Sunday, May 1, 2016

Take a Picture of the World, It'll Last Longer

I picked up Social Construction: Entering the Dialogue (Taos Institute, 2004) by Kenneth J. Gergen and Mary Gergen, which appeared to be a brief, handy introduction to the concept. The Gergens are a husband and wife team, both psychologists and academics, both dedicated to social constructionist thought, so they should be qualified to explicate it, but they didn't manage very well. The book turned out to be something of a trainwreck, but maybe that's not the Gergens' fault; maybe it's the fault of the concept itself.  But the confusion they foster could be useful for someone who wants to understand what "social construction" means and how it's used (and misused) by some of its proponents.

The Gergens take a false step right away:
The foundational idea of social construction seems simple enough, but it is also profound.  Everything we consider real is socially constructed.  Or, more dramatically, Nothing is real unless people agree that it is [10; bold type in original].
This is the kind of rhetoric that confuses people, and enables critics of social construction to misrepresent the concept.  I think the Gergens realize this, so on the next page they try to clarify:
We must be clear on this point.  Social constructionists do not say, "There is nothing," or "There is no reality."  The important point is that whenever people define what "reality" is, they are always speaking from a cultural tradition [11].
The thing is, the Gergens themselves came very close to declaring that "there is no reality," and they did so more from an apparent wish to sound dramatic than from a need to explain their concept clearly.  Since the book is intended to introduce social constructionism to people who don't know much if anything about it, and who can't be assumed to have much experience with philosophical discourse, saying "Nothing is real unless people agree that it is" might just be the worst formulation the authors could have chosen. It might have been better to put "real" in quotes, but not by much.  Most readers, from undergraduates to psychologists, will remember "Nothing is real" as the core (or "foundational idea," another revealing choice of words) of social construction theory, which it isn't.

Ironically, the Gergens undercut themselves, because they are "defin[ing] what 'reality'' is" here -- their formulation is itself a social construction from a specific cultural tradition (namely the American Culture of Therapy), but they state it as the nature of the real world.  (They're aware of this problem, but that awareness doesn't inform their writing.)  To clarify my own criticism, consider the well-known case of "homosexuality" as a social construction.  Many proponents of that position say that there were no homosexuals before, say, 1868.  What they mean is that the word "homosexual" wasn't invented until then, and different concepts of men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women were used in a specific cultural context -- in this case, western Europe in and before the nineteenth century, and especially by lawyers and doctors in that era and place.  As a historical claim, this is dubious anyhow, but again, it might lessen confusion if such writers were careful to put "homosexual" in quotes -- "There were no 'homosexuals' before 1868" -- but they seldom do.  True, scholars may choose which definition of a term they wish to use, but in general they don't use their chosen definition consistently.  Often they even retroject "homosexual subcultures" into the period before 1868, and to other regions.  Most seriously, like the Gergens, they clearly consider these claims and statements to be the reality of homosexuality, and they forget that their discourse is a social construction in a particular cultural tradition, namely Western academic philosophy and critical theory.  I'm not being pedantic here, since one of the assumptions of social-constructionist discourse is that terminology is important, that it shapes how we view the world, and words create worlds -- so it's vital to examine the words we and others use, and to use them accurately and consistently.
Could all that we construct as "problems" be reconstructed as "opportunities"?  By the same token, as we speak together, we could also bring new worlds into being. We could construct a world in which there are three genders or a world where the "mentally ill" are "heroes," or where "the power in all organizations lies not with individual leaders but in relationships" [12].
This is another good example of the careless use of concepts.  It's not surprising that many people understand social construction to mean that people freely and consciously choose how they see the world, when social constructionists talk as if it were so. Consider the popular accusation that social constructionists claim that gay people "choose" to be gay.  It mistakes social construction for an account of the nature and origin of sexual orientation, an antagonist to "born this way," when (according to my understanding, my construction if you will) the whole project of social construction involves explaining how people come to think of customs as "natural."  I have the impression that many people who talk about social construction think that they are exposing illusion and getting at the reality of whatever topic they're discussing, be it sexual orientation, sex/gender, race, language, or whatever.  (If it's not what they really think, it's what they say.)  It's precisely what we assume to be "real" and "natural" that we must question, and it's not as easy as "speak[ing] together" to "bring new worlds into being."  ("Worlds," by the way, is another much-misused word, a sign that someone is socially constructing carelessly.)
Take the simple process of naming.  There is Frank, Sally, Ben and Shawn.  Now these individuals were scarcely born into the world with nametags.  Their parents assigned their names. In this sense, they are arbitrary.  Except perhaps for family traditions, for example, Frank could have been named Ben, Robert, Donald, or something else.  But why were they given names in the first place?  The most important reason is practicality.  For example, parents want to talk about Sally's welfare; is she eating properly, does her diaper need changing, is her brother Frank jealous of her? ... More broadly, the words we use -- just like the names we give to each other -- are used to carry out relationships.  They are not pictures of the world, but practical actions in the world [14-15].
In that last sentence the Gergens seem to suppose that "pictures of the world" are real, or at least "real."  At the very least, they're constructing a false dichotomy. Language is used both to make "pictures of the world" and to make actions in the world.  (I suspect that a sloppy understanding of the performative use of language is lurking in there somewhere.)  Neither of those uses, which don't exhaust the options, expresses the "real nature" of language, which no one knows anyway.  This section is headed "Language: From the Picture to the Practice," but it would be as accurate and useful to reverse the order, since "pictures" are often constructed to explain and justify practices.

