Why strong social constructionism does not work I: Arguments from Reference

In this and a series of forthcoming posts, I will attempt to outline an argument showing that most of the time claims to have derived a substantively important conclusion from constructionist premises are incoherent.   By a substantively important conclusion I refer to strong arguments for the “social construction of X” where X is some sort of category or natural kind that is usually thought to have general ontological validity in the larger culture (e.g gender, race, mental illness, etc.).

In a nutshell, I will argue that the reason for why these sort of arguments do not really work is that they require us to draw on a theory of meaning, language and reference that is itself inconsistent with constructionism.  To put it simply: substantively important conclusions derived from constructionist premises require a theory of reference that implies at least the potential for realism about natural kinds and a strong coupling between linguistic descriptions and the real properties of the entities to which those descriptions apply, but constructionism is premised on the a priori denial of realism about natural kinds and of such a strong coupling between language and the world.  Thus, most strong claims about something being “socially constructed” cannot be strong claims at all.  This argument applies to all forms of social constructionism, whether of the phenomenological, semiotic, or interactionist varieties.

Here I will first do two things:  1) give a more “technical” definition of what I mean by a “substantively important conclusion” within a constructionist mode of argumentation (noting that my argument does not apply to “softer” versions of constructionism) and 2) nail down the point that constructionism (and any other set of premises designed to draw substantively important conclusions about the natural and social worlds) depends on an “argument from reference” in order to work.  Finally, I will lay out the argument that 3) because of this dependence, strong constructionist conclusions are usually not warranted (they follow from an incoherent argument).

The shock value in constructionism.-  In a constructionist argument, a substantively important conclusion is one that has “shock value.”  By shock value, I mean that the argument results in the conclusion that something that we thought was “real” in an unproblematic sense is shown to be either a) a fictitious entity that has never been or could never be real or b) a historically contingent entity endowed with a weaker form of existence (e.g. a collectively sustained fiction or even delusion).  This is “shocking” in the sense that the constructionism thesis upsets the “folk ontology” heretofore taken for granted by lay and professional audiences alike.

A useful analogue (because it makes the technical argumentative steps clear) comes from the Philosophy of Mind. There, the most “shocking” argument ever put forth is know as “eliminativism” in relation to the so-called “propositional attitudes” (Stich 1983; Churchland 1981).  Note that this argument is actually espoused by people who consider themselves to be radical materialists almost blindly committed to a traditional scientific epistemology and an anti-dualist ontology.  Thus, I am not claiming a substantive commonality between constructionists and eliminativists.  All that I want to do here is to point to some formal commonalities in their mode of argumentation in order to set up the subsequent point of common reliance on an argument from reference.

According to the eliminativist thesis, the denizens of the mental zoo that play a role in our ability to account for ours and other’s people’s behavior (such as beliefs, desires, wants, etc.) do not actually exist. The reason for that is that the theoretical system in which they play a role (so called “folk” or “belief-desire psychology”) is actually an empirically false theory, one that relies on the postulation of theoretical entities (mental entities) that have no scientifically defensible ontological status.

According to belief desire psychology, persons engage in action in order to satisfy desires.  Beliefs play a causal role in behavior by providing the person with subjective descriptions of how means connect to desirable ends.  Using belief-desire psychology, we can explain why person A engages in behavior B, by postulating that “Person A believes that by doing B, she will get C, and she desires/wants C.” A belief is a proposition about the world endowed with a truth value and a desire is a proposition that describes the sorts of states of affair that the person would like to bring about.   Both are conceived to be mental entities endowed with “intentional” content (they are about something). Their intentional content dictates how they can relate to other entities in a systematic way (e.g. because some propositions logically imply others). We can then “predict” (or retrodict) the behavior of persons by linking desires to beliefs in a way that preserves the rationality of persons.

Accordingly, if I see somebody rummaging through the contents of a refrigerator, I can surmise that this person is engaging in this sort of behavior because she believes that she will find something to eat in there, and she wants something to eat.  Relatedly, when persons are questioned as to why they did something, they usually give a “reason” for why the did what they did.  This reason takes the form of a “motive report.”  If I question somebody about why they are rummaging through a refrigerator, they are likely to say “because I’m hungry.”

According to eliminativists, the main causal factors in belief desire psychology have no ontological status.  Thus, neither propositional beliefs of the sort of “I think that p” where p is a proposition of the sort “there is food in the refrigerator” nor desires of the sort “I want q” have any ontological status.  As such, belief-desire psychology stands to be replaced by a mature neuropsychology, one in which “folk solids” such as desires and beliefs (to use Andy Clark‘s terms) will play no role in explanations and accounts of human behavior.  These notions, previously thought to be natural kind endowed with unquestionable reality, are eliminated from our ontological storehouse and into the dustbin of fictional entities discarded by modern science (such as Phlogiston, Caloric, The Ether, The Four Humors, etc.).

Constructionism and eliminativism.- I argue that most substantively important conclusions within the constructionist paradigm are actually modeled after “eliminativist” arguments in the Philosophy of Mind.

