What follows are some clarifying remarks about social constructivism, especially the epistemological theory and its variants: what it claims to know about social life and social change, including of course public policies instituted by governments; and why these claims --- above and beyond the platitudinous level --- can quickly be misleading and enshrine instead a closed system of ideological biases and wrongheaded beliefs. These remarks are set out in the first two parts of the argument. In part three, a list of recommended readings will be found, with some buggy hints, for those who want to pursue the topic. All chosen for their readability and insights, these readings should further illuminate the strengths and weakness of social constructivism and its post-modern epistemological theories. By the end of parts one and two, never mind whatever you choose to do with the links in part three, you'll have a more focused grasp of social constructivism.
PART I: WHERE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVISM GOES ASTRAY
The Overarching Fallacies of Philosophical Idealism
Two such fallacies, both interlinked --- hard to separate --- stand out.
The first is that social
in social constructivist theory, whatever its variants, is simply misleading. Apart from its platitudinous use --- humans make human society and change it over time --- it emphasizes that all key social shaping forces are strictly mental
: beliefs, ideas, concepts, symbols, and linguistic practices associated with them. The opposite of mental is material
. Material objects and influences can be social too. Even a tank or a terrorist bomb are the products of socially grounded activities: education and training of engineers or terrorists, ideas applied to specific aims, business firms and government contracts vs. terrorist networks and finance, and so on.
The second fallacy follows closely on the heels of the first. Specifically, whatever the variants of social constructivism --- theoretical, rhetorical, ideological --- in the end they all share a common assault on epistemological theories of philosophical realism. Realist theories lay down two contrasting claims, both sound: 1) the world --- especially nature, of course; but also to an extent our societies --- objectively exists above and beyond our concepts and theories about it; and 2) how we use our concepts and theories to categorize natural and social objects and make sense of them is constrained by forces beyond conscious mental and linguistic practices.
What forces specifically?
In a nutshell, a complex fusion of biological evolution, material realities like technology ---yes, partly social; but not simply that --- and the unintended and unwelcome consequences of all purposeful actions, especially in the political realm. Something else operates here too: inescapable human deception . . . of others and of ourselves, not least regarding our motives. Together, in league at times with purposeful actions and changes in our linguistic habits, and other times at odds with them, these non-purposeful and non-linguistic forces help shape and form complex societies. They also limit the range of purposeful change. In particular, their constraining impact
on our social and political worlds means that they cannot be reduced to conscious mental or linguistic phenomena alone. The operational term here is: constraining.
To think otherwise is to commit the major error of all philosophical idealism. More to the point, the dual fallacies show up up in four ways in social constructivism. Call them four problems. Each needs to be set out, analyzed, and illustrated. And don't worry: the analysis from this point on is fairly concrete and easy to follow.
1. Other Powerful Competing Influences That Shape Societies and Political Life Besides Shifting Ideas, Values, Concepts, and Linguistic Practice.
Where the theory initially goes astray --- always assuming we're dealing with social life only, not the natural world --- follows from its links with epistemological idealism: only our ideas, or in modern-day twists our concepts and linguistic practices, shape and direct our social and political lives. That was hinted at with the use of italics around powerful people
. Seeking power in even contemporary democratic countries, never mind brutally run despotisms as in the 22 Arab countries or party-based dictatorships in Fascist and Communist countries, is obviously prompted by a complex of motives:
some unconscious, some at odds with one another, some rationalized in the form of self-deceptions, others rationalized as conscious deception of others. At least some of these motives have little to do with ideas or concepts. Some are biological; others entail unconscious motives; yet others are material economic and technological forces no one consciously can control.
Take true-believing revolutionaries, proclaiming high-sounding aims: say, communists of various kinds. Before they attain power, they may have rationalized their violent actions in idealized terms of equality and fraternity --- or even in the case of Leninism the destruction of the state; and they may even have believed their ideology, in part for reasons of self-deception. In power, a test for what they really stood for, what did they do? They quickly became monstrous, mass-murdering power-wielders. For Communists governments, there were no exceptions. Wherever they existed --- in Europe, Asia, the Americas, or Africa --- they slaughtered a hundred million of their citizens and created mass slave-labor camps to boot. See the impressive study put out by several French scholars, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.
