The Problem With ‘Social Construction’

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.

This entry was posted in Academia, Books, Production of History. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Problem With ‘Social Construction’

  1. jpool says:

    OK, so there’s a lot here.

    One thing I think you’re not giving sufficient credit to is that a Foucauldian or Bourdieuian view of social construction (I’m thinking of Bourdieu’s remark that the problem with “false consciousness” is that it’s redundent; all consciousness is partial, located, etc.) was not and still is not especially common. I agree that demonstrating that this or that practice is socially constructed isn’t showing much of anything, and at best it fits into what I like to call Stupid Historian Tricks (People think that it was thus, but really — Haha!). But people really did and do think that things are timeless, ancient and true in ways that can’t possibly be changed (because they never ever have). This was and is worth challenging, even if it’s not much an end in itself or can easily be bowdlerized (as, for example, in the way that many who have never read Anderson treat “imagined communities” as if this meant playing pretend).

    The other thing that strikes me as strange is your point that to acknowledge something as constructed necessarily makes it feel fake. Do people really not want to celebrate Christmas anymore once they understand that the way we tend to celebrate it is pretty much a late 19th century creation rather than the way the Christians have always done things, or for that matter not enjoy pictures of Santa Claus once they know he was designed by Coke? Maybe on the second point if they have some preexisting antipathy to Coke, but that’s a matter of totemic contamination rather than the constructed nature as such. I’m not Christian, but I enjoy celebrating Christmas, because I like exchanging gifts and hanging out with family. Rituals and traditions are what we make of themand I think modern folks are able to embrace the choices that offers without necessarily feeling robbed of authenticity as a result.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Here’s the problem. For one group of practicioners, to acknowledge the constructedness (and thus historicity) of something undercuts some aspect of their ability to inhabit that practice and make claims about, if not its timelessness, its rootedness and authenticity. So, yes, there are people who are upset by a detailed historical anatomy of Christmas. It is not that they believe that Christmas has no history, but they tend to see that history in declensionist terms. (It used to be something good and traditional, and it is in danger of losing that character). When you undercut that sensibility by insisting that Christmas was something else again before that and before that, some people perceive that as an attack. (Just look at how attacks on Kwanzaa often are articulated: that it is an *invented* holiday, and thus somehow different than others.)

    Second, I think that when you participate in cultural processes with a conscious sense that you’re trying to construct a practice or identity which will then present itself as authentic and deeply rooted, you’ve got a double-consciousness that feels to intellectuals to be deceptive or manipulative. This is the problem with Taussig’s injunction to go out and construct as an end in and of itself. We are doing that all the time, but we do it best when we don’t see ourselves as doing it. I construct myself as a professional of a particular kind on this blog, and with some degree of introspection or self-consciousness, but not with bird’s eye view of the total purposes and ends of such a construction. I do it because I feel it, because I live it, because I’m in it, and because that construction arises out of my life as a professional and my aspirations for my profession. People create new ideas about self and practice all the time, but I think they rarely do so with the instrumental intent to achieve those ends in and of themselves–they create as a response to their circumstances and experiences, out of the stuff of social life.

  3. fridaykr says:

    While I agree that the concept of the “socially-contructed” can and has been used as a jejune shorthand, your critique seems to focus scholarship that deploys the concept as a conclusion to be reached and not as an assumption that can be used productively to pursue other lines of thought.

    Case in point, your take on Foucauldian scholarship. It should first be pointed out that much of Foucault’s early work was itself an attempt to complicate the Marxist and Marxist-inspired scholarship that relied on instrumental conceptions of ideology. One implication of Foucault is that ideology–socially constucted or otherwise–is insufficient to explain the ways in which power and control are exerted on individuals. It’s not simply that individuals participate in a socially-constructed ideology in which the interests of certain classes are advanced. A more nuanced reading of Foucault’s genealogical approach suggests that multiple ideologies can converge and have real-world effects in unexpected ways as certain practices are realized and iterated through insitutions and individuals. As Discipline and Punish shows, the state and the ruling elite didn’t simply decide and then implement more effective ways to control people. Rather, instrumental rationality became conflated–in very interesting and unexpected ways–with an emerging humanistic desire to be more humane.

    But whether you buy Foucault’s argument (which I am sure I have butchered; it’s been a while) as compelling account of the rise of a more self-regulating, panoptic society or not, the usefulness of Foucault is not simply relishing the conclusion that power and control are “socially-constructed.” Rather, it is the implicit critique of Marxist causality that is valuable, as well as the insight that ideologies and various social practices emerge and influence each other in unexpected ways. Further, Foucault’s work gives us added justification to look for the disconnects between Ideology with a capital “I’ and the agendas that are served through institutional practices.

