Clarifying Social Construction

A book review of Ian Hacking’s Social Construction of What?

One of the most important jobs in the world is that of an arbiter: the person who goes to quarreling people and leads them to a peaceful conclusion.

Conflict is often simply a result of confusion: one person interprets something one way and another person interprets the same thing another way. The arbiter clearly explains to each person the positions held by the other people. She points out what everyone’s commitments entail: a benefit to one person might be a problem for another. Your comfortable car ride is my air pollution.

The arbiter then tells stories of previous such conflicts, and how they were resolved, or they might’ve been resolved. In the end, she adroitly guides everyone to a situation where the people in conflict find they have a lot of common ground, and significantly lessens the conflict by having people make concessions and adjustments. Both you and I want to breathe clean air. So perhaps you can install a smoke filter and I will make sure to do the same if I buy a car. 

Conflict thrives on confusion. Reduce the ambient confusion, reduce conflict.

Ian Hacking is a philosopher of the analytic tradition: a tradition of philosophy which prizes careful argumentation and clear writing. Hacking brings the best tools of the analytic tradition in arbitrating the social construction debate.

But what is the “social construction debate”?

Let’s take an example: Gender Roles.

First, let’s sketch a conservative position regarding gender roles: “Women are naturally, biologically, better than men at child-rearing,” the conservative says. “Therefore, they must take more of the burden of child-rearing at the expense of their professional careers. This is for the benefit of everyone, and in fact the woman will be happier if she focused solely on child-rearing.”

Next, let’s sketch a liberal position on gender roles: “This claim of ‘naturalness’ is not supported. The role of women in society is entirely a historical accident: it is socially constructed,” the liberal says. “Men would be equally good at child-rearing, if only the history of human societies had been different. Moreover, this role is foisted upon women by the patriarchy in an effort to control and exploit them, and this is unjust. We should work to free women from these roles.”

This is a recipe for a passionate fight. Emotions would run high on all sides and a lot of rhetoric will be employed and the debate will turn sour quickly.

Other than gender roles, there are many, many more examples of things that’ve been claimed to be socially constructed. Indeed, Hacking starts the book with an extensive list of things that have been claimed, by someone or the other, to have been socially constructed. These include: Emotions, Brotherhood, Facts, Literacy, Quarks, Women refugees, Serial Homicide, and of course, Reality.

That’s a bewildering array of things. (At this point you’re probably wondering how on Earth could quarks be socially constructed—more on this later.)


So what does Ian Hacking do in his book? He clarifies the different things people mean when they say something—call it X—is socially constructed. At the most basic level, they are committed to the following propositions:

(0) In the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted. That is, X appears to be inevitable.

(1) X need not have existed, or need not at all be as it is. X, or how X is at present, is not determined by the nature of things. That is, X is not inevitable.

On top of this, the social constructionist may go on to say:

(2) X is quite bad as it is.

Or even further:

(3) We would be very much better off if X were radically transformed or even completely done away with.

It is easy to see how the liberal position about gender roles fits this template.


It is important to point out that there is a trivial and uninteresting manner in which almost everything can be claimed to be socially constructed: by noticing that the idea of anything is socially constructed. For example, while coffee is a very physical thing with very distinctive properties, the idea of coffee, or the word “coffee”, has existence only as a consequence of human history and human thought. Thus, trivially, the idea of coffee is socially constructed.

But with something like gender roles, the claim of social construction is much more subtle. Here, it is not just the idea of a gender role which is claimed to be socially constructed; it is the gender roles themselves. More precisely, it is gender-differentiated behaviors, attitudes, expectations, and institutional practices that are claimed to be socially constructed.

Notice that the ideas of gender roles are inextricably tied with the shape and form of the gender roles themselves. If you believe strongly that women should not be in the workplace, you will behave differently towards women as a consequence.

Ian Hacking calls this dynamic nominalism or an interactive kind: a situation where a certain categorization of people induces those people to act in accordance, or in opposition, to the behaviors attributed to those people.

