Social Construction of Reality

30 Dec 2000 21:16

Something very peculiar occured to some members of Europe's educated classes around the beginning of the Renaissance: they read the ancients and realized the past was different from the present. Not just in the obvious, trivial sense that that was then and this is now, but that in antiquity they had talked differently, acted differently, lived differently, even thought differently. This was rather a shock; one can see it reflected in, say, Machiavelli, as he explains why the ancient polities simply cannot be revived. This realization, that "they do things differently there," did not go away; it only acquired more force and a broader scope as the "discovery of the historical world" (Cassirer) progressed along-side contact with other cultures. (Islam had of course been next door to Europe, even in Europe, for centuries, but it shared an Abrahamic religion and Hellenistic philosophy, and each side could condemn the other as deviants from the True Faith. This resource was unavailable to the Jesuits when they got to Kerala and China.) So far this was just an uneasy awareness that we can be led into error by the customs of our country (to try to keep to the language of the time), and that, if we want to avoid such errors, we need to carefully scrutinize those customs and received notions. (Thus Descartes at the start of the Discourse on Method.)

It took another peculiar event to change the fear of inherited errors into a positive doctrine; that was the Great French Revolution of 1789, or more precisely the conservative response to it. The basic point made by, for instance, Edmund Burke, was that it was neither possible nor desirable to start from scratch, from tabulæ rasæ, as (according to the conservatives) the philosophes and the revolutionaries had tried to do. We are, after all, not blank slates, we do not evolve our thought out of pure abstraction, but inherit our modes of thought and categories from our ancestors; our intellect as much as our institutions and our feelings are part of a vast social fabric, stretching back into a literally immemorial past. So we can't start from stratch; but we can modify our inheritance. Yet (the conservative argument continues) that inheritance is the product of millennia of sifting and winnowing; however imperfect it may be, it has in fact endured and worked for a very long time, and as such is not to be lightly tampered with, much less completely rejected in favor of very recent and very speculative, hence very uncertain, substitutes, especially not when serious matters of human life and happiness are at stake. (The contrast between this sort of conservativism, and the doctrinaire radicalism of Thatcher, the Reagan administration and Gingrich, is most instructive.)

I have a lot of sympathy for this line of argument, certainly as it applies to politics, though I think conservatives generally unfair to the Enlightenment, but that's a side-issue for the moment. The important point, for our present purposes, is the notion of that thought is social, is traditional, most especially that the categories we employ in thinking are social, inherited, traditional. Add to this the idea that our concepts form a closed, coherent system, from which there is no (rational) escape. Result: The terms in which we thinks are fixed by society; the very effort to condemn or escape our society and its conventions, even in thought, is sabotaged from the start. Add one more belief, that we never have an unmediated contact with reality, that all we know are (socially-approved) representations, and the circle is complete. "Reality" as such, independent of all ideas, concepts, modes of representation, etc. inherited from our past, is nothing to us. What we have is (allowing for the barbarization of learned prose since Burke's day) a social construct; reality, as we know it, is socially constructed. Radical challenges to the status quo are thus, quite literally, unthinkable and unrealistic.

The phrase, "social construction of reality," was in fact brought into general use, if not invented, by a book of the same title by a pair of conservative sociologists, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. (They do not give the argument in quite this form, but I think mine is a neater derivation.) It's very curious that the idea has been taken up so enthusiastically by academics who pride themselves on being leftists and radicals. (Though not without precedent; much of Marx's work is an attempt to expropriate the original conservative arguments.) Their reasoning seems to run roughly as follows. Many (if not all) oppressed people are thought of in an invidious, demeaning, repressive way; if we teach people to think in different categories, we'll get rid of those kinds of oppression. But this presumes that we can change the system of concepts, and in a deliberately chosen way at that, which blocks the premises we started from. In any case, Marx and Engels knew all about this kind of optimism a hundred and fifty years ago:

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This honest fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany. [The German Ideology, preface.]
Of course, today it's not just "in Germany"...

This is a reductio, so let's see where the reasoning went wrong.

In the first place, let's start with this idea of "society." It's a pretty harmless one, and an invaluable short-hand, but here it leads us into mistakes. We do not, pace Durkheim, ever actually deal with society; we deal with other people --- our parents, our playmates, our bosses, our enemies, our spawn, etc., etc. It's certainly true that we acquire many concepts, ideas and ways of thinking from these people, through formal instruction, through shared experience, through conversation and conviviality, and through direct imitation, but it by no means follows that we acquire a coherent system of thought from them, much less that we all share the same system by virtue of getting in each other's hair. This doesn't make it impossible to talk about (e.g.) which conceptions are common in a certain population, but it does or should warn us against laying out elaborate conceptual systems and saying "This is what the English aristocracy thought in 1900" or the like.

More: I spoke above as though the social origin of ideas meant that they form a closed, self-consistent and self-supporting system, a vicious (or, if you like it, virtuous) circle. But there's no a priori reason to suppose this is so, and certainly not much evidence. Variation from established concepts is common; useful variants, alas, are rare. (As one of my biology professors put it: "Most errors don't work.") This modification of ideas from within can even be a perfectly rational process, as, for instance, Toulmin shows. Nor does the fact (if it is true) that we can't grab hold of reality unmediated by some form of representation show that we can't use experience to weed out ideas and methods which work poorly; even that we can't use experience to change our forms of representation.

That said, I'm far from wanting to dismiss the idea totally. We do acquire many ideas from others, and it's a damn good thing too: it's what makes intellectual progress possible ("shoulders of giants" and all that). For people to share a certain concept, they must at the very least agree on when to apply it, at least roughly. But some of our concepts seem to have nothing more to recommend them than such consensus. Probably the most important such categories, at least in modern America, are those of race. (Personal anecdote: In most of the US, despite the fact that we have the same parents, people classify me as white, but not my brother. When I lived in New Mexico, since we're neither Spanish nor Native American, we're both Anglos.) At the beginning of this century, many, perhaps most WASPs regarded the Irish, let alone the Italians, the Poles and the Jews as belonging to a different race; by the middle of the next century, I expect that "white" will have come to include people of East Asian descent, and probably changed its name. Moreover, whether a new idea, or a new variation of an old one, becomes entrenched in a population is a social process; but that's not the social construction of reality, that's the social selection of beliefs and practices, a far weaker and more reasonable notion, which can still do the good works which attract people to its impossibly strong cousin.

I also expect that the doctrine of social construction will go from strength to strength. True, at the moment it's tied up with some pretty fru-fru sorts of leftism, which limits its reach, but that's an unstable, unnatural combination. We leftists want to say that oppression is wrong, unjustified and rest on false premises. But if social construction holds, what counts as right, justified and even true is set by society, and ultimately by the powers that be within it, i.e., the very people we're struggling against. Turned around, of course, this makes a splendid argument for the status quo: dissent is, automatically, inescapably nonsensical. Wait a few decades for the people being educated in social constructivism to grow up and get with the strength, and watch this argument fill up the journals.