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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy

The Social Construction of What ?

Ian Hacking

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To purchase The Social Construction of What ?

Title: The Social Construction of What ?
Author: Ian Hacking
Genre: Philosophy
Written: 1999
Length: 223 pages
Availability: The Social Construction of What ? - US
The Social Construction of What ? - UK
The Social Construction of What ? - Canada
Entre science et réalité - France
Was heißt ›soziale Konstruktion‹ ? - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : a useful examination of the debate surrounding (social) constructionism

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly A 11/1999 Richard Rorty
Civilization . 6/1999 Kenneth Gergen
The Economist . 16/10/1999 .
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 12/12/1999 Daniel Johnson
Partisan Review A (4/2000) Sanford Pinsker
Science . 9/7/1999 Barry Allen
The Threepenny Review . Summer/2000 P.N.Furbank
TLS . 18/2/2000 Steven Weinberg
Virginia Quart. Rev. B Winter/2000 .

  Review Consensus:

  The reviews are largely descriptive rather than critical. Those that comment believe Hacking has done a good job.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hacking's book is an admirable example of both useful debunking and thoughtful and original philosophizing -- an unusual combination of good sense and technical sophistication." - Richard Rorty, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "By meting out credit while illuminating complexities, nuances, and missteps on both sides, Hacking's work implicitly urges a truce in the science wars." - Kenneth Gergen, Civilization

  • "Ian Hacking (...) would like to lower the heat. Extremists, he says, are rare in either camp." - The Economist

  • "The Social Construction of What? is a collection of papers, not a systematic treatment, but it hangs together." - Daniel Johnson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Given the vitriol on both sides of the science wars, Hacking serves a valuable function by explaining, in language as clear as it is smart, what noncombatants in the science wars need to know." - Sanford Pinsker, Partisan Review

  • "While he does not promise peace in our time, Hacking criticizes the way that scientists and sociologists shout at each other, and he laments talk of culture wars. I am not sure that he won't make the quarrel worse, but I admire the style and courage of his intervention. (...) Hacking's good humour and easy style make him one of those rare contemporary philosophers (along with Susan Haack, Robert Nozick and Bernard Williams) I can read with pleasure. But he is still too kind to the Capulets." - Steven Weinberg, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In a series of fascinating chapters he discusses the social construction of science, madness, child abuse, and rocks (.....) But, unfortunately, the book seems only half done; it ends a bit abruptly, petering out." - Virginia Quarterly Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ian Hacking is a philosopher, and philosophically he tries to position himself in the debate about social construction and in the so-called "culture wars" and "science wars" (as epitomized by the Sokal hoax -- see Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense and our review). "Philosophers of my stripe should analyze, not exclude," he says in his preface and he does, indeed, try to inclusively analyze the whole big picture. Fairly acknowledging his own (intermediate) position in the debate for and against construction he states his purpose clearly:

I do not want peace between constructionist and scientist. I want a better understanding of how they disagree, and why, perhaps, the twain shall never meet.
       The Social Construction of What ? serves as a useful introduction to the question and issues surrounding the idea of "social construction". Because Hacking is not as partisan (and as venomous) as many of the parties engaged in this debate he is able to present both sides -- a welcome and interesting juxtaposition. (By comparison, Sokal's texts -- or those of many of the constructionists -- are generally unforgiving and unsparing in their dismissal of the other point of view.)
       Hacking's first chapter, Why ask What ? begins with a list of things that have been said to be socially constructed. From "brotherhood" to "facts" to "quarks" to "women refugees" books can be found claiming (and purporting to explain why) these are socially constructed. Hacking properly focusses on definitions, a source of many of the problems underlying the arguments regarding constructionism. Various authors make various claims, using a variety of premises, definitions, and methods. Hacking makes clear that the umbrella-term of "social construction" is far too broad to be discussed (or dismissed) as a single concept. He examines the different forms of constructionism, identifying six "grades of commitment", -- and their weaknesses and uses -- from "Historical" to "Ironic" all the way to "Revolutionary". He also discusses the different "sticking points" that separate various notions of constructionism.
       Andrew Pickering's seminal 1984 text, Constructing Quarks, serves as an excellent example of the misunderstandings prevalent in the debate. As Hacking shows, Pickering's carefully constructed (and generally misconstrued) argument addresses several of the central points in the debate. Using Constructing Quarks and the work of Bruno Latour, among others, Hacking explains what he sees as the three "sticking points" of social constructionism:
  • Contingency
  • Nominalism
  • External explanations of stability
       (Grading from 1 to 5, "where 5 means you strongly stick on the constructionist side, and 1 the opposite" Hacking assigns Kuhn fives across the board. His own grades ? 2, 4, 3.)
       Hacking argues that aspects of the notion of social construction are obviously valid. Historical and cultural settings have an obvious effect on what is discovered, how it is discovered, as well as the interpretation of subjects, for example. However, Hacking also emphasizes that underlying scientific truths do exist. Differences in interpretation often come down to differences in language -- the question of exactly what is being said to be socially constructed.
       Hacking also addresses the significant point that much of the debate in the "science wars" centers on metaphysics:
The science wars, as I see them, combine irreverent metaphysics and the rage against reason, on one side, and scientific metaphysics, and an Enlightenment faith in reason, on the other.
       He does a fairly good job of separating the strands of the argument -- the emotional and the rational, cause and effect (and consequence). This complex, essentially second tier of the debate (though often put at the forefront) is, however, not his main concern.
       Having laid down the theoretical groundwork, Hacking then presents several examples of the application of the idea of social construction. Some of these are taken from older lectures, not updated (on purpose) but merely introduced within the context of the book. Usefully his examples are not restricted to either the natural or the social sciences. Hacking addresses: Madness, Child Abuse, Weapons Research, Geology (dolomite), and interpretations of Captain Cook.
       Short surveys, they nevertheless help elaborate on his original points. The different examples each address many of the issues and difficulties surrounding the debate about constructionism
       Among Hacking's central points is the significance of exactly what is being socially constructed, a question most forcefully addressed in the piece on child abuse: is it child abuse itself that is socially constructed, or the idea of child abuse ? From the title through most of the examples it remains a central issue, and Hacking is right to emphasize it so.
       Among the many useful concepts Hacking suggests is also that of the looping effect, interactions that affect subjects being observed -- something that can (and often must) be considered in many areas of study.

       A useful text, clearly presented and engagingly written (and not too burdened by technical-philosophical jargon), The Social Construction of What ? poses many important questions. The reasoned and reasonable examination of the many constructionist positions make it particularly useful for those whose realist bias makes it impossible for them to peruse an actual constructionist text. Hacking understands that the debate goes much deeper than this, but his overview of the nominal issues is also a valuable contribution to the raging debate. Recommended for any and all interested in the science/culture wars.

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The Social Construction of What ?: Reviews: Ian Hacking: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Ian Hacking lived 1936 to 2023.

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© 1999-2023 the complete review

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