All of the pieces are there.  First, a constructionist argument usually takes some (folk or professional) system of “theory” as their target. This is regardless this is a system of theory currently in existence or from a previous historical era.  This is usually a folk (or sometime professional) “theory of X” (e.g the “folk theory of race” or the “folk theory of gender”).  Second, within this system the constructionist picks one or more central theoretical categories or concepts (X), which, within the system are endowed with an non-problematic ontological status as real (e.g. gender  or racial “essence”).  Third, the constructionist shows the folk theory of X to be false from the point of view of a more sophisticated theory (modern population genetics in the case of the old anthropological concept of “race”).  Thus X (e.g. race), as conceptualized in the folk theory, does not really exist, even though it forms a key part of certain contemporary folk theories of race. The title of the famous PBS documentary: “Race: The Power of an Illusion” conveys that point well.

The constructionist may also argue for the indirect falsity of the current theory of X, by simply using the historical or anthropological record to show that there are cultures/historical periods  in which X either was not presumed to exist in the way that it exists today or was part of a different theoretical system which radically changed its status (the properties that define membership in the concept were radically different).  Here the constructionist will agree that X “exists” in the current setting, but it does not have the sort of existence attributed to it in the folk discourse (transhistorical and transcultural) instead it has a weaker form of existence: social; as in “sustained by a historically and culturally contingent social arrangement which could theoretically be subject to radical change.”  Foucault’s famous argument for the radically different status of the category of “man” within the so-called “classical episteme” is an example of that sort of claim.  The category of man in the modern era has a meaning that is radically incommensurate to the one that it had in the classical episteme.  The implication is that therefore the category of “man” does not refer and we can thus conceive of a possible future in which it plays no actual role, follows.

The common element here is that a category that we take for granted (within the descriptions afforded by some lay or professional theoretical system) to be ontologically “real” (race, gender, the category of “man”, etc.) is shown instead to  “actually” have a fictitious status because there is nothing in the world that meets that description. More implicitly, insofar as a concept has undergone radical changes in overall meaning (with meaning determined by its place within a network of other concepts in the form of a folk or professional theory), then there cannot be a preservation of reference across the incommensurate meanings.Hence the concept cannot really be picking out an ontologically coherent entity in the world. I refer to this as the “strong constructionist effect.”  The basic idea, as I have already implied is that in order for the effect to be successful, we must already be working from within some theory of reference, otherwise the claim that “there is nothing in the world that meets that description” is either vacuous or incoherent.

Constructivism and arguments from reference.- What are “arguments from reference”? Arguments from reference are those that implicitly or explicitly require a theory of reference for their conclusions to follow (or even make sense), as has been recently pointed out by Ron Mallon (2007).  When this is the case, it can be said that the substantively important conclusion is  dependent on the (logically autonomous) theory of reference. It is striking how little most social scientists spend thinking about reference. They should, because even though it is seldom explicit, we all require some theory about how conceptualizations link up (or fail to!) to events in the world in order to make substantive statements about the nature of that world. I argue that in order to produce the strong constructionist  effect, and thus derive substantively important conclusions, the argument from social construction requires a particular theory of reference.

One would think that when it comes to theorizing about how conceptual, theoretical or folk terms “refer” to the world there would be various competing theories.  Instead, twentieth century analytic philosophy was long dominated by single dominant account of how concepts refer.  This was Frege’s suggestion that “intension” (the meaning of a term) determines “extension” (the object in the world that the term picks out).  Lewis (1971, 1972) formalized this formulation for the case of so-called theoretical entities in scientific theories.  According to Lewis, terms in scientific theories purport to describe objects in the world bearing certain properties or standing in certain relations with other objects. This is the description of that term.  According to Lewis, the terms of Folk Psychology are theoretical entities that gain their meaning from their relations to other entities and observational statements within a system of theory.  Eliminativists built their argument on this suggestion, by suggesting that there is nothing in the (scientifically acceptable) world that meets the description for a propositional attitude (a mental entity endowed with “intentional” content); ergo, belief-desire psychology is false, its terms do not refer, and we need a better theory of the mental.

In short, from the viewpoint of a descriptivist theory of reference, a given term or concept defined within a given theoretical system refers if and only if there is an object in the world that bears the properties or stands in the relations specified in the description.  According to this theory, terms refer to real world entities when there exists an object satisfies the necessary and sufficient conditions of membership in the category defined by the term (which in the limiting case may be an individual).  Descriptions that have no counterpart in the real world are descriptions of fictional entities and thus fail to refer (and the validity of the theoretical systems of which they are a part is therefore impugned).  When competent speakers use the terms of any theory (scientific or folk) they have a description in mind, which specifies the set of properties that an object would have to have for that term to be said to successfully refer to it.

