Elder-Vass on social realism

Dave Elder-Vass’s arguments for the real causal powers of social structures have been considered here several times (linklink).  Elder-Vass’s recent book, The Reality of Social Construction, addresses this subject from a different point of view.  Here he is interested in the question of the collision of social realism and social constructivism, generally thought of as being incompatible perspectives on the nature of the social world.  E-V does not believe they are in fact incompatible, and the thrust of the current book is to make the case for this point of view.

This book, however, develops and substantiates the critical realist argument that social scientists should be both realists and social constructionists. (3)

Here are some of the ideas he offers as aspects of social constructionism:

If there is one claim that is definitive of social constructionism, it is the argument that the ways in which we collectively think and communicate about the world affect the way that the world is. (4) 

Social constructionisms derive their force from a further claim: that changing the ways in which people collectively think and/or communicate about the world in itself constitutes a change with significance for the social world. (5) 

Radical constructionists tend to deny any such distinction [between what depends upon how we think about it and what does not], on the grounds that everything depends on the ways in which we think about it, or at least to include in the socially constructed category things that realists would not. (6)

And here is social realism:

Realism … may be taken as the belief that there are features of the world that are the way they are independently of how we think about them. (6)

E-V rejects the exclusionary position, which holds that realism and constructivism are incompatible. Instead, he thinks there is a way of interpreting social ontology that makes the position of realist social constructionism a coherent one.

This book argues for a realist social constructionism — or, if you prefer, a socially constructionist realism…. I hope this book will encourage more realists to embrace a moderate social constructionism and indeed to recognize that many of them already do so implicitly; that it will encourage social constructionists to recognize the value of realism and their own need for it; and that it will show those with no previous commitment to either tradition that they can be combined fruitfully. (7)

So what are the social items that need to be interpreted both as real features of the social world and as socially constructed? E-V highlights several fundamental kinds of things — norms, language, meaning, cultural practices, and institutions, for example.

E-V’s position requires that we answer two symmetrical questions: How is it that things like these can be thought to be socially constructed? And in what sense are they “real”?  Elder-Vass’s most basic answer to the first question is to say that they are socially constructed because they depend unavoidably on intensional representations embodied in what he calls norm circles. Basically, a norm circle is a group of people who interact with each other and who reinforce each other’s behavior with respect to one or more social rules of conduct (22). Demonstration of behavior that conforms to a certain norm, and positive or negative feedback to others depending on their conformance or deviance from the norm, creates a situation in which individuals come to internalize these rules of behavior into their own practical rationality. 

I argue that a norm circle is an entity with the emergent causal power to increase the dispositions of individuals to conform to the norm endorsed and enforced by the norm circle concerned…. What norm circles produce in individuals is a set of beliefs or dispositions regarding appropriate behavior; the influence of the norm circle, we may say, is mediated through these beliefs or dispositions. (26, 27)

E-V believes that this construct helps to formulate the description of a wide range of social phenomena, including linguistic, cultural, and epistemic social behavior. 

So what is “socially constructed” about a norm? And in what sense is there a person-independent social reality to a norm? The social construction part of the story seems straightforward. In order to have a normative expectation about a certain kind of behavior in a certain social context, it is necessary first to have a cognitive frame or representation for the behavior.  This is an intensional attitude on the part of the actor. To know how to behave when one is introduced to the Queen of England, we need to have a set of beliefs about royalty, monarchy, social roles, and particular persons.  Without mental frameworks involving these sorts of things, we cannot entertain the notion of a norm governing behavior in such a circumstance.  The situation of “being introduced to the Queen of England” is dependent on our conceptual system. 