Elsewhere, according to carefully down studies, another 70 people have been killed by their own rulers. Professed ideologies meant nothing here. The demonic quest for power --- usually thrust forward by psychopathic paranoid delusions --- was what essentially mattered.
In short, the links with idealism in the theoretical approach of social constructivism --- whatever its variants: rhetorical, ideological, or analytical, and whoever its hero-intellectuals happen to be --- tend to play down biological influences and unconscious drives in social and political life. [The best studies of victims slaughtered by their governments in the last century were pioneered by R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii: his careful statistical work over the decades showed that that deliberate state murder of civilians, deemed democide by him, number 169 million people since 1900 alone. About a quarter were victims of genocide. "Others were victims of politicide, mass killing of political groups, indiscriminate state massacres, forced labor and concentration camps, of bombing of civilians, and of starvation imposed and reinforced by the state. The number of victims in this century surpasses the population of all but the five largest states in the world today." For that matter, that number exceeds those killed in actual warfare between states over the last 100 years. See this link for a good overview.]
2. No Way To Distinguish Between Actual Beliefs And Ideas As Opposed To Rationalizations And Deception: of Oneself or Others.
We've already described this high-pulsating problem. Little more needs to be added here except to note how much it can mar effective knowledge about social and political lives as well as our economies and technology --- something, as far as I can tell, no social constructivist has tried to explain adequately.
3. Material Influences
Whatever its variant, any social constructivism tends to play down the sheer weight of inherited material realities, such as existing economic institutions, technologies, and competitive pressures --- business organizations, financial firms, stock-and-bond markets, the past distribution of income and wealth (bolstered by nepotistic tendencies built into all human life), plus regulatory and other political policies. Come to that, the cumulative impact of outside pressures of globalizing forces and technological change that no one government or country can control fully . . . not even a powerful rich one like the US, can fully control: rather, only adapt to as best we can.
A related politically charged defect follows. All these material realities spawn, in any society, hordes of vested interests around them. In democratic societies, these vested interests have to be dealt with . . . almost always by compromise, often --- maybe almost always --- in ways that portend problems for the future in, say, economic dynamism and growth. In dictatorial regimes, those interest-groups that aren't part of the ruling clique will be repressed, exiled, or exterminated.
4. Unintended Consequences of Purposeful Change
As this last line of analysis suggests, another defect in social constructivism is its inability to handle effective the cumulative impact of unintended spillovers
of purposeful linguistic and conceptual changes and public policy. All of them entail unintended consequences, some or most of them with undesirable fall-out, and usually unforeseen or denied initially. Sooner or later, they become politically charged and produce new social and political conflicts . . . all matters, I add, that we will illustrate in Part II.
PART II: TWO EXAMPLES: CHANGING WOMEN'S ROLES AND THE EU WELFARE STATE
For all these problems singled out here, social constructivism isn't entirely wrong --- just lopsided and unable to account for the influences besides cultural and linguistic that shape our social, economic, and political lives, collectively viewed. One of its strengths was mentioned at the very outset of the introductory remarks earlier:
*As a theory, social constructivism is sound enough as far as it goes. If anything, it's a platitude to say that humans construct their social realities --- politics, culture, economics, social roles, and the like --- and that these realities change when, over time and for a variety of reasons, our understandings and concepts about these themselves change. Yes, a platitude. Platitudes are generally true. Their drawback is to state something fairly simple-minded, little else.
Let's illustrate the platitudinous truths with two important examples: the changed roles of women in modern industrial societies and what has happened to the ambitious, well-intentioned EU welfare state.
