The Social Construction of What?

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It does not, however, lead to an equally unbalanced methodological collectivism. Instead, in combination with the broader critical realist account of causality, it enables us to recognise that both social structures and individual agents have emergent causal powers, and that social events, on the model of causality introduced above, are the product of multiple interacting causal powers, including the powers of both individual agents and social structures, and indeed other material objects.

Often, invoking some variation of the interpretive tradition, this is linked to the claim that these cannot be given causal explanations. Instead, it may be suggested, they can only be interpreted or understood using hermeneutic methods. Realists, by contrast, are open to the need for interpretive work for making sense of the meanings of language, discourse, and culture, but do not see this as posing an obstacle to including these forces in causal accounts.

A realist social constructionism, in other words, would see language, discourse and culture as products of interacting causal powers and also, potentially, as causal forces themselves. This opens up the prospect of seeing social construction as a real causal process, or a family of such processes. By developing a social ontology of language, discourse, and culture we can then develop an understanding of the entities, powers, and mechanisms at work.

What does social construction really mean?

This in turn should help us to distinguish between viable constructionist claims that are compatible with plausible accounts of such causal processes and non-viable claims that are not. The present paper is a contribution to such an enterprise. Bhaskar, for example, stresses that social structures are concept dependent Bhaskar, []: 38 , thus linking interpretive to structural questions, and has questioned suggestions that there is a conflict between realism and constructionism idem, And a range of realist thinkers have argued that realism is compatible with moderate forms of social constructionism while rejecting the anti-realist forms of constructionism referred to above including, for example, Joseph and Roberts, 5; Mingers, ; Sayer, ; Sewell, 12; Sismondo, 2; Smith, Broadly speaking, this paper builds on the distinction that these authors have developed between moderate forms of social constructionism that are compatible with realism and more radical forms that are neither compatible with realism nor causally plausible.

Second, his reflections in The Archaeology of Knowledge remain the most thorough and coherent analysis of the nature of discourse to be found in the literature Foucault, []. In a way what Foucault faces here is the classic sociological problem of structure and agency, a problem that has been a central focus of critical realist work in sociology e.

Archer, ; Elder-Vass, ; Porpora, The product is a theory that recognises that discourse has a causal power, but also that subjects and other social structures have causal powers of their own, and a theory in which we can make sense of how these causal powers relate to each other. Foucault approaches the definition of statements partly by considering their relationship to sentences.

The obvious reading is that a statement can be equated to the meaning of a sentence. Thus, for example, Foucault argues that if we see a notice that is translated into several languages, or if we hear a speech and its simultaneous translation, the original sentence and its translations do not constitute different statements but rather are simply different instances of the same statement Foucault, []: What seems to be preserved between these different sentences is indeed the meaning, and I shall interpret the concept of a statement in this way, but it is worth noting that Foucault is somewhat resistant to this interpretation.

This may be a consequence of a desire to avoid the complexities of hermeneutic methodology. Foucault is, primarily, studying past statements, but has no interest in potential multiplicities of interpretation of those statements id. They are of course expressed using language, but the language itself is not what Foucault is interested in. Foucault is interested in the ways in which what is said is regulated the content of our statements , not in the ways in which how it is said is regulated the language we use to express them , and these two issues are governed by two different sets of rules or norms 3.

But what is the relation between these two components, and how could the discursive rules produce the effect of regulating the statements that are produced? Foucault has some clues to offer. This, of course, implies that they do operate in the mind, but not only there, so here he seems to be offering some place to the human individual in the process of reproduction of discourse, and yet at the same time he rejects a purely subjectivist account of discourse.

The implication of the first half of this statement would seem to be that they are lodged in our brains and operate on our discursive acts but without being under the control of an autonomous self. The implication of the second is that the mechanism of their reproduction is driven in some way by the accumulation of past statements. But this is as far as Foucault takes us in the direction of explaining the causal mechanism at work.

