A dose of constructive criticism

Thursday Book: THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF WHAT? BY IAN HACKING, HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, pounds 18.50
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The Independent Culture
TO NON-COMBATANTS the "science wars" may seem perplexing. One side, composed mainly of sociologists and historians, claims that scientific knowledge is "socially constructed"; that scientific categories are not determined by how the world is, but are convenient ways of representing it. The other, largely composed of scientists, argues that scientific laws are universal; a Martian would be forced to come to the same conclusions as earthlings. These differences can get very heated and personal.

A layman may wonder what all the fuss is about. Of course, he may say, science is a social process because it is conducted by human beings working within a particular context. But it is also objective, because one can test scientific knowledge against the real world. Nothing, of course, is ever as simple as this, as Ian Hacking demonstrates. The Social Construction of What? explores the significance of the idea of social construction, not simply in science but also in other arenas.

There are few things today that don't seem "socially constructed". From authorship and brotherhood to youth homelessness and Zulu nationalism, someone, somewhere will have discovered it to be a "social construction". But what does it mean to say that? And does it help us to understand the world? These are the questions at the heart of Hacking's book.

It is not an easy read. Partly, this is because of the subject matter. Anyone who has read any social-constructionist texts will know how jargon- laden the arguments can be. Partly it is because of the way the book itself is constructed. It gives the impression of a work in progress rather than a finished text. Nevertheless, Hacking's arguments are important and well worth persevering with.

Many social constructionists, he points out, are unclear as to what is being constructed: an object or an idea? When scholars talk of "the social construction of the economy", are they referring to the economy or the idea of the economy? Another confusion is between notions of construction in the social and natural sciences. Classifications in the social sciences are interactive: people are conscious of social labels and are often affected by them. The objects of natural science do not possess agency and cannot interact with scientific categories. But social constructionists often treat them in the same way.

Hacking goes on to explore these issues in a variety of settings. Perhaps the most interesting is his discussion of child abuse. He obviously accepts that child abuse is a real phenomenon. But he shows how the idea of child abuse as a social category has been constructed in the past few decades. Victorians campaigned against cruelty to children, but it was not for them a moral issue in the way that child abuse is today. There was no concept of "children at risk". "Cruelty to children was bad," Hacking writes. "But it was not an ultimate evil, inducing thoughts of horror and disgust."

Hacking demonstrates how the notion of child abuse has developed, particularly in the US, since the Sixties. He also shows how the construction of child abuse has interacted with people's experience of it. In recent years, many adults "discovered" that they had been abused as children. The result, he writes, has been a "radical re-evaluation of childhood experience, a reclassification, and in a way a re-experiencing of it".

The case of child abuse shows how useful can be the notion of "social construction" in helping to demystify an issue. In other cases - such as in science - the concept is more fraught. There are, he observes, three "sticking-points" in the debate between social constructionists and their scientific critics: contingency, nominalism and stability.

Constructionists argue that scientific knowledge is contingent because the development of science could have happened in a different way and still have been as successful in describing the real world. They believe that the categories into which scientists divide the world (such as genes, liquids, quarks) are the products of science, not of the world out there. And they claim that the stability of scientific explanations does not lie in the constancy of the real world but derives from social factors external to science.

Hacking does a useful job unpacking these various claims. But he is ambivalent as to where he stands in the debate. He leans towards the scientists on the question of contingency, towards the constructionists on nominalism, and somewhere in between when it comes to the sources of stability.

In the end, Hacking suggests, social constructionism reveals an attitude towards science as much as an analysis of it. Constructionists see themselves as radicals; they want to bring science down a peg or two. Their work represents a "rage against reason". "Uttering the very phrase `social construction'," Hacking writes, "seems more like standing up at a revival meeting than enunciating a thesis or project." In unmasking the arguments in this fashion, Hacking usefully applies to "social construction" a bit of its own medicine.

Kenan Malik

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