Social Constructivism Research Paper

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In its original version, social constructivism is a view about the social nature of science. It rests on the methodological assumption that a sociological analysis of science and scientific knowledge can be empirically fruitful and epistemologically illuminating. This approach has generated detailed empirical studies of scientific practices (for instance, of what is going on in laboratories on a day-to-day basis). According to social constructivism, these studies show that it does not depend exclusively on the objective external world which scientific beliefs are held to be true or false, and thus, what are the scientific facts, but rather also (or even mainly or exclusively) on social arrangements resulting from negotiations between scientists taking place in the course of scientific practices. It is in this sense that scientific knowledge and scientific facts are supposed to be socially constructed. Social constructivism is not a unique specified doctrine, however, but rather a bunch of related studies representing different versions of the general approach.

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1. Historical Background

One of the guiding ideas of social constructivism is that science, scientific knowledge, and scientific practices are socially determined. Historically, this idea is rooted in the historical materialism developed by Marx. Historical materialism is best understood as a research program, roughly in the sense of the methodology of research programs proposed by Lakatos; the core of historical materialism consists of the claim that the economic base of a society determines its superstructure. This core is supposed to generate testable historical theories or hypotheses about what are, in various societies, the base and the super- structure, and about the specific ways in which they are related. The strongest, but not the only possible, interpretation is that the superstructure is causally determined by the base. This approach was taken up by sociologies of science worked out during the twentieth century. Thus, for instance, Karl Mannheim wanted to show how humanities and theories of society are socially determined; and one of the leading American sociologists of science, Robert Merton, suggested that it is primarily the rise and success of science that is determined by social forces (Merton 1973).

Another important intellectual source of social constructivism is the historical turn of twentieth century philosophy of science (Kuhn 1962, Bachelard 1937, Canguilhem 1966, Foucault 1969, Hacking 1990). This movement is vigorously opposed to scientific realism and rejects the claim, so crucial for the traditional philosophy of science, that there are universal rational scientific methods and rules such that the history of science can be rationally reconstructed as an continuous intellectual enterprise constantly improving our scientific knowledge by applying these methods. Instead, proponents of the movement see the history of science and scientific beliefs shattered by contingent breaks and dependent on normative attitudes and hidden non-scientific assumptions that an adequate philosophy of science must aspire to reveal.

A third theoretical background of social constructivism is the program of naturalizing epistemology initiated by Quine (Quine 1969). The crucial idea of this programme is that traditional epistemology, centering around the question of the justification of claims to (scientific) knowledge, should be replaced by a scientific study of causal processes of belief formation and information. In this way, epistemology is supposed to be transformed into a natural science.

In sum, social constructivism puts together three ideas, borrowed from a broadly Marxist sociology of science, from the historical turn of twentieth century philosophy of science, and from the program of naturalizing epistemology, that the development of scientific knowledge is (a) determined by social forces, (b) essentially contingent and independent of rational methods, and should (c) be analyzed in terms of causal processes of belief formation.

2. The Edinburgh School Of The Sociology Of Science

The first prominent version of social constructivism is the Edinburgh school of the sociology of science. The proponents of this school start out by criticizing the Marxist sociology of science for the exclusion of mathematics and natural sciences as a proper subject of the sociology of science. The extended claim is that mathematics and natural sciences are socially determined too, and it is this extension that is fundamental to the further claim of many social constructivists that, in a sense, the world as such is socially constructed (Bloor 1991; Knorr-Cetina 1981; Latour and Woolgar 1986). Specifically, it is, according to the Edinburgh sociologists of science, not only the historical development of science, its rise and success, that is influenced by social forces; rather, it is the content of accepted scientific beliefs that is determined by social factors or by the social interests involved in scientific practices.

Edinburgh sociologists of science conclude that there is no definite unique set of rational methods that guide scientific practices which can be referred to in order to explain how scientific results and beliefs are established. Another result is that it is not helpful to make a sharp distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification in sociological investigations of scientific practices. In this way the Edinburgh school rejects fundamental assumptions held by the traditional philosophy of science.

If scientific practices and the development of science cannot be rationally reconstructed, then the sociological analysis of scientific practice must basically be a causal explanation of belief formation and belief validation; it is supposed to show in detail how specific scientific beliefs are established as a result of a causal process proceeding from social conditions, social interests, and negotiations between scientists guiding the specific scientific practice under consideration. Therefore, social constructivism is, in the view of the Edinburgh school, itself a kind of natural science. The domain of this sort of science is the set of all scientific beliefs that get accepted for the time being, independently of whether they are true or false and whether they ultimately prove to be successful or not.

