Read The Social Construction of What? by Ian Hacking Online


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 accoLost 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....

Title : The Social Construction of What?
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780674004122
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 272 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

The Social Construction of What? Reviews

  • Andrew
    2019-12-01 22:03

    I know social construction is supposed to be the great bogeyman of the sciences. But as someone who received a strong science education as well as a strong humanities education, I can't help but appreciate both the arguments for and against social construction, and I also can't help but pound my fists at the way the two sides of the debate can't seem to understand each other.Ian Hacking maintains roughly the same position as me-- that the sciences and the social constructionists act as gadflies for each other, with each side of the debate contributing something valuable in the general intellectual discourse. And he provides plenty of amusing anecdotes along the way. While there isn't much of a case put forth, he certainly does a good job of elaborating how social construction works.

  • Rachel
    2019-11-16 00:08

    I like to think of Ian Hacking as the "Oliver Sacks" of the philosophy of science. Never boring, and stocked with a seemingly endless supply of interesting facts, details, and stories, Hacking makes reading and thinking about the history of science positively fun (and controversial!). The Social Construction of What? is Hacking's foray into the Science Wars, sometimes called the "Culture Wars". Hacking makes a compelling case that these Wars represent "sticking points" of differing philosophical temperaments with a long and distinguished history e.g. the ancient debate between what Hacking calls nominalists and inherent-structuralists. Hacking's contributions to these debates involves clearing up a mess of conceptual confusions about what the debate amounts to, what the relevant terms mean, and how to resolve (or dissolve) the tension. Hacking seems to think that the term "social construction" is practically useless given the inevitable ambiguities and myriad meanings associated with the term. Ever ecumenical, Hacking nevertheless argues that both the realists and constructionists have a point worth making, and diagnoses the debates partially as a result of each side talking past each other with an ample dose of pamphleteering. Once a scientific question is well-posed, realists are right to insist there are determinate answers independent of what anyone thinks. But constructionists are right to point out that contingent personal, social, and cultural factors influence what questions are asked, as well as the standards and methods used to evaluate the answers to the questions. Thus, Hacking concludes that although the "content" of science is realist enough to warrant the term, the "form" of science is not.

  • Garnett
    2019-11-16 00:13

    Hacking is remarkable for taking very seriously, with fascinating examples, a topic that many scientists would blow off. He distills much of the social construction literature to three simply put, but not so simple, questions about the nature of scientific facts: What is the role of nominalism? ----->(To what extent are scientific facts a consequence of vocabulary, language, and naming conventions?)What is the role of historical contingency? ----->(Would scientific facts be different if history had played out differently?What is the role stability? ----->(Are scientific theories stable because they are close to true? or because social/political pressures?)Despite what my grad school buddies think, there is no empirical answer to these questions, but they can't be ignored.

  • Matt
    2019-11-18 19:03

    Hacking must have ADD. Reading this book is like having a conversation with a person who continually changes the subject, though as if the discussion were linear and logical. That is not to say that Hacking draws numerous conclusions from obviously faulty reasoning. Rather, beyond the first few chapters, it is difficult to tell what Hacking's point is. While his stories and analysis are interesting and fun, many of the later chapters do not connect very well (or are just not connected well) with the points of the earlier chapters.

  • Kevin Roessger
    2019-12-12 21:13

    This book is all over the place. Much of it feels like a collection of articles rather than a continuous narrative. Despite this, there are some worthwhile nuggets to extract, namely the distinction between idea and object. It may be worth muddling through discussions of dolomite and Captain Cook for this takeaway. Most of my notes, however, were taken in the first third of the book.

  • Richard
    2019-11-15 21:03

    I don't mean to disappoint you, but this book is not actually about the word "what." But you still might want to read it if you've ever wondered whether the concept of "child abuse" makes any sense.