1. The Changing Roles of Women
In particular, change in our social and political practices and realities can occur because our concepts and linguistic practices themselves first change. Think of the shifting roles of women in advanced industrial and post-industrial societies: not just a big change from being wives and mothers to full-fledged members of all professions and political life, but in the ways in which their sexual behavior is now judged. On the other hand, the latter --- big shifts in women's sexual behavior, particularly in the openness with which women now pursue their sexual lives without the fears that once inhibited them --- points up a big drawback of overwrought social constructivism here: it's not simply changes in our categories that have brought about changes in women's sexuality, it is also technology and a medical by-product: the birth control pill. Without it, whatever changes feminists and others might have tried to bring about by intentionally altering our views of what women are entitled to do or not, including with their sexual lives, not nearly as many women would be as sexually active or bold as the case may be.
But Note: Several Unintended By-Products
As for unintended consequences of deliberate or purposeful social change --- usually, of an unwelcome sort --- think of the decline in marriage rates and marriage prospects for lots of women who do want to marry and have children in a two-parent family. The reason? The collapsed taboos surrounding explicit living-together relationships for unmarried men and women that once made it impossible for its members to hold a job in corporations, small businesses, schools, and almost all the professions have almost made it easier for men --- with a far different evolutionary development as a species inclined to reproduce their genes as widely as possible --- to have transient relationships with no permanent commitments.
Economists, it's worth noting immediately, have no trouble understanding such complexity by virtue of their training. Operating with notions that economic actors are rational and purposeful, they are primed to look for trade-offs: hence the dictum that there's no free lunch.
There are always some costs in purposefully choosing to do one thing and not another: in money, time, effort, long-term benefits vs. short-term gratification, and an unbounded list possibly other unintended and unforeseen costs. t It's a sign of ideologues and other fervent types to deny there are trade-offs. Just implement my prescriptions, and voila, we'll all be better off. Implement all of them, and it will be Nirvana.
Understood in this light, most social-constructionists are ideologues. Whatever is useful in the social constructivist work is lost in the mists and pretensions of post-modernist relativism.
Denials of Objective Constraints
As for the denial of any objective realities in our lives, this must mean, in the end, that even in the natural world there is nothing
that constrains the varieties and possible changes in our constructs and theories. Nothing
. On this view, even all scientific work is socially constructed, a result of professional groups, gatekeepers, personal prestige and power, group interaction, and all the other foibles, ticks, and preoccupations --- conscious or otherwise --- of frail human beings. To an extent, that's true. It's the stress on "all" that reveals the ideological thrust here, a denial that scientists have any privileged insights into the way the world is and operates as opposed to any man-on-the-street or, for that matter, any tribal medicine-man as opposed to a trained M.D.
Is this credible? Well, it gets worse.
Even in the social world, as the previous buggy article tried to show, social constructivism errs in contending that nothing constrains our concepts or understandings and hence social and political practices. There are constraints: human biology, built-in self-interest and nepotistic preferences, biological differences between men and women, and for that matter a shared human nature that transcends cultural differences along national lines. The other constraints? Unintended by-products of purposeful changes, not least in public policies . . . and usually hard to foresee initially and difficult to deal with. The denial of these constraints, especially the unintended by-products of well-intentioned changes --- trade-offs, remember --- is a clear sign, to repeat, of ideology, not clear-headed social reform.
2. The EU Welfare State
The unanticipated consequences of the EU welfare state, initiated in Sweden right before WWII and everywhere else in West Europe after 1945, are a particularly apt example, given the current buggy mini-series on American Exceptionalism comparatively viewed. The outcome is worth clarifying at length. It not only illustrates further shortcomings of social constructivism as a theory --- whatever its variants; it also explains a lot of the economic troubles that beset the EU Continentals these days, as well as the rapidly mounting social conflicts that they entail. Politicians may try to finesse those troubles; that's only to be expected. In Scandinavia and Holland, though some effective reforms have been initiated that have helped restore some economic dynamism and job-creation, the changes are only at mid-point and the home-stretch lies way ahead, full of problems. In Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the other small Continental EU countries, the changes have just gotten out of the starting gate. The problems they face in even getting to the mid-point are legion, all politically charged and potentially full of social strife . . . including violence, terrorism, massive demonstrations, politically inspired strikes, and political assassination. In Britain and Ireland --- for that matter, half way around the world in New Zealand and Australia --- the changes were initiated back in the 1980s and are far more impressive: one major reason, accordingly, that their economic performance outshines that of the EU countries or Japan ever since.
