I have recently picked up a copy of Ian Hacking’s text, The social construction of what? and I feel obliged to discuss this philosopher’s take on the issue of social constructionism. In the second chapter, he asks amidst the wide variety of application and studies of social constructionism, what are social contructivists actually doing? And I think he makes a good point, as doing constructivist work sometimes loses its foundational aspect, and it seems some jump aboard to position their work in a particular light, usually radical or critical. Constructionism is for sure a useful tool to tease apart historical contingencies of certain processes which lead to certain “socially constructed” products. So here construction refers to both the process and the product. But it also relates to the way things are understood, or “construal”. Hacking teases apart these meanings of construction and how they have been used throughout the literature. He addresses the ambiguity of the designation of “social” with reference to the different schools of constructionism, all rooted in Kantian philosophy which uprooted Enlightenment rationality.
Hacking traces the historical roots of constructionism (from Kant) and comes to this definition of the field: ” Hence by constructionism…I shall mean various sociological, historical, and philosophical projects that aim at displaying or analyzing actual, historically situated, social interactions or causal routes that led to, or were involved in, the coming into being or establishing of some present entity or fact. ” Hacking references many philosophers and practitioners of constructionism to show the different “classes” or “schools”, some more rigorous and less metaphorical than others. He exemplifies fine work such as Danziger’s work on the construction of subjects through the discipline of psychology. He comes up with four different kinds of entity resultant from constructionism: a concept or idea, a practice, a body of knowledge, and individuals themselves.
Karl Mannheim’s unmasking is another terrific example of constructionism (in both mine and Ian Hacking’s opinion). Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge was built on the recognized need of four factors: “(1) the self-relativization of thought and knowledge, (2) the appearance of a new form of relativization introduced by the ‘unmasking’ turn of mind, (3) the emergence of a new system of reference, that of the social sphere, in respect of which thought could be conceived to be relative, and (4) the aspiration to make this relativization total, relating not only to though or idea, but a whole system of ideas, to an underlying social reality (Mannheim 1925/1952, 144)” Mannheim was attempting to “unmask” entire ideologies, to disintegrate ideas such that the world of the social also looks disintegrated (he was a pioneer of Hungarian Marxism).
There is also a point to be made about the pursuit of constructionist work: to unmask or to refute? These are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, can be supportive in the right context (if the claims made are wrong and you can show how they were constructed, all the better, as Donald Mackenzie has done in Inventing Accuracy: An Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance). Hacking continually refers to these styles of constructionism as having a metaphysical stance: “[Constructionism] is directed at certain pictures of reality, truth, discover, and necessity. It joings hands with what Nelson Goodman calls irrealism: not realism, not anti-realism, but an indifference to such questions, which in itself is a metaphysical stance… [scientists and constructionists (at war) are] standing on metaphysical ground in opposition to each other” (1999, 61).
So what are the sciences (social, natural, or otherwise) to do? Following Haraway (in Biagioli edited volume), then, science should embrace “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives; the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity” (1999, 181).