What Does it Mean to Be Socially Constructed? Ian Hacking's Take on a Mistreated Concept
SOCIUS SOCIUS-Centro de Investigação em Sociologia Económica e das Organizações Lisbon, Portugal
Social Sciences ISEG-Instituto Superior de Economia e Gestão Lisbon, Portugal
Social construction is one of the most prominent concepts in contemporary sociology, particularly in the social studies of science field. At least ever since Berger and Luckmann published their celebrated essay in 1966, the concept of social construction has been applied to a myriad of subjects: from reality itself to knowledge, gender, women refugees and even deafness. Its appeal is certainly widespread, but so are its critics. There is arguably no other concept in social thought which has aroused so much controversy, as was clearly verified in the heat of the, ungraciously dubbed, science wars.
This paper presents a philosopher's take on this much maligned concept. Ian Hacking is certainly not a certified champion of social construction. In fact, he may be one of its harshest critics. Yet, his critical approach manages to salvage some important insights, as he discriminates between the, typically unrecognized, multiple senses in which the phrase is used. Thus, the paper distinguishes the social construction of objects from the social construction of beliefs about objects and, more decisively, from the interactions between those beliefs and the objects themselves. It then argues that this distinction helps us to overcome some inconsistencies inherent in the concept's familiar use by detailing an example taken from Hacking's historical-analytical work. Hence, the paper presents the story of a transient mental illness (fugue) that appeared in the end of the nineteenth century in Europe, flourished for a few years and all but vanished a few decades later. By examining the conditions (historical, social, political, cognitive, ?) that made this pathology possible, Hacking makes use of an existentialist stance to confer meaning to a concept almost rendered meaningless through its excessive use. In this sense, the paper highlights how the concept of social construction can still be theoretically useful and how, at the same time, it shouldn't be overused.