The basic argument that I want to propose here is that “shock value” constructionism depends on a descriptivist theory of reference. This should already be obvious.  The standard constructionist argument begins by a painstaking reconstruction of a given set of folk or professional descriptions.  The analyst then moves on to ask the rhetorical question: is there anything in the world that actually satisfies this description?  If the answer is no, then the conclusion that the term fails to refer (and is a fictional and not a real entity) readily follows.  The standard criteria for satisfaction of these conditions usually boil down to some sort of semantic analysis. For instance, in Orientalism, Edward Said painstakingly reconstructed a Western “image” (read description) of the Middle East as a kind of place and of the Arab “Other” as a (natural?) kind of person. Said pointed out that this description of Arab peoples (menacing, untrustworthy, exotic, emotional, eroticized, etc.) was not only logically incoherent; it was simply false, there had never been a group of people who met this description; it had been a fabrication espoused by a misleading theoretical system: Orientalism. Thus, Orientalism as a culturally influential theory of the nature of the Arab “Orient” needed to be transcended. The main theoretical entity implied by such theory, the Oriental “other” endowed with a bizarre set of attributes and properties was thereby eliminated from our ontological storehouse.

Houston we have a problem.- It would be easy to show that essentially all arguments that produce the “strong constructionist effect” follow a similar intellectual procedure.  There are at least two problems with this (largely unacknowledged) dependence of social constructionism on a descriptivist theory of reference. First, constructionism denies the conditions that make a descriptivist strategy an adequate theory of reference, which is at a minimum the validity of a truth-conditional semantics and the capacity of words to unambiguously (e.g. literally) refer to objects and events in the world.  This is not a problem for Gottlob Frege and David Lewis, or most descriptivist theorists in analytic philosophy, most of whom subscribe to some version of propositional realism (propositions have truth values that can be unproblematically redeemed by just checking to see if the “correspond” to the world).  However, this is a problem for constructionists because they cannot accept such a strong version of realism.

Thus, if the very theory of the relationship between language and the world that is espoused by social constructionism (skepticism as to the applicability of a truth conditional semantics and unambiguous reference) is true then descriptivism has to be false. This means that social constructionism is an inherently contradictory strategy; to produce substantively meaningful conclusions (the strong constructionist effect) it has to rely on a theory of the relationship between meanings and the world that is denied by that very approach. Second, even if this logical argument could be sidestepped, constructionism would still be in trouble.  The reason for this is that there is a competing (and equally appealing on purely argumentative grounds) theory of reference in modern philosophy: this is the causal-historical theory of reference most influentially outlined by Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam.  The basic issue is not that this is a competing account of reference; the problem is that this account of reference actually denies a key link in the constructionist argument: that in order to refer, there has to be match between the description of the term and the properties of the object that the term putatively refers to.

Instead, causal-historical theories of reference allow for two possibilities that are seldom taken into account by constructionists:  1) that persons can refer to things in the world even though their mental description of the term that they are using to refer to those things those not at all match the properties of those things, and 2) that the description of a term can undergo radical historical change while the term continues to refer to the same entities or cluster of entities.  The first possibility undercuts the capacity of the constructionist to “correct the folk,” because reference is decoupled from the descriptive validity of the terms that are used to refer.  The second possibility undercuts the argument for social construction based on historical and cultural variability of descriptions. It opens up the possibility that there is “rigid designation” to the same set of social or natural realities across cultures in spite or radical differences in the cultural frameworks from within which these referential relations are established.

A reasonable objection is simply to point out that we simply do not have sufficiently strong grounds of picking descriptivism over causal-historical theories of reference, as equally respectable arguments have been put forth in defense of both. This is in fact the position taken by most philosophers who instead go on to worry about whether people are cherry-picking one of the two theories of reference to support their preferred argumentative strategy.  However, I believe that most constructionists in social science cannot be content with this non-committal solution. Instead, like other areas of Philosophy (e.g. epistemology, ethics, mind), there is a way to “break the tie” between various philosophical theories and that is to look to naturalize these types of inquiry by looking at what theories seem to be consistent with the relevant sciences.  Here we have good news and bad neews for constructionists.

Research in cognitive science, cognitive semantics and cognitive linguistics points to the inadequacy of descriptivist theories of reference from a purely naturalistic standpoint. This should be good news for constructionists because the upshot is that truth-conditional semantics roundly fails as an account of how persons generate meaning (Lakoff 1987).  The irony is that these theories redeem the original skepticism of constructionism vis a vis any form of truth-conditional semantics and propositional realism, but in so doing also undercut the ability of constructionists to engage in the sort of  argument that results in “shocking” or substantively strong claims for the social construction of X, because the rhetorical force of these arguments depends on descriptivism and descriptivism implies propositional realism and “objectivism” (that truth is the literal correspondence of statements and reality).  The resulting counter-intuitive conclusion is that it is precisely because linguistic meaning and natural categories meet the constructionist specifications that strong constructionist arguments are actually impossible.  In fact, it is precisely because language and semantics work the way that constructionist (implicitly) presuppose that they do that the norm in historical change may not be the radical transformation of reference relations in historical and cultural change (as implied by Foucauldian analysts), but rigid designation of the same (social, or natural) “essences” and relations even in the wake of superficial shifts in the accepted cultural description of those entities.


