The Idea that Reality is Socially Constructed
I C. Floyd, H. Zuellighoven, R. Budde & R. Keil-Slawik (red.) Software Development and Reality Construction. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1992.
”Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kömmt darauf an, sie zu verändern.”
Constructivism, i. e., the idea that reality is socially constructed, has recently invaded the field of software development. Producing software, designing computer applications, installing systems, reorganizing work patterns, are all constructive activities which, more or less directly, contribute to changing the world we live and work in. A clear understanding of the idea of reality construction is then a way to understand what one is really doing as a software developer. Such an understanding should be easy to obtain in view of the current popularity of the idea. It is not. The main reason for this is that most proponents of constructivism today brandish it as a weapon in a humanistic campaign against technology. Doing this they not only fail to see the truly technological nature of the idea of reality construction and the vital roles played by technology in all constructions of reality, but they also manage to alienate many of the practitioners whose practice they want to enlighten.
To claim that reality is socially constructed is to claim not only that reality is constructed, as opposed to ”given” or ”simply there”, but also that this construction is social as opposed to, say, natural, private, or technical. In the recent vogue of social studies of science, constructivism is thus used to combat the hegemony of the natural sciences by showing that a social understanding of concept formation and knowledge acquisition is fundamental to our understanding of reality. Similarly, the current interest in social studies of technology aim at showing that changes of reality initiated by engineering become real only to the extent that they are socially realized.
In a world becoming ever more filled with technical artifacts, the idea that we construct our reality is not that outlandish. But when constructivists argue that reality is socially constructed they are not thinking of the construction of buildings, bridges and highways using concrete and steel. They are thinking of mental rather than material construction, of interpretation rather than material change.
The importance of interpretation, of the meaning we give our world, is underrated in a technological age stressing material goods and values. But acknowledging the importance of mental constructions should not make us forget the reality of material construction. As I try to spell out the complexity of the idea that reality is socially constructed, by sketching its history, by looking closer at some of its major advocates, and by drawing out its implications for software development, my major task will be to warn against such forgetfulness.
I will take you on a tour through the idea of reality construction by travelling back and forth between the two intellectual strands in the process of modernization: the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The major part of our tour will be spent in the land of Romanticism, accepting without argument the kind of irrealism propounded by constructivists like Nelson Goodman, Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida. But throughout I will try to give the Enlightenment its due by pointing out the important roles of technology in the processes of reality construction: in material constructions, as a basis for thought experiments, as provider of intellectual tools, and as a source for constructivist ideas in general.
In the first two sections the distinction between material and mental construction is introduced and discussed, first, in terms of a distinction between engineering and construction, between industrial production and craft. Secondly, the background of this distinction is traced in the opposition in our culture between the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. In the next two sections I then try to show how closely related these two forms of construction really are. Section 3 tries to show that material construction is always mental by discussing the dependence of facts on theories, of objects on ideas. In section 4 the task is the complementary one of showing how thinking relies on material artifacts.
In section 5 our understanding of constructivism is deepened by a close reading of some recent philosophical contributions. Section 6 wants to make clear that a socially constructed reality has all the properties we are accustomed to attribute to reality. In section 7 I argue that the constructivist idea really is the idea of technology, and I discuss how science is now changing when it is beginning to appreciate this idea. Section 8 finally tries to pull all the threads together in a recommendation for all of us, who would like to see a computerization on human terms, not to be content with trying out different interpretations of computer technology.
Before we begin I would like to stress the importance of processes of construction in nature, of ”natural reality construction”, to counter the Romantic tendency to make of construction a human privilege. The idea of human worldmaking makes good sense when it comes to theorizing about society. And everything we care for is (automatically) socialized. But the fact that social reality is constituted by the institutionalized conceptions of its members, does not mean that social theorizing can forget about material conditions, be they technological, biological or physical. And when it comes to nature, the idea that it is our conception that counts is, to my mind, an example of ridiculous hubris. We are nothing but tiny flecks in the surface of the grand and forbidding construction of nature. Our constructions of nature weigh lightly in comparison with nature’s constructions of us.
2. Industrialization and the Social Construction of Technology
We use technology to change our natural environment and we use it to change our societies. The automation of manual labour has made much more effective our attempts to change nature to our liking. The tremendous social changes brought about by this industrialization are largely side-effects. Information technology plays an important role in industrial production, but its current major role is in changing relations between people: as a technology for expression, communication and social control.
Our conception of how technology brings on changes derives from our experience of industrialized manual labour. We act as if information technology can be used to change social organizations along the very lines of how industrial technology has changed our natural environment. Computerizing an organization, we tacitly assume, is pretty much like building a highway or fertilizing a field: a matter of introducing the right cause in order to get the desired effect, a matter of good engineering.
This does not mean that in software development people are unaware of complications resulting from dealing with human beings. But many system developers like to think of them as just that—as complications in a process that has a fairly simple causal character of engineering a change. They want to think of those complications as really beyond the business of system development. Just as pollution is a political rather than an industrial problem, software developers should not worry about such complications as long as they produce good systems, they say.
Of course it is true that without such simplifications of complex processes, one can do nothing. A complex process can only be competently handled by divided labour. But not just any simplification will do, and sometimes it becomes necessary to take a hard look at the total process in all its complexity in order to rearrange the division of labour. In the eighties there has been a growing, now rather widespread appreciation that system development (like industrial pollution, medical care, etc) is in dire need of such a ”holistic” going over.
System development projects are relatively small-scale, planned attempts to use computer based information systems to change social organizations. The practice and theory of system development is only beginning to learn the complexities of such tasks. One of the first lessons learned was that using information technology to change an organization should not be viewed as a process of engineering. For reasons of democracy such a perspective would be degrading and for reasons of making profit it would be silly so to underestimate the complexity of social response to technical change.
On a more general level these issues are studied by the growing field studying technology and social change. Traditionally, such studies have often been studies of how technology has changed society thus inviting technology determinism: a developing technology will have social consequences for us to foresee and then live with. To counter this deterministic view one can try to change the perspective. Rather than looking at society from the viewpoint of technology one can choose to study technology from the viewpoint of society. In system development this means to approach the computer based system from the viewpoint of the receiving organization rather than the other way around.
Such a shift of perspective is currently under way in European technology studies, going by the name of ”The social construction of technological systems” or the ”SCOT” programme for short. In this programme one sets out to study local environments in which technologies are developed, how general social conditions make a certain technology appreciated and profitable and determine its direction of development, in short, how social conditions, material and ideological, influence the development of technologies.
In all this there is an underlying thesis to the effect that the fate of a technology depends on how people conceive of it, what they know about it, their attitudes to it, their values, etc. Sometimes the phrase ”the social construction of technology” is interpreted much stronger to mean that a technology is what its users conceive it to be. This strong interpretation is attractive (to some) in view of the power over the technology it gives the users. It turns technology into a democratic phenomenon: it is not the experts who design the machines that really make them but we, the users. Rather than being complications in a causal chain of engineering, the users turn out to be the real designers. The strong interpretation is attractive, as well, for its idealism: technology can be changed, oh so easily, by rethinking it, by changing our ideas about it, by ”positive thinking”.
An appreciation of the idea that technology is socially constructed by its users will change one’s conception of such a business as software development. The heart of that business can no longer be a product, a system, produced by professional software developers, since the properties of that system will be determined in its use. Software development becomes an open-ended process in which the software developers play a marginal role. But in all this there is a neglect of the current process of industrializing software production, a process working against user-involvement. Information technology has increased our possibilities for industrializing manual labour, but it is also beginning to make reasonable an industrialization of intellectual labour, including the production of information technology itself.