Some constructivists focus not on belief formation, but rather on scientific facts: they want to know in which way such facts are hardened, i.e., get accepted as facts by all researchers in the field (Latour and Woolgar 1986). However, focusing in this way on scientific facts instead of scientific beliefs does not make much difference if scientific facts are supposed to be what accepted scientific beliefs are about—roughly the content of statements showing up in established scientific textbooks on the field (Quine 1969). Nevertheless, it is precisely by shifting the focus from beliefs to facts that some social constructivists are inclined to entertain an ontological version of social constructivism that sees scientists as essentially contributing to the existence of scientific facts. Obviously, this claim has idealistic implications only if scientific facts are understood in a strictly realistic fashion—roughly as the way things are independently of the way we take them to be.

Social constructivism, as proposed by the Edinburgh sociologists, can also be formulated as a methodological claim mandating a naturalistic approach to scientific practices; as such, social constructivism is best understood as being part of a naturalized epistemology concentrating on the investigation of the social causes of belief formation. In the methodological version, social constructivism does not seem to be committed to ontological claims; however, it remains committed at least to the epistemological claim that scientific knowledge cannot simply be seen as a good representation of the external objective world, but must rather be taken as a result of an extremely complex process involving mainly, and most importantly, social causes. In this way, social constructivism is not only a form of anti-rationalism, but also a form of anti-realism and in this twofold sense, a form of relativism.

3. The Actor-Network Theory

The actor-network theory (Latour and Woolgar 1986, Latour 1987) is a form of constructivism that rejects the idea of a social determination of scientific knowledge, prominent in the Edinburgh school, mainly for the reason that the social is barely better understood than the natural. The leading thought is that scientific knowledge is an effect of established relations between objects, animals, and humans engaged in scientific practices. An actor is, according to this theory, everything that in some causal way affects the production of scientific statements and theories: not only scientists, but also, for instance, background assumptions, methodologies, techniques, social rules and institutions, routines, experiments, measurements and the appropriate instruments, scientific texts and, last but not least, external objects. For an entity to be an actor in this sense it is obviously not required to have contentful mental states, but to be able to perform actions as a kind of behavior describable under some intention. Thus, there can be many sorts of relations and interactions between actors; in particular, some actors can transform other actors (these transformations are sometimes called translations). A network is a set of actors such that there are relations and translations between the actors that are stable, in this way determining the place and functions of the actors within the network. Once a network has been established it implies a sort of closure that prevents other actors or relations from entering the network, thereby opening the possibility of the accumulation of scientific knowledge that is taken to be the result of translations within the network. Establishing a scientific belief, theory, or facts comes down, from the point of view of the actor-network theory, to placing these actors in a stable network. In this sense, scientific beliefs, knowledge, theories, and facts are taken to be constructed by translations taking place in established networks.

The actor-network theory shares a number of basic assumptions with social constructivism as conceived in the Edinburgh school. Thus, both approaches entertain a naturalistic account of scientific practices, do not presuppose a distinction between true or successful and false or unsuccessful scientific beliefs, and reject the possibility of a rational reconstruction of scientific practices and their outcomes. But constructivism in the sense of the actor-network theory is social not in the strong sense that social forces that are presupposed to exist largely independently of scientific practices have a causal impact on these practices; but rather in the extremely weak sense that as a result of processes taking place in networks, a scientific claim can eventually be developed about a distinction between the natural and the social, and consequently also about the function of the social for scientific practices (Pickering 1992).

Social constructivism usually does not hold that, in the course of scientific practices, scientific facts of the external world are literally constructed of some other entities. The crucial idea of a (social) construction of scientific knowledge and scientific facts is, rather that an analysis of the process and history of scientific belief formation will not be able to show that the methods of science continuously increase the probability that scientific beliefs will be good representations of an independent external world, and should not even try. Instead, scientific belief formation should be modeled in terms of very different factors, mainly social ones like rules, techniques, institutions, power relations, and negotiations, which affect scientific belief formation in a causal way that can be studied empirically and sociologically

One of the most debated applications of social constructivism is the claim held by many feminists that gender is socially constructed. Originally, the most prominent feminist theories introduced a distinction between a naturalistic notion of sex and a social notion of gender to denounce all attempts of deriving properties of gender from properties of sex as mere constructions of gender that do not refer to reality. More recently, in some postmodern feminist accounts of sex and gender, it is also the very distinction between sex and gender, and thus, sex itself, that are supposed to be socially constructed.