Written by Omar

March 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm

25 Responses

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  1. Wow – Omar, I’m not sure I entirely understand the details of your post. However it seems like the claim reduces in some part to:

    – Constructivism holds that everything is contingent and hence non-absolute;
    – In order to demonstrate this position, constructivism must be able to refer to some non-constructed alter in order to show what its object is not;
    – Therefore, constructivism is internally inconsistent because it requires imagining a comparative (non-constructed) state that it seeks to demonstrate is fictional.

    (Ezra and I debated related points ad nauseam a while ago.)

    I could certainly be wrong about the argument you are pursuing, and if so please disregard what follows.

    If I am right, I think you’re missing an important element of constructivism. Constructivism does not in general hold that thinks are fake, but rather that they are constructed. Things that are constructed are not unreal, but rather historically contingent, i.e., the result of a particular historical/discursive process that can be identified and described, even if that description is itself a construction of its own.

    This then raises the objection outlined in the three-step outline above: if we can identify the historical/discusrive process, that presumes a degree of non-constructedness that undermines the epistemological claim of universal constructivism. But this is unfair for two reasons. First, because these processes are often long chains of constructions built upon other constructions, identifying the contingent nature of each of these constructions need not actually presume a pre-social Real. Second, rather in the predicament in which G-d finds herself in Douglas Adams, constructivism here is charged with being unsuccessful because it is too successful! If the central proposition of constructivism is that everything we know is the result of constructions, the fact that constructivists don’t put forward anything for comparison that isn’t constructed is a sign of the success of the approach (if also its triviality, which is a different concern).

    There’s a crucial point you make in the post that deserves consideration: that a substantively important constructivist claim holds that “something that we thought was “real” in an unproblematic sense is shown to be either a) a fictitious entity that has never been or could never be real or b) a historically contingent and thus not actually real entity.” I submit that this is actually not the substance of most constructivist arguments. Rather, most constructivism holds that constructed entites are very much real, but their reality is historically contingent.



    March 7, 2012 at 8:01 pm

  2. Puzzling Pierre comes to OrgTheory. Nice. Can XYZ be far behind?

    Omar, I think I see the fork that you want to impale strong constructivists on. My first reaction is that this bit of the argument in particular needs more fleshing out:

    First, constructionism denies the conditions that make a descriptivist strategy an adequate theory of reference, which is at a minimum the validity of a truth-conditional semantics and the capacity of words to unambiguously refer to objects and events in the world. … [T]his is a problem for constructionists because they cannot accept such a strong version of realism.

    I guess the question is how many strong constructionists this is in fact true of. True for some, definitely. There are people who implicitly or explicitly have the into-the-abyss view of someone like Foucault. But many others seem to be much more like the Phil Mind eliminativists you liken them to earlier, when you’re getting the argument off the ground. The implicit view of this sort of constructivist is quite realist (in an emancipatory vein). They see themselves as revealing the true state of affairs beneath the folk theory. Now, what this amounts to often isn’t all that well argued for or spelled out—and perhaps it is often wrapped up in some nominally relativist rhetoric. But still, I think bog-standard debunking-type constructivist arguments are quite often linked to more or less realist commitments about what lies beneath. They descend from Durkheim and Douglas.

    That said, I like the idea here. I’ll have to think about it. For those following along at home, I am really not looking forward to the inevitable misunderstandings likely to arise from modern philosophy’s most annoying terminology, viz, intension vs intention.

    Andy—I don’t think you can escape Omar’s argument here in the way that you outline in your post. If Omar is right, your appeal to historical contingency is going to impale you on the second prong of his argumentative fork. I think he is going to say that in making this move you are implicitly switching over to or relying on a causal theory of reference, which will save your constructivism’s coherence but only at the very high cost of drawing all of its shock-value sting, and most of its anti-essentialist rhetoric.



    March 7, 2012 at 8:59 pm

  3. I’m gonna have to agree with Andrew Perrin. It seems Omar is saying that social constructivism is all about showing how things aren’t real (shock value). In order to do so, they have to describe and refer to it. Therefore, in referencing it, they show just how real it is. And therefore, social constructivism has no logical coherence in their claims.

    It goes back to Omar’s view of constructivism. You seem to have constructed in your own head two ontological categories–a natural one and a fictitious one–and you think that constructivists are trying to take things out from the natural one (like race and gender) and then lower them into a “fictitious ontological status.” There is no “fictitious ontological status.” That makes no sense. Social constructivism is not about showing how things are not real, but showing how things gain their reality and secure it. If you think that’s useless, just say that.



    March 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm

  4. Omar, I’m with you all the way. I would point out, and I’m sure you’d agree, that there is still value in reflecting on where our categories come from. It is often beneficial to challenge reified categories – I don’t think anything you say contradicts that. The George Box quote about statistical models which I’m always repeating, would be just as apt substituting the word categories for models. “All models[categories] are false, but some are useful.”


    Michael Bishop

    March 8, 2012 at 8:14 pm

  5. I believe Rorty has elaborated in great detail the problems we have when people use realist vocabulary to comment on constructivists. Or when constructivists are stupid enough to think they can somehow dismiss the validity of the realist vocabulary.

