Talking About the Social Construction of…

Posted on June 19, 2009 by


…What? The Social Construction of What? By Ian Hacking.

I saw this in the library, had an intriguing title, an author with whom I was somewhat familiar, had a postmodernist book cover, and said, why the eff not?

Well, why the eff not?

For one, I could’ve been reading something else by someone who wasn’t full of himself.

From his foreword:

“I used to believe that the best way to contribute to the debates was to remain silent. To talk about them would entrench the use of the prhase “social construction.” My attitude was irresponsible. Philosophers of my stripe should analyze, not exclude.”

“MY Stripe?” What exactly is “his” stripe? I didn’t know they made a stripe for a megalomaniacal philosopher of science.

Nonetheless, some parts of the book were entertaining.

The thrust of his book concerned the academic, activist rhetoric of “social construction.” He hates that phrase because technically everything is “socially constructed.”

In dissecting this phrase, he provides some insight about the “science wars.” The “science wars,” were a paper-writing spar between Western scientists and historians, social scientists in the 1990s over Western science’s claim to truth and universal knowledge to the exclusion of other knowledges, such as the humanities, social sciences, indigenous folk knowledges that include what we derogatorily call “superstition”. iHack or Ian Hacking is trying to step outside this “war”, this “debate”, and analyzes both sides.

I found the most interesting quotes, that is the quotes I would like to lodge in the public consciousness, in his discussion of the “construction” of child abuse and standardized testing.

1. He begins by stripping a metaphor from George Lakoff and some other dude in Metaphors of Mind, the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor.

The willingness to describe fierce disagreement in terms of the metaphors of war makes the very existence of real wars seem more natural, more inevitable, more a part of the human condition VIII

G-Lakoff said that we in the Western hemisphere tend to talk about argument as a “battle”, in which the object is to “win the battle.” We win the “battle”, the argument, by “attacking the weak points” of or “making defensible claims.”

It’s also a quote that should make you think about how we define certain epochs and eras throughout history as “wars.” Stuff like the Hundred Years’ War or the Cold War. Are we just more prone to calling anything war nowadays?

Also brings up the question of whether or not war is “natural.”

2. Hacking notes how the phenomena of “child abuse” was somewhat exaggerated while at the same time increasing poverty was being quite downplayed in the 1980s.

In the United States, where so much of my story takes place, the availability of public funds for poor families with small children decrease substantially every year in the decade after 1981, while every year we heard more and more about the horrors of child abuse, culminating in 1990 with the statement by a Presidential panel that it was a “national emergency.” (133)

Simply one more reason why I find almost nothing redeemable in Ronald Reagan or his legacy.

Hacking was talking about how the phenomena of child abuse got blown up based on numbers. Meanwhile, with dramatic cuts to social programs, people were getting kicked out of mental institutions left and right, homeless people became a lot more visible, and pretty much the poor got poorer.

But hey at least the middle class was thriving!


the Victorian activists loathed cruelty to children but were not frightened by it. Risk was not a word in play then; it was central however, for the rhetoric of the 1960s. (134)

Risk is a statistical term associated with probability. Makes me want to re-read my History of Science Mentor’s book The Rise of Statistical Thinking.

iHack makes the point that child abuse was essentially a numbers game, which started out somewhat humbly. But, with a few change in definitions by the 1980s, it became the aforementioned epidemic that Reaggie and Boosh just had to address.

4. Lastly, iHack sheds a little light on the history behind the construction of the Binet intelligence tests, a forerunner of all standardized testing as we know it today:

Binet devised questions which is subjects answered in such a way that scores shaped up on the familiar bell-shaped curve. The trick was to get a set of questions which, when answered, had this property. Terman, with his able female assistants who administered most of the tests, discovered that women did better on his IQ tests than men. Since women “couldn’t” be more intelligent than men, this meant that the questions were wrong. Some of the questions that women answered better than men had to be deleted and replaced by ones on which men did better. (Terman and Merrill 1937, -23-, 34). This procedure fixed, for some time, the form fo knowledge about intelligence” (173)

Just a lil note: I’m sure there’s probably a more elegant, less messy quote elsewhere, but if it’s something that people should, well, I’ll be sure to share it.

Rewind: The testmakers deleted questions that women answered better than men. Replaced them with questions that men answered better than women.

I wonder to what extent this has happened today in these SATs and GREs GMATs, LSATs.

Posted in: Notes, Uncategorized