When the construction of software is a process taking place in projects, in the field, as a craft, using prototyping, resulting in systems tailor-made for a specific customer, the users can play an important role in the design process. But with a growing software industry producing ready-made system solutions, there will be less and less opportunities for individualized system analysis and design work in the field. Standardized software will replace the works of craft and the users will enter the process of software development consequent to the purchase of an advanced software product package.
That package may of course be tailorable by the users to satisfy their specific needs, but the constraints on that tailorability will be set by software industries competing on a market. As users of computer software we will be in the situation we are now when we move along the aisles of the supermarket trying to pick one out of thirty, virtually identical, laundry detergents all giving our children allergies. Noticing that the distance between the user and the producer will grow as the industrialization of software production proceeds, we must realize that the process of software development is two processes rather than one. Stressing the user involvement by worrying about the design of field projects should not make us forget the importance of gaining power over the process of software development in the software industry.
The industrialization of software production means that when we think of software development as ”social construction of technology” we must be careful to pay attention both to the social reality of software use and the social reality of industrial production of software. If the former is mainly a process of ideology construction, of attitudes, learning, habits, and the like, the latter is primarily a material construction of a product, subject to economical and technical constraints. The idea that technology is socially constructed is valuable in making us see clearly that changing society cannot be conceived as a form of engineering. But if the idea makes us play down the importance of material construction work and underestimate the significance of the ongoing industrialization of intellectual work, then that idea will do the users of computer software more harm than good.
3. A Changing World
The modernization of Europe is a drawn-out process, clearly visible in the 16th century, but not really gaining momentum until the 19th century. It is a complex process of change, transforming a traditional society of peasants, craftsmen, clergy and landlords into the industrialized society we see around us. It has become common to collect the various, often conflicting, ideas involved in this process into two major intellectual strands: the Enlightenment and Romanticism.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment dreamed of a world ruled by reason, governed by science and technology. They formulated this dream, their ”project of modernity”, as a program for democratization, secularization, industrialization, all three conceived as elements in a rational transformation of society. As the philosophy of a rising bourgeoisie class, this project made its forceful impact on European societies in La grande revolution.
Romanticism grew out of that revolution, inspired by it, but giving it a different, emotional interpretation: revolutions were not just means to ends, but ends in themselves. Romanticism turned not only against the authoritarian rule of a feudal society, but also against the rule of the commonplace in an Enlightened society. Its means were the humanities, artistic expressions by individual genius, an inspired anarchy. Its values made Romanticism an easy prey for various elitist movements.
As elements in the modernization process, both the Enlightenment and Romanticism wanted to change the world, society and man. But whereas the Enlightenment had a fairly clear idea of the ends of modernization, Romanticism was programmatically vague and open-ended. This difference can be traced back to fundamentally different conceptions of knowledge. The Enlightenment is a goal-directed, problem-solving, cognitive enterprise in search of the objective truth about the world, society and man, on which to found its projects of change. Romanticism is a process-oriented, inspired, expressive movement inviting us to participate in bold constructions of uninhibited utopias. The Enlightenment has a strong sense of reality. Romanticism pushes further the frontiers of the possible. The Enlightenment, as an epoch in our history, is the era of map-making, Romanticism of world-making. The Enlightenment makes maps to be used in a cumulative rearrangement of the world. Romanticism views these maps as largely counterproductive, providing support for a world well lost, and prefers to debunk that world by demonstrating its ephemeral nature as construction and supplant it wholesale with a brave new world.
In a stable, traditional society, reality is created by God for man to dwell in and worship. What is worth knowing are the principles, the order laid down by the creator, and man himself is subject to that order. He cannot change it. Every real change is authored by some divine, creative power. Nothing really happens unless some divine power wills it to happen. All else is mere appearance. The idea of change so fundamental to the process of modernization is not an easy one to accept for a traditional society steeped in the notion of a divine order. ”Change” smacks of ”chaos”, and the Enlightenment has to begin its revolution of this society by viewing change as only realizing the true, natural order.
The Enlightenment moves cautiously from the Christian idea of a world recently created to a world with a billion year long history of construction, from the Aristotelian idea of an unchanging, ordered and teleological nature to Darwin’s conception of fortuitously evolving organisms, from a fixed human nature to a human being almost infinitely malleable by learning. In all these areas the change is a change in the conception of the nature of nature, man, and society. It is as a result of scientific research into the nature of phenomena that these are seen to be changing rather than stable. Change is understood as the lawful rearrangement of unchanging elements. Every extension of the idea of change is accompanied by ideas of a more fundamental stability, of conservation.
In a lawfully changing world there is a place for engineering. Knowing the laws of change in nature, society, man we can use this knowledge in physical, social, educational and genetic engineering. The Enlightenment idea of a man-made, constructed, artificial world is the idea of applying science in designing nature, society and man. From Bacon’s New Atlantis to Skinner’s Walden Two, engineering is understood as the competent control of a determinate nature.
With Romanticism caution is abandoned. Taking Giambattista Vico’s daring conception of society as freely constructed by its members seriously, the Romantic philosophers argued against notions of a fixed nature, be it of nature, society or man. These philosophers were led by their line of reasoning to lose interest in the way the world is in favor of an interest in how we conceive the world. Or, better, to identify the way the world is with our conception of it. Making a major point of the observation that our world is shaped by our experience, these philosophers wanted to change our world by changing our experience. New worlds could be constructed, they argued, not by engineering and control, but by new ways of looking and thinking, the construction material being spiritual rather than material.
The decisive move in this argument is what Immanuel Kant called his ”Copernican Revolution”—from the Enlightenment theory that our conception of the world is a representation of a ready-made nature ”out there” to the transcendental theory that nature is constituted by our conception. By this ingenious move, Kant wanted to avoid the skeptical conclusion that if our access to the world is limited to our representation of it, we have no guarantee that these representations are accurate or, for that matter, that there is a world out there. If nature is our construction, we don’t have to worry about our access to it.
By claiming that the fundamental concepts we use in constructing nature are fixed, Kant made sure that natural science had a secure foundation in one nature, characterized by the necessary truths of Euclidean geometry and Newtonian mechanics. This idea was soon to be abandoned by the Romantic philosophers taking off from Kant. By making the fundamental concepts relative to culture, the construction of reality came to be seen as a historical process. The necessary truths turned into social conventions, and the interest gradually shifted from the nature of reality to the social process of constructing multiple realities. Kant’s transcendental Kritik, searching for first foundations for science, changed into Kulturkritik and Ideologiekritik.
Trying to bring together the two strands of the Enlightenment, rationalism and empiricism, Kant inadvertently managed to prepare for a much deeper split in our culture. His ”Copernican Revolution” gave our minds a decisive role in our search for knowledge, replacing Descartes’ rather passive mirror of nature with an active world-maker. This ”revolution” was to have a tremendous impact on the humanities and the social sciences, but it left members of the natural science community cold. The result was a split between a natural science and technology guided by Enlightenment ideals and an approach to the study of society and culture based on Romantic ideas.
This split between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften, between ”positivism” and ”hermeneutics”, was unfortunate in contributing to a division into, what C. P. Snow called, ”two cultures”. But it was fortunate in the sense of being a powerful source of discussion. The philosophical tug of war between an Enlightened interest in reality and a Romantic interest in our conceptions of reality has moved back and forth. In 20th century philosophy the Romantic interest in Weltanschaungen, conceptual schemes, has continued to grow. Today, when we can look back upon two decades of Romantic (”postmodern”) attacks on Enlightenment ideas (”modernism”), it is safe to say that, within philosophy, Romanticism obtains the strongest position.
