Social construction of reality--What does it mean?

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Social construction of reality--What does it mean?
MrSkeptic
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Posted Apr 9, 2011 - 2:03 PM:
Subject: Social construction of reality--What does it mean?
Often, sociologists talk about the social construction of reality. What components actually construct reality and how do we differentiate between socially constructed reality and reality which is not socially constructed?

Alan Masterman
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Posted Apr 10, 2011 - 7:42 AM:

Your question ranges so widely it is difficult to know where to begin!

"Social construction of reality" refers to the way in which our perceptions of the world are determined or influenced by our peer groups. For example, if everybody I know believes that "stamp collectors are morons", it's highly likely that I will grow up to believe that stamp collectors are morons. This question has been very much a live issue in the psychological and sociological research of the second half of the 20th Century. Evidently, eithics and value-judgements are predominant here.


As to how much of reality is not socially determined: the Pre-Socratics would be a good starting point for your studies; by the time you work your way down to Penrose and Hawking, you should be getting the idea.

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Once stretched by a new idea, a mind, like a rubber band, never regains its original dimensions. (anon)
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Posted Apr 10, 2011 - 10:18 AM:

Alan,

Thanks for commenting. You have said that the "social construction of reality refers to the way in which our perceptions of the world are determined or influenced by our peer groups." Peers is defined as, "A person of the same age, status, or ability as another specified person." What about non-peers? Can they also influence or determine our perceptions? If so, wouldn't it just be easier to say that social construction refers to the influence other people have on us? Additionally, why do some people have more influence than others?

I think there is more to the idea of social construction than this. However, the idea seems pretty vague and becomes a catch all for explaining behavior.
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Posted Apr 10, 2011 - 10:44 AM:

The term is so convoluted that it doesn't really refer to any one specific 'idea' anymore. To say that it is simply "peer groups" is, while a good start, not enough. Depending on who you ask, the 'Social Construction' is usually 'done' by a various number of philosophical catchphrases like 'discourse', 'ideology', 'state apparatus', 'institutions', 'the symbolic' and so on. And the usual conclusion is that ALL of reality is socially constructed. But this is not mere idealism - I quote from Laclau and Mouffe, who refer to discourse:

"The fact that every object is constituted as an object of discourse has nothing to do with whether there is a world external to thought, or with the realism/idealism opposition . An earthquake or the falling of a brick is an event that certainly exists, in the sense that it occurs here and now, independently of my will. But whether their specificity as objects is constructed in terms of 'natural phenomena' or 'expressions of the wrath of God ', depends upon the structuring of a discursive field. What is denied is not that such objects exist externally to thought , but the rather different assertion that they could constitute themselves as objects outside any discursive condition of emergence... [Further,] What must be discredited is an assumption of the the mental character of discourse. Against this, [one must] affirm the material character of every discursive structure."

In other words, one must be very careful to understand that what is called 'social' is material. A book that might be of use is Ian Hacking's The Social Construction of What?
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Posted Apr 10, 2011 - 11:02 AM:
Subject: Going a step further...


The question arises as to whether reality could consist in purely mechanistic relations among objects free of any discourse. The answer is both that we really can't know and that such a reality excludes us.
MrSkeptic
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Posted Apr 10, 2011 - 2:10 PM:

Streetlight,

I own Hacking's The Social Construction of What? I read it a long time ago. I just reread a few chapters. It's a pretty good book. More later...
LukeS
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Posted Apr 11, 2011 - 5:10 AM:

I think that SCR means that what we view as real depends on our culture and sub culture. Take a social anthropology class if you can. In adjuncteion to alan (although he makes a good point, and I am not attacking what he said) I would say that even the views of those who believe in science are socially constructed.

Socially constructed does not necessarliy mean false, mythical etc. It can be socially constructed that it is illegal to walk about naked with a bow and arrow, even though in some cases this is true. Likewise it is a socially constructed belief that the sun is a star, just as was the belief that the sun was the god Ra, but that does not mean that the sun itself is socially constructed. But I doubt that we can 'percieve the pure sun itself' as adults withouth the murmurings of our cultural background adding meaning to our perception somewhere.

Edited by LukeS on Apr 11, 2011 - 5:18 AM
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Posted Apr 11, 2011 - 10:25 AM:

Luke,

You have said that our perception of reality is dependent upon our culture and sub-culture. Culture and sub-culture are very broad. Can you pinpoint which components within culture and sub-culture are primary in constructing our perception of reality?

You said that some beliefs about the sun are socially constructed. What cultural murmurs have added meaning to this perception and description of the sun?:

"The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields. It has a diameter of about 1,392,000 km, about 109 times that of Earth, and its mass (about 2×1030 kilograms, 330,000 times that of Earth) accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Chemically, about three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen, while the rest is mostly helium. Less than 2% consists of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, iron, and others (Wikipedia, 2011).

Isn't it fair to say that an accurate description of the sun could not be otherwise? No matter what the history or culture, this description is reasonably accurate and true? Is this not an example where a belief is what it is without dependence upon culture or sub-culture?

Ian Hacking (1999) gives a good summary of social construction:

(1) X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.

(2) X is quite bad as it is.

(3) We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed.

To tie thesis (1)into what I said above, the description of the sun above is being determined by the nature of the sun, not cultural background or history. In contrast, describing the sun as Rah is being driven by cultural background and history. I think the description I have provided give us a perception of the sun which is closer to the sun itself than describing it as Rah.
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Posted Apr 11, 2011 - 10:53 AM:

Actually your description of the sun, as value neutral as it is, nonetheless fits into a certain scientific discourse - even if it is a peculiar one (more on this below). That is, the description of the sun with relation to its physical properties is just as much a part of a discursive milieu as any other description of the sun, be those other descriptions fictional or not. Let me make clear that this in no way affects the truth value of the scientific statement. But to say that it is not inflected by a certain social convention is not correct. The big caveat to add to this is that the odd thing about the 'discursivity' of scientific description is not that it is too biased one way or another, but it is discursive precisely by the fact that it is not "biased" or whathaveyou. It is universal, and even universality is a category of discourse, i.e. social construction. Basically, anything with a history (and everything has a history, including science), is discursive.

Edited by StreetlightX on Apr 11, 2011 - 11:00 AM
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Posted Apr 11, 2011 - 1:42 PM:

But to say that it [scientific description of the sun] is not inflected by a certain social convention is not correct.


What is the point of saying that the scientific description of the sun is influenced or inflected by social convention? Doing so does not significantly change anything about the description. The description is not transformed if the social conventions or history of scientists, or humans for that matter, was different.

It seems that saying something is socially constructed only become significant, profound, or meaningful if the belief or construct in question has no correspondence to reality. One reason it may become significant is because some people may have assumed that such a belief or construct did have correspondence to reality or was ontologically objective.
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