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Social Construction

Lecture Supplement

Cognition is about knowing the world -- about forming mental representations of the world outside the mind.  Put another way, the goal of cognition is to acquire, retain, and use knowledge about reality.  In social cognition, the reality is social in nature: Other people and their behavior; ourselves, and our own behavior; and the situations in which we interact with others.

But what kind of reality is social reality?  


The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment Stance

The philosophical roots of this question go back to the debate between the realists and the idealists.

The realists won this battle, leading to what Casirer (1932) called the Enlightenment Stance of the 17th and 18th centuries.  The Enlightenment thinkers contrasted with medieval thought, with its emphasis on knowledge acquired through authority (and its tendency to fall into superstition).  For Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, and other Enlightenment figures, knowledge was not given, but rather was acquired through reason.  reason is the central human capacity (a view that comes from Descartes, at least), and in turn permits correct thought and action. 

Other enlightenment precepts:

The Enlightenment thinkers favored individuality over local prejudice.  They de-emphasized historical differences (everyone is rational, after all), cultural differences (everyone is rational, after all), and the intuitive and the artistic (reason is the central human capacity, after all).

There were at least three "Enlightenments", all centered on the period ranging from the late 17th to the early 19th century:

Of course, an important implication of Cassirer's notion of an "Enlightenment Stance" is that the Enlightenment was not confined to a specific period of time, but rather represents a way of thinking, based on human rationality, that laid the foundation for the importation of the scientific method to all realms of thought.

The Enlightenment, in turn, stimulated a "Counter-Enlightenment" in some quarters of the Catholic Church, and other conservatives, who thought that the Enlightenment was responsible for the Terror of the French RevolutionLater in the 19th century, another countervailing force arose in the form of a Romantic philosophy that emphasized myth, tradition, emotion -- and unconscious mental life (think Freud).  And again in the 20th century, some critics argued that the ultra-rationalism of the Enlightenment was indirectly responsible for the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany.  And certain "post-modern" thinkers (where "modern" = Enlightenment), like Foucault, argued that values, and even truths, might not be universal (a point that we'll take up in detail below).  For details and references, see "the Great Fight Over the Enlightenment" by Keith Thomas, New York Review of Books, 04/03/2014).

Enlightenment thinking was, of course, closely tied to the Scientific Revolution in the West: In the Enlightenment view, the laws of nature are inexorable -- they are universal, exist independently of the mind, and can be discovered through reason (including scientific experiment).  The enlightenment Stance concerning the nature of reality is well expressed by the physicist (and Nobel laureate) Steven Weinberg:

"Any intelligent alien anywhere would have to come upon the same logical system as we have to explain the structure of protons and the nature of supernovae."

Yes, But...

All scientists embrace something like The Enlightenment Stance, because we think that there are facts about how the world works, including facts about how the mind works, that are out there to be discovered by observation, experiment, and reason.  At the same time, cognitive scientists, psychologists, and other social scientists harbor the uneasy feeling that some of the facts we're trying to discover are actually facts of our own making.  That is, that at some deep level our beliefs create the very reality that we're trying to understand.

Constructivism in Nonsocial Cognition

          (43012 bytes)This is true in nonsocial cognition.  Neisser (1976) has emphasized that perception is not merely a process by which information in the stimulus is conveyed to the perceiver.  Instead, he has described a perceptual cycle in which the perceiver approaches an object through a schema, or generalized mental representation.  Then the perceiver engages in some exploratory activity -- it could be something as simply as tilting his head -- which makes new information available to the perceiver, thus modifying the perceiver's schema.  This cycle is continued until a satisfactory mental representation of the object has been achieved.  Thus, the perceiver constructs his or her percepts through exploratory activity directed at the object of perception.

Constructivism in Perception

Neisser's perceptual cycle is just one example of a number of constructivist points of view on perception, dating back to the earliest days of experimental psychology (Helmholtz, 1867) and continuing up to the present (Hochberg, 1964; Gregory, 1966; Rock, 1980).  All constructivists argue that the proximal stimulus is inherently ambiguous, in that there is "an infinite array of distal configurations that are compatible with the momentary state of proximal stimulation".  

As an example, consider the relationship between object size, distance, and the size of the retinal image:

Thus, given two retinal images of the same size, we do not know if the objects are of equal size and distance, or whether one object is bigger than the other, but also much farther away.  

Thus stimulation must be disambiguated -- perhaps by virtue of an a priori model of the world (a schema), or by the application of inference -like rules.  In this way, perceiving entails thinking and problem-solving behavior.  We are not perceptually aware of the world, but only of our mental representation of it: perception is a construction of the current environment.