Discourse itself, it seems in an argument that parallels the work of Niklas Luhmann , affects the production of further discourse, but it is not at all clear how. Can we improve on this story? Can we develop it into a coherent causal explanation? Discursive rules are norms of a kind: norms about what we should say, write or think. It may therefore be possible to explain them in the same terms as other normative social institutions: in terms of causal powers of the social entities I have called norm circles Elder-Vass, chapter 6. A norm circle is a group of people who are committed to endorsing and enforcing a specific norm.

Every norm, I argue, has such a group of people standing behind it. They criticise and punish those who fail to observe the norm concerned, and they praise and reward those who do observe it. As a result of this sanctioning behaviour, individuals exposed to the influence of the norm circle tend to develop dispositions to conform to the norm. These dispositions, of course, are only tendencies. Like other causal powers, these ones may be frustrated on any particular occasion by countervailing powers. Thus, for example, my tendency to step aside to let someone pass may be frustrated if I am in a close-packed crowd that prevents me from doing so.

Thus the norm circle, a social entity with an emergent causal power arising from a process of interaction between its members, operates through its members to exercise that causal power: the power to create a tendency for affected individuals to conform to the norm concerned. Thus, for example, there is a set of discursive rules about what can be said and what should not be said in articles in academic journals, and these rules are causally effective because there is a group of people — primarily journal editors and reviewers — who are committed to enforcing them and who have the power to sanction academic writers in support of these rules.

Kundrecensioner

Similarly, there have been historically variable rules about how we may and how we should not speak about madness, which has had profound effects on the ways in which the mad have been treated in our societies, as Foucault has demonstrated []. Now, the causal processes and mechanisms that make it possible for discursive rules to affect us are clear. There are groups committed to these rules that enforce them. Furthermore, the role of the individual subject is clear: individuals tend to act in conformity with the rules because the pressure from discursive norm circles leads them to develop dispositions to comply with the corresponding rules, but they only tend to act in conformity with them, because other causal powers also affect them e.

Thus we get general conformity with the rules because there is a real social force that backs up those rules, but transgression and change are also possible, whether as a result of deliberate innovation or as an unintended consequence of non-compliance, because there are also other social forces and indeed physical forces and individual reflexive agency influencing our behaviour.

Discursive constructionism, it turns out, is not just compatible with a realist ontology, but stronger and clearer as a result of being combined with it. Let us take the example of the subject. The idea that our subjectivity is socially constructed has come to be associated with the idea that our subjectivity is in some way inauthentic or compromised: that our subjectivity is not what it might appear to be; that the conventional notions of agency and the subject, in other words, refer to something that is not real. Yet, I would like to suggest, this implicit dismissal of the human capacity for agency on the basis of arguments for the social construction of the subject is not tenable.

Instead, I will argue, we can develop a more moderate realist constructionism about the subject, a constructionism that is compatible with the possession of an element of autonomy by individual human agents. Elsewhere I have identified eight different usages that are relevant to this debate Elder-Vass, ; let us focus here on just four of these, and some of the relations between them. First, we have what we may call the agentic subject : the person who is capable of reflection and choice.

This is a version of the concept of the subject that I will defend. Second, there is the Cartesian subject , the subject as a free-floating rational mind, more or less disconnected from the material world and with universal qualities that are independent of any social history.

This is the concept of the subject that is commonly attributed to Descartes, a concept of the subject that is widely rejected.

Naturalistic Approaches to Social Construction (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Third, we have the authorised subject : a person who is recognised as being authorised to make non-trivial decisions. Much of the feminist debate on subjectivity has been driven by the denial of this status to women. Althusser and Foucault, in their different ways, argued that our sense of being agentic subjects, free agents, is produced by ideology for Althusser or a discursive formation for Foucault as part of a process of ensuring that we accept our status as political subjects Althusser, []; Foucault, Our sense of freedom, these arguments imply, is historically contingent, a recent product of an ideology or discursive formation that secures our complicity in our own domination by enticing us to believe that we choose it freely.

