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In its simplest form, the claim that science is socially constructed means that there is no direct link between nature and our ideas about nature – the products of science are not themselves natural. This claim can be taken to mean different things and a distinction is often made between strong and weak interpretations of social constructivism. The stronger claim would not recognize an independent reality or materiality outside of our perceptions of it, or at least dismiss it as of no relevance as we cannot access it. This stance is, however, not a very common one. A weaker social constructivism tends to leave ontological queries to one side and instead focus on epistemological matters – how we gain knowledge about the world. What we count as knowledge is dependent on, and shaped by, the contexts in which it is created. Knowledge is thus made by people drawing on available cultural material, not preexisting facts in a world outside of human action, waiting to be uncovered.
Whereas the idea of science and scientific knowledge as socially constructed can be traced to many a scholar, the very concept of social construction was introduced into mainstream social sciences by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their influential book The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966). In it, the authors combine ideas from Durkheim and Weber with perspectives from George Herbert Mead, to form a theory of social action. This theory would not only deal with plurality of knowledge and reality – for example what counts as knowledge in Borneo may make little sense in Bath and vice versa – but also study the ways in which realities are taken as known in human society. How is it that a concept such as gender is taken to be ”natural” and ”real” in every culture, while at the same time it is perceived and performed very differently in different cultures? Knowledge about the society in which we live is ”a realization in the double sense of the word, in the sense of apprehending objectivated social reality, and in the sense of ongoingly producing this reality.” An objectivated social reality is a reality that is not ”private” to the person who produced it, but accessed and shared by others. As humans we are continuously creating and recreating reality, and the role of the sociologist is to analyze the process of how reality is constructed, that is, how knowledge becomes institutionally established as real.
One way of understanding science as socially constructed is to point to obvious and ”external” social factors, such as funding structures or political influences. These affect the way in which science develops; business interests can determine which projects are pursued, policy decisions can effectively close down entire avenues of research, and so on. The way in which research is institutionally organized is another much-cited example of ”external” social shaping of science – for example how heavy bureaucracy and strict disciplinary boundaries render the pursuit of trans-disciplinary science difficult. Another variety of this brand of social constructivism is the argument that only scientific knowledge deemed to be ”relevant” or interesting will be pursued.
The definition of scientific problems and framing of hypotheses often come with an inbuilt gender bias. Male contraception is an under-researched area because reproductive responsibilities are firmly placed with women in our society and it is thus assumed that it is the female body that is to be manipulated. Such social values are also reflected in the very methods that scientists will use – most human trials of medicines are performed on young men between 18 and 20 years of age. The generic ”human” is thus a young man, whereas elderly women are the more likely consumers of the medicines that are being trialled.
Scientists tend to insist that their way of arriving at knowledge makes their claims more true and more valuable than other groups’ knowledge claims (who arrived at their conclusions by different means and on different grounds). They argue that while it may be the case that certain types of knowledge -such as ideas about morality – are socially constructed, scientific knowledge should be exempt from such a mode of analysis. Scientific knowledge has a special authority and status because of the way in which we arrive at such knowledge. The ”scientific method” – rigorous and systematic examination, testing, and replication – thus guarantees the veracity of scientific claims. ”Truthfulness” is taken to mean that the claim in question is a direct representation of a reality that exists outside of, and independent from, our perceptions of it. A social constructivist view of science instead holds that scientific knowledge is as ”social” as other types of knowledge.
- Hacking, I. (1999) The Social Construction of What? Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Harding, S. (1991) Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
- Latour, & Woolgar, S. (1986) Laboratory Life. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.