Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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Ian Hacking
The Social Construction of What?
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1999. 223pp. $US 29.95 cloth (067481200X).

If one is not doing the sociology of science or knowledge, or working in the interdisciplinary field of science studies, Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? is probably not going to be a priority on a reading list. Perhaps, however, it should be, and it certainly deserves a thorough look by anyone interested in the philosophy of knowledge. The work is of course shaped by the ongoing skirmishes of ‘the science wars,’ although Hacking warns us that the metaphor of war for an academic debate does disservice to both the debate and its intractability, and to the messy ugliness of real war. It does not provide an analysis of the science debate, such as the one suggested by T. Gieryn’s (1999) Cultural Boundaries of Science (Chicago), but nor does it add to the polemics,

What Hacking does do, in this collection of lectures and essays, is provide clarification. He discusses three “sticking points” in the debates on the epistemic authority of science: contingency, nominalism, and stability. Contingency addresses the question of whether things might be otherwise, for example, whether there might be a ‘non-quarky’ physics. For most physicists, physics as we now understand it is simply not contingent, being the inevitable outcome of the research trajectory and its revelations of nature as-it-is. The constructivist view argues, variously, the “opposite,” the strongest position being that ‘things could be otherwise.’ To Hacking, contingency in science is to be found in the framing of the questions, but once questions are framed, the answers, the “contents” of a science, are noncontingent.

Hacking identifies nominalism as the second “sticking point” in debates about scientific knowledge. Nominalism debates question the relationship between our names and categories as referents to the world-as-it-is. ‘Realists’ posit a correspondence, while nominalists posit a disjuncture. Hacking’s argument overall is weakest here, because, as he notes, realism is not treated as the opposite of nominalism anymore, but he does not review the alternatives. Finally, the problem of the stability of knowledge is at issue in ‘the science wars.’ Is the stability of knowledge the result of ‘getting it right,’ of the correspondence between scientists’ fact statements and the world out there, or it the stability of knowledge the result of ‘external’ factors, such as its institutionalization, social networks, and so on.

Given this multidimensional discussion of positions on correspondence, representation, and truth, Hacking’s discussion of the politics of science studies is not particularly enlightening. He illustrates what is apparently a continuum from a quasi-conservative historicist position in science studies, to debunking methodologies and revolutionary anti-authoritarian positions. However, based on his typology, one would expect something other than a rather linear continuum. Even a two-by-two table does better at describing the authoritarian/antiauthoritarian and constructivist/essentialist dimensions of the debate. However weak his particular argument in this area, it did make me think. Is constructivism either necessary or sufficient for progressive social agendas? Under what conditions does the ‘space’ opened up by asking how things might be otherwise have liberatory potential? At one point Hacking asserts that understanding anorexia does not help those who are suffering from it. A better question, rather than this assertion, would be to inquire as to if, or under what conditions, an understanding of something as constructed is going to make positive social change possible?

Hacking also revists his prior work in chapters on child abuse, weapons research, rocks (dolomite, sedimentology and nanobacteriology), Captain Cook’s voyage, and mental illness. In an interesting section in the chapter on mental illness he attempts to transcend the nature/society divide, with an interesting discussion of feedback loops among and between mental and social activities and biological states. For example, behavioral therapies can change serotonin levels in people with depression, and so on. However, he reinvents the nature/social divide in his discussion of indifferent and interactive kinds. Thus one would expect ‘natural’ things to be indifferent to our classifications of them, but interactive things to respond in some way to our classifications. Based on his stated positions on nominalism, one might see this distinction as somewhat contradictory to the positions articulated earlier in the book.

Hacking differentiates himself from social constructivists, particularly on the basis of his analysis of contingency, although I am not so convinced by his demarcation efforts. He also identifies elsewhere (81) as a philosophical purist, which leads me to place this book into the realm of boundary work (as discussed by Gieryn). For sociologists, his dismissal of the ‘social’ of social construction theses as redundant should give pause. In that regard, while Hacking’s work of philosophical clarification is timely and important, it provides little methodological help for people who want to do serious sociologically informed work on knowledge. Perhaps not Hacking’s best work, in the sense of originality or power, it is not, as one on-line reviewer elsewhere dismisses, “tripe.” Those taking strong positions in the ‘science wars’ might argue that it is ‘immoderately moderate.’ Nonetheless, it is a very useful work of clarification, and the dimensions and implications of this work may be disputed and further clarified, which is what the positive model of academic debate and discourse should be about.

Jennifer L. Croissant
Program on Culture, Science, Technology & Society
University of Arizona
January 2000
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