Why would it be necessary to persuade us that we choose our subjection freely if there was not already some danger that we might refuse to comply with power? And indeed Foucault himself is ultimately committed to the need for resistance and to the existence of some capacity to resist. We could still accept, of course, that the particular form of our understanding of subjectivity is socially constructed, but the undercurrent of scepticism about agentic subjectivity itself in the poststructuralist tradition cannot be sustained on this basis.

In her debate with Seyla Benhabib, Butler has attacked the idea of the agentic subject Benhabib, a; b; Butler, a; b. Butler questions the possibility of knowing anything except through discourse and therefore questions the idea of a subject outside discourse Butler, []: Instead, she suggests, we should see the subject as a linguistic site or category idem, b: People become subjects, she says, only by occupying the site of the subject, as speaker or addressee, in speech acts, which are therefore performative of being a subject in a sense of performativity that is drawn from the work of J.

Austin — see Butler, ; b: This perhaps makes most sense if we read subject in the sense of authorised subject defined above: people become authorised subjects or not on the basis of a sedimentation of discursive acts. Butler, as far as I am aware, however, tends to read the concept of the subject rather more loosely and widely than this, and I have suggested elsewhere that her critique of Benhabib depends heavily on various conflations between different concepts of the subject. In particular, her attack on the agentic subject is constructed largely by conflating it with the Cartesian subject, as if these two concepts were one and the same, when in fact Benhabib is defending the agentic but not the Cartesian subject Elder-Vass, One implication of her argument seems to be that we are only subjects during these speech acts, and that the subject is recreated in every such act, as if our bodies were empty shells between one speech act and the next.

But, she insists, there is also an element of iterability to such performatives: a permanent possibility of realisation of the subject position that is built into the structure of our language idem, 13; a: 47; b: This possibility, she argues, arises from the linguistic conventions that reserve a place for the subject in our patterns of discourse, rules that require us to refer to persons and locate them as actors in our statements idem, b: But although Butler claims that this retains a place for agency in her social theory, it is an agency that seems to be stripped of any place for individual reflexivity or autonomy, and indeed it is hard to see what opportunity such agents could ever have for altering the discourses in which they are embedded.

Butler does not seem to escape from the problem that faced Foucault in his earlier work: the problem of an account of subjectivity that is so much a product of external forces that the capacity for critique and resistance is inconceivable, while on the other hand her own critical political agenda depends upon the existence of such a capacity.

For realists, we are real physical human beings capable of reflection and choice Archer, ; Shilling, These capabilities are emergent properties of living human bodies, arising from the composition and structure of those bodies, including their brains Elder-Vass, These are capabilities that continue to exist from moment to moment independently of any need for discursive speech acts, though the form they take is certainly influenced by prior such acts.

It is the plasticity of the human brain, the ways in which its neural structures are constantly reshaped by our experiences, whether discursive or practical, that makes it possible for prior discursive acts to influence subsequent discursive structures. As our brains are influenced by the discursive pressures exerted on us by the discursive norm circles that form an important part of our social context, we develop new or subtly altered dispositions, including dispositions to exert normative pressures ourselves.

This is the transmission belt that enables prior practice to influence future practice, but any consistency in such influences depends on the existence of groups of people with systematically similar normative commitments. A further consequence is that as agents we can be influenced by social structure, although different theorists emphasise different pathways through which this can occur — for Archer, for example, the pathway is the knowledge we have of our social context; and for Bourdieu, it is the dispositions that we may acquire unthinkingly from our context Elder-Vass, The implication is that we are agentic subjects — reflective, decision making individuals, even if at times we act unreflectively — but not Cartesian subjects — we are embodied, shaped to some extent by our social context, and we are not free floating asocial rational minds.