When we leave the philosophy seminar behind, however, and enter the business of software development, Enlightenment ideas still dominate. Systems are judged by their accuracy in mapping their target domain. If we are unhappy with this situation, if we are oppressed by the conservative elitism of experts designing systems ”mapping objective reality”, and want to turn software development into a more democratic, constructive enterprise, we may turn to philosophy and a Romantic world view for support. But liberating as this move may seem at first, giving us a view of technology as having the properties we conceive it to have, there are dangers ahead.
4. The Mental Nature of Material Constructions
When impressed by Enlightenment ideals we speak of constructing the world, we mean it literally. We want to build cities and highways, schools and sports arenas, develop technology, give everyone an automobile, a washing machine and a personal computer, make the country grow. We want to change society by reforming it, by giving it a new form. Material constructions are the most visible, and eager to see results we will tend to stress material aspects, building a welfare state. This does not mean that material values dominate the Enlightenment. On the contrary, material reforms are only means to more spiritual ends such as justice, liberty, equality, democracy, education, meaningful employment, love and self-respect. The problem is only to make sure that changes in these directions are real changes. For the Enlightenment wants real changes—not just talk.
The Romantic idea of reality construction is very different. When the Enlightenment plans its construction projects, Romanticism will speak of the possibilities for a new society based on a new kind of people. Against the Enlightenment idea of a fixed human nature, of the members of society as fairly constant and known resources (and consumers), Romanticism counters with a belief in an unfathomed capacity of human beings to change, develop, grow. Against the Enlightenment project to reap nature of its fruits by developing a material culture, Romanticism counters with a project of human growth, of spiritual culture.
To use the expression ”reality construction” to characterize both an Enlightened project of material construction and a Romantic project of spiritual growth is of course confusing. Nothing has come to seem so separate in our culture as engineering and art. Putting together bricks is real construction, the Enlightenment will argue, while putting together ideas is at best metaphorical construction. But even the most down-to-earth engineer has come to feel uncomfortable when making such a statement in view of the current widespread agreement that this item of common sense is false.
In science, to give just an example, it has become commonplace to question the objectivity of scientific facts and appreciate the role of theoretical interpretation. Even such a lowly object as an ordinary brick is always seen through a theory and thus we cannot put bricks together without putting ideas together. To say that there is theory involved even in our handling of bricks is to say that there is room for variation in our conception of bricks. Our objective reality is not so objective after all. It only seems objective as long as we stay in the company of people sharing our theory.
This 20th century critique of the idea of an objective, given reality, has spread outside the intellectual debate in philosophy, art and science. The Enlightened engineers have learned their lesson by the very difficult process of losing credibility, of seeing their skills questioned by a moral majority. Their stubborn insistence on real change today seems quite impressive considering the difficulties of success. For what the Enlightenment engineer wants is of course not just any old material change, but one with a certain meaning. Unless the new schools mean a better education, the automobile and nuclear plant a better life, etc, the change is only real in an ironic way. But how do you make sure that the material change you bring about will mean what you want it to mean? How do you know that the ones you do the reforms for will interpret them the way you intend them to? When you begin taking such questions seriously, it is only because you have been forced to appreciate that reality is in the eye of the beholder.
Once we have begun to question our natural attitude of taking our immediately perceived reality for given—be it by way of personal experience, modern physics, philosophical argument or a course in anthropology—we realize that bricks are no more (or less) real than ideas. As long as we all agree on what the world is like we can attend to the bricks and forget about ideas. But when ideas begin to vary we have to worry about them in our reality construction projects. The neat separation into material and mental construction breaks down. What is literal construction and what is only metaphorical is no longer so obvious.
Of course, no one is surprised by hearing that material construction projects involve ideas—in the planning, execution, interpretation and evaluation of processes and products. What we tend to forget is the fact that those ideas may cause disagreement on what we have achieved, to what purpose, with what success, that is unresolvable. And that therefore material construction projects always are mental construction projects as well. But then again, don’t we all know that the successful engineer always is a good artist, or has the use of a good designer group and a good advertising agency? Of course we do, but the more Enlightened we are, the more distasteful we find those ”artistic” aspects of our work. Mental construction is a way of faking it when one is unable to make something real. That people continue happily to prefer bad technology can only be explained by the negative influence of mental constructions.
The Enlightenment idea of a project, of a goal-directed effort to change the world, involves planning, an ability to think what is not, to imagine situations that are (as yet) unreal. Putting together ideas in order to imagine goals, we mentally construct a reality later to be materially constructed. And when the material construction has done its job we have to mentally interpret the result and relate it to our goals, knowing well that no project will be true to plan. For the Enlightenment it is material construction, what technology can do, that counts. For a Romantic the mental construction phases are the most important: what human beings want to do with the technology.
We don’t have to study the introduction of high-tech in pre-industrialized countries, or ponder the conservative nature of the automobile, to see that a Romantic perspective can be illuminating (and lucrative). With such a perspective we will be struck by the futility of technology, of our material constructions, in a number of everyday situations. Children playing with pine cones, sticks and stones will, for example, construct a reality almost by imagination alone, and fancy prefab toys add nothing to the play. Who is to say that the traffic jam constructed on the living room rug becomes more real when the cars are powered by batteries rather than by a child’s imagination?
When a child plays with toy cars, those cars are both symbols for real cars and real cars in a constructed reality. Bricks and ideas are certainly very different but the bricks are suffused by our ideas and sometimes act as symbols in our thinking. The processes of material and mental construction are intertwined and impossible to separate. Our material constructions use materials with colors, textures and shapes which are laden with culture and our thinking rely on material support for illustration, inspiration and communication.
But software development is no child’s play, the software engineer will reply. And we can see how this debate between material and mental constructivists will go on. But enough is enough. Let us be content here to observe that a software development project is a very complex mixture of material and mental constructions in which it is important to pay heed both to technical constraints and human inventiveness even if it is impossible to obtain a neat separation between what technology does and what human beings want to do with the technology.
5. The Material Nature of Thinking
To construct is to ”put together” and the acts of construction as well as their results differ widely depending on what it is we put together: bricks, ideas, words, notes, etc. That such putting together is ”social” can mean that people do it together, orienting their individual contributions to those of other contributors. More interesting is perhaps the idea that constructions of reality are social because what we put together are social objects, cultural artifacts, rather than natural objects. Indeed, it may seem like a good idea to classify constructions in terms of categories such as material, mental, natural, social, artificial, depending on the types of objects used in constructing. Things are more complicated, however, as we shall see when we look more carefully at these categories.
It is easy to see that the material construction projects we undertake are social, both in the sense that they involve several people and utilize materials and tools that are the results of previous processes of construction. It is important to realize that mental construction projects, as well, are social in both these respects. When we appreciate the extent to which thinking is a social rather than individual activity and a cultural rather than a natural process, the material nature of our mental constructions become visible.
It is only within the last decades that social scientists have begun to pay serious attention to how organizations think, learn, remember, forget, etc. Our thinking about thinking has been so dominated by the idea that it is an individual, mental process so as to block out the obvious fact that most of the thinking going on is more profitably ascribed to organizations than to individuals. But wait a minute! Certainly, thinking is a mental process, a brain process, and organizations don’t have minds, not to say brains? I am not denying that (here). What I am saying is rather that thinking is like traffic: individuals drive the cars, but to understand the traffic in a big city we had better look at what is going on as a system, an organization.