Having said this, it is also open to us to notice the relative stability and permanence of the patterns of behavior that surround this situation.  Most people observe the correct protocol, and those who do not are admonished by others for their breaches.  So “protocols of behavior surrounding introduction to the Queen” functions as a social reality that is independent from the individual.  The radical egalitarian who regards the concept of royalty as delusion and self-deception, is no less governed by the norm. So there is a crucial component of actor-independence that is possessed by the normative system as embodied in the norm circle. Here is how E-V summarizes this point:

Rules and norms, therefore, may still feature in our causal accounts of culture, but not as entities with causal powers, not as ideas that exist externally to the individual actors concerned, and not as beliefs that are completely and precisely homogenized across the norm circles concerned. Since it is not norms themselves but the norm circles that endorse and enforce them that are the bearers of the causal powers concerned, none of these constraints undermines the causal account of normatively outlined in this chapter and the previous one…. Culture, it has argued, is produced by norm circles, and indeed culture and normatively are one and the same. (53, 54)

So norm circles play a crucial role in E-V’s social ontology.  If we were to distill the idea down to its simplest form, it seems to go along these lines: individuals have the capacity to form ideas, rules, and representations of various kinds. They reinforce their ideas and beliefs through interactions with other individuals who (approximately) share those mental representations. This is what makes a given norm system or conceptual framework a social feature rather than simply an individual feature. The representations are constantly tuned through interactions with other members of this representation-sharing group. These representations include ideas, conceptual frameworks, beliefs, and norms.  The groups of people who share these and interact on the basis of them constitute a norm circle.

This formulation brings Elder-Vass’s view into parallel with those of Margaret Archer and her concept of “morphogenesis” (link). In thinking about the reality of social structures, E-V writes the following:

Over a period of time, individuals may act in ways that tend to reproduce the structure more or less unchanged, or they may act in ways that tend to transform it. In analysing how these structures work and how they develop, we must take account not only of the collective power that they have but also of the ways in which individual participation in them jointly produces and influences the collective outcome. (254)

And this in turn means that E-V is in a position to deny two distinct polarities: between social construction and realism, and between agent and structure.

Advertisements

Sociology of knowledge: Berger

Sociology of knowledge: Berger

I’ve treated several approaches to the sociology of knowledge in the past month.  Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann describe their book, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, as fundamentally a contribution to this subject as well.  So this post will examine the assumptions they make about the topic.  Berger and Luckmann link their theorizing to George Herbert Mead and the “so-called symbolic-interactionist school of American sociology” (17).  This is a very suggestive link, and a promising starting point for an analysis of ordinary commonsense knowledge.  My complaint will be that Berger and Luckmann don’t in fact carry it off. 

Berger and Luckmann want to show that reality is socially constructed.  This can mean two things: that the objective features of the world have assumed the shape they have as a result of social action; and the features of the objective world can only be understood through one or another conceptual schemes that are both incommensurable and irrefutable.  What they actually show pertains to the first interpretation, not the second. The most enduring contribution they make is to work out the case for this proposition: We as persons, and the social relations and processes within which we act, are iteratively created by previous social processes and individual actions.  So the book isn’t about knowledge; it’s about social reality.

It is apparent from page 1, that Berger and Luckmann have a non-standard conception of “knowledge”.  They define knowledge as “the certainty that phenomena are real and that they possess specific characteristics.”  This definition has more to do with the degree of subjective confidence that persons have in their beliefs, and less to do with the nature of those beliefs themselves. And yet the topic of knowledge, whether philosophical or sociological, is really only interesting if it sheds light on the ways in which cognitive entities arrive at and formulate representations of the world around them.

Berger and Luckmann want the sociology of knowledge to focus on commonsensical beliefs, not specialist or scientific knowledge.  “The sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people ‘know’ as ‘reality’ in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives” (15).  This is a perfectly legitimate point.  But it doesn’t erase the need for conceptual analysis: what is the structure of commonsense knowing?  How do ordinary people “parse” their daily experiences into an organized representation of their worlds?  These questions are just a much of a philosophical issue for commonsensical knowledge as they are for Kant in his consideration of all empirical knowledge.