  • Joseph
    2019-11-30 01:20

    I'd describe myself as "at-risk" of being a naïve STEMbot sometimes, so over the last few years I've been on the lookout for good mid-level introductions to topics in the "softer" sciences and the humanities. And social construction is a topic that has caused me an awful lot of trouble. I was introduced to the idea of "The Social Construction of Reality" in a freshman-level sociology class, and had an immediate visceral reaction to it. Surely the natural sciences couldn't be said to be constructed in any meaningful way? Surely some things simply are, regardless of what we think about them, and these things can be discovered, despite the trivially obvious fact that science is a social process? I honestly don't remember the exact way the class formulated the idea of social construction, and I wasn't in a sufficiently intellectually honest place to give it a fair shake. Despite that, constructionist thought really hadn't clicked with me in any real way, even when I was more receptive to its arguments.This book cleared up so many of my misconceptions. Hacking does a masterful job of diving into the diverse realm of constructionist arguments, while also identifying clusters of arguments that are sometimes called "constructionist" but appear mainly to be called "constructionist" only to cash in on a trend. From the actual constructionist arguments, he isolated some stable reference points of things that can be said to be constructed: contingency, nominalism, and stability. In other words, there is some historical precedent that caused us to think about subject X, X is not part of the inherent structure of reality, and X is a stable idea within a culture. Also, at least for humans, there is a cultural feedback effect associated with being classified in a certain way. For example, in the first chapter Hacking talks about the social construction of "women refugees". This is a concept that is created, but then the people now classified as "women refugees" react to their new classification in different ways, and the concept is reinforced or challenged based on this feedback.This is not to say that Hacking comes down squarely on the side of constructionism, though he's not exactly an "essentialist" either (also, he prefers the term "inherent-structurist"). This was written in the heyday of the "Science Wars" of the '90s, and Hacking is mainly trying to wend a path between the (natural) scientists and the sociologists and philosophers, since he reads a lot of the shouting as people who fundamentally don't know how to communicate with each other outside of their domain-specific languages (a view I'm finding more and more correct myself). So most of the book is an attempt to bridge the gap, Hacking taking an example of something that could be considered socially constructed (the natural sciences, rocks, child abuse, madness, the apotheosis of Captain Cook) and tries to find a straightforward explication of the conversation around them, finally giving a score based on his own views of the matter.In short, I came away from the book thinking "Social construction is not bullshit, it's not the only answer, these questions are harder than you think, and we could use some better interdisciplinary analysis." So, if you could stand to have your horizons broadened a little, check this book out.

  • Noé Ajo caamaño
    2019-11-19 00:20

    El ya tópico problema de la construcción social, ha caído en el fango de la confusión y de la vulgarización (incluso de la hiperintelectualización). La confusión de temas, conceptos y categorías campa a sus anchas cegando las posibilidades de una discusión que pueda llevar a algo mas que un atolladero. Nuestro autor, en lugar de limitarse a luchar en esta caótica batalla, aun dando su posición sin cobardía, se dedica a una noble misión: abrir un espacio de luz en la oscuridad, clarificar ideas, ordenar cuestiones. Un libro recomendado, para quienes quieran saber o discutir sobre el problema de la sobreinvocada e infracomprendida construcción social.

  • David
    2019-12-01 19:59

    Really enjoyed this book... it is rich enough and dense enough to keep you coming back for more. The topics are neatly divided so as to drive home the books primary "sticking" points in a variety of contexts. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys philosophy and linguistics.

  • Abner Rosenweig
    2019-12-12 23:54

    What is objectively real and what is a construct? It may seem like a simple question, but as with all things, the closer you look, the more complex things become. Hacking's 'Social Construction of What' highlights this complexity and helped me to realize how much of reality is constructed in different ways. Hacking points out that seeing constructs can help to shake up a subject and unsettle surface assumptions. He reminds us that they are a tool for critical theory to help unmask structures of ideology, power, and control. And, to me, exploring the social construction of science doesn't threaten science at all--it only makes us aware of science's limits and suggests reality might be larger and more nuanced than we ordinarily assume. The book isn't an ideal introduction to construction theories. I was disappointed by the coverage of some of the issues and, at times, I felt Hacking's discussion got way off track, particularly with some of the re-purposed studies toward the end. But overall the book is a provocative epistemological study that heightens awareness of the loose and malleable boundaries of what we commonly accept as real.