(Re)Constructivism in Memory

ReconstructPrinc.JPG (69787 bytes)With respect to memory, Bartlett (1932) argued that the information in the memory trace was also ambiguous -- vague, fragmentary, and incomplete.  Similarly, he also argued that trace information must be disambiguated - -again, by the application of mental schemata and inferential rules.  Remembering also entails thinking and problem-solving.  Remembering, no less than perceiving, entails thinking and problem-solving.  We do not remember the past, but only our mental representations of past events: memory is a reconstruction of the past.

                      (108358 bytes) Hampl2.JPG
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The point of all of this is that perception entails constructive activity on the part of the perceiver, and remembering entails reconstructive activity on the part of the rememberer.  What we perceive are our constructions of the present; and what we remember are our reconstructions of the past.

Constructivism in Social Cognition

This is all the more true when it comes to social reality and social cognition. 

There are two fundamental aspects of social cognition:

In large part, social reality is created through expectancy confirmation processes related to Merton's notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy:

Definitions of a situation... become an integral part of the situation and thus affect subsequent developments....  The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.  The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy creates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning. Such are the perversities of social logic.  

Following Snyder (1978), Darley and Fazio (1980), and Jones (1986), we can distinguish between three different expectancy confirmation processes operating at the individual level:

010IntRecip.jpg (54149
          bytes)These three modes can be related to the person-situation interaction:

Through behavior, private beliefs can create a public reality.  

We have already seen experimental demonstrations of expectancy confirmation effects, both perceptual and behavioral, in the classic experiments of Snyder, Swann, and others.  Now we approach the issue of social construction from other perspectives.


Constructive Alternativism

George Kelly's personal construct theory also provides a perspective on constructivism.  In Kelly's view, events can be construed in multiple ways.  People are able to choose among available constructs, to abandon old constructs that are no longer useful, and to acquire new constructs that are more useful.  Whatever the choice, the person's construal of the situation will shape his or her subjective reality, and this mental representation will determine his or her behavior.


Realism, Idealism, and Social Constructivism

The idea of social construction has its roots in the old philosophical debate between realism and idealism;

Idealism does not deny that there is a real world outside the mind.  However, it does assert that some aspects of our perceptions are context dependent, appearing in some circumstances but not in others.  Therefore, these aspects of perception do not reflect intrinsic properties of the world, but rather are created in our minds.

Actually, there are two levels of constructivism.

According 052Moon.jpg (83060 bytes) to the individual variant, our mental representations are the product of our individual cognitive constructions.  Thus, the moon on the horizon appears to be larger than the moon at zenith because of unconscious inferences in perception. It's the individual variant that we're talking about, mostly, when we talk about the self-fulfilling prophecy, expectancy confirmation effects, and constructive alternativism.

According DeBeauvoir.JPG (92711
          bytes)to the social variant, our mental representations are the product of social and cultural forces.  The social variant is neatly expressed by the French philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir, who asserted that "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman".  By this she meant that biological differences between the sexes (chromosomal endowment, primary and secondary sex characteristics) do not determine gender, gender attributes, or gender relations.  These gendered attributes, in her view, were highly contingent on history and social structure.  Thus, definitions of masculinity and femininity may differ from one society, and one temporal epoch, to another.

Translating De Beauvoir

The English-language rights to The Second Sex were originally purchased by Alfred A. Knopf, whose wife, Blanche, had spotted it in a Paris bookstore and thought it was a sex manual.  The original translation was by Howard M. Parshley, a zoologist at Smith College who had only a journeyman's knowledge of French -- and who, at Knopf's urging, excised large portions of the text in order to make it more palatable to American readers.  Nevertheless, it is this edition of the book that became a sort of Bible for the "second wave" feminism that emerged in America in the 1960s, stimulated by the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystiique (1963) and the successes of the civil rights movement.

Almost from the beginning there were complaints about Parshley's cuts and translation, and in 2010 a new translation was released by Constance Borde and Sheila Mallovanay-Chevalier -- two Americans who live in Paris and teach English there.  But even though the new edition is unabridged, there have been complaints about the new translation as well. 

But, for all his limitations, Parshley seems to have gotten the gist of the book right.  The core of De Beauvoir's argument is consistent with Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist dictum that "existence precedes essence".  Parshley translated De Beauvoir's original

On ne nait pas femme: on le devient


One is not born, but rather, becomes, a woman.

Borde and Mallovany-Chevalier, instead, offer

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.