Although we have the capacity to be agentic subjects independently of any particular social context, what kind of subject each of us becomes does depend on the processes of social construction. A realist social constructionism, in other words, would see language, discourse and culture as products of interacting causal powers and also, potentially, as causal forces themselves. This opens up the prospect of seeing social construction as a real causal process, or a family of such processes. By developing a social ontology of language, discourse, and culture we can then develop an understanding of the entities, powers, and mechanisms at work.

The Social Construction of Sex

This in turn should help us to distinguish between viable constructionist claims that are compatible with plausible accounts of such causal processes and non-viable claims that are not. The present paper is a contribution to such an enterprise. Bhaskar, for example, stresses that social structures are concept dependent Bhaskar, []: 38 , thus linking interpretive to structural questions, and has questioned suggestions that there is a conflict between realism and constructionism idem, And a range of realist thinkers have argued that realism is compatible with moderate forms of social constructionism while rejecting the anti-realist forms of constructionism referred to above including, for example, Joseph and Roberts, 5; Mingers, ; Sayer, ; Sewell, 12; Sismondo, 2; Smith, Broadly speaking, this paper builds on the distinction that these authors have developed between moderate forms of social constructionism that are compatible with realism and more radical forms that are neither compatible with realism nor causally plausible.

Second, his reflections in The Archaeology of Knowledge remain the most thorough and coherent analysis of the nature of discourse to be found in the literature Foucault, []. In a way what Foucault faces here is the classic sociological problem of structure and agency, a problem that has been a central focus of critical realist work in sociology e.


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Archer, ; Elder-Vass, ; Porpora, The product is a theory that recognises that discourse has a causal power, but also that subjects and other social structures have causal powers of their own, and a theory in which we can make sense of how these causal powers relate to each other. Foucault approaches the definition of statements partly by considering their relationship to sentences. The obvious reading is that a statement can be equated to the meaning of a sentence. Thus, for example, Foucault argues that if we see a notice that is translated into several languages, or if we hear a speech and its simultaneous translation, the original sentence and its translations do not constitute different statements but rather are simply different instances of the same statement Foucault, []: What seems to be preserved between these different sentences is indeed the meaning, and I shall interpret the concept of a statement in this way, but it is worth noting that Foucault is somewhat resistant to this interpretation.

This may be a consequence of a desire to avoid the complexities of hermeneutic methodology. Foucault is, primarily, studying past statements, but has no interest in potential multiplicities of interpretation of those statements id. They are of course expressed using language, but the language itself is not what Foucault is interested in. Foucault is interested in the ways in which what is said is regulated the content of our statements , not in the ways in which how it is said is regulated the language we use to express them , and these two issues are governed by two different sets of rules or norms 3.

But what is the relation between these two components, and how could the discursive rules produce the effect of regulating the statements that are produced? Foucault has some clues to offer. This, of course, implies that they do operate in the mind, but not only there, so here he seems to be offering some place to the human individual in the process of reproduction of discourse, and yet at the same time he rejects a purely subjectivist account of discourse.

The implication of the first half of this statement would seem to be that they are lodged in our brains and operate on our discursive acts but without being under the control of an autonomous self. The implication of the second is that the mechanism of their reproduction is driven in some way by the accumulation of past statements. But this is as far as Foucault takes us in the direction of explaining the causal mechanism at work.

Discourse itself, it seems in an argument that parallels the work of Niklas Luhmann , affects the production of further discourse, but it is not at all clear how. Can we improve on this story? Can we develop it into a coherent causal explanation? Discursive rules are norms of a kind: norms about what we should say, write or think. It may therefore be possible to explain them in the same terms as other normative social institutions: in terms of causal powers of the social entities I have called norm circles Elder-Vass, chapter 6.

A norm circle is a group of people who are committed to endorsing and enforcing a specific norm.