On naming, the Gergens oversimplify drastically, evidently because they're thinking in a middle-class American cultural tradition.  Names are seldom "arbitrary": like language in general, they are often believed to invoke the nature of the world.  Even when someone, say, names her baby "Britney" because she's a big Britney Spears fan, it's not an arbitrary choice.  It seems to me that "arbitrary" is as serious an error as "real" or "natural": the Gergens suppose that naming just happens, without any social or cultural meaning.  Naming is another social construction.  One custom is "remaking" ancestors, as Richard Trexler discusses in Naked Before the Father in the context of medieval Italy, and in Orthodox Jewish tradition down to the present.  A child's name isn't picked out of the air, but chosen so that a dead relative can live again through his or her name -- and in this construction, a child is never named after a living relative.  In other constructions, a child may be named for a living relative, and it would be interesting to know why it's acceptable in some cultures but not in others.  Names generally have meanings (mine means "brown warrior," for example), even when those meanings have been forgotten.  Often they aren't.  In China, ancient Israel, and in at least some Native American cultures, the meanings of names are known by the parents who give them and by those who use them.  In traditional Korea, males' names consist of three Chinese characters, and they are not chosen arbitrarily but with some thought and care, sometimes by divination or other systems.  Girl children were often not given names, however, which is a reminder that it's not necessary to use a name in practical, day-to-day parent-child relations anyway: in Western and non-Western cultures alike, parents can and do address children not by name but by status ("son," "daughter,"), just as their children address their parents by status ("mom" and "dad." My Mexican friends address each other this way all the time: Uncle, Aunt, Cousin, Nephew/Niece, etc.  In Korea, people almost lose their names when they become parents, and are not only referred to but addressed by others as "Young-sook's Mother" and "Jung-min's Father"; there are titles for status in family constellations that are used more often than an individual's name ("Elder brother," "Youngest child," etc.).   Invoking parents' concern for children's welfare as a reason for naming them is a middle-American social construction, yet the Gergens appear to think their explanation describes reality.

Examining the customs and understandings of other cultures often informs social construction theorizing, but the Gergens seem to have only the barest -- and not very well-informed or thoughtful -- awareness of other cultures.
What is more obvious than the fact that our social world is made up of separate individuals, each normally endowed with the capacity for conscious decision making.  It is because of this that we favor a democracy in which each adult citizen has the right to cast a vote, courts of law in which we hold individual actors responsible for their deeds, schools in which we evaluate each student's individual work, and organizations in which we subject individual workers to performance evaluations?  It is largely for these reasons that we characterize Western culture as individualist.  