I get the difference, but I still prefer the original -- not least because the phrase a woman seems more consistent with the individualism celebrated by Sartrean existentialism.

So if you want the whole 972-page text, you've got to get the second edition.  But for most purposes, the original will do just fine.

Hacking.JPG (47594 bytes)Since de Beauvoir, the term "social construction" has become extremely trendy.  The philosopher Ian Hacking (1999) has listed dozens of books with some variant on "the social construction of X" in their titles -- including authorship, emotions, knowledge, nature, quarks, and even reality itself.  This last one gave Hacking the title for his book: The Social Construction of What?.  After all, reality is supposed to be what's real -- the reality that lies outside the individual's mind, knowledge of which is inexorable.


Painter.JPG (84913 bytes)Something similar could be said about race, as discussed in the lectures on "Social Categorization".  setting aside the social construction of racial minorities, as expressed in policies such as the "one drop rule" for classifying people as African-American

it turns out that even racial majority categories, such as "Caucasian" or "white", are the product of social construction.

And, for that matter, something similar could be said about personality, and especially our implicit theories of personality.  Personality theory, and person perception, has lately focused on the "Big Five" structure of personality -- the idea that individual differences in personality can be summarized in terms of five major dimensions of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.  Consensus around the Big Five has been building for more than 50 years, but it turns out that the definition of the five factors has changed somewhat over this interval.  This is especially the case with Factor V, currently labeled openness to experience.

Deconstruction of Social Construction

In Hacking's view, all versions of social constructivism share the view that meanings are not inherent in objects and events, nor are they immutable.  Instead, meanings are historically contingent, and the products of social forces.

Beyond this, Hacking identifies several stages through which social constructivist theory can progress:

  1. At the outset, some thing, X, appears to be inevitable, with some inherent, immutable meaning.
  2. Then the theorist realizes that X need not have existed at all; or that it need not be as it is; or that it is not determined by the nature of things; or, simply, that it is not inevitable.
  3. Then the theorist may determine that X is "quite bad as it is".
  4. Finally, the theorist may judge that we would be better off if X were done away with altogether, or at least radically transformed -- actions that are possible precisely because X is not, after all, inevitable.

Hacking also distinguishes between traditional and "unmasking" social constructivists:

Social Construction and the

Faith-Based Presidency of George W. Bush

Social cognition explores how people acquire, represent, and use social knowledge -- how they cognize the social environment in which they live.  And it is an assumption of cognitive psychology in general that reality is independent of the perceiver -- that the goal of the perceiver is to construct a valid mental representation of reality.  But one of the important insights of personality and social psychology is that, to some extent at least, people create the environment to which they respond.  In other words, reality isn't so independent of the perceiver after all.

In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Ron Suskind, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article about the 43rd president's "preternatural, faith-infused certainty in uncertain times".  In addition to his political insights, Suskind also captured succinctly the difference between social cognition as an empirical process of acquiring knowledge about the world and social construction as a process of creating that world through action and belief.  Suskind writes ("Without a Doubt", New York Times Magazine, 10/17/04).  

In the summer of 2002... I had a meeting with a senior advisor to Bush... [who] told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality."  I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principle and empiricism.  He cut me off.  "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued.  "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.  And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.  We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do".

The case illustrates both the scope and the limits of social constructivism.  We act in accordance with our mental representation of the world.  And through our behavior, we can bring the world more in line with our representation of it.  To some extent: even President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld couldn't create weapons of mass destruction just by thinking they existed!

Hacking makes clear that there is a close connection between social constructivism and political ideology.  But, as the George Bush example shows, the ideology is not necessarily of the left.  And one doesn't have to be particularly political to take the idea of social constructivism seriously.

The Construction of Social Reality

Searle2010.JPG (79688
          bytes)That is because social constructivism raises important questions about the limits of knowledge.  We ordinarily think of objective reality as observer-independent, and of social constructions as somehow subjective, and thus observer-dependent.  But the philosopher John Searle (1995) has pointed out that this easy equation confuses ontogeny and epistemology.

With respect to ontogeny:

With respect to epistemology,


The Trouble with Intentionality

Philosophical jargon is often confused with ordinary language.

In philosophy, intentionality has nothing to do with free will, but merely refers to the fact that mental states refer to things in the world.

Similarly, attitude has nothing to do with good or bad feelings about an object, but rather to specific propositional contents -- the person's beliefs, desires, hopes, and wishes about the world.

Thus, the distinction between observer-dependent and observer-independent features is not quite the same as the distinction between objective and subjective reality.

