Social Constructions—heterogeneity and process omitted from accounts of the term

The Social Construction of What? (Harvard UP, 2000) by philosopher of science, Ian Hacking, critically reviews the possible meanings of social construction in the context of scientific knowledge and technology.  However, there is one meaning of construction that he does not consider, perhaps the most obvious one to the common person, namely, the process of building a structure from diverse materials, as in the foundations, frames, walls, roof, plumbing and electrical circuits, and so on.  Several years before I had raised this point in “Co-construction and process: a response to Sismondo’s classification of constructivisms,” Social Studies of Science, 25 (2): 348-359, 1995.  (My title was “Heterogeneous construction and process,” but editor insisted on substituting “co-construction” wherever I had “heterogeneous construction.”  Sismondo is another Canadian philosopher of science, at that time a student at Cornell University where I worked.)  I am not aware of other commentaries that examine this omission.  This post and the following, therefore, extract from that paper.

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Any classification into types can clarify our view of the whole while, at the same time, distracting our attention from hybrids and the processes by which they are formed and sustained.[i]  In this light, the recent review by Sismondo, which teases out some of the multiple meanings given to the term ‘construction,’ and his subsequent exchange with Knorr Cetina,[ii] should leave us troubled.  Many of us are interested in the processes of science in the making, in which scientific theories, materials, tools, language, institutions, and wider social relations are being co-constructed, and are trying to analyse the diverse ‘resources’ drawn upon by agents in such co-construction processes.[iii]   Sismondo’s classification makes little space for that strand of social studies of science, focussing as it does on the type of thing being produced, not the processes of their production.  Knorr Cetina does not take issue with him on that account.  She applauds his review as an overdue clarification of constructivisms (constructionisms) and, after a brief plug for philosophers to become more sociological, centres her response on defending a conceptual claim about representations preceeding existence (more on that issue later).  If clarification means providing distinctions we should work with, we should be less satisfied with Sismondo’s taxonomy.  I feel like a misfit, and so, I suspect, do the many who have over the last decade been attracted to ideas such as ‘ecologies of knowledge,’[iv] ‘intersecting social worlds,’[v] ‘heterogeneous engineering,’[vi] and actors’ ‘networks’ of resources.[vii]   This note, however, does not criticise Sismondo just for the omission of a major category of constructivism,[viii] but argues that, from the perspective of what is omitted, his classification scheme breaks down.  The distinctions do not hold in practice and Sismondo’s conclusions about reconciling social studies of science with philosophy and about politics are not justified.

SISMONDO’S LESSONS

Sismondo claims that social studies of science can benefit from distinguishing four separable uses of the term construction, differing in the type of thing being produced.  The payoff derives in part from clearing up the confusions that result when different authors (or the same author in different places) are arguing from different interpretations of the term.  The rest of the benefit derives from letting go of the last of the four constructivisms, namely that things do not exist until we represent and make them meaningful.  As Sismondo interprets it, this view is metaphysically untenable.  In his analogy, while the uninhabited Pacific island is only meaningful when it is encountered and charted, it certainly existed beforehand and would not have been found otherwise, so we can now meaningfully invoke its existence-before-encounter in our explanations of its discovery.  The fourth constructivism, in contrast, implies that successful accounts of the world are unconstrained by the underlying nature of material reality.  Such relativism should also be opposed, he adds in his reply to Knorr Cetina, because it is an obstacle to politically valuable analyses of the scientific inadequacy of certain beliefs.  Then, once Sismondo has rid us of this troublesome beast, he is quite relaxed about the other three senses of constructivism he discerns in sociology of science; each can be reconciled with the realist and politically motivated philosophy of science he favours.[ix]

Consider, however, the fine print of the reconciliation that follows rejection of the fourth constructivism.  Sismondo’s three pieces of advice (corresponding to his first three constructivisms) are that we should:[xi]

1) pay attention to the contingent interaction of many agents, possibly in conflict, as they make social ‘objects’ in science (institutions, gender relations, power, and, in particular, knowledge) by acretion from previous social objects;

2) extend our notion of ‘fixed points’ from which conceptual entities are constructed (as in a geometrical proof) to include, not just ‘data and observations,’ but also ‘tools, resources, and the like’[xii]; and

3) explore the conceptual implications of science’s making extensive use of laboratory artefacts, in the production of which (unmediated) nature has been systematically excluded from the manufactured reality.

