Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

What are we socially constructing? Good question, for a start

mkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , ,

The flight home from London yesterday was uneventful—always a good thing while crossing the ocean. Because we were following the sun, it felt like one long, sunny day affording more hours of reading time. So, I tackled Hacking’s work:

Hacking, I. (2000). The Social Construction of What? (p. 272). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. See:

Although written by a philosopher, this book is fairly accessible for non-philosophers such as myself. (No offense to philosophers.) To my own joy and appreciation, the book is sprinkled with some good-natured humour in its pokes at other thinkers, both past and present.

I will try to summarize the main points that I am taking away from this reading. But first a quote to mollify the more extreme positions that can be take for or against social constructionism:

Many social constructionists about the natural sciences appear to dislike the sciences. Nevertheless, constructionists do not maintain that the propositions received in the natural sciences are in general false. They do not believe that artifacts, such as airplanes, engineered in the light of scientific knowledge, usually fail to work. Constructionists are creatures of Humian habit. They expect airplanes to get you there, and know that science, technology, and enterprise are essential for air travel. (p. 67) [Needless to say, I took this to heart during the flight.]

To some, this quote might indicate a lack of commitment to the social constructionist project. I would prefer to think of it as demonstrative of the complexity and ongoing misunderstanding of this philosophical approach. Further, as Hacking points out that constructionists are not always clear on what is being constructed: objects, ideas, types of people?

Local vs. overarching claims

Hacking argues that much of social constructionism (SC) is focused on the local rather than the universal.

Local Overarching

Raises awareness of an issue, label, and category within a given context. Local claims can be independent of one another and may be related to an overarching claim (p. 6). Examples of local claims discussed in the book include gender, child abuse, schizophrenia, women refugees.



Extreme view: Our world and all our conceptions of it and knowledge about it are [all] socially constructed (p. 6).



Many local claims are predicated upon the rationale that the claim, X, is not inevitable. That is, the current state of things is not the result of an essential underlying nature of the thing being brought into focus. Rather, this state has been shaped by “social events, forces, history, all of which could have been different” (p. 7).

For some, this position is enough. Others might naturally move on to two more propositions: the current state of X is bad. And, that X should cease to exist or be transformed to a better state. That said, Hacking spends some time discussion different types of social constructionists: historicists, ironics, reformists, those who unmask, rebels, and revolutionaries (p. 19). [I’m not sure that my use of the word “proposition” is correct in the field of logic—any advice on this is much appreciated.]

Subjectivity and objectivity in ontology and epistemology

To progress to some of the most significant aspects of this book, it seems necessary to acknowledge some of Hacking’s definitions.


In our local matrices, objects are often ontologically subjective. Hacking provides the example of rent. Rent is a concept that has come into existence through human interaction and institutions. But, it is epistemologically objective in that you must pay your rent: you pay a specific sum at a certain, expected time (p. 22).

My Oxford-Canadian Dictionary (2 nd ed.) defines objective as “concerned with outward things or events; dealing with or stressing what is external to the mind”. Subjective is defined as “proceeding from or belonging to the individual consciousness or perception; partial, misconceived, or distorted”. These definitions, with regard to internal/external, might come in handy a little further down.


According to Hacking, ideas refer to “conceptions, concepts, beliefs, [and] attitudes to theories” (p. 22). A note I wrote in the margins: Are ideas epistemologically subjective? Are they ontologically objective? I’d like to consider these questions in more depth.

Elevator words

He also refers to “elevator words” (EWs) which he distinguishes from objects that you can perceive in the world. EWs are circularly defined in that they cannot be defined without somehow referring back to themselves (to their synonyms and other EWs). Examples include “facts, truth, reality, and knowledge” (p. 22). As an example, my dictionary defines fact in relation to truth and reality as well as various synonyms of truth and reality. (Hacking also describes a cheeky game that you can play with EWs, but I digress.)

Some examples


Baseball: balls and strikes  


Ontologically subjective – depend on human rules and institutions (p. 30).

vs Quarks  


“Not self-evidently ontologically subjective.” The phenomenon that we refer to as a quark is scientifically independent of human rules and institutions (p. 30).


Interactive kinds vs. Indifferent kinds

What I am presenting here is a summary. Hacking does spend some time explaining his selection of these classifications/titles to express the kinds.

Interactive Kind Indifferent Kind



Self-aware: “aware of what is said about them, thought about them, done to them” (p. 31). Aware of their classification.


Modify their behavior accordingly.

(Also see p. 103).

vs Objects  


Not self-aware in the same way as people. Do not know of their classification.


Objects do not modify their behaviour in reaction to awareness of their classification.


There is no “looping effect” (p. 59).



Constructionism vs. Structuralism


With reference to constructionism and the sciences, hacking differentiates these concepts as follows:

Constructionism vs Structuralism

Nominalist in nature


Stability comes from factors external to overt representations (“external to the preferred content of science” (p. 92)) such as social factors, interests, networks, etc.


The way of the world is not inevitable. Other choices could have been made. Example, physics did not have to develop in a “quarky way” (must find page). Note how our conceptions have been changed by the theoretical work of Einstein.



There is an underlying structure to the world and the objects within it.


Stability comes from evidence within / supported by science itself: internal (i.e., not dependent upon social factors, interests, and networks outside of the scientific experiment/observations).


It is inevitable that the world is the way it is.



Hacking’s definition of constructionism

“Social constructionists teach that items we had thought were inevitable are social products” (p. 47).

Constructionism: “. . . various sociological, historical, and philosophical projects that aim at displaying or analyzing actual, historically situated, social interactions or causal routes that led to, or were involved in, the coming into being or establishing of some present entity or fact” (p. 48).


Social constructionism in my work

I struggled initially with the apparent emphasis on the stance of social constructionists to change society through the unmasking of concepts. As I conduct my own research into identity in networked learning, I had to ask myself what my stance is. My intent is not to be rebellious, revolutionary, nor ironic. My interest is to understand how we form and manage our identities online. More importantly, I wish to understand how such self-conceptualization affects how we learn. I suppose that effecting change is still my end goal: to reform teaching practices by demonstrating the importance of personal identity management in networked learning. Therefore, I would contend that our online identity/ies is/are not inevitable; we can construct it/them as active learners directing our own future.

As indicated in the title for this blog posting, this was just a start. More to come . . .

One Response to “What are we socially constructing? Good question, for a start”

  1. Ruth says:

    hi Marguerite … love your blog, by the way. Not knowing Hacking’s work… what was the game you mention above?

    I like your writing … you have a new reader!


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