One way of appreciating this point is by seeing that thinking is an activity which, like so many other activities in our modern society, has undergone a process of industrialization. What used to be an individual craft using fairly simple tools has become a complex production process performed by organizations relying on advanced rule systems, planning, division of labour and high technology. Like so many other activities, thinking survives as a craft, but the thinking that really matters in our modern society is almost exclusively organized, institutionalized.
There are several obstacles hiding this fact from our view. One is our tendency to think of thinking as a process in the mind or brain. As a brain process thinking is a natural process, and this makes it difficult for us to see that thinking today is about as artificial as anything else—communication, production, consumption—in our modern artificial world. Just as our society will grind to a halt when our artifacts break down, so thinking would reduce to next to nothing were we to suffer a breakdown of our intellectual artifacts. What could we think, how could we reason, if we did not have words, figures, books, diagrams, concrete examples, slide-rules, algebra, logic, lisp or legal aid?
Thinking of thinking as a brain process makes us think of human intelligence as natural (in spite of the fact that most so-called intelligence tests measure artificial capacities like vocabulary and numerical ability). This has made the discussion of research on artificial intelligence more confusing than it need be. Once it is seen how artificial human thinking is, to what extent it relies on cultural artifacts, the AI-project is seen as a rather mundane attempt to automatize artifacts, in this case intellectual tools rather than manual ones, but so what? And we realize that calculators are exemplary instances of artificial intelligence.
Another obstacle to seeing the cultural nature of thinking is the dominant role played by visual perception in our attempts to understand thinking. Thinking is conceived as a sort of looking (with the mind’s eye), a fairly leaned back observing of the thoughts passing by in the stream of consciousness, or at best a more active looking around, doing some sort of inventory or search. The thoughts appear or are found rather than being produced or constructed. This view of thinking has always had its rival in a more active notion of thinking (and consequently perception), but this rival did not become a serious contender until Kant and Romanticism.
The naive theory of how we get to know the world has not even discovered that perception is a process: just open your eyes and there the world is. The Greek philosophers were not that naive. They thought of perception as imitation: the world somehow impressing its form upon a passive mind. Galileo was moving away from this view of thinking as an imagistic, pictorial imitation, when he argued that ”the book of nature is written in a mathematical language,” but mathematics to Galileo was Euclidean geometry—still pictorial. It was up to Descartes to take the decisive step to algebra as medium of representation, algebra as our language of thought, which he did by inventing analytic geometry.
When we use mathematics as our language of thought, our thinking about the world can no longer be understood as pictorial imitation. Algebra is a cultural artifact, constructed by the Arabs, and a theory about the world couched in the language of algebra is similarly a constructed artifact, a cultural object. This was by no means clear to Descartes, nor to his followers. The status of mathematics as Truth stood in the way of an appreciation of the cultural nature of mathematical thinking. Rationalists from Leibniz to Wittgenstein treat mathematics as a natural rather than a conventional phenomenon, dreaming of the ideal mathematical language, with a logical form mirroring the form of the world. The cognitive science of the last three decades, including artificial intelligence research, lean in this rationalist direction. Major turbulence has been created by such issues as if we think solely in words or also in images—the implicit presupposition being that thinking is a natural phenomenon. In spite of all the work going on in AI on constructing artificial languages, it is most unusual to find someone arguing that human thinking itself is an artifact, done in whatever medium found suitable.
When the Romantic philosophers turned to action rather than perception in search for a model for thinking, they first viewed thinking as an expression of our human nature. Our mental processes, including perception, is then taken as starting point in a search for the innate principles of the human mind. Such was the program initiated by Kant and it lives on in much of contemporary cognitive science. Such a program certainly thinks of thinking as a constructive process, but it attends primarily to the predetermined aspects of that process in search of a general theory of the mind.
As we move from viewing thinking and perception as processes of imitation to more complex representational processes to processes of expression, man’s contributions to his view of the world increase. But to say that man constructs his world becomes a forceful claim only when we take the further step of realizing that this construction is determined by culture. If knowledge is a natural phenomenon, if knowledge is obtained by a natural process, it makes little sense to speak of reality construction. But if knowledge is cultural, an artifact made by man to his infinitely varying measures, then it begins to make sense to speak of knowledge, truth and reality as constructed. That is why it so important to stress that reality construction is social.
To say that thinking is a process of social construction is then to express a view very different from the standard view of thinking as a natural process in the mind or brain. It is to claim that thinking is regulated by social norms, that much thinking is better understood as a socially organized process involving several individuals (and of course their brains) with an organization as ”the thinking thing”. It is to claim that the process of thinking relies on intellectual tools and materials supplied by culture, some of which are internalized but a great deal of which is provided by the environment. It is to claim that the symbols, categories, elements we use in our thinking are drawn from our social, natural and artifactual environment, and put together to make worlds, new artifacts made possible by, and making possible, new worlds.
But can reality really be an artifact? Well… In sociology there is a growing discipline called ”social problems research”. Much of the research in that discipline wants to look at social problems as socially constructed. The standard procedure is then to ”deconstruct” social problems by showing how one or other phenomenon of long standing, say the battering of children, in a certain social setting becomes identified or defined as a social problem. Here one obviously operates with a contrast between an objective fact, the battering of children, and a social artifact, child abuse. Distancing oneself from the social problem under study it can be viewed as socially constructed against the background of more objective phenomena. It is of course possible to carry such a distancing process further, applying it to the phenomenon of child battering itself, then seen perhaps as socially constructed by the science community. But how far can such a process of deconstruction be carried? Will it not have to stop eventually, confronted with a real as opposed to an artifactual reality?
One way of answering this question is to choose a more humble attitude to our tradition of theorizing about thinking. Rather than claiming that the move from imitation to representation to expression to social construction is a move from mistaken ideas about thinking to the true theory, one then takes more seriously all these attempts at understanding thinking. That our view of the world is socially constructed does not mean that it isn’t also obtained through processes of imitation, representation and expression.
6. The Philosophy Behind
A great deal of the theoretical discussion in the social sciences is today dedicated to analyzing constructivism and its consequences. Influential empirical work in such areas as the sociology of science and social problems are guided by the idea of reality construction. This idea has been a central topic for philosophical debate in the last two decades, approached in different fashions by French, American and German philosophers. It has even entered biology through attempts to base a constructivist approach on biological ideas of self-organization. It has played a major role in the culture debate over ”postmodernism” ranging from topics in architecture to politics. Social constructivists are happy to see the current projects of deconstruction and reconstruction going on in Eastern Europe.
Its current popularity notwithstanding the idea that reality is socially constructed has a long and complex history in our culture. The first proponent of social reality construction we know of was the great sophist Protagoras (500 B. C.) with his ”homo mensura” sentence: ”Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are that they are, and of the things that are not that they are not.” His major opponent was of course Plato who despised the sophists for relativizing truth and made Protagoras a major target of attack. The battle has been raging ever since.
I have no intention of here chartering this history. In the previous sections I have tried to indicate some of the complexity of the ideas involved. My purpose was twofold. I wanted to prepare for the main thrust of my argument to the effect that an appreciation of the fact that reality is socially constructed should not blind us to the importance and interdependence of all the various constructivist processes going on, be they material or mental, natural or social. I also wanted to prepare for a presentation of a handful of recent philosophical contributions to constructivism. The following is not intended as an introduction to these thinkers. Compressing their complex systems of thought into a few paragraphs I try to give a flavor of what these thinkers say and how they say it.