Every norm, I argue, has such a group of people standing behind it. They criticise and punish those who fail to observe the norm concerned, and they praise and reward those who do observe it. As a result of this sanctioning behaviour, individuals exposed to the influence of the norm circle tend to develop dispositions to conform to the norm. These dispositions, of course, are only tendencies. Like other causal powers, these ones may be frustrated on any particular occasion by countervailing powers. Thus, for example, my tendency to step aside to let someone pass may be frustrated if I am in a close-packed crowd that prevents me from doing so.

Thus the norm circle, a social entity with an emergent causal power arising from a process of interaction between its members, operates through its members to exercise that causal power: the power to create a tendency for affected individuals to conform to the norm concerned. Thus, for example, there is a set of discursive rules about what can be said and what should not be said in articles in academic journals, and these rules are causally effective because there is a group of people — primarily journal editors and reviewers — who are committed to enforcing them and who have the power to sanction academic writers in support of these rules.

Similarly, there have been historically variable rules about how we may and how we should not speak about madness, which has had profound effects on the ways in which the mad have been treated in our societies, as Foucault has demonstrated []. Now, the causal processes and mechanisms that make it possible for discursive rules to affect us are clear.

There are groups committed to these rules that enforce them. Furthermore, the role of the individual subject is clear: individuals tend to act in conformity with the rules because the pressure from discursive norm circles leads them to develop dispositions to comply with the corresponding rules, but they only tend to act in conformity with them, because other causal powers also affect them e. Thus we get general conformity with the rules because there is a real social force that backs up those rules, but transgression and change are also possible, whether as a result of deliberate innovation or as an unintended consequence of non-compliance, because there are also other social forces and indeed physical forces and individual reflexive agency influencing our behaviour.

Discursive constructionism, it turns out, is not just compatible with a realist ontology, but stronger and clearer as a result of being combined with it.

Números em texto integral

Let us take the example of the subject. The idea that our subjectivity is socially constructed has come to be associated with the idea that our subjectivity is in some way inauthentic or compromised: that our subjectivity is not what it might appear to be; that the conventional notions of agency and the subject, in other words, refer to something that is not real. Yet, I would like to suggest, this implicit dismissal of the human capacity for agency on the basis of arguments for the social construction of the subject is not tenable.

Instead, I will argue, we can develop a more moderate realist constructionism about the subject, a constructionism that is compatible with the possession of an element of autonomy by individual human agents. Elsewhere I have identified eight different usages that are relevant to this debate Elder-Vass, ; let us focus here on just four of these, and some of the relations between them. First, we have what we may call the agentic subject : the person who is capable of reflection and choice.

This is a version of the concept of the subject that I will defend. Second, there is the Cartesian subject , the subject as a free-floating rational mind, more or less disconnected from the material world and with universal qualities that are independent of any social history. This is the concept of the subject that is commonly attributed to Descartes, a concept of the subject that is widely rejected. Third, we have the authorised subject : a person who is recognised as being authorised to make non-trivial decisions.

Much of the feminist debate on subjectivity has been driven by the denial of this status to women. Althusser and Foucault, in their different ways, argued that our sense of being agentic subjects, free agents, is produced by ideology for Althusser or a discursive formation for Foucault as part of a process of ensuring that we accept our status as political subjects Althusser, []; Foucault, Our sense of freedom, these arguments imply, is historically contingent, a recent product of an ideology or discursive formation that secures our complicity in our own domination by enticing us to believe that we choose it freely.

Why would it be necessary to persuade us that we choose our subjection freely if there was not already some danger that we might refuse to comply with power?

And indeed Foucault himself is ultimately committed to the need for resistance and to the existence of some capacity to resist. We could still accept, of course, that the particular form of our understanding of subjectivity is socially constructed, but the undercurrent of scepticism about agentic subjectivity itself in the poststructuralist tradition cannot be sustained on this basis.

