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Glossary: Social construction

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Marsha Michie

on 8 April 2013

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Transcript of Glossary: Social construction

social construction essentialism relativism reflexivity strong programme teleology co-production constructive technology assessment actor-network theory what human beings at any moment hold to be “real” in social experience is itself a social creation, and in that moment is simultaneously a social product and production. (Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology) Social construction work is critical of the status quo. Social constructionists about X tend to hold that:
(1) X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.
Very often they go further, and urge that:
(2) X is quite bad as it is.
(3) We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed.

A thesis of type (1) is the starting point: the existence or character of X is not determined by the nature of things. X is not inevitable. X was brought into existence or shaped by social events, forces, history, all of which could well have been different. Many social construction theses at once advance to (2) and (3), but they need not do so. (Ian Hacking) the attempt to explain an object, event, or phenomenon by its purpose or end goal [F]unctions are never intrinsic to the physics of any phenomenon but are assigned from outside by conscious observers and users. Functions, in short, are never intrinsic but are always observer relative.

We are blinded to this fact by the practice, especially in biology, of talking of functions as if they were intrinsic to nature. ... But the discovery of a natural function can take place only within a set of prior assignments of value (including purposes, teleology, and other functions). ... It is because we take it for granted in biology that life and survival are values that we can discover that the function of the heart is to pump blood. If we thought the most important value in the world was to glorify God by making thumping noises, then the function of the heart would be to make a thumping noise, and the noisier heart would be the better heart. (John Searle) Teleological explanations go against the grain of scientific explanations, which argue from cause to effect, and not from event to purpose. (Herbert Kohl) nature (and our scientific understanding of it) and society (with a variety of actors and interests) are produced together, in relationship with one another some names to know:
Sheila Jasanoff
Michael Gibbons
Hans Harbers Briefly stated, co-production is shorthand for the proposition that the ways in which we know and represent the world (both nature and society) are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it. Knowledge and its material embodiments are at once products of social work and constitutive forms of social life; society cannot function without knowledge any more than knowledge can exist without appropriate social supports. Scientific knowledge, in particular, is not a transcendent mirror of reality. It both embeds and is embedded in social practices, identities, norms, conventions, discourses, instruments and institutions – in short, in all the building blocks of what we term the social. The same can be said even more forcefully of technology.

Science, in the co-productionist framework, is understood as neither a simple reflection of the truth about nature nor an epiphenomenon of social and political interests. (Sheila Jasanoff) the idea that entities have a fixed "essence" that makes them what they are It has become common to see references to 'essentialism' in social scientific literature, and they are overwhelmingly derogatory ... . If there is anything common to all the critiques of essentialism in social science, it is a concern to counter characterisations of people, practices, institutions and other social phenomena as having fixed identities which deterministically produce fixed, uniform outcomes. Whether they are talking about cultural identity, economic behaviour or gender and sexuality, anti-essentialists have argued that people are not creatures of determinism, whether natural or cultural, but are socially constructed and constructing. (Andrew Sayer) the idea that one's beliefs, knowledge, and/or morals are situated within a point of view limited by culture, societal position, personal experience, etc. In the period between the attack on the World Trade Center towers and the American response, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times called to ask me if the events of the past weeks meant “the end of relativism.” (I had an immediate vision of a headline—RELATIVISM ENDS: MILLIONS CHEER—and of a photograph with the caption, “At last, I can say what I believe and mean it.”)

Well, if by relativism one means a condition of mind in which you are unable to prefer your own convictions and causes to the convictions and causes of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began. ... But if by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else—in your view, a deluded someone—might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end because it is simply another name for serious thought. (Stanley Fish) the ability and practice of reflecting on one's own thoughts, actions, and motivations It is the specifically reflexive form of the knowledgeability of human agents that is most deeply involved in the recursive ordering of social practices. Continuity of practices presumes reflexivity, but reflexivity in turn is possible only because of the continuity of practices that makes them distinctively 'the same' across space and time. 'Reflexivity' hence should be understood not merely as 'self-consciousness' but as the monitored character of the ongoing flow of social life. To be a human being is to be a purposive agent, who both has reasons for his or her activities and is able, if asked, to elaborate discursively upon those reasons (including lying about them). (Anthony Giddens) ... as human beings generally: ... and as social scientists: What has to be constantly scrutinized and neutralized, in the very act of construction of the object, is the collective scientific unconscious embedded in theories, problems, and (especially national) categories of scholarly judgment. ... [Reflexivity] fastens not upon the private person of the sociologist in her idiosyncratic intimacy but on the concatenations of acts and operations she effectuates as part of her work and on the collective unconscious inscribed in them. Far from encouraging narcissism and solipsism, epistemic reflexivity invites intellectuals to recognize and to work to neutralize the specific determinisms to which their innermost thoughts are subjected and it informs a conception of the craft of research designed to strengthen its epistemological moorings. (Bourdieu & Wacquant) school of thought dedicated to examining the causes of scientific knowledge, and doing so in the same way whether that knowledge is 'true' or 'false' some names to know:
David Bloor
Barry Barnes
Donald A. MacKenzie
Harry Collins
John Henry [T]he sociology of scientific knowledge should adhere to the following four tenets. In this way it will embody the same values which are taken or granted in other scientific disciplines. These are:
1. It would be causal, that is, concerned with the conditions which bring about belief or states of knowledge. ...
2. It would be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure. Both sides of these dichotomies will require explanation.
3. It would be symmetrical in its style of explanation. The same types of cause would explain, say, true and false beliefs.
4. It would be reflexive. In principle its patterns of explanation would have to applicable to sociology itself. (David Bloor) assesses developing technology in social and ethical context;
feeds those assessments back into the design of the technology as it develops Co-production processes include anticipation. Technical change is driven partly by the historical experience of actors, their views of the future, and their perceptions of the promise or threat of impacts which will change over time. In turn, technical change generates new impacts when applied to new social settings. These dynamic, multi-actor, and decentralized co-production processes are shot through with assessments. Thus, the situation is not one where TA has to introduce assessment. Assessment occurs all the time, and it is a modulation of ongoing processes of assessment (and feedback) which is in order. This, we claim, is the thrust of CTA. (Johan Schot & Arie Rip) a method of examining phenomena (especially knowledge and technologies) by examining the networks of actors (both humans and material objects) that generate and shape them some names to know:
Bruno Latour
Madeleine Akrich
Michel Callon
Wiebe Bijker
John Law [Knowledge] may be seen as a product or an effect of a network of heterogeneous materials.

This is a radical claim because it says that these networks are composed not only of people, but also of machines, animals, texts, money, architectures-- any material that you care to mention. So the argument is that the stuff of the social isn't simply human. ... So in this view the task of sociology is to characterize these networks in their heterogeneity, and explore how it is that they come to be patterned to generate effects like organizations, inequality, and power. (John Law)
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