Peter Berger’s and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966) is probably the most influential recent source for constructivist ideas. This little book is a major effort of synthesizing such ideas within the field of sociology. Berger’s and Luckmann’s project is an attempt to place the sociology of knowledge, the study of the social conditions of knowledge, at the core of sociological theorizing: ”The basic contentions of the argument of this book are … that reality is socially constructed and that the sociology of knowledge must analyze the process in which this occurs.” (p. 13)
The construction of reality is a continuing dialectical process involving three moments: externalization, objectivation and internalization. ”Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product.” (p. 79). The objective social reality is constructed through habitualized actions constituting institutions. Language, in the form of everyday conversations, plays a central role both in establishing and legitimizing institutions. The institutions are integrated into a social system only through the process of legitimation. This legitimation, involving the use of ”symbolic universes” is ”faced with the ongoing necessity of keeping chaos at bay…All societies are constructions in the face of chaos.” (p. 121)
Berger and Luckmann distinguish social reality from nature. Biological facts, characteristics of the human organism and its environment ”serve as a necessary presupposition for the production of social order.” (p. 70) Such facts impose limitations on man’s construction of his social reality and of himself as a social being. Through reification, i. e., ”the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things” (p. 106)…”the world of institutions appears to merge with the world of nature.” (p. 108) Reification is not ”a perversion of an originally non-reified apprehension of the social world.” (p. 107). On the contrary, the realization that the objective social reality is a product of human activity comes rather late in history and in any individual’s life. ”Roles may be reified in the same manner as institutions.” (p. 108). In a modern, industrialized society, however, with social division of labour and social distribution of knowledge, there will be ”an increasingly general consciousness of the relativity of all worlds, including one’s own.” (p. 192). In such a society reification is less of a threat, and individuals not only play at ”being what they are not supposed to be. They also play at being what they are supposed to be—a quite different matter.” (p. 192)
Berger and Luckmann brush aside the philosophical problems of the status of ”reality” and ”knowledge” (p. 13f). Proceeding from a phenomenological, everyday conception of reality, they can treat nature as ”really real”. A minute’s reflection on this issue will, of course, lead one to question such a ”reification” of our conceptions of nature. What is it that makes our knowledge of nature less susceptible to sociological analysis than our knowledge of the social world?
”Nothing”, would be the answer from the philosopher who more than anyone else has contributed to a deeper understanding of the conditions of reality construction. I am thinking, of course, of the Harvard philosopher Nelson Goodman and the way he comes forth in books like Ways of Worldmaking (1978) and Of Mind and Other Matters (1984). Not that Goodman is particularly interested in discussing the social aspects of reality construction. Being in spite of everything an exemplary representative of modern analytic philosophy, Goodman rarely comments on the fact that man is a zoon politicon.
Goodman sometimes characterizes his philosophical position as ”irrealism”. This position ”sees the world melting into versions and versions making worlds, finds ontology evanescent, and inquires into what makes a version right and a world well-built.” (p. 29). There is no world out there, independent of us. There are only versions made by symbols of all kinds, and true versions make worlds. ”The world of a true version is a construct; the features are not conferred upon something independent of the version but combined with one another to make the world of that version.” (p. 34). ”The worldmaking mainly in question here is making not with hands but with minds, or rather with languages or other symbol systems. Yet when I say that worlds are made, I mean it literally” (p. 42).
Worldmaking is a matter of categorization: distinguishing elements, categorizing them by function, uniting them into wholes. Categories are symbols, elements of linguistic and other symbol systems, and Goodman has been particularly interested in artistic symbol systems. Worldmaking can be compared to the construction of material artifacts. And just as we cannot make such artifacts any way we like, so our worldmaking is restricted. ”Making right world-versions—or making worlds—is harder than making chairs or planes, and failure is common, largely because all we have available is scrap material recycled from old and stubborn worlds. Our having done no better or worse is no evidence that chairs or planes or worlds are found rather than made.” (p. 42f).
All this is pretty straightforward, but Goodman goes on to claim that ”many world versions—some conflicting with each other, some so disparate that conflict or compatibility among them is indeterminable—are equally right.” (p. 39) Versions are right or wrong—or, more specifically, when the symbols are linguistic, true or false—not by corresponding or failing to correspond to an independent world ”out there”. ”Nevertheless, right versions are different from wrong versions: relativism is restrained by considerations of rightness. Rightness, however, is neither constituted nor tested by correspondence with a world independent of all versions.” (p. 39).
So by what is rightness constituted, by what is it tested? ”Rightness of categorization, in my view, derives from rather than underlies entrenchment.” (p. 38) This, no doubt, is the weakest point in Goodman’s philosophy. He has nothing of substance to say on the matter of entrenchment. Some categories, or systems of categories, survive but why they do so we cannot say, except that they ”fit” together. They get entrenched in our culture, and that is it.
It is Goodman’s strength that he accepts this consequence of his reasoning without flinching. Having rejected realism in the sense of a categorized world ”out there” in favor of a position where all categorization is our doing, correspondence theory is out. ”Not all differences between true versions can be thought of as differences in grouping or marking off within something common to all. For there are no absolute elements, no space-time or other stuff common to all, no entity that is under all guises or under none.” (p. 36). All the structure there is in the world is man-made, and structure is all there is to the world.
Coherence is no live option, ”for a false or otherwise wrong version can hold together as well as a right one” (p. 37), and what remains as a possible candidate for truth is then only functionality. Now this would seem a likely candidate in view of Goodman’s comparisons between worldmaking and the making of artifacts. And, indeed, there are hints in that direction in his comments on the notion of entrenchment—entrenchment as adaptation—but there is also explicit rejection of this option, e.g., in Ways of Worldmaking (p.122f). Functionality is much too simple-minded as a criterion or definition of rightness in view of the wealth of variety of kinds of versions Goodman is able to keep simultaneously in view.
Constructivism is a powerful idea for fulfilling the philosophical task par excellence: that of questioning the obvious. It is a liberating tonic for anyone—like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Sartre—feeling oppressed, or nauseated, by a reality too much taken for granted. But driven to its extreme, constructivism sweeps away the very foundations of our existence, resulting in a Kundera-like experience of ”the unbearable lightness of being”.
If one sometimes gets this experience when reading Goodman, it dominates the reading of Jacques Derrida. According to Goodman, we use scrap material from past worldmakings in making our worlds. We have a tendency to take this material at face value, it’s old enough to give us a feeling of acquaintance. We think we know what we mean by what we say, we feel at home in our thinking, in our conceptual worlds. Categories get entrenched by fitting together. Derrida is out to shatter that comfortable feeling, by striking at categories, often dichotomies, at the very foundation of our reality construction.
Once reality is seen to be a culture relative construct, the critique of culture turns into a ”reconstruction of reality”. That is, a current reality is criticized in favor of a more or less utopian alternative. But unlike his predecessors, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger, Derrida is not out to reconstruct reality but to deconstruct it. And worse than that he wants to deconstruct the philosophical project of deconstruction itself, thus leaving us no foundation whatsoever. To give only one example, it has become common coin to recognize that our thinking is metaphorical through and through. But sitting there in our smugness, saying fashionable things like ”Of course the computer is not literally a tool or a telephone or a processor…”, Derrida will come around and deconstruct, i.e., pulverize, the very dichotomy literal-metaphorical on which we were basing our insight. No wonder, he has been criticized for advocating a most extreme kind of nihilism.
