TCS Daily

Socially Constructed

By Kenneth Silber - March 6, 2003 12:00 AM

In the eighties and nineties, it became commonplace for postmodernist academics to talk about the "social construction" of reality. The idea was that what might seem like objective facts and phenomena were actually just self-serving assertions presented by dominant social groups. Truth was unavailable, in this view, but at least left-wing academics were around to point out how the ruling class was making everything up.

Such social constructivism swept through the humanities and social sciences. But it began to founder against hard-to-deny facts of the natural sciences. At one interdisciplinary conference, a speaker who mentioned DNA received the retort "You believe in DNA?" This kind of thing left postmodernism open to ridicule. In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal published a nonsense-laden article about quantum gravity in a postmodernist journal. After revealing the piece was a hoax, he invited anyone who thinks gravity is a social construct to jump out the window of his high-rise apartment.

One hears less about postmodernism these days. But the idea of social construction retains vitality-and indeed has evolved in a direction antipathetic to anything that left-wing postmodernists could have wanted. By asserting that reality is socially constructed, the postmodernists went to untenable extremes. But they also spurred scholars of a more rationalistic bent to focus on questions that had gotten little attention previously: What features of the world truly are socially constructed? How does such construction work?

Clearly, some things are, at least in part, social constructs-things like money, marriage, parties, property, corporations, nations, the United Nations, and Tech Central Station. Such things are not defined by their physical properties alone. How exactly do they arise from a universe that's filled with physical particles and forces? What makes them real?

Philosopher John R. Searle of the University of California at Berkeley has played a leading role in delving into such questions in recent years. In Searle's explanation, the reality of a social construct is based on three elements: "collective intentionality" (multiple people agree on what the thing is), "the assignment of function" (they think it's aimed at one or more purposes), and "constitutive rules" (the thing follows, and is defined by, rules invented by people).

The work of Searle and others presents a picture of social construction that, unlike the postmodernist view, is plausible and not laughable. The picture underscores that social constructs are not only real but also important and consequential. If that piece of paper you used as money doesn't meet the socially constructed criteria of money, you might end up with a prison sentence. At the same time, this view of social construction shows that institutions are often fragile; they depend on people respecting their existence, their purposes, and their rules. It's a lesson that should be considered at the United Nations.

Lest all this seem rather abstract, consider the following real-world application: Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto is known for arguing that property rights are a crucial tool for alleviating global poverty. De Soto, who is a consultant to governments in Latin America and the Middle East, notes that the poor often have physical possession of land and other assets but lack the paperwork and legal protections that would turn such assets into usable property. What they lack, in short, are crucial social constructs.

De Soto drew upon Searle's work in developing his emphasis on property rights. In mid-April, the economist and the philosopher will share a stage for the first time, as keynote speakers at a conference at the University of Buffalo titled "The Mystery of Capital and the Construction of Social Reality."

Thus, social constructivism, promoted and wielded by left-wing academics as an intellectual weapon against capitalist society, has been transformed into something very different - it now contributes to a policy approach that's aimed at spreading capitalism throughout the world.

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