    If we ignore the naive pseudo-philosophical social constructivism of Berger & Luckmann and look at the post-Wittgenstein (linguistic turn) constructivism, there is little sense to talk of reference. What does reference even mean? The examples fail to make sense to me at all unless some social constructivists really are as moronic as you paint them to be. When people say the category of ‘female’ is socially constructed (why would anyone state that in those words is beyond me) they simply mean that the socially shared practices for using the term female and the related knowledge of females is historically contingent (the term Rorty prefers). The fact that ‘female’ refers to anything at all is a function of the rules of the language game, or ‘linguistic norms’. Social constructivism is merely the acknowledgement that the rules concerning how we use the word ‘female’ is not given to us by the nature but by the community.

    This talk of theories of reference and descriptivism — are these not just second order reconstruction of how people we observe use words? How are such accounts in any way relevant? Surely as meanings of concepts and the knowledge of concepts change, the ‘intension’ also changes. There used to be witches, witches were burnt. These days not only there are no witches, but no witches have ever existed. There.



    March 8, 2012 at 10:08 pm

  6. Andy: A couple of things:

    First, I think my argument is different from the standard: “constructionists/constructivists are inconsistent because even though they deny the existence of objective reality their argument presupposes the existence of objective reality.” That sort of critique (let’s call it the foot-stomping, “I refute it thus” critique) I think is not very effective because it is actually very easy for somebody interested in defending constructionism from getting out of it, as it is evident in your exchange with Ezra. I’d like to pretend that my critique is actually harder to escape from, because what I am saying is that the constructionist arguments in conjunction with a logically independent theory of reference are logically inconsistent, and that inconsistency should be evident regardless of your position on ontology and epistemology (objectivism, idealism, etc.). That is, both an objectivist and an idealist (and hopefully even a constructionist) should agree with me that you can’t use descriptivism to make your argument work, if you don’t believe that (some version of) propositional realism obtains. By implication any constructionist argument that does not depend on an argument from reference that implies propositional realism is exempt from the charge of inconsistency. My claim is that most constructionist arguments (especially the ones that I called “shocking”) depend on an argument from reference and thus succumb to my critique. Once again, I think the thing is realizing the dependence on arguments from reference for substantively important conclusion to follow. It is the theory of reference that implies the inconsistent ontological position not constructivism per se. The constructivist needs the argument from reference to establish the strong substantive point. I think the mistake of previous critiques was in thinking that constructivism was internally inconsistent, when the reality is that it is constructionism + descriptivism that are jointly inconsistent.

    Second, I think that you are absolutely right on in bringing up the more sophisticated version of the constructivist argument, which is different from the pure eliminativist version. As you say, according to this argument the “reality” of constructed things is just as legitimate as the reality of other (non-constructed?) things; it is only the process through which they come to acquire that reality that is different. In the philosophy of race and language this position has been most coherently defended by Haslanger (2005). Note however, that this argument does not come for free. First, this implies that in addition to natural kinds, there are such things as “social kinds” endowed with the same capacities to support properties, enter into generalizations and counterfactuals, etc. Second, even this version of constructionism requires an argument from reference to work: either (and less problematically) a casual-historical account where reference is preserved through changed descriptions (before gender was thought of as a biological essence but today we understand it to be a socially constructed essence), or more problematically a descriptivist account in which “biological gender” dissappears as an ontological reality and is replaced by something else (“socially constructed gender”). I’ll have more to say about this variant of constructionism in a future post. I would disagree with the implication however, that this more sophisticated version is “the real” constructionism. My sense is that most of the time constructionists want to (and do) make the stronger argument (and get a lot of attention doing so).



    March 8, 2012 at 10:41 pm

  7. Omar, Slavoj Zizek makes a similar argument against strong constructivism (i.e. its relation to descriptive theory of reference), and postmodernism in general (I think it’s in “The Ticklish Subject” or in “The Parallax view”)



    March 9, 2012 at 12:22 am

  8. Omar,

    First, fantastically interesting post. Second, I agree with Andy’s point and want to see a more detailed discussion of this historical construction argument. I agree with you that it is not the most common flavor of constructionist argument, but I think it should be, and that the prevalence of the shock value, “X is not real!!!!??!?”-style social construction is a pedagogical failure on our part.

    Third, and related to the second, I wonder where you stand vis-a-vis Hacking’s “dynamic nominalism” and “historical ontology.” I think these are much closer to Andy (and my) position, and much more sophisticated than the shock value strong constructionism you critique here. More generally, do you have a few examples in sociology of “strong” and “weak” constructionist arguments that you are thinking of as example? The discussion of Said was helpful, but I am curious to see how this critiques applies to sociology more generally.


    Dan Hirschman

    March 9, 2012 at 7:43 pm

  9. If one is a constructivist then is reference not always a social phenomenon? Can we have any other theory of reference for any word than the consensus agreement by a social group concerning how that term is to be used?
    Seems to me the problems described here arise only if researchers think they are somehow above or outside socially constructed discourses. Or if they believe the realist discourse governed by strict pragmatic concerns is sharply distinct from lay talk of social kinds their informants engage in.
    That being said, I agree that a constructivist perspective doesn’t allow one to make many substantive claims at all except in negative terms by highlighting that assumpions others (unaware of the historical contingencies of knowledge) take for granted are rather problematic.