  • philosovamp
    2019-12-04 00:05

    Hacking considers the idea of "social construction" in a subtle, balanced and argumentatively charitable manner. As the title suggests, one must do a lot of work before even beginning to defend or criticize social construction, because it is not always clear what that means, what it pertains to, and who claims it. He lays out some useful distinctions about what social construction is and is meant to do, which anyone should find helpful. He also takes a closer look at Pickering, Latour, Kuhn and Feyerabend to determine what basic, and eternally contested, philosophical positions comprise "social construction." Though he definitely winks about it pretty often, Hacking stays far away from the culture war bullshit and makes it strictly about philosophy of science. On that point, he is refreshing if a little quaint; at this stage in the social construction debate, which has only metastasized since this book was written, Hacking's book is a better base-line than you will generally find, if not up to the wider challenges at hand. To end on a sour note, the book peters out in a very unsatisfying way.

  • Michael Burnam-Fink
    2019-12-02 23:57

    Social Construction is a specter haunting research. Or at least it is one of the focal points of the Science Wars, between figures arguing the objectivity and integrity of science (usually particle physicists) and those arguing the opposite (usually sociologists or historians or anthropologists or some such). Certainly, Hacking was able to find 25 books of the form 'the Social Construction of X", (one for every letter of the alphabet, bar X), but what is socially construction and why does it matter?As a philosopher of science, Hacking has a broader view than many of us in the trenches. His discussion of major arguments by Latour, Pickering, Kuhn, Lakatos, Quine, and Popper, to name a few of the protagonists is clear and enjoyable. This is a first rate literature review! I think that Hacking is on to something when he points out that this argument is in fact very old, stretching back to Aristotle and Plato, and more commonly invoked in arguments between Nominalists and Realists. The arguments over whether names and categories are arbitrary and human-imposed, or whether they parallel some deeper structure of the universe, are long-standing and likely unresolvable.Hackings's major contributions in the book are an analysis of the whys and hows of Social Construction. He identifies a six point scale of construction, from least to most radical: historical, ironic, reformist, unmasking, rebellious, and revolutionary. Social construction tends towards radical formulations because it argues against the inevitability of what is, and that the world as we understand it would be better (more just, less oppressive, more joyful) if we rearranged society. A second part are criterion for judging how constructivist an argument is on scales of contingency--could it have developed differently, nominalism, and the importance of internal or external explanations for the stability of a fact.Unfortunately, Hacking's own work, when it departs from a review of the literature, is far less compelling. He develops a theory of interactive and indifferent kinds. Interactive kinds are exemplified by mental disorders, and their presence in the world changes in accord with our knowledge of the kind. Indifference kinds are like fundamental particles, and do not care what we know of them. Kinds are probably the least rigorous categorizing schema imaginable, nothing more than "things that are alike, somehow." It is no mere linguistic coincidence that the psuedoscience of Genesis-inspired species is called Baraminology, the study of created kinds. Interactive kinds are trivially socially constructed; Hacking is less vocal on the social construction of the scientific objects of indifferent kinds. I'd judge "kinds" to be too floppy of a concept to do philosophy with. The four case studies, on mental illness, child abuse, weapons, dolomite, and Captain Cook's death, are recycled from other work and not particularly well suited to philosophic theories in Chapters 1 & 3.One big question, that is not adequately answered, is 'is social construction a worthwhile approach.' Hacking makes a compelling case that some of the leading theorists classified as 'social constructionists', such as Latour and Bloor, are no such thing. Social constructionist research is mostly based on shoddy readings of theories which say no such things, and therefore should be avoided as bad work. However, by linking things, the idea of things, and the social and material matrix in which the thing and its ideas are embedded, social construction opens an immense scope of potential questions and common conversations for scholars. As a research program (in Lakatos's terminology), social construction has been immensely successful. We should know how to use it more precisely.

