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Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Social Construction of Reality (Sort of)

The social construction of reality is both the title of a highly influential book by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (see image at left), as well as the process by which our interactions with others give rise to ideas, norms, social arrangements, institutions, and so on that take on a life of their own, such that we take them for granted and regard them as “given." These ideas, norms, and so on are then passed on, primarily through the socialization of children, such that each successive generation comes to embrace them as normal, as the way things ought to be. However, and not surprisingly, societies often differ in terms of their ideas, norms, social arrangements, institutions, and this has led many social scientists to argue that all (or nearly all) of our ideas and perceptions of the world around us are socially constructed. As the psychologist Steven Pinker notes,
The social sciences have sought to explain all customs and social arrangements as a product of the socialization of children by the surrounding culture: a system of words, images, stereotypes, role models, and contingencies of reward and punishment. A long and growing list of concepts that would seem natural to the human way of thinking (emotions, kinship, the sexes, illness, nature, the world) are now said to have been "invented" or "socially constructed"... 
According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences--by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards--and you can change the person. Underachievement, poverty, and anti-social behavior can be ameliorated; indeed, it is irresponsible not to do so ("The Blank Slate," p. 6).
There is certainly some truth to the theory. Consider how the concept of gender has been changed in recent years. I can remember when girls basketball was played when each team played with two sets of five players--one on offense, one on defense--because women were seen as the "weaker sex" and physically incapable of running up and down the basketball court. Thankfully, this "socially constructed" belief has gone the way of the Do-Do bird, as have other more pernicious beliefs (e.g., the superiority of the Aryan race).

At the same time, the theory's proponents often make absurd claims. Take, for instance, the case of David Reimer, a Canadian man who was raised by his parents as a girl after he suffered an accident that occurred during a circumcision went awry. The psychologist John Money oversaw the case and reported that the "experiment" of raising Reimer as a female was a success, and many social scientists interpreted this as evidence that gender is primarily learned (i.e., it is a social construction). However, by the time Reimber was 15, he began living as a male and after undergoing an operation, he got married and had kids. However, the psychological damage he suffered as a child led to bouts of extreme depression, and he eventually committed suicide.

Reimer's case is only one instance, of course, but the empirical evidence against the theory, what Pinker refers to as the "Blank Slate," is piling up. For example, research on identical twins who had been separated at birth has found that they were strikingly similar in terms of behavior and other likes and wants. For example, they score similarly in terms of verbal, mathematical, and general intelligence, and they share similar attitudes towards issues such as the death penalty, religion, and (interestingly) modern music (p. 47). Moreover, identical twins are far more similar than are fraternal twins, who do not share as many genes. Such similarity cannot be explained by the environments in which they grew up because they were often quite different. Another example is the work of anthropologist Donald Brown, who has drawn up a list of hundreds of human traits ("Human Universals") that can be found in every society ever documented, and the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have found that across cultures, people share similar moral instincts ("Aristotle and the Righteous Mind"). Such findings would be impossible if all the world was a social construct.

According to Pinker, regardless of the evidence, the blank slate theory has become "the secular religion of modern intellectual life" (p. 3), primarily because it's seen as providing the intellectual justification for and the means by which values that most of us hold dear (e.g., equality of the sexes, races, etc.) can be promoted through social engineering. In fact, many believe that without such intellectual justification, society could devolve back into a world where oppression and discrimination are justified (p. 139), and this, according to Pinker, is why some social scientists continue to defend the theory, explaining away any and all evidence mustered against it:
The fact that [the theory] is based on a miracle--a complex mind arising out of nothing--is not held against it. Challenges to the doctrine from skeptics and scientists have plunged some believers into a crisis of faith and have led others to mount the kind of bitter attacks ordinarily aimed at heretics and infidels. And just as many religious traditions eventually reconciled themselves to apparent threats from science (such as the revolutions of Copernicus and Darwin), so... will our values survive he demise of the Blank Slate (p. 3). 
Unfortunately, hard-core social constructionists continue to stroll the halls of academia (which is about the only place they can still find employment), force-feeding their unsuspecting students with fundamentalist zeal. But then again, why should they let empirical evidence get in the way of a theory that confirms their biases and justifies their causes?

(As an aside, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann referred to earlier should not be grouped with hard-core social constructionists. While they obviously believe that some things are social constructions, they don't believe that all thing are. Berger, for instance, doesn't believe that God is a social construction and is, in fact, a Christian).

Eventually, though, these social constructionists have to come to terms with the evidence (or they will become increasingly irrelevant), and a good place to start is the anthropologist Donald Brown's list of universal human traits ("Human Universals"). Pinker's book should also be a must read, but for the less ambitious, his TED talk (see below) is excellent. Like all TED talks, it's approximately 20 minutes long. It isn't as complete as his book, but then again it's not nearly as long either.

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