    Henri Schildt

    March 9, 2012 at 9:47 pm

  10. This is an interesting read. I have a (perhaps naive) question: Why couldn’t someone just hold a version of social constructivism according to which descriptivism is true but there are no or few natural kinds (perhaps none at all or some kinds with certain features just don’t count as natural) or no essential kinds? So, for example, perhaps someone like this might hold both of the following claims: (1) the only really existing natural kinds are the fundamental entities posited by our best physics, and (2) any other supposedly natural kind is really just an artificial kind. This kind of social constructivist will still be able to get lots of those shocking conclusions out of these views, but it appears that they’ll avoid a lot of your charges here. Maybe the response here would just be that this isn’t a “real” version of social constructivism, but, in that case, I think we’d probably need some more development of what a real version of social constructivism must come to. Another question: Why should we think that descriptivism requires realism about propositions? There are at least some nominalist views concerning propositions that seem pretty plausible, and they don’t seem to threaten our ability to use some sort of descriptivist theory of reference in arguments against supposedly natural kinds. I’m genuinely curious here.



    March 10, 2012 at 1:01 am

  11. Omar, I think I just don’t really understand what a theory of reference is, and therefore I don’t understand how it threatens a wide-ranging, historically-contingent mode of constructivism. This is likely due to my poor background in philosophy!

    I do agree that there is a vein of constructivism that is quite unsophisticated and that claims that things that are constructed are unreal. However I don’t actually think this is very common, though it certainly exists. (I think it is particularly common in medical sociology, which seems to have a fetish for demonstrating the unreality of one or another disorders via social construction.) But I think it’s pretty simple to dispense with these arguments straightforwardly. Is that what you mean by “strong” constructivism? I’d argue it’s actually pretty weak, but if that’s what you’re talking about my only quibble is that I don’t think we need the philosophical infrastructure you provide to reject that class of claims.



    March 10, 2012 at 1:22 am

  12. It took me a while to figure out the point of the critique. but it seems Omar, that you’re not arguing with social constructionists here, and instead, you’re arguing with those who think social constructionism is internally inconsistent, and you’re saying social constructionism is externally inconsistent because of the reliance on this theory of reference. And so is this the build up for your coup de grace against “strong” constructionism? but I’m still left scratching my head wondering why? Is there some other approach you’re trying to push forward by bringing down constructivism?



    March 10, 2012 at 3:49 pm

  13. […] of these terms and their logical implications. If you want a great example on our blog, see Omar’s recent discussion of social constructionism.As you can imagine, that sort of intellectual work is a bit different than what used to be called […]


  14. From Omar’s post above:

    “substantively important conclusions derived from constructionist premises require a theory of reference that implies at least the potential for realism…but constructionism is premised on the a priori denial of realism…. Thus, most strong claims about something being “socially constructed” cannot be strong claims at all.”

    My take is, your argument here is with highly theoretical post-modernism, not social-constructionism per se. Many strong constructionists in US sociology are qualitative researchers, sociologists of culture, probably studying race, class, gender. What makes their claims strong, at least in their own minds, is the data and evidence they present: they do not premise a denial of reality. Basically, I find your second statement, that constructionism rests on a denial of reality, mostly not true in the case of research-driven constructionists, many of whom are quite comfortable saying that ‘reality’ can be found in the meanings of social relations.



    March 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm

  15. From Omar’s post above, describing what constructionists do:

    “The common element here is that a category that we take for granted (within the descriptions afforded by some lay or professional theoretical system) to be ontologically “real” (race, gender, the category of “man”, etc.) is shown instead to “actually” have a fictitious status because there is nothing in the world that meets that description.”

    I find a flaw in your characterization of constructionism: many constructionists attempt to better understand how something is real, not whether or not it is. Many social-constructionists claim to have shown that there is something in the world that meets the description of race, only its sociological rather than, in this case, biological.



    March 13, 2012 at 5:34 pm

  16. […] Why strong social constructionism does not work I: Arguments from Reference ( […]


  17. This article is interesting, but it misinterprets the nature of social constructionism (SC). SC is not about “falsifying”, that is the realm of positivist empiricism à la Popper. The purpose of SC is to show how notions (such as race, gender, social relationships, etc) are built up in social contexts, in this sense the Objective Truth/False is not a relevant feature because, simply put, it is not the focus of this approach. What the author refers to as ‘strong constructionist arguments’ do not adhere to the principles of SC.

    On a side note, there was one bold statement that I take serious issue with:

    “It is striking how little most social scientists spend thinking about reference. They should, because even though it is seldom explicit, we all require some theory about how conceptualizations link up (or fail to!) to events in the world in order to make substantive statements about the nature of that world.”

    I am not going to make assumptions about the background reading from the author, but this is a claim that seems wildly unfounded. Social scientists adhere to the use of a systematic ontology and epistemology taking good care of the implications of their conceptualisations (both how they influence the research and the findings); they may not necessarily apply the approach of inflexible empiricism in due recognition to the notion that social phenomena cannot be categorised in the manner that biological phenomena can.