Yet, for a constructionist, the obvious fact of "the individual as a conscious decision maker" is not so obvious.  Rather, we see it as only one way of constructing the world.  In fact, the individualistic orientation to social life is not so old historically (possibly three centuries), and it is not shared by the majority of people on earth.  This does not make it wrong, but it does allow us to step out of the box and ask about its pros and cons [30].
This is odd, for voting, courts of law, schools, and organizations are much older and widespread than the "individualistic orientation."  "We" certainly don't have these institutions because we see persons as atomized individuals; they're compatible with a non-individualist worldview, and are found in non-individualistic cultures.

The individualist / collectivist dichotomy is itself a social construction, a narrative about cultural difference, though the Gergens write as though it were a real difference between societies.  It's also inadequate as a description of a society except in very broad terms.  The difference between an "individualist" society like the US and a "collectivist" society like Japan is one of degree, not of kind, since every category is made up of individuals, and every individual human being belongs to various collectivities.  But speaking of relative differences as if they were absolute differences is a very popular social construction.

Even within the same society, these aspects are stressed more or less according to the situation or problem involved.  (One reason I love Koreeda Hirokazu's very Japanese film After Life is that it tells stories about individuals with love and respect, with no suggestion that doing so is un-Japanese.)  It might be that the US has moved farther toward the individualist pole than most other countries, but we have certainly not eliminated categories or collectivities, as the use of terms like "America" and "Americans" alone is enough to show. 

I'm skeptical of most of the Gergens' sweeping generalizations, or constructions as they should be called.  For example, "most human conflict can be traced to the processes of meaning-making" (66).  Conflict also occurs between non-human animals, who have no language but still manage to have conflicts.  The same goes for the experience of loss.  "For you to 'lose' something (a job, a close friend, the love of others) means that you carry around a story of yourself as a major character, embarked on a course of progress or fulfillment (end-points of a good story), and have suffered a setback" (49).  Non-human animals experience loss without having language, and therefore without having narratives.  And, of course, among humans, narratives of loss are not limited to individualistic cultures.  These experiences go along with having/being bodies.

The Gergens, consistent with their status as helping professionals, proceed to describe what they present as non-individualist, "relationship-oriented" ways of dealing with human problems.  It never seems to have occurred to them that it would be instructive to examine how supposedly non-individualist societies deal with such problems.  After all, we have not only vast amounts of sociological and anthropological data about such societies, but plenty of literature and traditions from the history of Western culture, in the days before we became individualists.  Why re-invent the wheel?

Well, for one thing, it's hard to justify your status and salary as a science-based academic helping professional, working with "solid data" (90), if you're just going to appeal to tradition.  But as the Gergens are aware, hardly anyone wants to go back to the old days, even those who claim that they do.  Getting rid of tradition hasn't eliminated the abuses that were common in non-individualistic societies, but there were good reasons why people tried.  Relationship-oriented ways of dealing with conflict don't automatically lead to good outcomes, and it's arguable that even as the Gergens proclaim their rejection of the individualistic tradition, they are still working within it.  "Dialogue," for example, as the Gergens practice it, is an activity performed between individuals.  Social constructions are not something you can change, let alone escape, just by saying so, or even by setting your mind to it.

The Gergens, like many other social constructionists, skirt close to a blank-slate social construction of human beings and culture.  I think it was the philosopher Edward Stein who argued that the verb underlying "construction" ought to be "construe," not "construct."  I like that idea, but I think "construct" is a good metaphor, as long as it's remember that construction works with materials, and materials (animate or inanimate) are not infinitely malleable.  Our bodies cannot always follow where our ideas go.  Perhap more often they can't.

Social Construction: Entering the Dialogue is not a good introduction to the concept for beginners; it will probably just confuse and misinform them.  I must look for more basic texts on social construction and see if there are better ones out there.  It seems to me that while the idea of social construction is a valuable and useful one, as the Gergens and many other people use it, it is not an idea or a concept but a brand -- something like I Can't Believe It's Not Essentialism!