  • Nick Geiser
    2019-11-28 18:54

    I came to this book as a skeptic about social construction. Hacking offers a clear and thorough treatment of social construction that disabused me of most of my concerns. One example of his style is to step back and ask what the /point/ of social construction-type critique is. For example, no one disputes this proposition: "The English language is a social construct." But people do raise eyebrows when critics ask about the social construction of the family, or mental illness, or immigrants. The point of social construction is normally to help us step back from beliefs about practices or institutions that we take for granted and to view them in a new and helpful light. Similarly, Hacking observes that the object of social construction aren't things, but /kinds/--how we classify objects in the world. When we say "X is a social construct", we don't mean that the object X denotes isn't a real object in the world or just in our heads. We mean that the /kind/ associated with X is a social construct. The recent re-categorization/"demotion" of Pluto to a dwarf planet is a good example. Hacking gives useful context to the radical use of social construction by comparing it to constructivism in ethics, mathematics, and early analytic philosophy. Most of the later chapters in the book are devoted to case studies of topics in the social construction literature such as mental illness, child abuse, and my favorite example, missile accuracy--an area study literally made up by defense contractors in the 1950s. This is an illuminating book on subject the discussion of which tends unnecessarily to raise the temperature of the room.

  • James
    2019-12-01 18:07

    Hacking's The Social Construction of What? is an exemplary glimpse into varied claims that are made by thinkers who assert that "X is socially constructed." Having thoroughly reviewed the relevant literature, Hacking guides readers through the mess of jargon surrounding social construction.While analyzing the "science wars," in which social constructionists clash with scientists, Hacking carefully details several "sticking points." These sticking points constitute fundamental differences between the two camps, with conflicting assumptions about the nature of reality chief among them. Hacking does not take a definite side in this conflict, but he does represent both sides fairly.Highly readable for an academic text, The Social Construction of What? is as enjoyable as it is comprehensive. The chapter on the near-hysteria surrounding the modern construction of "child abuse" is the single best analysis of this topic that I have seen anywhere.Despite its strengths, however, the book has its downsides. Hacking's writing style is largely disorganized. He jumps from thought to thought and topic to topic, placing heavy burdens on the reader to speculate as to the connections. The final chapter--an essay on how multiculturalism impacts academic consideration of Captain Cook--is out of place. Nevertheless, for all readers who are even remotely interested in social constructionism, Hacking's text is a must-read.

  • Rob Mills
    2019-11-23 20:51

    Hacking tries to find a middle ground on the great social construction debate. I felt a little bit ignorant while he explained his philosophic structure, which speaks to the lack of philosophy books on my shelves and not to his writing, which was clear enough for me to (barely) follow along.This book is essentially an amalgam of old essays and speeches he made on the topic with a long forward to explain what he meant to say.The latter parts of the book were the most fun part to me and I especially found interesting the chapters on rocks, child abuse and Captain Cook. It took me a while to get through but I enjoyed it.

  • Andrew Langridge
    2019-12-02 19:54

    Although the writing style and argumentation is a little disjointed, this is an authoritative analysis of the main issues surrounding constructionism. In the debate over the standing of natural science, Hacking distinguishes three main "sticking points" around which disagreement between rationalists and constructionists centres: contingency, nominalism and explanations of stability. Rather than embarking on detailed philosophical analysis, he focusses on the work of 'reputable' constructionists such as Pickering and Latour, and discusses case studies of child abuse, the discovery of dolomite and Hawaiian natives' reaction to Captain Cook.

