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Ian Hacking - The Social Construction of What?

So are you interested in social constructionism and the debates surrounding the topic? Are you really interested? Are you really, really interested? If you can't answer "yes" to all three of these questions then this book may not be for you. If, on the other hand, you can answer "yes" to all three then you should not read another thing until you read The Social Construction of What?. As a person who can honestly answer "yes" to only the first of the three questions, I found myself bored by some of the discourse and the philosophical gyrations.

Previous works of various authors are frequently brought into the dialogue. A reader will find things far more relevant, and useful, if they are already familiar with the works of Pickering, Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, & Weinberg--to name but a few. Kuhn and Weinberg are polar opposites in Hacking's view.

"One can think of Kuhn and Weinberg looking down a spyglass in opposite directions. Kuhn magnifies tumultuous events in the sciences. Weinberg makes them minuscule in the grand scheme of things." p. 89
Hacking is a moderate in that he is opposed to both extremes in the constructionist debate. His views are generally balanced. He states
"I do not want peace between constructionist and scientist. I want a better understanding of how they disagree, and why, perhaps, the twain shall never meet." p. 31
Hacking then does his best throughout the rest of the book to try and further this understanding and try to get a grasp on the "why".

Another point that he continually brings to the table is the misuse and misunderstanding of the word "construction". The frequent definitional dissertations can be tedious and dull. However, they have importance for Hacking in order to be able to effectively state his case.

"Construction has been trendy. So many types of analyses invoke social construction that quite distinct objectives get run together." p. 35
Although Hacking frequently shows sympathy with constructionists who possibly are correctly "unmasking" authorities and mythologies that are untrue, he also critiques strongly those that use the idea dishonestly to further some hidden agenda. For instance on page 67 we read
"What is true is that many science-haters and know-nothings latch on to constructionism as vindicating their impotent hostility to the sciences. Constructionism provides a voice for that rage against reason. And many constructionists do appear to dislike the practice and content of the sciences."
He then goes on to cite examples of constructions who pretend to like science but really hate it and those that can critique some aspects while still being advocates of most of its methods. An example of the former can be found in the person of Richard Milton (who, by the way, is not mentioned by Hacking--Hacking's example is Harry Collins). Milton puts a disclaimer in the front of his book stating his appreciation for science and his supposed credentials as a "science reporter" while then using the rest of his monologue to throw punches at anything and everything that sounds like science. Unless of course he finds a "scientific fact" that he thinks makes science look bad which he is then more than happy to use as "truth" even if it contradicts his other opinions.

Again, The Social Construction of What? is not for everyone. Those with minimal interest in the subject will find it impossible to make it through the entire book. As a party with some interest in the topic, I was even tempted to be done with the book before I got to the end. It is, however, a must read for those seriously interested or those who plan on doing some "constructing" of their own.

"Politics, ideology, and power matter more than metaphysics to most advocates of construction analyses of social and cultural phenomena. Talk of construction tends to undermine the authority of knowledge and categorization. It challenges complacent assumptions about the inevitability of what we have found out or our present ways of doing things." p. 58
from the publisher:
Lost in the raging debate over the validity of social construction is the question of what, precisely, is being constructed. Facts, gender, quarks, reality? Is it a person? An object? An idea? A theory? Each entails a different notion of social construction, Ian Hacking reminds us. His book explores an array of examples to reveal the deep issues underlying contentious accounts of reality.

Especially troublesome in this dispute is the status of the natural sciences, and this is where Hacking finds some of his most telling cases, from the conflict between biological and social approaches to mental illness to vying accounts of current research in sedimentary geology. He looks at the issue of child abuse--very much a reality, though the idea of child abuse is a social product. He also cautiously examines the ways in which advanced research on new weapons influences not the content but the form of science. In conclusion, Hacking comments on the "culture wars" in anthropology, in particular a spat between leading ethnographers over Hawaii and Captain Cook. Written with generosity and gentle wit by one of our most distinguished philosophers of science, this wise book brings a much needed measure of clarity to current arguments about the nature of knowledge.

Ian Hacking is University Professor of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. And among his many books, the most recent is Rewriting the Soul.

"In his Preface, Hacking describes this book as a kind of primer for noncombatants in the culture wars, understood as being fought between the 'social constructionists' who hold that knowledge is constitutively and importantly a social product, and those who see knowledge as being importantly distinct from the social realm (scientists being the exemplary instances of the latter). I especially like his discussion of the social sciences and their peculiar relation to their objects--the discussion of 'interactive kinds' and the 'looping effect' through which people can reflexively react to social science descriptions by, for example, acting out and upon such descriptions. There is an interesting line of development here concerning the difference between the social and the natural sciences, and the different senses of 'construction' that might be appropriate to each.

The book accomplishes its chosen task in clarifying what constructionism is about and why people get excited about it. I might add that besides noncombatants in the culture wars, the book should interest and inform some of the combatants, too--it should help the anticonstructionists get clearer on the actual contours of their enemy's position. Hacking is one of the most important philosophers working today." -- Andrew Pickering, author of Constructing Quarks and The Mangle of Practice

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