The American pragmatist, author of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty is one such critic. Basing his critique of postmodern French nihilism on a very American trust in a liberal, political praxis, Rorty wants to steer clear of constructivist excesses. Chaos, as Berger and Luckmann would say, the lightness of being, is held at bay, by the stability of liberal political institutions. This democratic praxis is primary to philosophical theorizing about human nature and the good society. That praxis is the foundation upon which intellectual adventures in science, philosophy and culture at large can be staged, as long as they leave that praxis untouched. It is that praxis that decides what is knowledge, truth, good and beautiful, not the theories that philosophers so seriously struggle to put together. And the essence of that praxis is ”free speech”, an ongoing conversation.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment searched for first foundations for science, ethics and politics, for infallible methods by which to attain objective truth and justice. When Romantic ideas dominate philosophy this quest is abandoned. Methods are scrapped, truth is dissolved. Reality, truth and justice are socially constructed subject to cultural variations. There are no natural rights. Nothing is absolute. This can either result in a nihilistic degrading of science, ethics and politics, as only different arenas for the power struggle of reality construction, or, on the contrary, in an upgrading of the philosophically naive practice of science, ethics and politics. The practice is strong enough to need no foundations, no philosophical support. It needs no codified method, no absolute truth. True to his American heritage, Rorty has an unshaken trust in practice.
7. Reality is a Social Artifact
Our world is becoming ever more artificial, our reality more of a human artifice. But that the world we live in is an artificial world, constructed by us, does not make the world any less stable than were it a natural world. Things (Latin ”res”), i. e., middle sized material objects, are our paradigm cases of reality, and artifacts are real to the extent that they resemble things, i. e., are ”reified”.
Artifacts differ with respect to their ”thingishness”, their objectivity, independence and stability, of course. Material artifacts, such as tools, machines, works of art, roads, buildings, are (at least) as real as rocks and bodies. Social artifacts, such as organizations, institutions, roles, persons are less tangible but still reified enough to be treated as objective and independent, often being annoyingly stable. Ideal artifacts, finally, such as scientific theories, world-views, programs, ideologies, norm systems are the least concrete of our constructions, getting their stability from their material and social implementations.
The insights that the material world, the social world and the ideal world are all socially constructed grows on European man, in starts and leaps, as major strands in the process of modernization. The expansion of technology, industrialization, moves man’s material support from nature towards the artificial. A growing awareness of society as constructed, as in Thomas Hobbes’ idea of a social contract, goes hand in hand with democratization. The idea that man makes himself, of a person as a work of art, makes room for ideas of personal liberty. The transition from Plato’s world of objective, unchanging ideas to the belief in culture as constructed is long and tortuous, and has still a long way to go in such areas as that of mathematics.
As one of the mainsprings in the modernization process, the idea that reality is socially constructed has formidable power. That reality is constructed means that it can be deconstructed and reconstructed. The realization that a phenomenon is an artifact, the result of human construction, may undermine one’s trust in its reality. The power of God is undermined when we realize that we have constructed him rather than the other way around. Similarly our belief in the objective truth of science is shaken by seeing how theories are constructed by people using material from their personal history and social setting.
But it is easy to overestimate the power of the idea that reality is constructed. Social practices are inert, difficult to change and difficult to control. That reality is socially constructed means that changing it is more easily said than done. To the individual it is generally more correct to say that reality has been constructed than to say that it is constructed. The practical inertia of social construction gives its products their stability, their reality.
Practically speaking, a socially constructed reality is just as real as a reality that just is. To interpret the move from an objective, natural reality to one that is socially constructed as a liberation from external control is to misjudge the power of social norms. Social determinism, e. g., is not easier, or more difficult, to escape from than biological determinism, even if you believe that the former is ”merely” constructed and the latter ”really” real. To show that a phenomenon is conventional rather than natural will liberate you only to the extent that nature is more difficult than conventions to change. But only the most cursory glance at social norms and institutions will reveal their power.
Take the notion of ”objectivity”, for example. If this concept is understood along the lines of ”really there”, ”representing reality” or suchlike, the realization that knowledge is constructed will make us wary, and we will move towards a use of the term ”objective” as meaning ”intersubjectively agreed”, ”conventional” or the like. But this latter type of ”objectivity” is not threatened by stories about the construction of knowledge, and will soon be indistinguishable from the former type. Hobbes did not for a minute believe that the social norms were undermined by the observation that they were conventions, part of a contract, rather than natural rights and duties. Constructivism is not an exhortation to deconstruction. Nihilism, anarchy, or revolution are not the consequences of a constructivist revelation. And an appreciation of the fact that reality is socially constructed is not a decision to begin constructing reality, but the appreciation that we have always done so and always will.
The construction of artifacts is subject to norms, guided by values. To think of construction as engineering means stressing the functionality of the artifact. What matters most is that it works. To think of construction as scientific is to subject it to the norm of truth. To think of it as art means to stress its aesthetic, edifying, or communicative aspect. To think of construction as politics means to stress its power to control. Our construction of reality, of conceptual schemes, scientific theories, social institutions, information systems, software, computers, can be subjected to all these values, depending on what aspect we want to stress. The realization that human activity is fundamentally constructive—in art, science, technology or politics—does not in itself come into conflict with any of these values or norms. That these norms are seen themselves to be socially constructed is no reason to abandon them. It may give us a deeper understanding of the projects of art, science, technology and politics, but with that understanding we can go on as before.
The idea of constructing reality is intertwined with the idea of changing it. The possibility of change is a strong motive for believing in the idea of reality construction. When constructivists argue against a science that sees itself as mapping reality, or more generally against the Cartesian idea of knowledge as representation, the vehemence of their argumentation derives from the fear they feel that such ideas support reification and stand in the way of change. A picture is painted with two opposing camps, one standing for a free and self-organized world, democratically constructed by persons with emotions, the other for a deterministic world, ruled by technology, understood only by experts through objective, cognitive representations.
But if there is some truth to that picture, the diagnosis is certainly mistaken. A representational theory of knowledge does not stand in the way of change, nor is constructivism a short cut to democracy. The Enlightenment philosophers argued quite forcefully for the exact opposite: that only by representing the world did you have a chance to change it deliberately, and that an unbridled constructivism left you in the hands of construction elites. Those arguments can of course be countered. And my point is a different one. The understanding that reality is socially constructed, that the power of science and technology is socially rather than naturally founded, will not in itself threaten that power. Truth may have served an ideologically important role as science was breaking away from the Church, but in our times science is powerful enough to manage without that ideology.
When we realize that the natural, objective world is really a social, intersubjective one, there is no loss in determinism, external control or expert rule. The freedom gained by the possibility of multiple perspectives is lost when perspectives are seen as powerful institutions. Our artificial reality gains its stability, its reality, from the stability of social norms. The practical inertia of social institutions plays the role of the physical inertia of matter, and it plays it well. That the world is socially constructed does not make it any less important to map that world. For what is Berger’s and Luckmann’s theory, of how we ”internalize” the social reality we grow up in, but a theory of representation? The very theory of knowledge as representation lives on as an important element within a general idea of knowledge as reality construction.
Likewise there is no conflict between a theory attributing knowledge to persons and a cognitive theory about how our brains represent the world, as long as we don’t believe that a cognitive theory can tell us what is known and what is not. We can construct our brains with innate ideas, categories and perceptual constraints and still hold that what is known is socially settled. As constructivists we may very well claim that worlds are made without restrictions and truths are always relative to a world, but then go on to argue that it is vital to determine the extent of restriction and variation in world-views within the world we’ve made.