Much of the social world that we confront and about which we form beliefs has to do with institutions. Berger and Luckmann have a particular and narrow definition of an institution. “Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution” (53).  The examples they give of institutions are practices that have grown up organically — e.g. conventionalized ways that a traditional village may have come to have organized the annual stag hunt.  But it would seem that there are many things that we would call “institutions” that fall outside this paradigm.  For example, the Internal Revenue Service is an institution. It consists of hundreds of thousands of employees, organized by a set of rules, disciplinary processes, and oversight mechanisms.  It is true that this institution specifies regular forms of conduct by the various people who are part of the institution.  But it certainly didn’t come about as the “sedimentation” of simpler forms of practice. More generally, their definition of an institution doesn’t seem to do justice to the social realities represented by organizations.

That said, this definition of an institution gives concrete meaning to one sense in which Berger and Luckmann mean to say that “social reality is a construction”: the institution itself is socially created by a group of people. “It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity” (60).  This is certainly correct.  But it doesn’t support or convey the other important implication of “social construction” — the idea that the world we experience is fundamentally constructed in terms of the concepts that we impose upon it.  This is the sense implied by Whorf and other conceptual relativists; but it doesn’t find expression in B-L’s analysis.

My overall assessment of the arguments offered by Berger and Luckmann here is somewhat negative: I don’t think they are offering a “sociology of knowledge” at all.  Instead, they are offering an interpretation of the actor(constituted by processes of socialization before biology is even completely finished) and of the social world in which we act (created by the practices, actions, and habits of concrete human beings over time).   It is essentially a sociological theory of the actor-in-social-context.  The discussions of primary and secondary socialization are empirically useful, in that they help steer us towards the concrete situations through which individuals learn about the roles and values they “should” recognize.  Seen from that perspective, the key chapters (II and III) are interesting and helpful. 

But the book has very little to do with the problem of mental representation; and it doesn’t have much to say about social cognition.  And the recurring theme, that there are alternative social realities, needs to be understood as relating to the social-stuff side rather than the knowledge side: social relations, habits, and patterns of social behavior could have unfolded differently.  There is nothing inevitable about the specific forms of interaction “our” society has codified.  We could have created different institutions.  But given the institutions and practices we’ve got, the task of knowledge is determined: we need to discover through participation and practice how they work.

So I’m not too excited about this book as one that contributes to a better understanding of cognition — I don’t find Berger and Luckmann’s analysis of knowledge and the social world very helpful.  The problem is, that they don’t have anything like a nuanced analysis of the relationship between thought and the world: the nature of conceptual schemes, the relationship between concepts and observations, and something like a naturalized analysis of evidence and belief acceptance.  In other words, they aren’t doing enough of the philosophical work that is needed in order to have a genuinely insightful basis for talking about the social construction of beliefs.  We need to know what goes into beliefs about the world before we can get very specific about how those belief systems are socially conditioned or constructed.  They acknowledge this limitation of their approach:

We therefore exclude from the sociology of knowledge the epistemological and methodological problems that bothered both of its major originators. By virtue of this exclusion we are setting ourselves apart from both Scheler’s and Mannheim’s conception of the discipline, and from the later sociologists of knowledge (notably those with a neo-positivist orientation) who shared the conception in this respect. (14)

They don’t seem to think this avoidance of philosophical issues reduces their ability to shed light on the topic.  Unfortunately, I think they were mistaken.

In fairness, I should acknowledge that the kind of analysis I’m looking for isn’t wholly absent.  Here is a statement that comes closer to the kind of analysis that I find generally lacking in their book:

I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are prearranged in patterns that seem to be independent of my apprehension of them and that impose themselves upon the latter. The reality of everyday life appears already objectified, that is, constituted by an order of objects that have been designated as objects before my appearance on the scene. … In this manner language marks the co-ordinates of my life in society and fills that life with meaningful objects. (21)

This is the beginnings of a philosophy of knowledge.  It provides place-holders for some of the chief aspects of cognitive representation: the identification of permanent “objects”, a field of inter-related objects and relations, and a language in terms of which these items are represented and in terms of which one’s beliefs about them can be formulated.  Or in other words: this paragraph postulates concepts, a conceptual system, and an intensional orientation of the  subject towards the world (applying language to the “objects” around him or herself). And this world is “intersubjective” — other people share concepts and language with me, and are in similar relationships of interaction with the stuff of the world we inhabit (22).