Well-Intended Policy Changes At The Outset
Especially in its origins, the existing EU welfare state was well intentioned: an effort to ensure more stability and security for all members of the national community, while increasing social solidarity. The thrust here after WWII was particularly powerful given the Great Depression, the collapse of democratic regimes almost everywhere on the Continent, and the need to mobilize entire societies for total war with the Nazis and their fascist allies. The welfare state was also intended to end the ideological conflicts between left and right that had made capitalism so contested, even in Scandinavia and Holland where otherwise Communism on the left and Fascism on the right had little or no mass following. Ditto in Britain.
And note. At first, these intended goals did work well, and not least because of what could be called, following a great political economist's terminology (Mancur Olson's
), the existence of an encompassing coalition
--- a large majority of the electorate who favored active government policies of taxation and redistribution, mainly to help the weak, the poor, the ill, the old, and young children. Over time, all this changed and in unintended ways. By the 1960s, the problems essentially of poverty and unemployment and insecurity were solved. By then, however, the encompassing coalition of the majority had fragmented into a contest of competing organized pressure groups --- including organized unions among government workers and even the police and firemen. The welfare state also kept expanding --- and expanding, along with a multiplying swarm of detailed regulations.
The result? A horde of unintended consequences, largely for the worse.
The Unintended and Undesirable Fall-Out of Overexpansion: Economic and Political Troubles Galore
The list is long. Those troubles that stand out immediately are underscored here, with some illustrative examples, nothing else. Remember, we'll be giving them a full dress-rehearsal and careful analytical reviews later on when we return to the larger mini-series on American Exceptionalism compared to the EU democracies, especially on the Continent, and Japan. For the time being, consider how:
- Each organized interest group sought to increase its own subsidies or protection. Each vigilantly monitored the others and demanded that if others were getting their "unfair" increases, they should get more too.
- Simultaneously, politicians --- interested after all in re-election, whatever else might motivate them --- found that their electoral chances hinged on making more and more promises to help this group or that (always rationalized in big high-toned terms), and so the welfare state and subsidies and protection and regulations galore multiplied fast even when, after 1975, the growth of GDP slowed markedly in the EU . . . as it did in Japan and to a lesser extent in the US. Taxes rose; labor markets grew rigid; unemployment among youth and others increased; economic vigor declined.
* A Mercedes mechanic would fix his dentist's sedan in return for the free dental work for himself and his family. That way, taxes --- which could be 15-20% of a bill --- were evaded. The outcome? Scandinavian countries and Holland, once famous for their civic discipline, have found that discipline eroded both by constant and clamorous group competition and pervasive tax evasion. This isn't speculation. The team of Austrian economists who used a variety of cross-checking measures of the underground economy find that in Scandinavia and Holland, it's almost as big now as in the Latin countries . . . traditionally known for this lack of civic discipline, with tax-evasion a national sport. In concrete terms, the underground economy seems to be around 15-20% of official GDP in Holland, Britain, and Scandinavia. In low-tax US, it's 7.5%.
- One clear sign of the disintegrating social consensus --- reflected in the break-up of the encompassing coalition into competing groups --- has been the swift reaction to ever higher taxation in the form of a rapidly growing underground economy: systematic tax-evasion in ingenious ways, even by means of barter.
* In the upshot, Sweden, once one of the three or four richest countries in the world, was ranked 17th by the mid-1990s (doing somewhat better since). Germany, one of the four or five richest, has compiled the slowest growth of any EU country since 1990; it now seems either mired in prolonged recession or near to it, and the recent reforms carried out belatedly by the Schroeder government --- watered down by protests --- will probably do little to improve dynamism. Italy scarcely grows either.