All this seems to come down to the rather boring conclusion that ”philosophy leaves everything as it is”. But boring or not, I think it is important to realize that reconstructions of reality, in the sense of redescriptions or reinterpretations, mind-blowing as they may seem to those who experience them, achieve nothing by themselves. It is what we do that counts and we are all masters at adjusting wildly varying descriptions to the very same actions. Constructivists will argue that when descriptions change the actions will change too. But that is not always true.
There is something frightening in the constructivist belief in the power of descriptions or interpretations. Accustomed to a wealth of conflicting descriptions given of our everyday most mundane actions, most of us go through life skeptically playing with different descriptions, perspectives, frameworks, moving happily within the elbow room thus provided. This is Rorty’s point, namely that it is only against this background of habits that the dramas of ideology are staged, that we do our philosophizing about the meaning of the universe and everything. Unless we change those habits nothing is really changed. But those habits can rarely be changed by words alone. Our strength, our autonomy, lies exactly in this our resistance to ”propaganda”. That a rose is a rose by whatever name is nothing we should grieve for.
8. Science as Construction
That it is reality that is socially constructed means that the scientific enterprise to study reality retains its importance. The enterprise to map an objective reality is not superseded but complemented. On the one hand the objective, in the social sciences, is to construct theories, classifications and descriptions, which adequately map the systems of artifacts constituting social reality. On the other hand, the fulfilling of this objective is itself a social process of artifact construction, a contribution to the constitution of that reality. These two objectives are difficult to keep separate. It is impossible to analyze ideologies without contributing to the production of ideology.
In the natural sciences the foundations for research are laid by some sort of general framework, system of categories, conceptual scheme, or paradigm, constituting the general characteristics of reality. Such a framework is generally taken for granted, upheld by the scientific community, transmitted to new members as part of the socialization to natural scientist. Research is done within such a framework, and consists in filling in the details, chartering the white spaces.
Questioning the framework, asking ”external” questions, is a major undertaking of radical nature. Normal science stays comfortably within the socially prescribed framework, tackling ”internal” questions only. External questions are open-ended, bewildering, philosophical, since they concern what reality it is we are examining. Internal questions are normal, have definite answers, provided of course that they don’t strike at weak points in the general framework. In the latter case it is often wise to back off unless one has the courage to take on a revolution.
As it is in science, so it is in other kinds of human activity, including technology. There is always a choice between acting within the given framework and trying to break out of it. Or, rather, there is always a choice between what framework to act within. A technology designed to fit a certain reality will, when successful, strengthen that reality. It therefore becomes important to determine whose reality it is one wants to tailor the technology to. In our kind of society the default choice will almost always help propagate a reality organized by principles leading to injustice and exploitation. Constructivism gets some of its power from its capacity to help you avoid making that default choice blindly. If reality is socially constructed, constructed by ”us”, it becomes important to be one of ”us”.
A general appreciation of the constructive nature of science will change your notions of scientific truth and objectivity, but it will not change the practice of doing science. That practice will only change if there is a change of methods and techniques. There is such a change of practice going on right now and it is of a constructive nature. It is spurred by the growth of technology in general and by a rapidly increased use of computer technology in scientific research in particular.
Notice that the similarities between a socially constructed reality and one that just is hinges on the fact that the latter too is constructed, only not by us. The material artifact is the bridge between a natural and a social reality. When we stress the materiality of social constructions and the constructed artificiality of everything that is, the difference between nature and culture decreases. Technology as successful producer of material artifacts plays a leading role in this game. I would even go so far as to argue that the idea of reality construction at heart is a technical idea, a generalization of the very idea of technology. Romanticism is a take off on the Enlightenment idea of technology, art is really irresponsible technology.
Technology has given science an interest in how things function, how they are made, constructed, designed. As a result we have changed our conception of nature from that of a stable typology, to be once and for all adequately categorized, to that of a constantly changing, ongoing construction. The realistic enterprise to identify the structure of nature, to ”carve nature at its joints”, loses some of its force as evolutionary thinking makes us realize that those joints are the result of a constructive process in constant flux. Our interest in what nature is like becomes subordinated to an interest in what is possible. It is all right for a biology with book-keeping as an ideal to catalogue the life forms that have happened to evolve on earth, but modern, Darwinian, biologists ought to be more fascinated by what is biologically possible.
The conception of nature as a constructive process gives to man the opportunity to interfere with, and contribute to, the construction of nature. But such a contribution demands more powerful capacities of imagination than we mortals have. For a while we have satisfied our wish to contribute to the construction of nature by direct interference. Rather than trying to imagine the consequences of certain actions we have made experiments and observed the consequences. The use of mathematics to simulate complex processes has certainly aided our imaginary powers, but now, with the use of computer technology we have really obtained a prosthetic imagination.
The telescope and the microscope changed science by magnifying our powers of perception. Computer technology plays a key role in a current development of science by extending our powers of imagination. As the telescope and microscope opened worlds to study that were previously unknown, so the computer will mean a shift in our scientific attention. The new worlds that now will begin to fascinate us are all the possible worlds, all the worlds that could be constructed. And we realize that all those worlds together make up reality, that there is no reason to single out the one world that happened to be constructed, and call it reality. Science cannot be content to study that world as it crumbles around us. Like technology it should instead teach us more about what could be, a type of future studies as it were, in the sense of constructions of possible futures. There is nothing much we can do about the past.
9. The Politics of Reality Construction
We have already heard Goodman claim that his idea of worldmaking is one of making worlds ”not with hands but with minds, or rather with languages or other symbol systems.” Goodman is true to the ”linguistic turn” taking place in philosophy in the 20th century. If we go back to the Romantic philosophers, their idea of worldmaking was one of consciousness ”constituting” worlds. Their means of construction were concepts which were thought of as mental entities, somehow deeper than language. As we move into our century, the philosophical notion of a concept changes. The pragmatists want to think of concepts as behavioral dispositions, practices, or rules of action, but most contemporary philosophers agree with Goodman that concepts are fundamentally linguistic in nature.
Thus, the modern contributors to the idea of reality construction we have looked at—Berger and Luckmann, Goodman, Rorty, Derrida—all stress the importance of language as a means for worldmaking. This move from consciousness to language (and action) is a move from private to public, from individual (or transcendental) constitution to social construction. It is a move from ”subjective” to ”objective” construction in Berger’s and Luckmann’s sense of externalized objectivation in social institutions.
There is in all this an unfortunate neglect of the more mundane but, to my mind, more important making of worlds ”with hands”, as Goodman puts it. The Romantic instigators of the idea of reality construction were idealists—they really believed that ideas make the world go round—and the dominating trend in current conceptions of reality construction is likewise idealist in nature. The historical heritage may explain why this is so, but it is still difficult to understand how, having made the move from subjective consciousness to intersubjective action patterns and language, from individual self-expression to institutionally controlled reality maintenance, current exponents of reality construction ideas give to technology such marginal attention. It makes good sense, of course, to stress the importance of mental worldmaking in the face of a widespread and naive reification of technology. Technological determinism with its boring talk of ”consequences of this or that technology” must be countered, but this cannot be done by turning one’s back on the objectivation of social reality in technical artifacts. Rather than trying to fight the reification of technology by pointing to the importance of our conceptions, to the fact that use of technology is socially constructed, one should take a more serious interest in the social processes of technical construction, in the secret ways of high-tech institutions and the game of technology politics. The reason is, of course, that the latter institutions are the most powerful instruments in determining our conceptions of technology and its use.