So we have a start on the more conceptual side of the problem.  Unfortunately, this strand of thought is not further developed throughout the rest of the book.

Making Peter Berger

Peter Berger declared himself a humanistic sociologist throughout much of his career, including in his important book with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. This isn’t exactly a common identification for an American sociologist in the 1950s. So how did he get there?

This is an interesting question in its own right, since Berger has had significant influence at various points in the nearly fifty years since the publication of Social Construction. But it is also interesting in the context of the theorizing offered by Neil Gross about intellectual itineraries and the situation of the intellectual within a social and personal context.  Gross’s case study of the development of Richard Rorty’s career as a philosopher is a brilliant case study within this approach (link).  So it is interesting to consider how this perspective might play out in a treatment of Berger.

An important source for considering this question is Berger’s intellectual autobiography, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore, published at the latter end of his career in 2011. 

A major part of Berger’s intellectual development was his training in the PhD program in sociology at the New School for Social Research in the early 1950s. He describes this experience in a fair amount of detail.  The New School in the 1950s was a central locus for European sociology in the United States, and Berger absorbed much of the frameworks of thought associated with Weber, Durkheim, and phenomenology.  One important influence on him there was Alfred Schutz:

I suppose that the central concept I learned from Schutz was that of “multiple realities,” including the manner in which a sense of reality is kept going in the consciousness of individuals. (19)

One sociological constant throughout Berger’s self concept as an academic is his adherence and dedication to the ideas of Weber: “The only orthodoxy to which I continued to adhere was a Weberian understanding of the vocation of social science” (76).  Here is his thumbnail description of what Weber meant to him:

Thus I early on identified with the core elements of a Weberian approach: society as constituted by actions inspired by human meanings; sociology as the attempt to understand these meanings (Verstehen); the use of “ideal types”–theoretical constructs that only approximate social reality; the relation among meanings, motives, and actions; the institutionalization of the state, the economy, and class; and sociology as “value-free.” (23)

By this feature perhaps we can say that Berger’s thinking proceeded within one of the dominant paradigms or intellectual frameworks of European sociology; so not “counter-hegemonic”.  But it is also the case that his early influences at the New School were not “mainstream” sociology in America.  Berger describes his own allergy to quantitative sociological research (“Years later I took a summer course in statistical analysis at the University of Michigan. It was a disaster;” 26), and he didn’t fit neatly into the emerging contours of cutting-edge sociology in America in any of its versions.

Another aspect of his formation as a sociologist was his experience in the US Army as a draftee immediately following the completion of his PhD in 1954.  He asserts that the experience of living and training with men from a broad cross-section of American society gave him a sensibility to the variations of experience, values, and aspirations that exist in our society.  And the accidental experience he had of serving as a clinical social worker in the Army gave him an understanding of the power of extensive interviews in furthering sociological understanding of ordinary life.

What I had not anticipated was that my new assignment would turn out to be a unique learning experience — not about the actual business of the clinic (though that too was quite interesting), but about America. Thanks to the US Army, I received precisely the education that I had sought in studying sociology and that the New School was unable to provide. (47)

A key part of Berger’s originality in the field is the idea of a “humanistic” sociology.  What does he mean by this?  He consistently offers two ideas: debunking illusions and lies, and linking sociological research to the modes of reasoning in the humanities. Here is how he characterizes the “humanistic” version of sociology:

The term humanistic in the subtitle of Invitation to Sociology had two meanings. It suggested that the methodology of sociology should place the discipline close to the humanities — specifically literature, history, and philosophy.  Of course that is the sort of methodology I obtained at the New School. But the term also suggested that the discipline could serve a liberating purpose — to free individuals from illusions and to help make society more humane. …

