Saturday, 16 April 2016

Social constructivism and research in the human sciences

Social constructionism (SC) is a diverse intellectual field, comprising perspectives from philosophy, social science, pedagogy, art etc., that resists easy categorisation. It has often been unfairly derided by prominent academics, most notably in the evolutionary and psychological sciences. The argument against SC has been popularised by Steven Pinker (Blank Slate Ted Lecture)in his cutting critique of the blank slate model of humanity (favours the social environment as explanation for behaviour over innate factors e.g. genetic makeup). Whilst Pinker does some disservice to this literature he is right to challenge the role of the social (the product of our interactions with one another), as the sole determinant of behaviour. However, he underdetermines the validity of the social in shaping behaviour. I index his argument because it raises key points which framed the Science Wars and continues to polarise opinion along realist and anti-realist lines[1].

The extent to which things are socially constructed has important ramifications for how we conduct science, our relations to one another in terms of our political, economic and ethical systems, and our view of ourselves as humans and individuals in the world. My concern here specifically is rather pragmatically oriented; how best to conduct studies of people, in the vein of anthropological and sociological work, in their context across different cultures, languages and environments. With this in mind what stance should be adopted in relation to SC? (Boghossian, 2001) notes how it has been successful in pointing out those aspects of our social categories e.g. racial and gender categories, that do not reflect some ‘fundamental’ inevitable reality, but instead are contingent upon the ways in which a social group is organised. Proceeding from this observation of the power of SC some have made more striking claims using this perspective. The stronger claim, that we construct the world as it is, rather than being in the world, that we even construct scientific phenomena such as quarks, is challenging. If taken seriously we must reject any attempts at understanding, or even imagining the possibility of, a fundamental reality outside our social constructs. The stronger claim negates our dynamic interaction with the environment, our evolutionary past and any innate characteristics (apart from the ability to ‘social construct’ the world). It is this claim which concerns me.

Immediately many flaws are evident to me. If the world is constructed where do we locate the locus of activity, in the individual, or in the social group? Is it individual persons who radically construct the world? This quickly descends into idealism. Rejecting this, is the social then disembodied, shaping the world we inhabit, into which we are embedded as blank slates? This reifies the social, giving it a supernatural quality. How can we explain both the simultaneous variation and similarities in cultural forms and languages, without recourse to talking of individual differences (explained in terms of unique aspects of a person's psychology and perhaps their social group), and universally shared innate psychological architectures (favouring universalism and realism)? They are inextricably linked together. We are the products of environments, who then shape these environments through dynamic interactions with it, with some of these being the product of social constructs e.g. the creation of rugby pitches to play a socially constructed game, and others being more basic interactions such as locomotion, foraging, eating, sleeping etc. There is no human activity that is not contingent on how our social groups are organised, and the languages and concepts that are employed, but this is not the whole picture. Sperber's (Sperber, 2004) work on metarepresentations provides a useful incorporation of evolutionary psychology (with its suite of cognitive mechanisms) into a theory of cultural transmission (Epidemiology of representations). Here the participants in an language based interaction, do not simply passively take up a representation (they are not blank slates), but will occasionally shape, either intentionally or by accident, what is transmitted, before passing this on in subsequent interactions. This approach necessarily requires that attention be paid both to the innate, and the socially constructed, with a strong grounding in actual interaction, to understand how certain concepts persist, and others change throughout time. Approaches like Sperber's go some ways towards a corrective against favouring either strong innatism or SC.

SC decoupled from a discussion of the natural environment, of which we are part, narrows the scope of research. It negates approaches that would seek to understand human activity in the context of both its social and natural environment, erecting a separation between us and the world. The core idea of constructionism is useful when applied in a more limited way, for example in focusing in on a particular cultural practice and/or social group in its context. Understanding universal features of human psychology will not reveal much about the 'male femininity' of the Waria in Indonesia (Boellstorff, 2004) (Tales of the Waria) for example. Looking at cultural phenomena through the lens of constructionism teases out the nuances, bringing to light the ways, in which our activities are contingent, on the particular social categories and concepts being employed. The idiosyncrasies of local cultural practices (by local I mean any cultural practice and/or social organisation in its context) are multiple and various. To discuss these in terms of innateness will not much, though it still might be interesting. Instead it is worth paying attention to the historical factors, the local environment and the particular way in which the people use their language and concepts to be in the world.

So do we construct the world? Yes, to an extent, but we do not do so in a vacuum, creating ex nihilo. We are constrained by the abilities of our kind and by the environments that we inhabit. Over-egging one perspective over the other creates severe limitations for research.

[1] Though his rationalization of mind as software/brain as hardware has been critiqued, along with other cognitivist perspectives, for slipping in Cartesian dualism through the backdoor. This complicates the attempts of this approach to sit within the realist camp.

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