Social Constructions III — Co-Construction Vs. Separateness

(Continued from previous post) We can consider how Sismondo’s philosophical and political arguments are limited by his inattention to co-construction and process.


While Knorr Cetina may agree with Sismondo on some issues, she strongly opposes him when she insists that a phenomenon does not meaningfully exist, in the sense of being ‘out there,’ until we represent or reach closure about it.  Explanation seems to be the issue here; Knorr Cetina’s definition of existence has the effect that we cannot invoke pre-existing reality when explaining what happened as science was being made.  Excluding unobservables from our accounts is a strong explanatory stipulation in any science, one very difficult to maintain consistently.  Sismondo’s island analogy gently reminds us of the explanatory economy we can derive from invoking something having causal effects before any person had represented (or misrepresented) them.  The reason Knorr Cetina favours Sismondo’s rejected fourth constructivism is, I suspect, defensive.  Give unmediated reality an inch and realist philosophers will take a mile; unless she banishes unmediated reality from explanations, everything sociological becomes vulnerable to being discounted as secondary distortion of an underlying state of affairs, namely that we have ended up with theories that get it right (approximately) about how nature works.  Ironically, however, her move to insulate sociology from being so discounted by philosophers makes their work easier.  All they have to do is convince themselves that existence without representation is, in fact, meaningful, that is, one can, in principle, invoke it in explanations.  Then they can relax and continue to discount sociological challenges to philosophy.

Attention to the process of science in the making as a co-construction, however, has the virtues of allowing us both to admit unobservables into explanations and not to let philosophers off the hook so easily.  Let me explain this by extending Sismondo’s own uninhabited Pacific island analogy.  The existence of the island before we encountered it does not by itself explain how we found it, nor tell us how to find others.  And the fact that now the island can be located in many ways and by many people other than those involved in the original finding does not warrant giving its existence special status in understanding the original finding.[i]  I am not claiming people can individually or collectively wish an island into or out of existence, but little follows from this concession to unmediated reality by itself.  The claim to have found an island might be vulnerable if the island were not there, but this would not automatically be the case.  If would-be debunkers decided to revisit the contested point on the globe, they would need to get support to launch their expedition  — no trivial exercise.  They might have to cultivate patrons, lay in stores of food, procure maps, calibrate chronometers, and so on.  Their efforts in any one of these areas would influence efforts in the others, either facilitating or hindering them.[ii]   The realist (about the existence of islands) could give them little advice about these stages of the debunking process, save telling them, for the sake of credibility, to leave behind hallucinogenic drugs.

Leaving the analogy to return to the co-construction of science, I am quite prepared to believe that some deep underlying unmediated reality is fixed and to concede that social resources are only firm at best.  This does not, however, warrant a realist philosophy  Instead we should abandon the dichotomy of realist vs. relativist (idealist, conventionalist) explanations, because, when an outcome is the result of diverse fixed points and resources being linked and built upon, it is difficult to partition relative importance among the different contributing points and resources.  In other words, as science is being made, the importance of something, whether fixed, firm or malleable, is a function of the other things with which it is being linked.[iii]

Co-construction also undermines Sismondo’s political justification for maintaining a realist position.  I agree that incorrect scientific knowledge may inform social practices that we, as social critics, may want to change, and it may sometimes be effective politics for us to focus on contesting that knowledge as misrepresentation of reality.  Nevertheless, it does not follow that such critique is always necessary or even important for producing the desired social changes.  If we are to identify where and when science-centred critique could be linked into the reconstruction of the social practices we oppose, we need to understand the on-going construction of those practices.  Again, nothing follows from the truth (or from the falsity) of knowledge claims by itself.  While it may be galling that our political opponents invoke as truthful what we see as misrepresentations, there are no logical reasons either to assume that their practices are most vulnerable around those misrepresentations, to think that we can contest those misrepresentations without simultaneous attention to other contributing strands of their practices, or to fear that we weaken our politics by focussing our efforts against such other strands.

(continued in the next post)

[i]  Such a many-one relationship does, however, raise issues about whether we can generalise about science in the making and how we would do so.  In particular, we need to be able to acknowledge regularities across different makings of the science (analogous to the island’s existence being affirmed by ever more expeditions being able to locate it).

[ii]   For example, with patrons comes money, and how much money influences what food can be bought.  Similarly, potential patrons might become excited only if the promise were made to bring back slaves, requiring the expedition to plan a diversion to visit islands known to be inhabited.

[iii]  See R. C. Lewontin, ‘The analysis of variance and the analysis of causes’, American Journal of Human Genetics , Vol. 26 (1974), 400-411.)

2 thoughts on “Social Constructions III — Co-Construction Vs. Separateness

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

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

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