis. Therefore African–Americans are more likely to suffer from undiagnosed and worsening asthma. This hypothesis is inconsistent with the assumed facts, however, in that the assertion is that the pattern persists even when we control for income.
  • (b) Asthma is an inner-city disease. It is stimulated by air pollution. African-Americans are more likely to live in inner-city environments because of the workings of residential segregation. So race causes exposure which in turn causes a higher incidence of the disease. (Again, this hypothesis is inconsistent with the stated facts that stipulate having controlled for residence.)
  • (c) There might be an unidentified gene that is more frequent in people with African ancestry than non-African ancestry and that makes one more susceptible to asthma. If this were correct, then we would expect the discrepancy to disappear if we control for frequency of this gene. Groups of white and black people randomly selected but balanced so that the frequency of the gene is the same in both groups should show the same incidence of asthma.
  • (d) It could be that there is a nutritional component to the onset of asthma, and it could be that cultural differences between the two communities lead the African-American population to have higher levels of exposure to the nutritional cause of the disease.

And of course we could proliferate possible mechanisms.

In each case the logic of the account is similar. We proceed by hypothesizing a factor or combination of factors that increase the likelihood of developing asthma; and then we try to determine whether this collalateral factor is more common in the African-American community. Some of these stories would amount to spurious correlations, while others would constitute stories in which the fact of race (as opposed to a factor with which race is accidentally correlated) plays an essential role in the causal story. (Reduced access to healthcare and inner city air pollution fall in this category, since it is institutional race segregation that causes the higher-than-normal frequency of urban residence for African-Americans.)

So this is a potential interpretation of the causal meaning of a statement like “race causes an increased risk of X.” But is this now a fact about individuals or groups? Do the causal interpretations here disaggregate from group to individual? Does “higher incidence in the population” disaggregate onto statements about the factors that influence the individual’s separate risk? It appears that this causal mechanism interpretation does in fact disaggregate to the individual level, since each describes a factor that pertains to the individual and that directly influences his/her likelihood of developing the disease.

What would be most perplexing is if there were multiple sets of causal mechanisms, each independent of the others and each creating a race-specific difference in incidence of the disease. For example, it might be that both exposure to air pollution and lack of health insurance lead to a higher incidence of the disease; and further, it might be that inner-city residents do in fact have adequate healthcare but exposure to inner-city pollution; while suburban African-Americans might have less healthcare and limited exposure to air pollution. In this set of facts, both African-American populations would display higher-than-normal incidence, but for different and unrelated reasons.

Racial inequalities as a social science research topic

W. E. B. Dubois described the problem of the twentieth century as the problem of the color line. He was right — except in his expectation that the problem would be resolved within the century. It has not been resolved. American cities from east to west show the encrusted social residues of racism, racial discrimination, and racial disadvantage for African Americans. The most basic statistics and geographical patterns of most old American cities bear this out. Patterns of extreme residential and economic segregation persist in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Cleveland, and Peoria. And these patterns of residential segregation are overlain by patterns of significant inequality in the most important dimensions of human welfare. African American families suffer greater incidence of illness, lower income, lower educational attainment, and lower levels of wealth ownership. The color lines in American cities are all too legible, and what they demarcate are major differences in social wellbeing across black and white communities. (Thomas Sugrue’s book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, offers an eloquent and rigorous description of these geographical outcomes in Detroit.)

There must be social mechanisms that maintain these differences. These are not “natural” outcomes. And the social sciences should help us uncover those mechanisms. But where should we look for explanations and rigorous, honest empirical investigation? What areas of the social and behavioral sciences are most likely to offer satisfactory explanations of these patterns? And what mechanisms, at what social levels, are most likely to prove to have major impact in entrenching these patterns of racial segregation and difference over so many decades?

Several areas of social and behavioral research seem particularly relevant: the social psychology of bias and discrimination; the study of the politics and finances of urban public schooling; the study of the dynamics of public health outcomes (asthma, diabetes, heart disease); the empirical sociology of employment and employment opportunities; the politics and logistics of urban transportation systems; the culture and economics of nutrition; the sociology of the family; and, of course, the histories of American cities. It is likely that the facts of racial difference that persist are the results of a complex and interconnected set of social causes; we will need many areas of social science research and theory to allow us to sort these out.

Parallel to the question of social causation is the question of public policy: what policy choices exist for governments and other organizations to intervene in ways that begin to reduce these forms of racial disadvantage? What policy tools are efficacious in improving inner city schools, the nutrition and health of poor people, and the educational attainment of inner city youth? What policies of banking and employment can help to address the persistent inequalities of opportunity that exist with regard to borrowing and hiring? How can public policies reverse the pattern of segregation and inequality of opportunity and outcome for black and white families?

Some pressing questions–

* Are there any examples of American cities or states that have demonstrated success in redressing these patterns of racial inequality?

* How do these facts compare to the situation of other sizable minority populations in other countries–for example, France or Germany?

* When will political leaders place this persistent fact of racial inequality and diminished opportunity at the center of the political agenda for change?