Some post-modern claims concerning social constructivism can seem downright silly, but the philosopher John Searle finds that there is actually a deep and interesting philosophical claim: that there is "an objective reality that is what it is only because we think it is what it is". As proof, he offers the examples of money, marriage, and property rights. Money is money only because we say it is; but money is money, objectively -- it's not merely a matter of someone's belief. Same holds true for marriage and property rights, among many other things.

The trick to understanding how this can happen, in Searle's view, is to understand that the terms "objective" and "subjective" have two quite different meanings, ontological and epistemic. In terms of ontology, something has an objective mode of existence if it does not depend on the subject's experience; and a subjective mode of existence if it exists only as experienced by some subject. In terms of epistemology, knowledge is subjective if its truth-value depends on the attitudes and feelings of the subject; knowledge is objective if its truth value is independent of the attitudes and feelings of the subject.

The point is that ontological objectivity-subjectivity and epistemic objectivity-subjectivity are not perfectly correlated. Using Searle's examples:

It's tempting to cast all of this into a 2x2 table:


(Claims about Truth)

Ontology (Facts About Existence)







Earthquakes are caused
by the movement of tectonic plates
Earthquakes are bad
for real-estate values



Earthquakes are more frightening
than tornadoes.
It's a good thing that earthquake are bad for real-estate values, because people should be discouraged from living in earthquake-prone areas.

Searle put the distinction succinctly in Making the Social World (2010):

Understanding how someone could categorize an object as a paperweight, or evaluate the moon as beautiful, are matters of individual psychology. They're what cognitive psychology is all about. But understanding how someone could state that earthquakes are bad for real-estate values requires an understanding of the social context in which the individual's thoughts occur. Put bluntly, earthquakes can't be construed as bad for real-estate values unless one is in a particular kind of society -- a society in which people share a concept of real estate (and property rights) to begin with -- which themselves are constructions of the human mind.

Searle notes that intrinsic facts are the domain of the physical sciences, such as math and physics, while observer-relative facts are the domain of the social sciences, such as sociology and economics. Psychology, for its part, seems to be both a physical science and a social science. In part, psychology tries to discover universal -- intrinsic -- principles about how the mind works (and how the brain does it). In that respect, it's a natural science. But it's also true that a great deal of the subject-matter of psychology are matters of meaning -- facts that are observer-relative, because they are products of mental activity. Some of these observer-relative facts are the product of individual mental activity, while some of these are the product of what Searle (and other philosophers) call collective intentionality.

And, just to bring this all back to earth, social cognition tries to understand how people acquire, represent, transform, and use knowledge about the social world. But some of these social facts are themselves the product of individual mental activity -- they're not independent of the mind of the person who knows them. And some of these social facts are true only in certain social contexts -- because they are the product of the collective mental activity. Still and all, these facts are objectively true, even though they are observer-relative. In this sense, social reality is, at least in part, a social construction. In Hacking's terms, the challenge of social cognition is to understand things that are true, but which might be true only for those who think they are -- things that are true, but which might not be true for everyone, everywhere.

038Searle.jpg (56742
          bytes)The paradox of social construction is expressed by Searle (1995) in this way:




How can there be "an epistemically objective social reality that is partly constituted by an ontologically subjective set of attitudes?"

Put another way -- Searle again, in Mind, Language, and Society (1998), 

How can there be "an objective reality that is what it is only because we think it is?"

Or, again,

How can there be objective facts about the world that are created only through shared belief?

First, let us remind us that this is, simply, the case:

But still, there are some puzzles, among which are:

Searle's solution to these puzzles begins with the notion of collective intentionality.  We usually think of intentionality in terms of statements taking the form "I believe that X", or "I wish that X" (where X = some proposition like "cars have wheels" -- that all intentionality is individual intentionality.  This is because most philosophers (except, perhaps, for thinkers like Hegel) want to avoid entities like group minds.  As such, collective intentionality is usually reduced to individual intentionality, in terms of statements of mutual belief like "I believe that X, and I believe that you also believe that X."  When there are a lot of people involved, however, such statements can get pretty long.  Characteristically, Searle cuts through this by simply asserting that individuals minds can entertain statements of collective intentionality like "We believe that X".  Just because intentionality has to exist in individual heads doesn't mean that all intentionality has to be expressed in the first-person singular.  Collective intentionality of this sort is the foundation of all social activity: without it, cooperative activities simply couldn't occur.  For Searle (1998), "a social fact is any fact involving two or more agents who have collective intentionality".  But there are also institutional facts, involving social institutions, not just social groups.  

