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 . . .

Additional Notes on G. H. Mead

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

. . . continued from previous post . . .

I would like to Know the degree to which Rom Harré’s work has been influenced by Mead. There are some useful definitions from Mead’s work that can help us understand some of Harré’s work.

UNITY – “… if this whole is touched at any point it may bring out any other element in the historian’s experience of Gladstone’ (p-85).

MEANING – ”a content of an object which is dependent upon the relation of an organism or group of organisms to it” (p. 80).

Mead suggests that one’s altitude shapes how we communicate and ”give the import.’ to the top,-01 information. He provides our use of conjunctions as an example (and, but, though). These words can set up that which follows. (see p. 86).

“The later stages of the experience itself can be present in the immediate experience which influences them.” (p. 87)

This suggests that we have already internalized altitudes (values, positions) towards experiences. (But all experiences? I suppose we might draw upon previous experiences in order to process the new experiences.)

UNIVERSALISM – when I first saw this word, my immediate association for it was ”essentialism:’ However, Mead appears to view universalisms as the means by which individuals, each with their unique perspectives, can communicate about an idea. (The idea, however, may ultimately be conceived slightly differently by each individual-but the general, universal underlying understanding of the idea transcends the particular.)

-> “It’s universality in conduct, however, amounts only to the irrelevance of the differences of the different perspectives….” (p. 89)

THE GENERALIZED OTHER – “The very universality and impersonality of thought and reason is from the behavioristic standpoint the result of the given individual taking the attitudes of others towards himself, and of his finally crystallizing all these particular attitudes into a single attitude or standpoint which may be called that of the ‘generalized other’ ” (p. 90).


Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self & society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. (C. W. Morris, Ed.) (Vol. 13). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


(Note: Converted from Livescribe Pen via MyScript. Still don’t have the kinks out. Will edit properly later.)

Social Constructionism, Social Psychology, Social Behaviourism . . .

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

Berger & Luckmann (1966)A few days ago, I finished reading (rather, finally finished!!) Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality. They indicated in the introduction that they would not cite their precursors and references as per academic style. This is a pity as I find myself wishing to dig further into the background of social constructionism.

Berger and Luckmann do provide some clues regarding the underlying philosophies of their work. In the conclusion, they mention G. H. Mead: “. . . we would contend that the linkage we have been led to make here between the Sociology of Knowledge and the theoretical core of the thought of Mead and his school suggests an interesting possibility for what might be called a social psychology– that is, a psychology that derives its fundamental perspectives from a sociological understanding of the human condition.” (p. 186).

What I have found noteworthy as I dig more deeply into Burger and Luckmann’s work is that their version of social construction does not propose that the world is completely socially constructed, rather: “there are always elements of subjective reality that have not originated in socialization, such as the awareness of one’s own body prior to and apart from any socially learned apprehension of it.’ (p. 184). Oh, and they add, ”Subjective biography is not fully social. The individual apprehends himself as being both inside and outside society” (p. 134). The individual constantly strives to achieve a balance between his/her objective and subjective self (identity).

Mead (1934)Naturally, language is the primary source of socialization. And, this emphasis upon language, conversation in particular, was also salient in the work of Mead. So, I am now reading in order to understand more fully the background of social construction (as per the European/Scandinavian flavor–rather than the current North American focus on the work of Papert vs. Piaget). Mead’s (1934) Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist is very important.

In his introduction to the book, Charles w. Morris provides some evidence of a possible foundation for social construction: ”Mead’s endeavour is to show that the mind and the self are without residue social emergents; and that language, in the form of vocal gesture, provides the mechanism for their emergence”(p. xiv).

Coming from a behaviourist perspective–albeit a Social Behaviourist perspective–the linkage with the body and the physical world ekes through his (Mead’s) writing. At my current stage in the book it appears that he is already working towards a position that recognizes that symbols do not mean/signify the same thing to both hearer and listener—that an utterance may evoke a different emotional or physical reaction in the listener. By page 65, Mead is building an argument about the significance of the “vocal gesture.” (I am a little hazy about whether or not Mead was more a critical realist or could be classified as a pre-social constructionist.)

This is what has captivated my attention: “The vocal gesture, then, has an importance which no other gesture has. We cannot see ourselves when our face assumes a certain expression. If we hear ourselves speak we are more apt to pay attention. One hears himself when he is irritated using a tone that is of an irritable quality, and so catches himself. But in the facial expression of irritation the stimulus is not one that calls out an expression in the individual which it calls out in the other” (p. 65).

What is interesting is how hearing our own voices affects us. Take, for example, the scene in “The King’s Speech” (the movie) when the linguist places headphones (blaring loud music) upon Edward’s head, and asks Edward to read a passage. Instead of stuttering, Edward was able to recite the passage perfectly whilst unable to hear his own voice.

Can we use this information when considering human interaction in online environments? How do our online gestures affect us when we are aware of them? Can we hear ourselves online? Or, lacking the vocal gesture, does the text-based interaction impact us less? Or, just differently? And what of ambient presence and the longevity of the online footprint? Lots of questions . . .

(Note to self: I wrote this text by hand using a LiveScribe pen and notebook. Then, I converted my cursive to text using their MyScript tool. I think I needed to set the options to the text (only) format. It did include some arrows and boxes that I tend to draw in my notes—due to the use of the shape and freeform drawing settings mistakenly being toggled on. More testing needed.)



Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge (p. 219). Garden City, NY: Anchor Books (Random House, Inc.).

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self & society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. (C. W. Morris, Ed.) (Vol. 13). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.