The Social Construction of Reality

The Social Construction of Reality March 14, 2019

Why do science fans hate social constructionism?

One of my finds on my recent pilgrimage to Powell’s in Portland was The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. This classic work of sociology describes a theory of human knowledge that deals with society’s means of establishing and maintaining institutional orders that function as realities for the people who act in them. Though dated in certain ways—the exclusive use of “he” and “man” in the text is tiresome—the book digs into how we create the society that creates us.

A World Rather than The World

This concise and clearly-argued book is a responsible academic essay. So what’s with the provocative title? Are they really saying that reality itself is socially constructed? This is the core of what bothers people about the idea of social constructionism: people want to believe that reality is the way it is, no matter what we call things or the way we conceptualize them.

However, this objection derives from a common misconception about social construction. It’s not as if construction in any way implies that the product is a complete fiction produced out of thin air. Rather, the construction involves organizing real things—language, observation, and human interaction—in a way that’s meaningful for a population. Anyone who believes that anything science can’t detect is just “made up stuff” will understandably bristle at the ideal that objective reality has to make room for human constructs too. People who believe reality is eternal and unchanging, and doesn’t care what you think, are going to have huge problems dealing with a theory of knowledge that says that what we think, too, is part of reality.

How the Natural Reinforces the Status Quo

As usual, the Cuck Philosophy guy on YouTube does a great job of defining social construction:

 

People assume that to say something is socially constructed is to say that it isn’t real, that it shouldn’t exist, and that it has no effects on the world. Some people think that to say something is socially constructed is to subscribe to some conspiracy theory or to imply some dangerous relativism. But this is not the case.

Here are some examples of things that are pretty much uncontroversially socially constructed: the state, money, law, borders, national cultures. What do all these have in common? That they are constituted by social relations outside of which they cannot exist; that they developed historically; and that if these social relations were different, these things could exist in a different form, or not exist at all.

Very well said! But there’s a big reason people prefer to think that social construction isn’t part of the causal order, and the video ends with a comment about why the claims of social construction are so politicized:

It’s important to remember that humans have a tendency to see the social relations of their time as default and natural. […] To say that a given social order is natural can be a political argument; likewise, to claim the contrary can be political as well. Claims of social construction are often intended to make us avoid that mistake that past cultures have often made, of assuming that our way of organizing things is the natural one.

Claims of social construction can help us avoid taking the social relations we live in for granted. And this is precisely why the people who most aggressively renounce all claims of social construction are often also those who politically support the status quo.

It’s no coincidence that the social constructionists were influential in the Sixties (Berger and Luckmann’s book was first published in 1966), when marginalized groups in the West and its former colonies were demanding inclusion and influence. Claims of social construction were useful in exposing the way constructs from religion and finance to language and science served as legitimating institutions for straight, white, male domination in the supposedly meritocratic societies of Europe and America.

Dehumanization and Bad Faith

The idea of social construction gives us a society that humans created, and along with that, the demand to accept responsibility for the society or take up the task of changing it.

It’s much more comforting to think of the social order, and our institutions, as deriving from an inevitable process of cultural evolution, because it relieves us of the responsibility for the way our society operates. Furthermore, characterizing human activity as just the workings of our DNA and our neurochemistry puts a scientific veneer on our evasion of responsibility. If we’ve been “programmed” by our genes and our brain chemistry, then we bear no blame for the inequities and oppression in our civilization, right?

Genetics and neuroscience are serious scientific disciplines, and they deserve better than to be hijacked and turned into the consolation myths of our era. The existentialist in me bristles when someone says some bad behavior is in our DNA, or that it’s just the way we’re wired up. Human society is a complex matter, and if we’re not taking into account things like power and privilege, then we’re really not talking about human society.