In her debate with Seyla Benhabib, Butler has attacked the idea of the agentic subject Benhabib, a; b; Butler, a; b. Butler questions the possibility of knowing anything except through discourse and therefore questions the idea of a subject outside discourse Butler, []: Instead, she suggests, we should see the subject as a linguistic site or category idem, b: People become subjects, she says, only by occupying the site of the subject, as speaker or addressee, in speech acts, which are therefore performative of being a subject in a sense of performativity that is drawn from the work of J.

Austin — see Butler, ; b: This perhaps makes most sense if we read subject in the sense of authorised subject defined above: people become authorised subjects or not on the basis of a sedimentation of discursive acts. Butler, as far as I am aware, however, tends to read the concept of the subject rather more loosely and widely than this, and I have suggested elsewhere that her critique of Benhabib depends heavily on various conflations between different concepts of the subject.

In particular, her attack on the agentic subject is constructed largely by conflating it with the Cartesian subject, as if these two concepts were one and the same, when in fact Benhabib is defending the agentic but not the Cartesian subject Elder-Vass, One implication of her argument seems to be that we are only subjects during these speech acts, and that the subject is recreated in every such act, as if our bodies were empty shells between one speech act and the next.

But, she insists, there is also an element of iterability to such performatives: a permanent possibility of realisation of the subject position that is built into the structure of our language idem, 13; a: 47; b: This possibility, she argues, arises from the linguistic conventions that reserve a place for the subject in our patterns of discourse, rules that require us to refer to persons and locate them as actors in our statements idem, b: But although Butler claims that this retains a place for agency in her social theory, it is an agency that seems to be stripped of any place for individual reflexivity or autonomy, and indeed it is hard to see what opportunity such agents could ever have for altering the discourses in which they are embedded.

Butler does not seem to escape from the problem that faced Foucault in his earlier work: the problem of an account of subjectivity that is so much a product of external forces that the capacity for critique and resistance is inconceivable, while on the other hand her own critical political agenda depends upon the existence of such a capacity.

For realists, we are real physical human beings capable of reflection and choice Archer, ; Shilling, These capabilities are emergent properties of living human bodies, arising from the composition and structure of those bodies, including their brains Elder-Vass, These are capabilities that continue to exist from moment to moment independently of any need for discursive speech acts, though the form they take is certainly influenced by prior such acts. It is the plasticity of the human brain, the ways in which its neural structures are constantly reshaped by our experiences, whether discursive or practical, that makes it possible for prior discursive acts to influence subsequent discursive structures.

As our brains are influenced by the discursive pressures exerted on us by the discursive norm circles that form an important part of our social context, we develop new or subtly altered dispositions, including dispositions to exert normative pressures ourselves. This is the transmission belt that enables prior practice to influence future practice, but any consistency in such influences depends on the existence of groups of people with systematically similar normative commitments.

Social Construction for the Twenty-first Century: A Co-Evolutionary Makeover

A further consequence is that as agents we can be influenced by social structure, although different theorists emphasise different pathways through which this can occur — for Archer, for example, the pathway is the knowledge we have of our social context; and for Bourdieu, it is the dispositions that we may acquire unthinkingly from our context Elder-Vass, The implication is that we are agentic subjects — reflective, decision making individuals, even if at times we act unreflectively — but not Cartesian subjects — we are embodied, shaped to some extent by our social context, and we are not free floating asocial rational minds.

Although we have the capacity to be agentic subjects independently of any particular social context, what kind of subject each of us becomes does depend on the processes of social construction. This is most striking when we consider the case of authorised subjects. The kinds of people we are accepted as, and the kinds of actions, whether discursive or practical, that we are authorised to perform, depend upon performative acts that enact social norms — norms of gender, class, and social role, for example. And here we may connect the argument back to what was said above about discourse.

The place of the subject in statements, the issue of what may or may not be said about subjects and indeed of who may qualify as an authorised subject in discourse, is certainly influential in shaping the kinds of subjects that we are, the kinds of freedom for example that we feel able to enact. The place of the subject in statements is in turn a product of discursive formations — what Butler calls linguistic conventions — but this is not the end of the matter.

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