Another example: if people repeatedly call someone stupid, that person might tend to be less motivated to learn. Alternatively, they might rebel and try to learn more and become smarter. Either way, the classification of the person inevitably influences their behavior.

This is a problem that is uniquely faced in the domain of social sciences. Electrons don’t care what you call them.


Even if you accept propositions (0) & (1)—that is, you agree that something is historically contingent—there is no need for you to further agree with (2) & (3)—that is, you needn’t say that certain socially constructed systems are bad and or that they need to be changed. For example, you might accept that present gender roles are a historical accident, but you might believe that they are not bad at all.

If you do want to proceed to (2) & (3), Hacking sketches out how you could fall into one of several categories: Historical, Ironic, Reformist, Unmasker, Rebellious/Revolutionary.

(a) A historical constructionist just stops at (0) and (1). His goal is simply historical, to point out how historical accidents lead to the construction of some social systems and ideas.

For example, you can be a historical constructionist about nation-states: you could simply provide a historical account of how nation-states evolved. You might also sketch some key points in history where if something had gone some other way, then nation-states would not have evolved.

(b) An ironic constructionist argues for (0) and (1), and mildly endorses (2). She points out that while some part of our conceptual architecture or social world is not inevitable, and it might’ve been better if history had taken a different turn. But we are stuck with it and it’s going to be pointless to try and change it.

For example, you could take an ironic position about certain scientific concepts. You might argue that the idea of energy is not inevitable. You might have come up with some completely different conceptual tool to explain the experimental data and to solve the theoretical problems that lead to the positing of energy. Maybe your conceptual tool is equally good. But given that the idea of energy is very deeply entrenched in modern scientific practice, it is not worth the effort to change it.

This ironic position is taken by Andrew Pickering, a sociologist of science, in his book Constructing Quarks, towards quarks.

(c)  An unmasker points out that a certain idea serves a purpose different from its stated purpose. That is, she points out the idea has an extra-theoretical function.

In the example of gender roles, the unmasker might point out that pseudo-evolutionary arguments that women are intellectually inferior are often designed to be exploitative of women, for instance, by depriving them of political power, such as denying them the power to vote. Note that unmasking an idea does not necessarily prove its falsehood; it just makes it more likely that it’s false.

(d) A reformist is one who commits to (0), (1), and (2), but not (3). He accepts that X is quite bad as it is. But the reformist doesn’t necessarily wish to take action to remedy the situation.

For example, one can be a reformist about the adoption of English as the lingua franca of the world. You might dislike the arbitrariness of English. You might prefer a simpler, cleaner, less arbitrary language—perhaps Esperanto. Nonetheless, you agree that it is going to be very hard to move away from English. Still, you go to Esperanto conferences, converse with some friends in Esperanto, and focus on building some niches where Esperanto is adopted.

(d) A rebel or a revolutionary commits to (0), (1), (2), and (3). She takes serious efforts to change or even overthrow the current framework. This is the grade of commitment taken by the abolitionist movement, the feminist movement, the civil rights movement and so on.


After fleshing out this theory of social construction in detail, Hacking makes a transition to analyzing examples: Natural Sciences, Madness, Child Abuse, Weapons Research, Rocks, and Captain Cook. In each of these examples, he teases out how these topics are historically contingent to varying degrees. His analysis of these examples are eye-opening. They contain a deep knowledge of history combined with philosophical depth. Unfortunately, time and space do not allow me to talk about these examples in more detail. (In a future essay, I might discuss his handling of Natural Sciences in more detail.)

This book is a much needed breath of fresh air among stultifying debates. The most important contribution Hacking makes is essentially the attitude he brings to the problem. He simply points out that when you are confused in a debate involving social construction, it is important to ask what exactly is being claimed to be socially constructed, how exactly is it being claimed to be socially constructed, and what exactly is being proposed to be done about it. Indeed, social construction of what?

Update: If you liked this, I recommend this almost painfully brilliant essay by Paul Boghossian.