We Want Our Reality Back

Last but certainly not least, the science fan’s mortal dread of relativism is a major hurdle to the acceptance of social construction claims. Despite what Cuck Philosopher said in the video, there’s an aspect of relativism that is implied by social construction as a matter of course. Being reality-oriented is fine as long as you know which reality you’re supposed to inhabit, and in our day and age there’s no shortage of symbolic universes. As Berger and Luckmann say:

[T]he institutional order, like the order of individual biography, is continually threatened by the presence of realities that are meaningless in its terms. The legitimation of the institutional order is also faced with the ongoing necessity of keeping chaos at bay. All social reality is precarious. All societies are constructions in the face of chaos.

Part of living in a pluralistic, multicultural society is having to acknowledge that others have constructs that are meaningful to them despite having no relevance to us in our lives. Freethinkers should oppose the notion that there’s only one way to organize or interpret reality, or that our way of thinking is the natural and inevitable one.

 

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  • Grimlock

    I struggle a bit to grasp the essence of this article.

    Is it perhaps that we model reality as we understand it, and that there’s not necessarily one unique way of modeling reality? That seems obviously true.

    I wonder if perhaps disagreement on this is more a case of different understandings of the terms being thrown about.

  • Is it perhaps that we model reality as we understand it, and that there’s not necessarily one unique way of modeling reality?

    Reality seems to be something we all think we understand even if we can’t define it. Sort of like religious people talk about God. The thing is, there’s no such thing as reality, because that’s the way we think of a domain that contains everything, an impossibility as glaring as The Big G or a square circle.

    Social construction claims aren’t meant to be abstruse or tendentious; they just warn against using terms like real and natural to handwave away accusations of bias. We have to be careful not to make reality an axiomatic expression that validates the inequities or power relations that go with the social order. There are only realities, symbolic universes that depend on the social relations that produce them for their meaning.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Somewhere along the line, someone decided that “social construction” explanations should include the word “reality”.

    This seems like a bad choice of words and both the Cuck Philosopher and Shem then have to put out a lot of effort to explain how the word “reality” does or does not apply the sociological discussions here.

    Maybe the word “reality” should be banned from such discussions.
    Instead, the phrase “perceived reality” or “perceived realities” might be used.
    Also, “imagined reality” could be useful.

    This is because the word “reality” has a wide range of meanings both intuitively and in dictionary definitions.
    “Reality” implies “the one truth” when a “multiplicity of possibilities” is the actual concept that we need to be using.

  • “Reality” implies “the one truth” when a “multiplicity of possibilities” is the actual concept that we need to be using.

    Exactly. There’s a religious basis to the idea that there’s one all-encompassing reality out there, and we should be hell bent on “discovering” how that reality is using the only methodology that works. The little that’s not downright theological about it sounds like a hero myth for our era.

    I prefer the mindset that emphasizes the amount of cognitive, linguistic, and institutional infrastructure in our knowledge; how many blind men there are between us and the alleged elephant.

  • Michael Newsham

    I wasreading a book by Richard Rorty on this and was nodding along to all these good things until he gets home brought up Aristotle and Newton as examples, saying that both were instances of social construction and people were justified in their time for using the respective systems- except one will get you a rocket to the moon and the other won’t. Books on feminism and science, both written by women : one saying there had been a lot of sexism in science which sometimes led us to the wrong conclusions, and the other which held that modern science was ultimately chauvinist and should be torn down. Too much social construction- that way lies anti-vaxxerism.

  • Books on feminism and science, both written by women : one saying there had been a lot of sexism in science which sometimes led us to the wrong conclusions, and the other which held that modern science was ultimately chauvinist and should be torn down.

    “Torn down”? Sounds like the big bad feminists in your head sure make some outrageous claims.

    Too much social construction- that way lies anti-vaxxerism.

    No, I don’t think conspiracism and crackpottery are the logical outcomes of social construction theory. I have no problem with any mainstream scientific construct, and I don’t have any patience for conspiracism.

    I also have very little patience with people accusing me on my own blog of aiding and abetting such nutjobbery. Consider this a warning.