- No less worrying has been the growth of other inhibiting spillovers that hold back economic dynamism . . . all at a time of massive changes in global capitalism, market structures, relentless technological flux, and other globalizing forces. Among them: 1) rigid labor markets; 2) a learned-sort of dependence on bureaucrats and politicians that undermine risk-taking and a willingness to accept inevitable changes; 3) the lack of start-up businesses --- 1 out of every 11 American adults starts one every year; only 1 out of 33 Britons and Italians; only 1 out of 50 Finns and Germans; and 4) the recourse instead to strikes, demonstrations, and other protests as a way of trying to prevent change;
* Officially, unemployment is around 10-11% in the EU now. The real figure is much higher: lots of youth who aren't serious students are kept in outdoor relief as registered students with few job prospects by full subsidies from their government. Other youth are in short-term government programs that train them for some job that never materializes when the programs end. At the other end of the age-spectrum, about 60% of men between the age of 50 and 65 were in the work force in 1980; the figure these days is below 50% almost everywhere, and below 40% in some countries. Meanwhile, ever more retirees living ever longer on generous state-pensions have to be supported by taxes on a shrinking work force.
Back To Social Constructivism
- The worst unintended by-product hasn't been mentioned yet: the growth of long-term structural unemployment. The long-term trend has got worse each time the EU countries come out of a recession, a record that is now almost 30 years old.
Enough. The point's made. In a future article in the buggy mini-series on American exceptionalism, we'll be looking at the welfare state and its different forms in the US --- and to a large extent in Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand --- as opposed to its more massive scope in the EU.
For the time being, we're interested in social construction and its epistemological claims; and it shouldn't be hard to see what's wrong with the constructivist preoccupation that activists and political leadership can, jointly, change our concepts and understanding of the social world and manage in the process to bring about desired transformations. Such transformations may occur. As the saga of the EU welfare state shows --- or its Japanese regulatory equivalent --- nobody can prevent unintended consequences from occurring, most of them undesired and even initially hard to foresee.
What follows are a set of further reflections here, mainly with an eye to giving you some useful links to the more rigorous theorizing by philosophers and others. Enjoy. They're all stimulatng pieces, and though intellectually demanding, not hard to follow if you make an effort.
PART III: RECOMMENDED READINGS
Those of you who are still questing for some focused, high-octane treatments of social constructivism --- essentially, despite its variants, ideologically preoccupied attacks on epistemological theories of realism (the world objectively exists above and beyond our concepts and theories about it and how we use them to categorize both natural and social objects and make sense of them), all with an intent to promote transforming social and political changes --- will find some good sources at these gordon-newspost
An excellent survey, critical but fair, by a political scientist at Swarthmore: gordon-newspost, July 2001.
The scholar distinguishes various applictions of social constructivism in scholarly work: ideological, rhetorical, and social. With some exceptions, almost all the applications not only deny that there is an objective world --- natural or social (some distinguish these two, admittedly) --- but use that denial in order to push for radical changes in our concepts and outlook. Given the stress on idealism here --- when we change our concepts, our out look changes too; in turn, our individual behavior and social life change as well --- the aim of almost all social constructionists is to seek major transformations in our social and political systems by means of cultural change itself.
A brilliant assault on the rhetorical convolutions and silly shallow work of Judith Butler at UC Berkeley --- very big medicine in many feminist circles, lauded as one of the 10 great minds in the universe by a fawning male acolyte whose ability to express himself clearly matches Butler's tangled obscurantism --- was unfolded in the New Republic
by one of the great philosophers of our time, Martha Nussbaum, now at the Univ. of Chicago Law School . . . a very gifted thinker, who has used her rigorous training in analytical philosophy to range widely in her writings on ethics, epistemology, social life, and so on. See gordon-newspost, July 2001.
As those of you who clicked on the earlier link to Judith Butler will recall, it's the same gordon-newspost source. Unless you scrolled about a third of the way down the web document, though, you might not have found Nussbaum's strikingly luminous dissections of Butler's hoked-up nonsense.
Four years ago, an analytical philospher at a Swiss university surveyed the famous Sokal hoax, pulled off by Alan Sokal, a physicist in New York, who pretended to write a post-modernist philosophical critique of contemporary physics, then submitted the jumbled ms. to the leading English-speaking journal on the stuff. Unable to distinguish nonsense from soundness, the editorial staff --- after looking the ms over --- published it, only for Sokal to then go public and divulge how idiotic his article was. As a follow-up, Sokal --- who has a fluent command of French --- then wrote a book with a Belgian physicist on the French pioneers of post-modernism . . . themselves convoluted up-dates of Nietzsche and Heidegger: Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Lacan, Deleuze, etc. The French title is IMPOSTURES INTELLECTUELLES
by Alain Sokal and Jean Bricmont, 1998.
