Social Constructions II—heterogeneity and process omitted from accounts of the term (cont.)

(Continued from previous post)  Sismondo’s advice raises issues more serious than our questioning the status of philosophy over (or its separateness from) social studies of science. While he asserts that his constructivisms are separable and claims clarification will result from distinguishing a focus on social objects from a focus on the natural world, his argument, examples and footnotes suggest such separateness cannot be sustained in practice.  Again, taking each of Sismondo’s first three constructivisms (but flipping the order of 2 and 3 for expository reasons):

1) His examples of large social objects (or projects) are ‘genders, power, emotions… cities, economies, legislation and knowledge.’[xiv]   As social objects, cities and economies are clearly very material as well as being actively represented and full of meanings.  The degree to which representations of them render their material aspects more difficult to construct differently (or acrete upon differently), and vice versa, is an obvious question for investigation.  Surely knowledge is not the odd thing out in his list of examples, being the one meaningful thing (social object) that has a relationship only in the direction from material/natural to representation/ social.

3) The ubiquity of manufactured reality in laboratory science confirms that knowledge is not the exception, as Sismondo makes clear in a footnote: The ‘phenomena that science studies are extremely dependent on thoughts and theoretical commitments, for often these would not exist were it not for the experimental development of these theoretical commitments.’  The question then arises, why is it important to try to place a line to keep manufactured reality strictly separate from some deep underlying unmediated reality?

2)  In the light of Sismondo’s expanded lists of ‘fixed’ points, the answer becomes uncertain.  When these points included only data and observations one could argue that some ‘geometrically’ constructed conceptual entities come to be accepted over others because they map reality better, because they are approximately true.  But the ‘because’ is more difficult to sustain when construction builds as well upon ‘resources and the like,’ that is, upon social objects; acceptance of knowledge (or reliability of technological interventions) becomes, instead, a part of a more complex achievement.  (I develop this point further below.)

Linked together in this way, Sismondo’s conclusions invite us to subvert his own distinctions by considering the co-construction of knowledge and material reality, extending from laboratory manufactured reality to larger social projects.  It is true, as he says, that in social studies of science different things have been described as being constructed — the natural world, scientific phenomena and techniques, acceptance of facts and theories, on-going scientific activity, ‘social objects,’ or society or more generally.  At the same time, however, the literature has increasingly described practices in which these things are interlinked: scientific objects appear to be resources for people building networks to support theories; theories resources in the organisation of scientific work; language, tools, and scientific work relations resources enabling particular manufacturings of reality, and so on.  This kind of constructivism shifts perspective not just from separate things to jointly constructed sets of things, but from thinking mostly about the constructed state of the outcomes to examining the processes of their co-construction.[xv]  Of course, from the point of view of the philosophically minded, sociologists of science have provided stories about such complexity, but have yet to tease out the causal or explanatory claims implied in descriptions of such interlinkings.  An examination of the implications of such an explanatory co-constructivist project is beyond the scope of this note.  We can, however, consider how Sismondo’s philosophical and political arguments are limited by his inattention to co-construction and process.  (Continued in the next post)


[xiv]  S1, p.547

[xv]  Sismondo’s focus on the status of outcomes leads him to address Latour’s and Woolgar’s work only in terms of the fourth category of constructivism, the one he rejects.  Both Latour and Woolgar are constructivists also in the sense of co-construction (see note 8).  Cf. Sismondo’s description of Latour’s work on scientists as accumulators of resources (op. cit. note 3) as “not obviously constructivist” (S1, p. 537).


2 thoughts on “Social Constructions II—heterogeneity and process omitted from accounts of the term (cont.)

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

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

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