Given that these are directions already taken in sociology of science, he is, in effect, advising philosophers of science to follow sociology of science’s lead.  If this constitutes a reconciliation it is not one in which philosophy preserves its own terms, the separateness of its turf, and its status as arbiter of ‘plausible positions.’[xiii]

But Sismondo’s advice raises issues more serious than our questioning the status of philosophy over (or its separateness from) social studies of science (continued in the next post).


[i]  Of course, some hybrids disappear when the particular classification can be refined or replaced by one on a different basis.  (Orange and purple are hybrids if colours are divided into red, yellow or blue, but not if we subdivide the colour spectrum further.)  But even when re-classifying is possible, one still has to address users of the original, hybrid-entailing classification.  This note is concerned with just such a situation.

[ii]  S. Sismondo, ‘Some social constructions’, Social studies of science , Vol. 23 No. 3 (1993), 515-554 [S1]; K. Knorr-Cetina, ‘Strong constructivism – from a sociologist’s point of view: A personal addendum to Sismondo’s paper’, Social studies of science , Vol. 23 No. 3 (1993), 555-563 [KC]; S. Sismondo, ‘Response to Knorr Cetina’, Social studies of science , Vol. 23 No. 3 (1993), 563-569 [S2].

[iii]  B. Latour, We have never been modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993) discusses the challenges of hybrids for science studies and social theory, but his book does not deal with the conceptual implications of treating construction as a process.  A recent (post-Sismondo) article by A. Pickering, ‘The mangle of practice: Agency and emergence in the sociology of science’, American Journal of Sociology , Vol. 99 No. 3 (1993), 559-589, shares with this note an emphasis on process and co-construction (his ‘mangle’ and ‘impure dynamics’).

[iv]  C. Rosenberg, ‘Wood or trees?:  Ideas and actors in the history of science’, Isis , Vol. 79 (1988), 565-570.  See also S. Star, ‘Introduction: The sociology of science and technology’, Social Problems, Vol. 35 (1988), 197-205.

[v]  A. Clarke, ‘Social worlds/arenas theory as organizational theory’, in D. R. Maines (ed.), Social organization and social process: Essays in honor of Anselm Strauss  (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1991), 119-158.

[vi]  J. Law, ‘Technology and heterogeneous engineering: The case of Portugese expansion’, in W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes, and T. J. Pinch (ed.), The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 111-134.

[vii]  B. Latour, Science in Action:  How to follow scientists and engineers through society (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987).

[viii]  We might also use the label heterogeneous constructionism, to capture an emphasis on the heterogeneity of elements or resources drawn into the practice of science in the making.  Under this general label, I would distinguish two strands, the first emphasising rhetorical, interpretive and textual tactics in securing belief, and the second centred on asking what it would mean practically for agents to modify scientific activity.  It is beyond the scope of this note, however, to develop the meaning and implications of heterogeneity, so I use the simpler label, co-construction and will not make anything of the distinction between rhetorical/textual practices and a more general sense of practice.

[ix]  In S1, note 6, Sismondo states a “minimalist” definition of realism: “scientific terms often refer to antecedently existent entities in the world,” and, by implication, our explanations of science can refer to the (pre-)existence of such entities prior to our accounts of them.  In practice, his (and other realists’) arguments use a stronger version, namely, that this fact is central to making sense of science’s successes.  It is this stronger version that I call into question here.

[xi]  S1, pp. 547-8.

[xii]  Cf. S1, pp. 516 and 547 in S1.

[xiii]  S2, p.566

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One thought on “Social Constructions—heterogeneity and process omitted from accounts of the term

  1. Pingback: Social Constructions—heterogeneity and process omitted from accounts of the term II « Intersecting Processes

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