In the same gordon-newspost
reprint of this Swiss take on post-modernism and social constructivism --- sometimes called social constructivism --- there's an even more scintillating review article of the English edition by Thomas Nagel, then of Harvard, now at NYU . . . one of the most prolific and illuminating of all modern philosophers. He doesn't range quite as widely as Nussbaum, but he has moved way beyond the preoccupations with epistemology that constitute the base of analytical philosophy --- founded by Frege and Russell around 1900, then developed by Wittgenstein and the logical positivists in the interwar period, only to make a profound shift under the impact of Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Kriepke, and in his own way Rorty in the US after WWII --- and deal with ethics and social life too. It's a dazzling piece, and Nagel has no hesitations to call the French post-modernists either imbeciles or shams or both.
See gordon-newspost, July 2001
For an excellent critical survey of French post-modernist philosophy by Mark Lilla, an American philosopher trained in France as well as this country --- it appeared in the New York Review of Books
in 1998 --- see gordon-newspost June 2001.
In the same gordon-newspost, there's a lengthy review by Richard Rorty --- undoubtedly the most famous philosopher in the English-speaking world and analytical philosophical circles elsewhere (it's the dominant style in Scandinavia, increasingly even in Germany and France, as well as in India and Africa). The stress in analytical philosophy --- which is usually contrasted with Continental philosophy with its roots in Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, the Frankfurt-New York schools of Critical Theory (Habermas its most famous contemporary exponent, himself heavily influenced by American pragmatism), and the French post-modernists --- is on 1) clear writing, 2) explicit rigorous argumentsm, and 3) a willingness to submit all your arguments to extensive criticisms by others and engage them in explicit dialogue . . . something virtually unknown in Continental philosophy. At one time it also used and to an extent still does 4) symbolic logic, and 5) a preoccupation with language . . . though so does modern Continental Philoosphy. Fortunately, the advances in cognitive psychology lately have stimulated a turn away from just language back to a philosophical link with cognitive psychological studies, themselves influenced by new genetic and neurophysiological work as well as artificial intelligence.
Rorty, himself once a strict analytical philosopher, began breaking with it and fusing a union with Continental approaches ---- which are much closer to literary work and societal-oriented critiques. In doing so, he has linked his work to American pragmatism pioneered by Charles Peirce, William James, and above all John Dewey . . . something the more orthodox analytical philosophers, after dissecting and renouncing logical positivism in the early post-1945 period, had themselves begun. Rorty, like the pragmatists, denies that there is any way to get beyond our concepts and theories to make a bracing contact with the objective world --- including our own history as societies --- and that the aim of philosophy ought to be, with Dewey, to use science and social sciences as adjuncts to a flourishing democratic life, concentrating on steady but limited reforms to see if they work out in public life. (Peirce, a many-sided genius whose unpublished work is still being sifted through --- tens of thousands of manuscripts --- did hope, unlike James or Dewey, that ultimately scientific communities open to constant criticism and testing of their theories would end up at some unspecified point in the future with a full-fledged objective account of the universe. Interestingly, Habermas and German philosophy these days is mostly interested in another pioneer pragmatist, George Herbert Mead, a contemporary of these other great pragmatists and considered the founder of SOCIAL-psychology.)
For a couple of his recent ms. on analytical vs. continental philosophy, see gordon-newspost, July 2002
One of the works reviewed by Rorty in this last gordon-newspost link was written by the distinguished philosopher, Ian Hacking --- formerly of Stanford, now in Canada. The work deals with social constructivism, and P.N. Furbank, a British philosopher, offers a clear exposition of Hacking's long argument, in the process of which you will understand a lot more about what might be useful in social constructionist writings --- and there is some --- and what's wrong or simply crackpot.
See gordon-newspost, June 2000