Social Constructions - Arbitrary and Biased?
Department of Sociology University of Helsinki Helsinki, Finland
Sociologists often think that social constructions are arbitrary by their very nature. This conception implies that our beliefs can never be objective because they have historically been subject to change. Presumably this also means that there are no such things that exist independently of our constructions. Our constructions are, the argument continues, biased - or an ideological sham. However, all of these pessimistic implications are very problematic. I will tackle these issues by outlining a naturalistic inquiry into social constructions. First, social constructionism has a home in sociology of knowledge but it should not be used as an action theory. Namely, some of the confusion surrounding constructionism has to do with getting action and our beliefs about action mixed up. Second, knowledge is very often socially constructed but, as a general rule, its social nature testifies to it being reliable rather than being biased. This is because individual representations are more untrustworthy. The social nature of knowledge can fruitfully put to use and this realization has been the key to the success of science. Naturally, there always is the possibility of ideological biases but the inevitability of having a perspective on some issue is not the same thing as being biased. It is obvious that knowledge can change but this fact constitutes a problem only for friends of dogmatism and essentialism. Others are happy to admit that change is often for the good - also in matters having to do with knowledge.