Sociology derives its moral justification from its debunking of the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression.  Significantly, I singled out racial persecution, the persecution of homosexuals, and capital punishment, the ultimate cruelty.  Sociology liberates by facilitating a standing outside one’s social roles … and thereby a realization of one’s freedom. At the end of the book I use a metaphor that has become widely known: Sociology suggests that we are puppets of society, but unlike puppets we can look up and discover the strings to which we are attached, and this discovery is a first step toward freedom. (75)

Sociology is akin to comedy because it debunks the social fictions. By the same token it is potentially liberating. It shows up the “bad faith” by which individuals hide behind their roles and forces them to confront the reality of their own freedom. (72)

Berger attributes at least a part of his conviction about these two aspects of sociology to his experience of teaching as a young instructor in the segregated South:

These experiences help to explain why, a few years later, I wrote about sociology as having a “humanistic” purpose in unmasking the murderous ideologies underlying the death penalty, racism, and the persecution of homosexuals. (64)

His sociological research originated in the sociology of religion, and he continued to write on this topic throughout his life. Why so?  And how does this interest intersect with his frequent self-ascription of “theologian”?

The sociology of religion is certainly a core Weberian topic for historical sociology, so the fact that Berger identifies strongly with Weber may partially explain his choice of the topic.  But this doesn’t seem right, given Berger’s narrative in Adventures.  Berger’s interest in the topic seems more religiously inspired; he refers frequently to his own “theological” approach.  He writes repeatedly about his own movement across the landscape of Christian belief:

I was writing [my first novel] at a time when my emancipation from my youthful neo-orthodoxy had made me consider seriously whether I would now have to define myself as an agnostic if not an atheist. (86)

It was the question of theodicy that had brought me close to abandoning my Christian faith. (86)

So it seems likely that his own religious needs were an important part of his desire to write about religious experience.

Here is how he describes the intellectual framework that he and Luckmann conceived of in preparation for writing a book on the sociology of knowledge — which eventually became Social Construction:

Specifically, we came to undertake a synthesis of several strands of theory that have often been understood as contradictory: the so-called voluntaristic approach commonly attributed to Max Weber, which emphasized that society is created by the meaningful acts of individuals; the approach, strongly represented by the Durkheimian school of French sociology, that emphasized social institutions as facets that resist the acts of individuals; and, finally, the tradition of American social psychology, mostly deriving from George Herbert Mead, which studied the way in which individuals are socialized into their roles. (81)

This gives something of an idea of Berger’s core ideas as a sociological theorist and researcher — his intellectual agenda.  But how did Berger relate to the discipline, and the status structure, of American sociology itself?  Berger writes frequently inAdventures about his distance from the mainstream:

I had realized by now how marginal I was to the mainstream of American sociology, and after all, I was nursing dreams of building an empire with our new approach to sociological theory. (85)

His marginality took various forms: a PhD in a decidedly heterodox and non-elite graduate program, teaching appointments in a series of non-elite institutions, and none of the early indicators of “star” status that the discipline of sociology had to offer (elite grants and fellowships, book prizes, etc.).  He notes that a book that he is especially proud of, Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, was ignored by the professional world of sociology when it appeared in 1963; and with evident satisfaction, he notes as well that it went on to sell well over a million copies.  And he is also frank about his aspirations:

I wanted out of Hartford, not because I was unhappy there but because (perhaps misguidedly) I wanted to be in a proper Sociology Department, with graduate students in sociology.  Thus Invitation to Sociology had a subtext, a plea to fellow sociologists: Please invite me! (76)

He is equally frank in describing the striking success and influence of Social Construction: “Someone suggested that it was the most read sociology book written in the twentieth century. That is doubtful. But the book was widely noticed right after publication in America and elsewhere as foreign translations appeared” (89).  The book had wide appeal, and Berger was gratified that this was so.  But it did not result in his becoming one of the leading stars of the sociology world.

