Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Which is the Monkey? Constructionism 101

Oooh! Am I a Monkey?

One of the readers of my previous post on icons has raised an interesting request in the comments. He asked to know more about social constructionism. Let me present a brief elaboration of this topic, so you can better understand how, in reality - yes, there is that 'dirty' word again! - it has undergirded a lot of what we are seeing today, both in society at large and, at times, even in the Church.

Social constructionism, as implied by its title, defines reality as that which has either been or is constructed by a group of people at a particular location and at a certain point in time. Said to have commenced as a movement in the US with Berger and Luckmann's (1966) The Social Construction of Reality and Kenneth Gergen's (1977) The social construction of self-knowledge, constructionism holds that people "make their social and cultural worlds at the same time these worlds make them" (Fairhurst & Grant). Reality is primarily considered to be both "revealed and concealed, created and destroyed by our activities" (ibid.), rather than just being a reflection of objective truth. Secondarily, reality is constructed in and maintained by one's particular use of language, resulting in what has become known as 'the linguistic turn,' causing language to be considered to not mirror reality "out there" as in objectivist paradigms, but rather constructing reality itself and maintaining it within its specific linguistic structure.

Below is a plain example of what social constructionism can be like when taken to the extreme. Please note that constructionism is not constructivism, since the latter is a different 'animal,' albeit related. Here is the example:

Let us say you have a chair in front of you. This has a seat, four legs and a back. It may also have arms. It has been known as a chair since the time it was thus named - and who knows when that occurred. I certainly don't. But now a group of people comes along that does not want it to be known as a chair any longer. They decide to name it a 'monkey.' For that particular group of individuals, therefore, and anyone who may be either in their company or their group, this chair, to all intents and purposes, has now become a monkey. It is no longer a chair. This even though it does not perform in the same way monkeys do, as understood by those who retain the traditional vocabulary of what is a monkey and what is a chair. So if you want to sit on that chair or do anything with it, you have to say, "Give me the monkey." Saying, "Give me the chair," in that particular group, community, society or whatever-you-want-to-name-it, has now gone the way of the dodo bird. The chair as chair per se no longer exists.

It all has to do with naming; thus constructing reality, not the other way around.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a summary elaboration of social constructionism - and I have not even skimmed here either its roots or its derivatives to the present day. Apply that, now, to the binary/non-binary discourse we are hearing about today and seeing in Western society, together with its attempted implementations particularly in relation to sexes, genders and truth, and you will have your answer as to what is happening 'where' and 'how' in both society and in the Church.

© Marcelle Bartolo-Abela, aka the Bald Eagle
A former constructionist.


  1. And opposing this would be the idea that "chairbnss" is a quality that remains the same whether you call its manifestation "a chair" or "a monkey." Forms have an independent exisistence. Dining chair, an electric chair and a throne are all recognizably "chairs" because "chairness" is not just a convention but a realization of that particular ideal form.
    And there are other examples. "Red" is a color that we wecognize by its quality. In theory, we cannot know that what I experience as "red" is the same as what you experience as the same color. We both have been taught to stop when the light is "red," whatever that means to us. It might be experienced by you the way I experience "green," but it doesn't matter. A girl's "red" blush could be experienced as any color subjectively, but as long as "that color" is called "red" by one and all, it does not matter. We would each be safe within our own experiences and mean completely different things by the word "red." We look at the sunset and the sunset-color may look red to me and green to you, yet since everyone knows sunsets are "red" (whatever that means) we agree on the same word, having no idea and no way of learning that we are not agreeing to the same actual color at all.

    A human sees his child, and experiences many levels of reality. A Bear sees the same child and sees "lunch." How do we choose who is right? What if Bears outnumber humans and the consensus of society is that they are indeed "lunch" and nothing more that counts. Is there a "truth" to which Bears or humans may appeal to break the two different realities? If so where may it be found and who is its keeper?

    The Marquis died Sade wrote "Morality is merely geography misconstrued." A person is your neighbor, with a bundle of obligations and expectations. There are people on remote islands who believe humans not quite their sort are "lunch." To what would you appeal within them to change their mind? If a person believes someone not of his religion is a cipher unworthy of anything but death, how would you (a) determine he is wrong and (b) what appeals make you make to convince him otherwise?

    Which brings us to the question: do you sit on chairs or monkeys and does it make any difference? Is there any connection between some external reality and us? If you say "no" how does communication or even rational thought become possible? If you say "yes" things are hardly easier, because to what "reality" are you connecting, "how are you performing this trick," and how do you account for the seeming agreements (and any disagreements) among people?

    Finally, does a tree belong to a recognizable class of objects known to us as "trees?" Or does each tree stand alone, connected to others only by a trick of the human brain, humans having found it convenient to take the grossest similarities (comes out of ground, branches, etc.) and lump individuals into human-constructed groups primarily for making thinking and communication easier.

    What makes all this more interesting is that if "quality" is a real thing with an existence outside the human brain and conventions, it presupposes a realm of information that is non-physical and exists independently of observers. Information need not be local. It solves a lot of questions that have arisen over our existence, and makes a practical difference.

    Final thought: is "matrimony" real, something external to which we either conform or not, or just a construct, which may change from one age to another for any reason or no reason?

    1. You said that "chairness" is a quality...forms have an independent existence." Errr, not quite, particularly in radical constructionism. The premise is that if it was not named a "chair" in the first instance, you may not have assembled it as a chair, but as something completely different. Hence the quality of "chairness" itself is considered to be not inherent in the chair, but in the linguistic construct.