4. Social Constructivism About The Social

In one of the most recent developments of social constructivism, leading proponents of the Edinburgh school try to exploit the thought that scientific knowledge is, after all, something like an institution and that institutions are constructed by humans (Bloor 1996). It seems to follow that scientific knowledge is, because constructed by humans, socially constructed. This idea is part of what is often called the intentionalist program of social ontology, the aim of which is to clarify the ontological status of social entities, i.e., groups and of institutions. The fundamental claim is that it is on the basis of intentional mental states and associated actions that social entities come into existence. That is to say that human beings construct social entities by having specific contentful thoughts and by performing intentional actions.

It is obvious that this approach is a sort of social constructivism in the sense that it is a theory about the construction of the social; this is held to be so insofar as it consists largely of normative interactions between humans. It must be emphasized that this sort of constructivism is restricted to the realm of the social, that it presupposes a sharp distinction between the natural and the social, and that it has nothing to say about the construction of natural facts or physical entities. Most importantly, though, the intentionalist program relies on an intentional vocabulary. In all these respects the program differs fundamentally from traditional versions of social constructivism.

Basically the intentionalist program of social ontology is an individualistic account of the social; at the same time, however, one of the crucial theoretical moves is to introduce notions of collective intentionality and of collective actions. The first step is to assume that for some persons to be socially related in a specific way is to be treated by most of the other members of their society as being related in this way. Social relations are taken to imply rules as well as certain rights. In general, therefore, to treat some persons as socially related in way S is to treat them as being entitled or committed to perform actions according to the rules and rights derivable from S.

One of the next important moves is to introduce the notion of a collective attitude (or, as it is sometimes called, a we-attitude and, in particular, the notion of a collective intention to perform a specific action. Roughly speaking a person P as member of a set S of persons has a contentful collective attitude of the sort A iff (a) P has the A-attitude herself, (b) P believes that every other member has the A-attitude, and (c) P believes that every other member M of S believes that every member of S other than M has the A-attitude. In particular, if a number of persons Pi intend to perform action A together or collectively, then it must be the case, in addition to (a)–(c), that every Pi intends to perform A by performing a specific action Ai as her specific contribution to the performance of A such that Pi thinks that Ai is necessary for A and results, together with the other specific actions Aj intended to be performed by the other Pj, in performing A, and that Pi believes that the other Pj intend to do the same thing and believe themselves that every other person intends to do the same thing.

On the basis of these notions it can be asserted that a number of persons Pi have the collective intention to perform action A iff each Pi has the collective intention to do A by performing a specific Ai, in the sense just explained; and Pi perform a collective action A iff A can be described under some collective intention of the Pi. It might be suggested that a number of persons Pi represent a social group iff they share a collective attitude. Finally, let MR be a set of sematically consistent rules Ri such that a number of persons collectively treat an X as a Y by following Ri, then MR is, in the most basic sense, an institution. In particular, if MR is the set of rules according to which scientific results and scientific knowledge are established, and if the persons in question are trained scientists, then MR is an institution of epistemic or scientific practices, and in this sense, scientific knowledge might be called an institution that is constructed by intentional acts of human beings (Searle 1995, Tuomela 1995).

This line of argument is a rough sketch that by no means exhausts the theoretical complexity of the intentionalist program. For instance, something has to be said about the mechanisms of the formation of collective attitudes which account for the stability of social groups and institutions; at this point, a theory of consensus and a theory of power has to be incorporated into the general account. In any case, even a rough sketch of this sort of social ontology shows how, to put it very generally, the mind can be thought of as bringing into existence, and keeping in existence (and thus to construct) social entities in a fairly literal manner. It also becomes clear how and why traditional social constructivists might be inclined to render their position more precise by exploiting the intentionalist program of social ontology.

This program is a philosophically sound approach; it makes evident, however, that human beings do not construct social facts as they construct natural facts. Traditional versions of social constructivism tend to downplay this distinction, which might be thought of as a fundamental flaw. Another problem with these versions is that they seem to commit themselves to relying exclusively on a causal, physicalist vocabulary. While it certainly makes sense to examine whether a purely naturalistic account of epistemic practices might be fruitful, it does not follow from this strategy, even if it proves fruitful, that intentionalist strategies must be excluded. On the contrary, it is doubtful whether epistemic practices can be adequately described without also using intentionalistic and normative vocabulary. Finally, it is hard to see how traditional social constructivists can overcome Davidson’s point that, according to interpretation theory a basic form of rationality is constitutive for mastering a natural language and must therefore be the same in all epistemic practices (Davidson 1973); obviously, this insight is inconsistent with the unqualified contingency claim about the development of scientific knowledge which is so central to traditional social constructivism.


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