    In short, the focus of SC is on how these categories are built up in the social world rather than explore whether they are in some form “true” or “false”. I suggest that the author does more careful background search before claiming that social scientists are unaware of the issue of reflexivity (Edwards & Potter, 1992 is a good starting point).



    March 14, 2012 at 3:33 pm

  18. Huh? The article doesn’t even mention reflexivity! The question Omar raises is about a theory of concepts in relation to reality, which is at best tangentially related to your concern with reflexivity. And in particular where Omar is concerned, I would be very, very hesitant to imply he’s failed to do adequate background research.



    March 14, 2012 at 3:58 pm

  19. Implying that social scientists are unaware of reference, as defined by Omar, implies that the social scientists that he discusses haven’t thought about reflexivity. Otherwise the social scientist would be aware of how their own personalities and world views (this includes their choice of theoretical approach) impact the research, which would ultimately negate his need to state that social scientists do not think about reference enough.

    This does not remove the fundamental error of assuming that Social Constructionism attempts to “falsify” anything; the main point of SC is exactly that falsification is a problematic concept in social sciences.



    March 14, 2012 at 4:06 pm

  20. Sorry, but I don’t think you’re right – the principal concern Omar raises about reference is not about scientists “personalities and world views,” but rather about their epsitemological tools about the relation between concept and reality. These are dramatically different concerns, and adequate reflexivity would certainly not be sufficient to answer the concern about reference.

    As I wrote above, I thoroughly agree that most social constructionism is not about demonstrating phenomena to be false, so I have no quibble there.



    March 14, 2012 at 4:11 pm

  21. It comes down to an ideological difference then – I am a Social Constructionist, as well as a “Holist” in many definitions of the word, so I do not make the distinction between world view and the choice of epistemological tools as I imagine a (Critical) Realist would. I would be in denial if I did not believe that my personality and my choice of epistemological tools would not interact with each other.

    For example, as a SC my research interests do not go into the realm of trying to bridge concept and reality because I think that it is humanly impossible (primarily because of methodological and epistemological shortcomings) so my focus is on how these concepts could be treated *as real*. Alternatively a CR might believe that the choice of epistemological tools is not a question of personality/ideology (consider the aims of empiricism), but this is an “ideology” in itself so reflexivity is a factor to be taken into account.



    March 14, 2012 at 4:26 pm

  22. I still think this discussion nicely reflects the impossibility of judging constructivists from a realist point of view. Any philosophically consistent constructivist would reject the claim that ‘theories of reference’ are anything but academic reconstructions of how some social scientist/philosopher thinks. Since there is no real phenomenon of reference and there is no possibility of an accurate theory of reference (and no need for one) there is absolutely no basis for criticizing constructivists on that account. I am afraid makersidiom is correct here. If Omar’s criticism is accurate, it only concerns extremely naive semi-constructivists. Commonly both constructivists and ‘realists’ criticize each other based on rather unacceptable portrayal of each other, leading me at least to infer there is no point in discussion.



    March 14, 2012 at 10:12 pm

  23. I find myself rather dubious. Partly this is because I rarely find philosophical knock-downs of more empirical positions very convincing (I am usually more prepared to think that our philosophy is wrong and needs to adjust to our science, even our sociology, than vice versa). But, more concretely, this seems to be over-reaching.

    Let’s take three concrete cases.

    0. The history of physics has plenty of examples of theoretical entities which have been discarded for good reasons — aether, caloric, phlogiston. The terms “waves in the aether” or “flow of caloric” or “dephlogisticated air” all had some ability to refer to things in the world (radio waves, oxygen, etc.), but we’ve rightly abandoned them. The reasons was that presuming there was an aether, that electromagnetic forces propagated through it, etc., carried lots of consequences beyond the existence of radio waves, which turned out to be wrong, and there were alternatives which didn’t need an aether. Upshot, no more reason to believe in the aether, and no more waves in it either. (Similarly for caloric and phlogiston.) Saying “by historical continuity, we can keep using ‘aether waves’ to talk about radio, everyone knows what that means, even though there’s no aether” seems to give the debunker everything they want, except a fossilized word. Why is this not exactly parallel to (the rational kernel of) constructionist debunkings?

    1. Take your example of Said. Why couldn’t he reply “Fine, there are places which have been called ‘the Orient’ and people who have been called ‘Orientals’; if you want to insist that those terms refer, go ahead. (Though the idea that ‘the Orient’ has acted as anything like a rigid designation is demonstrably wrong.) But the ideas which go along with those terms are totally screwy and make no sense, so we’d all be better off for getting rid of them.” No doubt Uncle Edward would have phrased this more elegantly, but you get the point.

    2. Similarly with race, which you allude to in passing (you should pardon the expression). Surely much of the point of showing that racial categories vary across time and space is precisely to drive home that these names are not rigid designators of unchanging entities, about which we might have differing ideas.
    (It would I supposed be open to the defender of races to grant this, but present an argument that here and now they have it pretty much right.) Again, the point of examining exactly how individuals come to be classified into different races is to show the reader that the actual basis of these classifications is not what is naively supposed. Things like this do most of the actual work of debunking.

