The Social Construction of What?

by Ian Hacking,
ISBN: 067481200X

Post Your Opinion
Ways of X-Making
by Stan Persky

Having come of age as a political activist in the 1960s, just at the moment when, among other things, homosexuals came out of the closet and declared themselves as public figures, it was something of a jolt to learn, a few years later, that there really weren't any "homosexuals"-or at least none before the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Yet the point that scholars, such as David Halperin in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1989), were making was clear.

We "gay liberation" homosexuals declared that there had always been homosexuals. Homosexuality went all the way back to the Homeric and Athenian Greeks, and it had persisted, uninterruptedly despite continual oppression, to the present. It was recorded in literature in everything from Plato's Symposium to Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and was embodied in homoerotic figures from Michelangelo's David to Stephen Gately, the Boyzone pop star who recently came out in the pages of a British tabloid.

But no, those Athenians were not at all "homosexuals".

First, the Greeks didn't have a word for it.

Second, although the Athenians may have spent a lot of time gossiping about and having sex with boys, these same discursive men were also married and the fathers of children. So, at best, they were "bi-sexuals", which they had neither a word for nor self-conception of; at worst, according to our contemporary witch-hunters, they were "child-abusers". And for that matter, the boys, after being pursued by and yielding their favours to the men, themselves went on to become husbands, fathers, and possibly boy-lovers.

Third, even the male-male sexual practices of Athenians, insofar as we knew about them, were strikingly different from current erotic acrobatics.

Finally, no Athenian thought of himself-whether or not there was a word for it-as a "homosexual". As far as questions of "identity" went, those Athenians we're most familiar with may have primarily conceived of themselves, insofar as they engaged in self-conception at all, as "citizens".

In short, the modern conception of a "homosexual" was not an essential or inevitable fact of nature, but a fairly recent "social construction", whose development and emergence could be historically traced. The intellectual advantage of doing so was obvious enough: one could connect the development of an "identity" to a host of other historical factors that yielded a more accurate, complex, and, hence, more satisfying understanding of both identity and reality. Those who thought otherwise were promptly dubbed and regarded as retrograde "essentialists".

Still, there was something not altogether conclusive about the social construction of homosexuals, women, and blacks, or authors, scientists, and serial killers, or eventually, even our notions of gender, nature, quarks, reality-and just about anything else we might have an idea about.

In the case of homosexuality-or at least the boy-love of which the Athenians were enamoured-it did seem to have a recognizable and long-standing historical endurance. One understands the jokes about boys in Symposium precisely because they're still the quips about boys heard in the gay bars of today. Though we've known that "existence precedes essence" ever since Sartre, some features of human experience give the appearance, anyway, of being not only socially constructed, but trans-historical as well.

Along comes Ian Hacking, at exactly the right moment, to ask exactly the right question-not about homosexuality, but about the entire issue. Hacking, a University of Toronto philosopher and historian of science, is one of those remarkable people who not only explore the jagged edges of human experience with great sensitivity, but seamlessly join them to history, social practices, and societal structures to yield explanations more compelling than any heretofore available.

In Rewriting the Soul (1995), he examined "multiple personality" and its accompanying true and false memories. In Mad Travellers (1998), he illuminated the brief late-nineteenth century epidemic of "fugueism", or compulsive travelling, linking it to the then-contemporary phenomena of hysteria, loitering, and organized mass tourism. And in a recent essay on hypnotism in The New York Review, Hacking once again looked at another of the stubbornly mysterious features of the human mind.

In The Social Construction of What?, Hacking, who has involuntarily been taken for a social constructionist himself, cleverly focuses on the social construction of social construction, as well as essentialism-the latter being a sort of political invention of social constructionists. His title question is one of those brilliant queries that allows you to see the point immediately upon utterance.

The initial point Hacking makes is that the term "social construction" has become terminally fashionable, and so sloppily used that it's worthwhile thinking about what this method of looking at the world really means. He notes that there are books whose titles range from The Social Construction of Authorship to The Social Construction of Zulu Nationalism, and almost everything in between. The focus, as the title of Hacking's book makes clear, is on the "what". Obviously, there must be a difference between claiming that "motherhood" is socially constructed, and claiming the same for "quarks".

