Is everything socially constructed?

by Michael Lopresto

Big DipperMany people from all walks of life have been liberated by the phrase “social construction.” Most notably, those with gender identities that don't conform to traditional ideas, and those with behaviours that don't conform to traditional norms and values. In the former case, it's said that gender roles are wholly the product of socialisation, culture and education, whilst the labelling of nonconforming behaviours as “mad” is actually nothing more than the will of those in power trying to control behaviour and punish those they see as a threat to the status quo.

Indeed there's a venerable tradition in philosophy of saying that everything's socially constructed; with Michel Foucault and Judith Butler in the continental tradition, and an anti-metaphysical thread from Kant to the logical positivists to Quine and Goodman in the analytic tradition. Those with an anti-metaphysical bent often thought that philosophers were in a special place to examine and think about the world with their distinctly conceptual resources. The thought was that Plato was wrong to think that nature has joints, and that we can divide the world up in any way we want. We might think about the world as containing tigers or trees, things that form a distinct natural category, but that's actually a fact about our psychology than about how the world is independent of us. The common sense “naïve realism” of Aristotle says that there are things in themselves, and that science uncovers their real essences, but actually this is just a way of conveniently packaging our ideas and experiences. And this anti-metaphysical, anti-essentialist framework was put to good political use as well. Logical positivists such as Carnap and Schlick criticised metaphysical concepts such as wholes-as-distinct-from-parts as being nothing but metaphysical extravagance that couldn't be rigorously explicated, and therefore the very concept that underpinned the Nazi idea that the Volk was some distinct entity from collections of individual German people was complete nonsense.

This anti-metaphysical tradition culminated in Nelson Goodman's aptly titled book Ways of Worldmaking (1978). He gives a striking example to illustrate the way he thinks sciences proceeds, and worldmaking in general works. The formation of stars we call the Big Dipper (which is part of the constellation Ursa Major, and sometimes called the Saucepan or the Plough) is a group of stars based purely on convention. It looks to us like a big ice-cream scoop or maybe a saucepan, and that's why we've names that part of the night sky the way we have. There's likely a psychological story to be told here about how the human conceptual apparatus for thinking about human artefacts such as ice-cream scoops and saucepans gets triggered by things like groups of stars (and clouds and so on) in virtue of the resemblance relations they bare to the artefacts we antecedently have concepts for. So we can grant Goodman that grouping stars the way we do is purely a matter of convention. Had things gone differently, we might have grouped stars in a very different, and yet equally arbitrary way. But Goodman moves very quickly from this example to all of science being based on convention. Most obviously, it's not merely a matter of convention as to what the constituents of the Big Dipper are: stars. For something to be a star, it needs to have certain properties. It needs to be luminous, be held together by its own gravity, be fuelled by thermonuclear fusion, and so on. Once we've fixed the meaning of the word “star”, it would be false to say that my coffee mug is a star, or that Uluru is a star.

So Goodman was mistaken that all of science, even all of astronomy, was socially constructed. Science does indeed uncover a causal essence that makes something like a star or a tiger part of a natural kind, a kind that exists independently of human interests. The curious thing is that many categories that were once thought to be natural kinds are nothing more than human folly. The clearest example is that of race. For many people of 18th and 19thcentury Europe and America, it seemed completely obvious that races existed. Indeed, some racists obsessively collected skulls and did all sorts of pseudoscientific things to them. We now know via wide range of advances in biology and psychology that there is no biological justification for dividing people into races. There are no genes that all and only black people have, or that all and only Asian people have. There are no psychological traits that all and only Latino people have, or that all and only Aboriginal Australians have. The folk category “race” is scientifically vacuous; it only divides people according to purely vague and superficial criteria.

That's not to say that there's absolutely no justification for dividing people into races. Aboriginal Australians, for example, have a life expectancy ten years less than white Australians, and are much more likely to acquire diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. So there are social and moral reasons for dividing Aboriginal Australians from other Australians for the purposes of closing the gap.