I’ve just been chatting in email with a friend who asked me to boil down my critique of the concept of social construction as it has appeared in history, cultural criticism, anthropology and so on over the last 25 years or so. The term itself now produces a kind of thoughtless, reactive sneer from many outsiders (rather like “relativism”) that I’m almost tempted instead to write a sympathetic exploration of where the idea came from and why it was an important and useful idea before it became a banal shorthand. I took the time to collect my thoughts on the issue, and once I was done, it struck me as worth reproducing as a blog post.
My critique is a bit narrower than what you’d find in a work like Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?, which is a smart response to the version of the debate over “social construction” that pertains to scientific research.
There are four prongs to my critique.
The first is that the social construction argument as it appears in work like Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition is far too casual in its understanding of the historical processes through which inventions or constructions are assembled and become socially powerful or widely distributed. In this sense, arguing that something was “socially constructed” was a rephrasing of the claim that a belief or practice was ideological, e.g., created for narrowly and consciously instrumental purposes to advance the interests of a particular social or institutional group. In this use of “social construction”, saying something is constructed is very much also saying something is a tool of ruling or oppressive interests–it piggybacks on a loosely Marxist concept of ideology or hegemony. As a consequence, the “invention of tradition” scholarship tended to completely overlook the organically historical roots of “constructions”, the ways in which they are built up out of real experiences, real memories (collective and personal), authentic knowledge. The authenticity or power of constructions in the Hobsbawm/Ranger sense is seen as being secured through domination.
Carolyn Hamilton’s book on the “construction” of the Zulu monarch Shaka, Terrific Majesty, is a good critique of this kind of argument–Hamilton argues instead that embedded inside successive “constructions” of Shaka was also always an organic, authentic, “real” series of historical experiences, that these constructions weren’t arbitrary, that they aren’t made in a simple instrumental fashion, and that people engaged in the act of construction don’t themselves have a clear bird’s eye view of what they’re trying to do or why they want to do it. The act of “social construction” is constrained by what history really has been, both what really happened and how people really understood and interpreted what happened.
The second problem, as I see it, is what Michael Taussig complained about in Mimesis and Alterity: that for a lengthy time, many monographs were written where the sum total of the argument was, “X was socially constructed”. Taussig says that this is silly because this isn’t an argument, it’s a given. He goes on to argue that instead what should we should be doing is construction ourselves. This I don’t necessarily buy–this is what leads Taussig to some of his later performative excesses, playacting at being a shaman and so on.
In fact, I think this is the problem with the entire concept. Once you think of the process of social creation as a “construction”, you’re always going to be a phony when you participate in what you imagine to be social creation, because you’re going to have a vanguardist or manipulative sensibility about what you’re doing. (For example, Stuart Hall and Gayatri Spivak’s talk about ‘strategic essentialism’–a notion that we will know that we’re not ‘really’ essential identities, but maybe the proles will not know and will be mobilized usefully by our strategic deployment of identities.) In any event, I think Taussig is right that spending a lot of time just to demonstrate that a particular identity or phenomenon is a social construction is a waste of effort.
My third objection follows on the second. The fact that for a long time scholars spent considerable effort to demonstrate that a given identity, institution, etc., simply was a social construction, tells you something about the intent of that argument. It was designed to undercut or demolish practices being described as such. The problem is that many scholars also recognized the “reality” of such constructions–that once constructed, they were social reality, that there wasn’t any ontological, Platonic human “real” being concealed by constructions. If you said something like “modern subjectivities built around liberal individualism, around rights-bearing sovereign selves are a construction”, you also had to say, “But no less real for that”. A lot of Foucauldian work (including by Foucault himself) had this sort of coy double-gesture: madness, sexuality, criminality, etc., were “constructed”, but also “real”–and thus if you said, “Well, so are you against those constructions as we have them?” you would hear “Oh, my no, there isn’t anything but these constructions, there is nothing outside, nothing more ‘real’ beyond them”.
But in Foucault and many aligned works, there’s also this sense of expose, that in seeing something as construction, you were seeing its inauthenticity, you had discovered its hidden truth, you had caught it in flagrante delicto. This coy double-gesture got old real fast. If everything is “construction”, then all we’re doing is describing process of change over time, e.g., writing history. If some things are more constructed than other things, then we need some kind of foundationalist account of real identities, psychologies, social formations, etc. If some constructions are good and others bad, then we need some kind of normative ethical or political theory about the good and the bad. (This is something Lynn Hunt supplies nicely in her recent history of ‘human rights’: she says both ‘They are constructions arising out of post-1789 global history AND they are desirable constructions’.) A lot of that leads us back away from “social construction” as cliche, but most people who used the trope too enthusiastically couldn’t be weaned away from it.
My final complaint is a bit less grandiose: I just think that the promiscuous overuse of “social construction” led to a lot of methodologically shitty work in which scholars sat in a big library, called up a few novels and then argued that common images, tropes, metaphors and so on in those novels were “social constructions” which had wide constitutive power and general distribution in the “real world” that the novels sought to represent. This is kind of the methodological practice that got built up out of Said’s Orientalism, maybe in its argumentative apex in something like Timothy Mitchell’s Colonising Egypt. Mitchell says something like, “The way Egypt is represented in metropolitan texts IS Egypt; the desire to find a ‘real Egypt’ beyond its representation is a part of colonial discourse, not the antidote to it”. Gyan Prakash has a fairly similar gesture in some of his work–that we can’t know what the non-West was, that the only historical knowledge we can hope to have was what the West constructed the non-West as. I think their arguments have some integrity to them even if I really disagree with the epistemological despair behind them.
Nevertheless, there has been a lot of work along these lines that doesn’t have that integrity–that just slaps together a couple of metropolitan texts and says, “Voila! colonial discourse, and colonial discourse is colonial reality, ergo this is not just a book about ‘fictions of the empire’ but about the empire as it actually was”. If we’re really serious about “social construction”, we have to deal with the intensely complicated terrain of how representation travels, circulates, becomes more or less powerful as it iterates, etc.. This point a bit of what’s behind John Tomlinson’s critique of “cultural imperialism” or Nicolas Thomas is getting at in Colonialism’s Culture–that some ‘social constructionist’ argument as applied to colonialism and empire is both epistemologically and methodologically suspect. You can really see the latter in one vein of work from the 1990s, when lots of folks just whipped off monographs that made enormous claims from slender readings.