      "How do we choose what is right?" Again, that is determined by the group.

      "Is there a truth to which...humans may appeal?" Only localized truth, since the 'truth' is both determined by a group and applicable solely to that group. Hence a different group may have a different truth. And both 'truths' would be equally valid.

      "If a person believes someone not of his religion is a cipher unworthy of anything but death, how would you (a) determine he is wrong and (b) what appeals make you make to convince him otherwise?" Ah, here is where the process of deconstruction comes in. Short answer: You would deconstruct what is being presented, in terms of the linguistic constructs, and maintain that process of deconstruction until there is, ahem, next to nothing left. It's all about signifiers and signifieds, and breaking up their linkages to reconstitute them in a different manner.

      "Do you sit on chair or monkeys or does it make any difference?" Well, if the chair has been reconstituted into something else because it is no longer a seat on four legs, you would have to sit on something else, wouldn't you?

      "Is there any connection between external reality and us?" No, not in radical constructionism; there is not. Because the tenet that we are the ones who create reality. It is not something out there that we then match intellectually to something in our heads.

      "Does a tree belong to a recognizable class of objects known to us as trees?" Again, in constructionism, not necessarily; no. A tree could be considered something completely different - for example, a monkey.

      "If quality is a real thing with an existence outside the human brain..." Errr, no. Quality in itself is considered a construct, not a tangible 'reality.'

      "Is matrimony real?" In constructionism, the answer to that would be only insofar as a group of people say it is. And that reality would be local solely to them, hence non-generalizable.

  2. Well, the abstract "chairness" is actually what a chair is, I'd argue that's part of the Logos while the mass of atoms is in some way confined solely to the atomic and thereby satan's realm. There is an actual 'red', but it exists abstractly and can't be quantified (correlated to a wavelength, granted, but as you pointed out, it can't be verified that that wavelength stimulates the same color perception). Most birds can see ultraviolet, including corvids, and there is no way to explain that to a human being, it would be like explaining blue to someone who's colorblind. I've argued with people over this and a lot of people just don't get, they'll say you can see UV with a machine (nope, just converts it into visible light) or that the wavelength is actually the color. It's really refreshing to know someone who understands this.

    With matrimony it exists as an abstract and can be brought down from Heaven through the sacrament, but if it isn't valid it's just apery.

    What I'm getting at is that I don't think that different types of chairs are recognizable because they're a realization of the form, but that they're a realization of the form because we're recognizing them as so. Does this mean that we create reality? No. It means that we recognize God's creation and give it a name, and impose Heaven and God's will upon the Earth in so doing. If we're disordered we're severed from this, and from the first ability that God gave us.

    1. Granted. The paradigm for that would be objectivism, not constructionism.

    2. Well, kind of. I do mean that reality exists independently of human perception, but not tangibly and on earth, only in heaven. So, constructionism on earth valid in light of heaven's objectivity.

      For the love of God, don't think I'm an existentialist or one of those Atlas Shrugged people!

    3. You cracked me up with laughter with your last sentence! No, I don't think you're "one of those people," haha!

  3. Social constructionism is a branch of Kant/Hume's philosophy, which in turn functions as an attempted solution to the medieval problem of universals, which is just a repackaging of the ancient problem.

    In a nut shell, whether or not humans can cognitively know objective reality isn't important because that is not how human operate. Individuals perceive reality in a subjective fashion. Humans, as social creatures then link these subjective perceptions together to form society, culture, and institutions. Society is, in a negative analysis, an agreed upon mass delusion. In a positive analysis, it is something that has momentum a "becomingness" that individuals or groups of individuals of great will can shape and shift human destiny/progress towards the Utopian ideal (which need not be understood as the squaring of the circle of trying to line up the functioning of society to the functioning objective reality). There are a million great movies and books that explore this concept of the shaping of society by individuals of will, but they are all escaping me right now.

    Social constructionism should not be confused with social contracts, though the is a lot of similarity in operation and behavior between the two. Social contracts are about how individuals agree to function in society. Social constructionalism is about the very nature of society. Stop signs and driving on the right hand of the road in the US is a social contract. As individuals, we are agreeing to behave in a certain way in order to be members in good standing of this particular society. Social constructionalism is more than just social contracts applied at a very macro scale, it is about the perception of reality and the nature of society. It is about saying that THIS is the perceived subjective reality that we are going to build our society, culture, and institutions around.

    It is about axioms, pre-conceived notions, a priori facts, presuppositions -- the building blocks that we have before we even have the discussion about the nature of reality and how we are to function in it. Social constructivionism says that these things need not be as epistemologically close as possible to objective knowledge, but in fact can be derived from whole cloth and are valid only so far as they are agreed upon by society. From individuals in agreement society develops and in tern society develops additional or modified "fundamentals" which in term develop society in turn "fundamentals" etc.

    Now it is going to be way to easy to point out pretty much anything on the American Left is an engagement in social constructionist, so I won't. The example that I am going to use is Calvinism. Calvanism rests on covenantal theology, and if you peel that back, especially with the presuppositions surrounding the covenant of works, there is nothing under there but will to deem subjective notions fundamental facts. It is called Presuppositional Theology, by Calvinists. The whole Presbyterian system of Confessions from which Presbyterian society is constructed is social constructionalism before social constructionalism was a thing.


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