Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Social Construction of Social Construction; or, This Is Just Dumb Critical Theory

I actually meant to write about something else on Saturday, namely "social constructions."  I got into an interesting exchange in comments under the link my friend posted.  One of her friends, presumably an academic also, commented on the story, first:
who cares because this is just dumb science. these people need to put down their microscopes and study critical theory
and then:
i mean even neurobiology shows there's no good reason to believe in two sexes only; so how the hell is some gene going to tell you who to go out and fuck?
You don't even need neurobiology: gross external anatomy is enough to cast doubt on a simplistic two-sexes model, though that is a relatively recent development even in 'The West."  A one-sex model is older and persists in folk psychology to this day.  The newer social construction of "intersex" is built on mostly visible differences between bodies that have been known for millennia.  Since sex in this sense (as opposed to copulation) is a social construction, science (dumb or otherwise) can't settle the question of how many sexes there are, any more than critical theory can settle how many genders there are.  What anatomical differences constitute a sex?  Among the more chilling examples of medical malfeasance that I know of is the treatment of infant males born with a "micropenis" by cutting off the inadequate appendage and trying to raise them as girls, or the corresponding removal of supposedly oversized clitorises from females.  At what point does a relative difference became an absolute one?

And if science is "dumb", what is the relevance of neurobiology here in the first place?  (In fairness, I don't know whether the other commenter meant that all science is dumb, or just the kind of science that seeks to explain sexual orientation.)

Going from here, it makes no sense to ask "how the hell is some gene going to tell you who to go out and fuck?"  For one thing, as the article under discussion admitted, the scientists involved do not claim to have found a single gene for homosexuality, nor do they believe there is such a thing.  But that doesn't mean that sexual desire and preferences in sexual partners have no relation to the body.  What that relation is, or if there is one, no one has any idea.

The same person added:
and there's that pesky problem of "homosexuality" being a historically constructed category...
At this point I indulged in an intervention.
but then, "neurobiology" [and, I might have added, critical theory] is a historically constructed category too; so how can it, really, "show" us anything? So is just about everything that human beings interact with, think about, talk about. I'm really beginning to think that there should be a moratorium on the use of terms like "social construction" and "historical construction." For one thing, they imply another bogus binary, namely that there is a clear dividing line between social constructions and 'real' things (FSVO of 'real'). They also tend to be used, as you seem to be doing, to imply that social constructions are unreal, trivial, illusory, etc. None of this follows, and it just adds to the general confusion.
The constructions of critical theory would have to be viewed with as jaundiced an eye as those of "dumb science", but that doesn't seem to be the table here.  The other commenter replied:
to suggest that the idea of historical construction implies a distinction from "the real" would be a very serious misunderstanding of the concept
I intervened:
Yes it is, but many people who deploy the term misunderstand it in just that way. But "social constructions" like sex and race certainly have biological aspects: social constructions are constructed of/with bodies.
To which the other commenter answered:
lol so in other words you want a moratorium on one of the most powerful, foundational concepts of twentieth-century thought because some straw men might possibly misunderstand it? hahaha good luck with that
Appeal to authority and to what everybody else is doing; she loses.  Of course, biological determinism is one of the other most powerful, foundational concepts of twentieth-century thought, most often tied to Darwinian evolution misunderstood as a linear progression from primitive to advanced organisms.    So I wrote:
Oh, I don't expect any luck at all; but it's not "straw men" who "possibly misunderstand it" -- the misunderstandings are endemic among the academics who use it, to say nothing of non-academics who've picked it up and used it without understanding it. (The use of Foucault as Scripture is also a real problem in the US academic queer theory I've read, and I've read a lot of it.) It's this confusion that makes me wonder whether something wouldn't be gained by not using the term for awhile, so that people would have to say more explicitly what they mean, rather than merely gesturing at it.
It's not clear to me that this person doesn't "possibly misunderstand" social construction herself.  She did, after all, offer up "a historical construction" as a better explanation of "homosexuality" than the biological determinism of Dean Hamer and Michael Bailey. "Social/historical construction" is not an alternative to "born that way," any more than the Big Bang Theory or Natural Selection are alternative Creation Myths.  When the gay neuroscientist Simon LeVay said that his friends dismissed his interest in finding a biological cause for homosexuality by asserting that 'we know it's socially constructed', I wondered if it was he or they who had misunderstood the concept.  Both, probably.  "Born this way" and "socially constructed" are answers to (at least) two different questions.

A third commenter criticized me, rather more cogently, but still (I think) missing the point:
Social constructions are patently not made from bodies. They are made from -perceptions- of bodies. Race, for example, has no biological aspects that can be used to meaningfully understand morphological and genetic differences between humans. The reason for that is simple -- the genetic diversity expressed by people currently living on the continent of Africa actually subsumes the rest of the genetic diversity in the world. An African will be more different genetically from another African than a European will be from an aboriginal Australian. Humans are radically homogeneous as a primate species anyway...and any differences we want to see as racial are uniformly better explained because of clinal variation, or historical, social and cultural context.
Without bodies there are neither perceptions in general nor perceptions of bodies.  "Race, for example, has no biological aspects that can be used to meaningfully understand morphological and genetic differences between humans."  This is probably true, but that begs the question of what race 'is.'  It's not as if it was ever a well-defined concept, and its history mainly shows people who are convinced that it must mean something, and try tirelessly to get the evidence to justify that conviction.  The number of races increases, and then decreases.  (Rather like genders.)  A century ago, there were numerous "races" in Europe: the Celt, the Teuton, the Mediterranean, the Slav, and so on.  No one takes these seriously anymore.  Past classifications are dismissed as self-evidently misconceived but their replacements are no better.  And these classifications -- much like gender and erotic ones -- are the successors to older categories that are just as essentialist.

"... and any differences we want to see as racial..." Who's "we"?  I don't particularly want to see any differences as racial; I don't see it as a useful concept.  I feel the same way about "gender," though I don't get the impression that most social constructionist theorists of gender would agree. "... are uniformly better explained because of clinal variation, or historical, social and cultural context."  Again, I'd agree.  But that doesn't really affect my point.  She was quite right about the differences within groups opposed to differences between groups, but the tendency to turn average differences into absolute ones is not confined to essentialists -- social-constructionist scholars of gender can't seem to shake it, for example.  Whether biological, cultural or historical differences are significant, or how much or in what way, is also open to dispute. That people think they're significant is a datum in itself, of course.  And "better explained" according to whom?  The kind of academic, systematic approach this person invokes, which I also find valuable and useful, is still a social and historical construct, a product of a very specific and limited social and cultural context.  There is no approach that isn't.

None of this means I reject social constructionism, least of all in favor of essentialism.  I've argued before that essentialism is how social construction happens, and I still think that's true.  Perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the border that tenuously and porously divides them.