  • Chauncey
    2019-11-21 21:53

    Despite his doubts, Hacking makes a nice attempt to sort through the significance and plausibility of various "social construction of x" claims. On the way, he makes a variety of nice, simple distinctions that help bring various issues into relief. This book is, I think, a good instance of the way in which philosophy need not be the manifestation of a research agenda and also need not be a show of pedantry, while still being somewhat rigorous and cautious. His writing style allows the book to go by quickly. Against the book I suspect that people who seriously maintain a social constructivist position on one thing or another will find Hacking's effort inadequate or shallow.

  • Malini Sridharan
    2019-11-16 22:11

    This book is mostly about semantics which are important but I have trouble thinking of as anything but a game even when there are real world consequences.I guess I am one of those people who thinks our understanding and definitions of almost all things are social constructions and that we may never get to the reality of anything. I think Ian Hacking would not think that was a problem provided I made sure to use the right words to talk about it?Post Script: I think I was supposed to learn from this book that semantics are not a game.

  • Alex
    2019-12-13 23:17

    The books contains some useful history and (as it were) phenomenology of disputes about claims to the effect that X is socially constructed. It is admirably non-committal at appropriate points. Moreover, it contains some useful distinction-mongering near the beginning.It is marred by being somewhat diffuse and, worse, by two major substantive flaws: (i) an unsatisfactory discussion of nominalism and (ii) an entirely too quick "justification" and explanation of the claim that the truth of a proposition is explanatorily irrelevant to its coming to be or continuing to be accepted.

  • Kathleen O'Neal
    2019-12-06 23:05

    I really enjoyed reading this collection of essays on the notion of social construction and the current controversies related to philosophy of science. Hacking's location of current disputes in long standing philosophical traditions as well as his exploration of concepts like "looping effects" and contingency in the natural sciences are important tools for assessing a lot of other literature within the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. A great way to begin thinking critically about a difficult set of intellectual issues.

  • Titus Hjelm
    2019-11-23 19:57

    An interesting attempt at mediating between some more extreme positions in the science/culture wars. But unless you're in SSK, only half of the chapters are practically interesting. I know this has been translated into Finnish as 'What is Social Constructionism', which is about the worst possible translation. Although eminently readable, this is an evaluation of previous claims in the field, not an introduction.

  • Mathalus
    2019-11-18 00:20

    Fascinating book on Social Constructionism. I was hoping that he would give me ammunition against SoCon's, but instead he gave an in depth analysis of the current state of affairs. He believes that there should be a conflict between Social Constructionism and Essentialsim, and that it should continue. I want to hate him for being an apologist, but he is so clever and British. (Just saw on Wikipedia that he is Canadian. But he was a student at Cambridge. Probably majored in Witticism.)

  • Megan
    2019-11-27 22:05

    Hacking bounces around, so I took the privilege of doing the same. Still, the ideas are so, so interesting. It all comes down to epistemological objectivity and ontological objectivity. If that sentence intrigues you, read this book. If not, carry on.

  • Jonathan
    2019-12-14 22:08

    This book essentially asks what it means to say that "X is socially constructed". Hacking does a thorough job of pulling apart this over-used phrase, showing that it has come to mean a variety of things, and in some cases nothing at all, depending on the X to which it is applied.

  • Kurt Xyst
    2019-12-15 22:57

    Love the tone and the accessible discussion of some big issues in philosophy of science. A bit disappointed that he didn't cash his concerns out in terms of consequences or next steps. This book seems largely intended to serve as an introduction and to point readers to his earlier work. Not bad.

  • Alex
    2019-11-29 21:58

    A really clear investigation of a really complicated disagreement

  • Simon Bailey
    2019-11-17 19:52

    Excellent, succinct, and therefore, distinct among introductions to postmodernism.

  • Daniel Cheng
    2019-12-08 21:01

    Hacking gets a 4 for his choice of subject, 2 for his thinking, and 1 for his dog-shit writing.

  • Debarun
    2019-12-04 21:07

    This is only for the skeptics of "social construction". Not worth the time otherwise.

  • Meg
    2019-11-23 22:19

    this shit is dope. social constructionism deconstruction. yay!