Hacking concedes that one reason that talk of social construction has become common coin is because the idea is "wonderfully liberating. It reminds us, say, that motherhood and its meanings are not fixed and inevitable, the consequence of child-bearing and rearing. They are the product of historical events, social forces, and ideology." Therefore, mothers who understand the social construction argument "need not feel quite as guilty as they are supposed to, if they do not obey either the old rules of family or whatever is the official psycho-pediatric rule of the day." All to the good.

But social construction ideas can also "replicate out of hand", Hacking points out, leading to relativism, or at least the fear of it, which embodies the worry that we'll end up thinking that any opinion is as good as any other, and thus be left with no solid ground from which to criticize oppressive ideas. If relativism comes to rule and somebody decides that the Holocaust is socially constructed, will we have to regard that idea as on a par with other accounts of the Holocaust?

There's also a political downside to social constructionism. Again, take homosexuality. If homosexuals can argue that homosexuality has always existed, that it's something like a feature of nature (perhaps even genetically determined), that bolsters the case for claiming equal rights. If homosexuality turns out to be utterly malleable, a mere social construct, that opens the door for opponents to argue that it's immoral and that homosexuals ought to change their orientation. (More extreme opponents will argue that homosexuality is immoral, whether it's malleable or not.)

Hacking takes account of these "left-right" political consequences. "Social construction work," he observes, is mostly "critical of the status quo." Social constructionists, he writes, tend to hold "that X need not have existed, or need not be as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things, it is not inevitable." Very often, Hacking adds, social constructionists go on to urge that "X is quite bad as it is," and that "we would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed."

Mostly though, Hacking is less concerned with politics, and more with sorting out what's going on. His first move is to distinguish between claims about the social construction of objects, ideas, and a more general notion that he calls "elevator words". That is, there's a difference between such disparate objects as people, rocks, practices, experiences (such as falling in love), and ideas, including those about groupings and classifications. Furthermore, claims about the social construction of such elevator words as "facts", "truth", "reality", and "knowledge"-that is, terms about the nature of the world and how we go about understanding it-are at a different level of abstraction from what Hacking is calling ideas.

He also notes that people get confused about whether something socially constructed is therefore "real" or not. So, while "child abuse"-one of the topics to which Hacking devotes a chapter-is certainly real in our common-sense understanding of it (namely, bad things are inflicted on children), the idea of child-abuse is something that's been socially constructed: it has a history and (political) consequences (for example, treating abused children as though they were "scarred for life", which may be a bad idea).

Conversely, "satanic ritual abuse", a practice that many of the people most concerned with, or perhaps, hysterical about, child abuse claim is widespread, almost certainly isn't real. Unmasking the idea of satanic ritual abuse through social construction techniques is helpful in giving us a saner perspective on the problem of child abuse.

Inspired by philosopher Nelson Goodman and his Ways of Worldmaking (1978), Hacking is consistently illuminating in how we go about engaging in categorization of phenomena, or what he calls "kind-making". With considerable sophistication, he also takes account of the effects of inter-activity and "looping" in the business of conceiving of categories. For instance, the very idea of "gay" is acted upon by people who are called or identify themselves as gay, and that can lead to such further reconceptions as "queer" or even "the end of gay".

Hacking ranges widely in The Social Construction of What? He deals with gender, child abuse, science, rocks, madness, and even the historical anthropological dispute about whether Captain Cook was regarded as a god by the Hawaiians who eventually did him in. His pages crackle with intelligence and are very readable. Many of the topics he writes about began their life as lectures, and Hacking has had the good sense to retain much of the colloquial aspect of discussion, which saves him from temptations of dogmatism or pontification.

Although Hacking is straightforward about where he stands on the various questions he raises, he's also tremendously good-natured in allowing that his readers may not share his particular leanings. In sorting out what is and isn't useful in the social construction approach, he's written a book that's a breath of fresh air in the midst of the often stuffy atmosphere of academia. Now that he's sorted out some of the "what" of social construction, it would be a pleasure to watch him turn his attention to the endless number of books that announce "The End of" or "The Death of X". 

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, BC, and is a Vancouver Sun literary and political columnist, as well as the author of Then We Take Berlin (1995) and Autobiography of a Tatoo (1997).


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