Technology plays a twofold role in our construction of reality. Only by materially realizing our mental constructions does it make sense to develop them further. We formulate our imagined goals, whether it is a car, a summer house, or a spouse, but as long as they remain unrealized they tend to cramp our thinking. Once realized, however, our mind can soar again, imagining new goals, since all the goals we reach will leave us unsatisfied. Technology, or rather its material artifacts, also plays a more direct role in our thinking as support and medium. Technology supplies our thinking with its tools, such as books, calculators, pen and paper, etc. What this comes down to is an appreciation of the complex interplay of forms of reality construction, both private and public. And, an appreciation of the importance of worldmaking by hands in the construction of reality. The widespread and deep-rooted reification of technology cannot be neutralized by reference to a general theory of mental reality construction. It has to be taken seriously as a social phenomenon, and used to our advantage as constructivists by active participation in the production of technology.
The objectivation of a socially constructed reality is powerful to the extent that there are intersubjectively shared norms or criteria of rightness. The functionality of technology is such a criterion that is hard to match. Thus our tendency to reify technology. It is real because it works so well at holding chaos at bay. It is all very well to argue that all worldmaking is of the character of fiction, a matter of turning ideas into worlds, but the strategic power of this argument stumbles in the face of the facts of a powerful technology. The reification of technology is an indication of the power and success of technical reality construction. Freedom from technological determinism is not won with a theory of mental construction, but by a fight for power over the production of technology. The strategy cannot be to see the social construction of reality as a means for taming an existing technology, but rather to see the production of technology as the most powerful method of social reality construction.
Thus, the primary remedy against oppressive computer technology lies not in the strengthening of a multiplicity of different perspectives or organizational structures, unless these are seen as means towards changing the technology. System developers should concentrate on the objective of producing good technology rather than on working with organizations faced with bad technology. Philosophical perspectives and organizational competence is all very well, but these are toothless weapons in the struggle for a computerization on human terms.
The major lesson to be drawn from the idea of social reality construction is not one of increased freedom, but rather a strategy for utilizing the freedom we have. To see that science and technology are socially constructed is to realize the importance and role of social institutions in the production, justification, and legitimation, of science and technology. It is to realize the importance of construction as opposed to interpretation, or the constructive element in all interpretation. And it is to realize the importance of being one of the ones constructing, of the role of power in the construction of reality.
To stress that reality construction is a social process, is to stress the importance of the process of objectivation, of the use of intersubjectively available means of construction. It is to make the individual’s ability to rethink her situation and her world dependent on the social institutions of that world. Reality can be changed by changing our conception of it, but institutionally grounded conceptions are powerful forces in delimiting our individual freedom. Technology constitutes an important element in such institutional grounding, the most important element in our kind of society.
And when technology is being produced by world-wide, multi-national companies the construction of our social reality is largely out of our hands. We can always pretend, of course, by carving out local niches, that there is room for self-organized reality construction. And as a counter-measure to apathetic acceptance of technological determinism such self-organized reality construction is valuable. But there lies great danger in making such happenings, be they under the name of ”user-oriented system development” or ”local democracy”, the major undertaking for a discipline of system development. In the long run that would only result in a disillusioned acceptance of the fact that technology really determines our lives and that we can’t do anything about it. Taking Marx seriously we cannot be satisfied with providing local interpretations of a given, international technology, but must struggle for real power over the constructive production of that technology, i.e., power to change it.
1 I am grateful to, among others, Christiane Floyd, Kristo Ivanov, Lars-Erik Janlert, Ingvar Johansson and Thomas Söderqvist for comments, and to the Swedish Council for Planning and Coordination of Research for economic support.
2 See the discussion of this and similar examples in Dahlbom (1987).
3 See, e. g., Mathiassen (1984), Lyytinen (1986), Winograd & Flores (1986), Bjerknes et al (1987), Ehn (1988), Bjerknes et al (1990) and, of course, this volume.
4 An influential version of this argument can be found in Checkland (1981).
5 This research programme is inspired by the so-called ”strong programme”, an influential constructivist approach in recent sociology of science. Both programmes are described in Bijker et al (1987). Recent works in this vein are Latour & Woolgar (1986) and Latour (1987).
6 Cf. Floyd (1987) for a clear formulation of the nature of such a change.
7 See my discussion in Dahlbom (1990).
8 At the same time they correct one another on this score. Romanticism can be used as a basis for a conservative reaction against an uninhibited process of enlightened rationalization. From an enlightened standpoint it is often important to warn against Romantic excesses.
9 In their own different styles, with their own different motives, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud were the major instigators of this change. Heidegger, Lukacs, Mannheim and the Frankfurt school are some of the inheritors in our century.
10 It should be clear by now that the Enlightenment and Romanticism are both systems of thought and epochs in our history. They continue to fight for domination. They tend to coincide, roughly, with periods of economic growth and stagnation respectively. The period from the Korean war to the Oil Crisis (the 50’s and the 60’s) was a period of Enlightenment. Since then (the 70’s and the 80’s), Romanticism has ruled, but times seem to be changing again.
11 This lesson has been hard to learn. One exception to the general blindness to the social and cultural nature of thinking is the Russian school in psychology, now generally referred to as ”activity theory”. See the contribution by Arne Raeithel in chapter eight.
12 Thus there is in Descartes a clear formulation of the idea, so important in artificial intelligence research that thinking is calculation, computation. Haugeland (1985) has a nice discussion of this idea.
13 Schneider (1985) is a short review of this discipline.
14 Notice that it is a foursome of theories with wide applicability. You can use them to say interesting things about almost any arena of (human) activity. Art is an obvious case, but so is software development.
15 In order to indicate some of the complexity of the background of the idea that reality is socially constructed, I have chosen Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann as representatives of the phenomenological movement founded by Edmund Husserl, as interpreted by Alfred Schütz, with firm roots in German idealism; Nelson Goodman as an example of an analytic philosopher building his constructivism on Bertrand Russell’s idea of ”a logical construction of objects” as developed by logical positivist Rudolf Carnap; Richard Rorty as an American pragmatist reaching his version of constructivism through John Dewey, the later Wittgenstein and Heidegger; and, finally, Jacques Derrida and a constructivism coming out of the structural approach to language and other social phenomena, originated by Ferdinand de Saussure. Quite a mouthful.
16 Page references are to the Penguin edition (1967).
17 Quotations below will all be from this latter book in which Goodman comments on critics and expands on his views.
18 ”while the underlying world…need not be denied to those who love it, it is perhaps on the whole a world well lost.” (Ways of Worldmaking, p. 4)
19 See his Languages of Art (1976).
20 What little there is, is in Goodman (1979), chapter IV.
21 ”The many stuffs—matter, energy, waves, phenomena—that worlds are made of are made along with the worlds.” (Ways of Worldmaking, p. 6).
22 Habermas, Foucault and Rorty are good examples of these three positions. See Rorty (1984) for a discussion of the differences between Habermas’ Enlightened search for foundations, the nihilism of modern French postmodernism, and the belief in practice characteristic of American pragmatic philosophy.
23 When we talk of ”social reality construction”, we might of course mean the construction of social artifacts as I here use the term. We might, like Berger and Luckmann, be interested in pointing out that a study of social systems modelled on the natural sciences runs the risk of forgetting the task of analyzing the process of constructing those systems. The way I understand the phrase is, of course, as making the stronger claim that all of reality is socially constructed. This is a large claim, amounting to a thorough ”social-cognitive” turn, from reality as nature to reality as a social, artifact.
24 And they are finally beginning to be so, as witnessed by the contributions to the volume on Artificial Life, edited by Langton (1989).
25 If enough of us decide that there are no bombs, there won’t be any. But the most powerful strategy, except for occasional charismatic mass manifestations, to make us so decide, is to stop making bombs.
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