    Shorter me, on reflection: isn’t this all already covered in Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?


    Cosma Shalizi

    March 15, 2012 at 2:29 pm

  24. Cosma: Don’t see where we disagree. I think the point that you make is the same one that I wanted to make. Constructonism relies on an argument from reference; the theory of reference is descriptivism; descriptivism allows you to “eliminate” entities from a previous ontology when you find through either scientific research or semantic analysis that there are no entities that meet the associated descriptions. But descriptivism implies truth-conditional semantics and a correspondence theory of truth. As demonstrated by markersidiom constructivists either dismiss the truth criterion as something that they are interested in, or actively reject the possibility of establishing truth via correspondence claims. Ergo, constructionist arguments that help themselves to descriptivism to make a substantive point are inconsistent.

    Maybe you are picking up on my last claim regarding causal-historical theories of reference and rigid designation as a possible alternative to descriptivism. I think that what you are arguing is that the history of science is more consistent with descriptivism (given the trash-heap of discarded theoretical entities) than it is with a causal-historical account, because it is hard to accept that contemporary terms actually continue to refer to such ridiculous things as caloric, etc.. So I suppose that you are disagreeing with me insofar as you read me as espousing a causal-historical account over a descriptivist account. That’s fine, but note that that was a minor subsidiary point. The main thrust of my post is as stated above. Constructionism + Descriptivism is an unworkable mix. You either stick with the first and give up on the second (in which case no substantively important conclusions follow from constructionism) or given up on the first and stick with the second (in which case you have to buy the whole truth-conditional semantics + propositional realism thing). I think both of these options are not very good, which is why I was trying to look for a “third way” (e.g. constructivism + casual-historical reference). Whether descriptivism or a CH account is “better” is a complex issue (among philosophers it is a stalemate) that I don’t think we’ll be able to resolve here (but certainly something that deserves more extensive treatment).

    markersidiom: You probably should more worried about whether you are grasping the main point of my argument as stated repeatedly above than throwing a hissy fit about a subsidiary point that has no bearing on the validity of my main argument (or worrying about what’s on my bookshelf or my relative erudition). Your comments reveal that you sadly missed the point. Let’s say social scientists have spent the last 100 years obsessively thinking about reference and reflexivity or what have you. That still not going to fix the fact that constructivism + descriptivism is an inconsistent brew. Moreoever, my point is that even those constructivists that say “my arguments have nothing to do with truth and reference” end up making arguments that have everything to do with truth and reference.

    Henri: Be careful to not fall into the trap that markersidiom falls into. Whether constructivists regard theories of reference as constructions or not, my point stands. That somebody engages in a logical fallacy is a fact that is independent from their realization that they are using inconsistent premises in a argument. I actually don’t care whether constructionists have been aware of their mistake, I would argue that it is a mistake nonetheless, and and an issue that cannot be avoided by pretending to play another language game.



    March 15, 2012 at 3:02 pm

  25. Ok, I need to make your mistakes more explicit since this conversation is not going anywhere. You need to step out of the realist thinking for a while and give up thinking that intensions and extensions have anything to do with reality. The logical fallacy you propose is premised on an undefensible assumptions on your behalf that (more philosophically literate) constructivists would reject. The constructivists do not simply _realize_ the fallacy but they can _resolve_ it. The issue here is of course not what the average straw man constructivist reseacher thinks but rather whether there is a defensible basis for those arguments.

    The problem you have is that you are stuck with the idea that reference somehow needs to be to something that exists outside language. This would be a mistake, since intension of a category does not need to be assumed as real. For example, there are intensions to following categories: arch angels, hindu gods, members of the Corleone family (from the Godfather). See also witches above.

    You say that philosophers of language “subscribe to some version of propositional realism (propositions have truth values that can be unproblematically redeemed by just checking to see if the “correspond” to the world).”, and cite people who are long dead and mostly worked prior to the linguistic turn. If you look at the authors in the philosophy of language that came afterwards, say Donald Davidson, you might find that entities that categories ‘refer’ to are themselves of course only linguistic entities.

    Now, if I were to say that there is no such thing as the jews in the sense that Nazis used it, I do not need to assume any realist basis of reference. I am simply saying that the way people use the word are contradictory: they construct it to refer to certain entities but they also construct it to imply attributes those entities do not have. And there is of course nothing realist about attributes. Logical contradictions and fallacious thinking can exist without any assumed correspondence (e.g. in mathematics it is possible to refute claims even though pretty much none of the concepts appear particularly ‘real’). Also, consistent constructivists would never deny that things are ‘real’, since ‘real’ is just a cultural attribution that people have certain habits of using. People are certainly ‘real’ in the same way that hindu gods are ‘sacred’, the issue is simply that these attribution may not be particularly useful.

    I recommend reading “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge” by Donald Davidson.



    March 16, 2012 at 11:54 am

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