Here is how he characterizes his intellectual location, within the field of American sociology in the 1960s. in a reflection on the possible influence of Social Construction:

For just a few years after 1966 there was a narrow window of opportunity for our approach to sociology, since especially younger colleagues were disillusioned by the double dominance of so-called structural-functional theory and quantitative methodology; hence the initially favorable reception of the book. But then, almost immediately afterward, there occurred “an orgy of ideology and utopianism” with which neither Luckmann nor I could identify. (91)

(Essentially he is referring here to the sweeping appeal of the New Left and Post Modernism in the academic world and among students.  These were movements to which he was strongly opposed.)

In other words, the intellectual framework which Berger and Luckmann hoped to create in the 1960s did in fact come into coherent focus in Social Construction; but the opportunity to genuinely shift the focus of the field came and went.  He disparages two offshoots that might be thought to be intellectual descendants or cousins — ethnomethodology (Garfinkel) and constructivism (Foucault and Derrida) (93 ff.).

And he concludes that he never did become a part of the elite leadership group of American sociology:

As the years went by, I was even assigned the role of a grand (even if definitely out-of-style) old man. But I became an exile, not only from my parochial alma mater [the New School] but from the wider elite culture. Given the nature of the latter, this has not been such a bad thing. (108)

So there seem to be several important strands to this intellectual autobiography. First, Berger gives a strong impression of the importance of what Gross refers to as “self-concept” in the development of his ideas and theories in sociology.  His religious beliefs and questions, his personal rejection of racism and homophobia, and his original and guiding thought about “multiple realities” seem to have guided many of the choices that he made in his academic life.

Second, there is the strand of “academic field” and the constraints and incentives which the field creates for the young scholar — the insight that drives Bourdieu’s understanding of the development of an academic field.  These ambitions and aspirations are plainly important to Berger at various points in the narrative, and they led to some significant choices in his academic life.  But the opportunism that is associated with the Bourdieuian concept seems largely absent in the development of Berger’s academic career through middle age.  Even the “exile” that he describes, from the New School to Rutgers, stemmed from choices he made that arose from his self concept in attempting to redirect the Department of Sociology when he became chair.

And finally, Berger never did reach the pinnacle of elite status that Rorty did in philosophy or Kenneth Arrow did in economics.  In his own assessment, the intellectual tides of the field passed him and his insights by.

In other words, Berger’s intellectual trajectory seems to follow largely from his self concept, and the ideas and movements of thought that were personally important to him, and very little from his calculating assessment of how best to move upward in the status structure of the discipline.  He was fully aware of that structure; but he seems not to have deviated from the course his own values and convictions set him upon.

(Here’s a very critical and worthwhile review of Adventures in The Global Sociology Blog. The review opens with these words: “Well, it is not often that I dislike a book as much as I did Peter Berger’s Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist.”  SocProf is highly critical of the conservative trend that Berger’s thought and affinities took in the 1970s and later, and he argues that this turn leads Berger to eliminate the most crucial parts of the sociological challenge: race, class, gender, and power.  A lot of the Global Sociology review has to do with the later parts of Berger’s intellectual course, which I haven’t addressed here. I’ve been primarily interested in where Berger’s foundational ideas came from in his own early development.  But I admit that the narrative I’ve provided here doesn’t yet offer a basis for explaining Berger’s turn to the right and away from moral and political engagement with the injustices that exist around us.)

Components of one’s "social identity"

A social identity is a complex thing. It involves the ways in which one characterizes oneself, the affinities one has with other people, the ways one has learned to behave in stereotyped social settings, the things one values in oneself and in the world, and the norms that one recognizes or accepts governing everyday behavior. And it profoundly affects the ways we behave and respond to the world.

So a social identity invokes a number of different areas of psychological competence: knowledge, motivation, perception, memory, personality, and emotion, to name a few. And yet one’s social identity seems to stand a bit apart from any of these psychological concepts singly. Cognitive psychology focuses on some aspects of this mix; social psychology and personality psychology focuses on other aspects; but there is no area of psychology that attempts to capture all of “social identity” as a psychological real process or structure.