In Searle's analysis, institutional facts emerge from the human capacity to assign functions to objects (Searle asserts, provocatively, that functions are observer-relative facts, because functions exist only relative to the observers who assign functions).  In the case of institutional reality, humans organized into social institutions assign status functions to objects and behaviors -- functions that they possess not because of their physical nature, but because the acceptance of that function by individuals organized into a collective.

Institutional reality is a product of constitutive rules, which not only regulate some activity, but make the activity possible in the first place.

Institutional reality exists within a system of agreed-upon rules that constitute, or create, that very reality.  

Money.JPG (83163 bytes)Thus, to return to the example of money, there is nothing about the physics of money that enables it to perform its functions as money.  Money, at least the kind of currency we are familiar with (which economists call fiat money), is money only because it has been declared to be money by a government agency.  


From Social Construction to Biological Reality -- and Back Again(?)

In discussing social ontology, Searle has sometimes entertained a thought experiment, in which a tribe builds a wall around its village, and forbids its members from going outside; gradually, the wall is dismantled, but the people still don't go outside the precincts of the village.  Objectively, the wall no longer exists as a material fact; but it still exists in the minds of the tribespeople.

Something like this actually happened, only in reverse.  Beginning in 1945, a fortified and virtually impenetrable border, known in the West as the Iron Curtain, separated the countries of Western Europe from those Eastern European countries that had fallen into the orbit of the Soviet Union.  The border wasn't just impermeable by humans (during the Cold War, some 500 people were killed trying to cross the border between Bavaria, in West Germany and Bohemia, in Czechoslovakia (as they were then known).  It also couldn't be penetrated by many mammals.  As a result, the red deer living in the Bavarian-Bohemian ecosystem, along the border  divided into two distinct populations.  In 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, this border was dissolved, permitting the deer to mix freely.  Remarkably, to a large degree they have failed to do so.  With some exceptions, the two populations have stayed on their own sides of the border --  even though all the deer now living there were born after the border fell (Fickel et al., 2011). 

So, a border that was socially constructed (by politicians) became a physical border (enforced at gunpoint), and then became something like a social construction again (by deer).  As Tom Synnatzschke, a German producer of nature films told the Wall Street Journal, "The wall in the head is still there" ("deep in the Forest, Bambi Remains the cold War's Last Prisoner" by Cecilie Rohweddeer, 11/04/2009).  The article continues:

Yet there are signs that cross-border traffic may pick up. "Our data showed that the animals behaved very traditionally," says [Czech zoologist Pavel] Sustr. "The former border was in the minds of the animals. But some of the young animals are searching for new territory. They are more and more deleting the border behavior that was there before."

Well, perhaps not exactly, but it's still an interesting case to conjure with!

So Searle addresses the paradox, and the puzzles of social reality, as follows:

Social reality is made possible by consciousness and collective intentionality.  Any species that has consciousness, and collective intentionality, and thus can assign functions, can create a social reality.  There are lots of social species, from chimpanzees and elephants to bees and ants, so it is an open question how far the ability to create social reality goes.  But institutional reality can only be created by a species that can assign status functions, and the assignment of status functions requires language.  If only humans have language, only humans can create institutional reality. 

Triangulation and the Social Bases of Knowledge

Although Descartes claimed that knowledge was possessed by individual minds ("I think, therefore I am"), other philosophers have emphasized the social basis of knowledge.  Among these was Wittgenstein, who argued that reality was defined by linguistic communication.  Along similar lines, the late UCB philosopher Donald Davidson (1917-2003) opposed Descartes' "egocentric predicament" with the notion that language and thought are created by the individual, all other people, and the nonhuman universe all interacting with each other -- a condition Davidson termed triangulation.  

Two Kinds of Reality, Two Kinds of Science

Searle has also noted that the distinction between observer-independent and observer-dependent facts is fundamental to the distinction between two types of science.

An interesting case is that of economics:

This is the difference between economics and political economics, I suppose.

There is much talk, especially among physicists and neurobiologists, of reducing the laws of social science to those of physical science.  But if observer-relative facts cannot be reduced to observer-independent facts, that will not be possible, and the social sciences will retain their autonomy from the physical sciences.


What Kinds of Facts in Social Cognition?

The point of all of this is that there may be two quite different kinds of facts about people at issue in social cognition.

Social cognition is a subfield of psychology, and psychology is a science.  Like any other field of science, social cognition seeks objective knowledge of how we understand social reality.  But:

This mix of facts is, I think peculiar to the social sciences, and it's what makes social psychology, and especially the study of social cognition, so interesting -- and difficult.


This page last revised 05/12/2014.