    So in short, I find Foucault’s assumptions about “the socially constructed” compelling not as a epistemological premise, but as a productive starting point for describing the genealogy of ideas and social practices.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Nice points. I agree with what you say, but I think this is also what Taussig was poking at–that an account of social construction as genealogy is a starting place, not a conclusion, a premise and not an argument. But I think you’re also right about why social construction was for many something much more than ideology, even in purely empirical terms. (As agency is something more than ‘choice’, if taken seriously as a concept.)

  5. jpool says:

    Of course you’re right, folks can perceive a historicization of their “timeless” beliefs and practices as an attack, particularly if their invested in narratives of Tradition and Authenticity (and of course their are historical reasons for why T&A get invested with such power in our modernist society). I was responding to the notion that this is a necessary consequence, and wanting to emphasize that most people have some practice inventing traditions, if only in something as mundane as the blending of traditions that they and their partners bring to holliday rituals.

    Is part of what your arguing that we need a different term without the same conntations as “social construction” or just that we can’t be sloppy or simplistic in using it? Are you arguing, Ashis Nandi style, that historians and other scholars should just shut up sometimes and stop trying to ruin everything?

  6. moldbug says:

    All this textological balderdash from the ’80s was a great dodge to keep kids from reading nasty old books and taking their authors seriously. But now we live in the 21st century and we have Google, and even if semiotics wasn’t hilariously dated there would just be no hope.

    For a random example, one could read Mitchell, or one could read John Romich Alexander’s The Truth about Egypt. Or better yet, one could read both. That way you get the Exeter Hall party line, but you don’t just get the Exeter Hall party line. Neat, huh?

  7. cjlee1 says:

    Can I make a reading recommendation? John L. Jackson’s _Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity_ (Chicago, 2005). I think he gets at these issues in a fresh way, by exploring what “real” and “sincerity” mean (as opposed to rehearsing social construction, etc.). Good writing, and students tend to like it.

  8. peter55 says:

    I am sure the situation is different in different disciplines. One could argue, for example, that the academic discipline of anthropology is nothing more than the systematic exploration of the notion that everything is socially constructed. But in other disciplines, the idea that even anything at all may be socially-constructed is still novel and, in consequence of that, still has great power.

    The economic theorists who developed 35 years ago the so-called Black-Scholes equation used for pricing financial options, for instance (namely Black, Scholes and Merton), assumed that options traders would behave in a very precise way; they made these assumptions to make the mathematics of their model tractable. Their assumptions about trader behaviour were not based on any empirical evidence, not could they be, since there was little prior trading of options (because no one had a theory for how to price them coherently). For the same reason, options traders had no previous patterns of behaviour to call on when they began trading options. Thus, without any other guidance, traders behaved according to the assumptions of the Black-Scholes model. As the Edinburgh sociologist of economics Donald MacKenzie has demonstrated with his detailed (so-called “thick”) studies, the economic theory of financial options has created – performatively – the very social phenomena it purports to describe and model. Most mainstream economists, with their theorem-envy of mathematics, have yet to accept even the possibility that their models may construct reality rather than describing it in some value-free way, let alone the actuality that they have in fact done this.

  9. Carl says:

    This is good to think with. It seems to me that one possible thread to pull here concerns a standpoint of critique. Social construction is a way to get at contingency, the possibility for things to be otherwise, as Foucault dramatizes with the wacky Chinese bestiary at the beginning of Order of Things. History and anthropology tend toward explorations of otherness, but both also have strands seeking to identify invariant human universals. Other (dare I say more practical) disciplines like economics have a much more comprehensive investment in stable essences. And social construction is certainly no given for my students, so getting at the dynamic conflations fridaykr points to is at least pedagogically a second-order problematic at this point.

    It’s true, I’ve seen so many lazy-bad demonstrations that this or that is socially constructed. This may tell us something about where the author is coming from, and/or it may tell us something about their sense of the field into which they’re dropping their work. About the latter they’re probably not wrong, as the fact of publication suggests.

    I can’t say I’m worried about the critique of Taussig, which seems to me to be based on a notion that naive intentions are somehow more authentic. If we actually accept that there is no preconstructive authenticity the concern that we’re more manipulative when we become conscious of the process pretty much evaporates.

Comments are closed.