Moreover, a social identity is embodied in an individual; and yet it is produced by the experiences we have in relations to other individuals and groups. A social identity can be said to be a feature of a group or a community as much as it is a feature of particular individuals within a given community. And this fact is causally important: we can’t explain the individual’s identity without reference to the sustained and fairly consistent features of the group with respect to its social identity. So a social identity has an aspect of “social-ness” that cautions us against a narrowly psychological interpretation of the concept.

We might single out a number of aspects of a social identity as a psychologically real construct, embodied in a particular person through a particular body of experience and a specific location within a community:

  • an epistemic frame in terms of which I understand the social world
  • an element of my psycho-cognitive-emotional apparatus
  • a model of how to behave in certain common social settings
  • a self-ascription defining the features of action and comportment that are most defining of “me” in the world
  • a self-valorization of the things that are most worthwhile to me
  • an account of who I’m related to and similar to; who my affinity groups are
  • a map expressing my location within a particular extended community

In addition, it is important to recognize the feature of “intersectionality” that characterizes social identities: the ways in which one’s identity involves a crossing of different grounds of identity and affinity. (University of Michigan social psychologist Elizabeth Cole has published a useful recent article called “Coalitions as a Model for Intersectionality: From Practice to Theory” in Sex Roles; here is a link. I also found the Wikipedia article on intersectionality to be valuable.)

Identities aren’t “pure” expressions of one particular feature of one’s location in the social world; instead, features of sexual identity, geographical identity, class identity, racial and ethnic identity, professional identity, and cohort identity all play a role in constituting one’s overall identity. This means that it is important to give concrete attention to the multiple forms of social influence and immersion through which a given individual comes to embody a complex social identity; we need to look to the microfoundations of identity formation. (See more on this approach here.)

And this point about intersectionality also raises the likelihood of internal conflict. One’s identity as an Asian American may be in some conflict with features of identity derived from one’s location within the hip-hop generation or one’s professional status as a junior member of an accounting firm. And the modes of behavior implicated by one strand may be at odds with those created by the other strands.

Innovative efforts to provide fresh approaches to the study of social identities are emerging in several fields. Paula Moya and Michael Hames-Garcia’s Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism is an introduction to a genuinely innovative approach to the study of identities that attempts to bring literary criticism, race and gender studies, and social theory into one extended discussion.

Realism for the social sciences?


Scientific realism is the idea that scientific theories provide descriptions of the world that are approximately true. This view implies a correspondence theory of truth — the idea that the world is separate from the concepts that we use to describe it. And it implies some sort of theory of scientific rationality — a theory of the grounds that we have for believing or accepting the findings of a given area of science. (See a brief article on the basics of scientific realism including some useful references here.) Realism, objectivity, and facts go together. We can interpret a theory realistically just in case we believe that there is a fact of the matter concerning the assertions contained in the theory. (See earlier postings relevant to this topic, Concepts and the World and Social Construction.)

Realism raises all kinds of interesting questions when we consider applying it to the social sciences. For one thing, it requires a useable distinction between the world and the knower. This raises the question: is there an objective social world independent from the perceptions and concepts of observers? And this also is a complicated question, because the persons who make up social processes at the micro-level are themselves “knowers” of the social world. So there is a question about the objectivity of the social world and a corresponding question about social construction of social reality. If all social phenomena are socially constructed, then how can it be the case that some statements about social phenomena are objective and independent from the conceptual schemes of the observer?

Scientific realism got its impetus from the fact that physical theories invoke theoretical concepts that are not themselves directly observational — muon, gravity wave, gene (at an early stage of biology). So the question arose, what is the status of the reference and truth of scientific sentences that include non-observational concepts — for example, “muons have a negative electric charge and a spin of -1/2”? Since we can’t directly inspect muons and measure their charge and spin, sentences like this depend for their empirical confirmation on their logical relationships to larger bits of physical theory — and ultimately upon a measure of the overall degree to which this physical theory issues true experimental and observational predictions. And the empirical confirmation of the theory as a whole, the story goes, provides a rational basis for assigning a reference and truth value to its constituent sentences. So the fact that “muon” is embedded within a mathematical theory of subatomic reality and the theory is well confirmed by experimental means, gives us reason to believe that muons exist and possess approximately the characteristics attributed to them by muon theory.

