Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Social Constructivism

I've been putting some thought into whether I should be posting here regularly. On the one hand, I'm a single father raising two children alone while working on a PhD. I find I don't have a lot of time for things that don't really have to be done, and blogging probably falls into that category.

On the other hand, I found this blog (what there is of it) immensely useful last semester, during a class in the rhetoric of science. I could look back over what I'd been thinking on various subjects in the past, and then build from that in my current work. I imagine this blog will be useful for this sort of thing in the future, even if no one ever reads it.

So with that in mind, let me offer some thoughts I have on social constructivism, which has been mentioned in a lot of books I've read over the last year. Too many authors seem to use the term interchangeably to refer to the social construction of knowledge and the social construction of facts. I think the distinction is critical, especially if we're talking about scientific facts.

This distinction is based on the difference between knowledge and fact. Nearly every fifth-grader (not just the ones on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader) knows the difference; it amazes me that people with PhDs routinely blur the terms. It's really quite simple. Facts are facts whether you know them or not. Knowledge is knowledge only if you know it.

I do believe that knowledge is socially constructed. I have different knowledge than I would if I were, say, a Bushman in the Kalahari. This difference is based largely on the differences in our society. If I'd grown up in their society, I'd have their knowledge. (The physical environment makes a difference, as well, but because many of these differences are also related to our societies, I'll lump them in with social differences. My physical environment includes laptops and skyscrapers, both of which are a part of my society.)

As for whether facts are socially constructed, I think that depends on whether we're talking about facts of definition or facts of the Real World Out There. Is Pluto a planet? The answer is a fact of definition. It depends on what our society decides. It changes nothing about the Real World facts of the entity.

Does the earth rotate? The answer is a Real World fact. It doesn't matter how many people think it doesn't. It doesn't matter what our society decides, or what we know. The fact remains the same.

So if we say, as I heard a very bright PhD student say last year, "People thought that the earth didn't rotate, and that was one of their scientific facts," then we are either horribly distorting the meaning of "fact," or we're talking utter nonsense. This is very close to the argument Bruno Latour makes in Laboratory Science: The Social Construction of Scientific Fact. I find it amazing that anyone would take this idea seriously.

Now, if by "scientific fact," we're speaking of the facts of the social sciences ("All cultures have an incest taboo, although they define it differently"), then it's absolutely true that facts are socially constructed. That's almost a tautology. Of course social facts are socially constructed. But that isn't Latour's argument, nor is it the one I see in so many people influenced by him.

"But belief doesn't matter anyway, one way or the other. All those people who believed for all those years that the earth was flat never succeeded in unrounding it one bit." --Isaac Asimov. (I'm quoting from memory, but I think that's pretty close to the original.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe in the PERCEPTION of knowledge, but I do not believe that humans can attain knowledge.

Define progress and you should get one word...advancement. Humans don't advance. They die.

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Latika said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You really helped me out right here. I'm struggling with a class presentation on social constructivism, but now after reading your blog it seems like the dark is lightening a bit! Thanks!

4:58 PM  

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