But all of this has to do with esoteric physical theory. Is there any relevant application of realism in the social sciences? Here’s one important difference: the social sciences are barely “theoretical” at all in the sense associated with the natural sciences. The concepts that play central roles in social theories — charisma, bureaucratic state, class, power — aren’t exactly “theoretical” in the sense of being non-observational. And social concepts aren’t defined implicitly, in terms of the role that they play in an extended formal theoretical structure. Rather, we can give a pretty good definition of social concepts in terms of behavior and common-sense attributes of social entities. In the social sciences we don’t find the conceptual holism that Duhem and Quine attributed to the natural sciences (Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory; W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object). Instead, both meaning and confirmation can proceed piecemeal. So if realism were primarily a doctrine about the interpretation of theoretical terms, there wouldn’t be much need for it in the social sciences.

But here are several specific ways in which scientific realism is useful in the social sciences, I think. And they all have to do with the kinds of statements in the social sciences that we think can be interpreted as expressing facts about the world, independent of our theories and concepts.

Causal realism. We can be realist about the meaning of assertions about causation and causal mechanisms. We can take the position that there is a fact of the matter as to whether X caused Y in the circumstances, and we can assert the objective reality of social causal mechanisms. On the realist interpretation, social causal mechanisms exist in the social world — they are not simply constructs of the observer’s conceptual scheme. And the statement that “Q is the process through which X causes Y” makes a purportedly objective and observer-independent claim about Q; it is an objective social process, and it conveys causation from X to Y. Q is the causal mechanism underlying the causal relationship between X and Y.

Structure realism. We can be realist about the existence of extended social entities and structures — for example, “the working class,” “the American Congress,” “the movement for racial equality.” These social entities and structures have some curious ontological characteristics — it is difficult to draw boundaries between members of the working class and the artisan class, so the distinctness of the respective classes is at risk; institutions like the Congress change over time; a social movement may be characterized in multiple and sometimes incompatible ways; and social entities don’t fall into “kinds” that are uniform across settings. But surely it is compelling to judge that the Civil Rights movement was an objective fact in the 1960s or that the Congress exists and is a partisan environment. And this is a version of social realism.

Social-relations realism. If we say that “Pierre is actively involved in a network of retired French military officers”, we refer to a set of social relations encapsulated under the concept of a social network and composed of many pair-wise social relations. Here too we can take the perspective of social realism. It seems unproblematic to postulate the objective reality of both the pair-wise social relations and the aggregate network that these constitute. Each level of social relationship can be investigated empirically (we can discover that Pierre has regular interactions with Jean but not with Claude), and it seems unproblematic to judge that there is a fact of the matter about the existence and properties of the network — independent of the assumptions and concepts of the observer.

Meaning realism. Now, how about the hardest case: meanings and the objectivity of interpretation. Can we say that there is ever a fact of the matter about the interpretation of an action or thought? When Thaksin offends Charat by exposing the bottoms of his feet to him — can we say that “Charat’s angry reaction is the result of the meaning of this insulting gesture in Thai culture”? Even here, it is credible to me that there is a basis for saying that this judgment expresses an objective fact (even if it is a fact about subjective experience); and therefore, we can interpret this sentence along realist lines: “Thaksin’s gesture was objectively offensive to Charat in the setting of Thai culture.” It is evident that many of our interpretations of behavior and action are substantially underdetermined by context and evidence; so it may be that much interpretation of meaning does not constitute a “fact of the matter.” But this seems to be a fact about particular judgments rather than a universal feature of the interpretation of meanings.

So it seems that it is feasible and useful to take a social realist perspective on many of the assertions and theories of the social sciences; and what this says, is that we can interpret social science statements as being approximately true of a domain of social phenomena that have objective properties (i.e. properties that are independent from our conceptualization of them).

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?.)

%d bloggers like this: