Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

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

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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 . . .

PhD Procrastination the Canadian Way

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At least 7 feet of snow piled up against the garage.

Enjoying Edinburgh

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Edinburgh Castle

More photos of my April trip to the UK: Here

Me at Edinburgh Castle

A Quick Look at Wittgenstein and Derrida (Notes & Quotes)

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I’m in a bit of a hurry today to catch a flight, so this is simply a compilation of quotes to think about with regard to language and the nature of reality.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889- 1951)

Realist: “A statement can only have meaning if that statement refers in an obvious way to things actually in the world” (p. 156).  (Related to Frege’s reference.)

“Wittgenstein saw the world as a totality of facts, not of things. Facts are logical entities; they can only be asserted or denied. They are not hard, red, round, etc. Things exist in space and time: they have shape, colour, consistency, etc.” (p. 158).

“We cannot demonstrate the limits of language or of the world” (p. 159).

“He decided that what a sentence meant (what language means) is not what the words refer to in the world outside, but the way in which words relate to each other. The way language works is not because it acts like an ideal logic, but because it follows its own working, which is the way people agree language works. This is not something that happens formally, but something the people in a language community grasp automatically” (p. 159).

“We can never get outside language to the reality ‘outside’ language. We can only use language in order to talk about language. All language is shared by at least two people. There is no such thing as a ‘private’ language” (p. 160).

“We cannot think unless we possess language” (p. 161).


Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

“His greatest insights include the notion that whenever language expresses an idea it changes it” (p. 184).

Structuralism: “Its main teaching is that reality is composed of relationships rather than things” (p. 187).

“Structuralism tends to divide our perceptions of the world into binary categories, minimal pairs: good/bad . . . etc. It analyses the structures that lie behind or beneath things. It tends to distrust history and concentrates instead on the web of patterns holding at any given time. Derrida reacted against this outlook” (p. 188).

“Speaking is a sign of presence. When we speak to somebody they are with us. Writing is a sign of absence. We write to somebody because they are at a remove. The more words are shut away in writing, logocentrism maintains maintains, the more they are copies than the real thing” (p. 189). –>

“. . . we only have access to what is beyond language through this new notion of text. This is the meaning of his dictum: ‘There is nothing outside the text’ (p. 193).

Derrida’s “différance” (not “différence”): “. . . meaning is never immediate; it is always deferred” (p. 189). –> “This new word does not stand for a new concept; rather, it plays around the notion of undecidability. Language, thought and meaning are now all in an uncomfortable position; they are unstable. They force us to ask ourselves if language can be relied upon” (p. 192).

“Comfort is restored with the reinstatement of binary order. But what if this binary order cannot be recalled; what if undecidability is the norm?” (p. 190).

“Once language enters the public domain, the speaker or writer loses control over it” (p. 191).


Johnston, D. (2006). A brief history of philosophy: From Socrates to Derrida (p. 211). London, UK: Continuum Books.

Mead: Some Final Noteworthy Quotes

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(Note: Converted from Livescribe Pen via MyScript. Possible typos.)


“The process of conversation is one in which the individual has not only the right but the duty of talking to the community of which he is a part, and bringing about those changes which take place through the interaction of individuals. That is the way, of course, in which society gets ahead, by just such interactions as those in which some person thinks a thing out” (p. 168).


“. . . is that peculiar character and aspect of the environment of individual human experience which is due to human society, a society of other individual selves who take the attitude of the other toward themselves” (p. 171).

“The essence of the self, as we have said, is cognitive: it lies in the internalized conversation of gestures which constitutes thinking, or in terms of which thought or reflection proceeds. And, hence, the origin and foundations of the self, like those of thinking, are social” (p. 273).

  • [Note: The view that the self as a cognitive process is somewhat incommensurable with social constructionism.]

Arrow in spiral


”The reaction of the individual in this conversation of gestures is one that in some degree is continually modifying the social process itself” (p. 179)

“A symbol is nothing but a stimulus whose response is given in advance,’ (p. 18))


“The self is not something that exists first and then enters into relationship with others, but it is, so to speak, an eddy in the social current and so still a part of the current. It is a process in which the individual is continually adjusting himself in advance to the situation to which he belongs, and reacting back on it” (p. 182).

“The mind is simply the interplay of such gestures in the form of significant symbols” (p. 189).



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.

Mead: Quotes about Embodiment, the Self, and the Interaction between the “I” and the “Me”

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(Note: Converted from Livescribe Pen via MyScript. Possible typos.)

“The self has the characteristic that it is an object to itself, and that characteristic distinguishes it from other objects and from the body” (p. 136).

“The parts of the body are quite distinguishable from the self. We can lose parts of the body without any serious invasion of the self. . . the body does not experience itself as a whole, in a sense in which the self in some way enters into the experience of the self” (p. 136).

The word self is reflexive: ”oneself”. As such, Mead suggests that the self can be both subject and object” (p. 136-137).


Subject “I” Object “Me”
– focused on outside activity 


– focused on memory and imagination (internal to the individual)
– ”the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others” (p. 175) 


– self-consciousness: self viewed from the standpoint of other members of the social group
-active adaptation (p. 214) – “responding to oneself as another responds to it” p. 140) 


– the act in the social situation (p. 279) – the social situation in which the act can express itself  [Interesting: this idea seems to fit with Harré’s notion of the individual as a location for speech acts.]


– ”a source of the unity of the Whole” (p. 279) – “the organized set of attitude as of others which
one himself assumes” (p. 175) 



“The ‘I’ of this moment is the present in the ‘me’ of the next moment. . . It is as we act that we are aware of ourselves” (p. 174).

The GENERALIZED OTHER: “how the community exercises control over the conduct of its individual members” (affects the individual’s thinking) (p. 155).

ATTITUDES: “organized sets of responses” (p. 161).

Community: “A person is a personality because he belongs to a community, because he takes over the institutions of that community into his own conduct. . . The structure, then, on which the self is built, is this response which is common to all, for one has to be a member of a community to be a self” (p. 162).

“We cannot have rights unless we have common attitude” (p. 164).

“Selves can only exist in definite relationships to other selves” (p. 164).

The self as a “structural process” (p. 165).

Institutional Form ”. . . the whole community acts toward the individual under certain circumstances in an identical way” (p. 167).


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.

G. H. Mead: Quotes on Temporality & Symbolism

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(Note: Converted from Livescribe Pen via MyScript. Possible typos.)

INTELLIGENCE ”is the process of delaying, organizing, and selecting a response or reaction to the stimuli of the given environmental situation” (p. 100).

“The traces of past experience are continually playing in upon our perceived world’ (p. 113).

“ . . . The relation of the temporal character of the nervous system to foresight and choice. . . That which takes place in present organic behaviour is always in some sense an emergent from the past, and could never have been precisely predicted in advance… (p. 98-99).

TEMPORAL Dimension: ”the things we are going to do can be arranged in a temporal order so that the latter processes can in their inception be present in determining the earlier processes; what we are going to do can determine our immediate approach to the object.” (p. 117).

Symbolism:  “To be able to identify ‘this as leading to that., and to get some sort of a gesture, vocal or otherwise, which can be used to implicate indicate the implication to others and himself so as to make possible control of conduct with reference to it, is The distinctive thing in human intelligence which is not found in animal intelligence.’ (p. 120)..

Symbols allow us to “hold on to these given characters and to isolate them in their relationship to the object, and consequently in their relation to the response.’ (p. 121).

Example provided:

  • One is not afraid of the footprint, but of the bear.

Meads notes the difference between:

Thinking with symbols VS. Conditioned response (p. 122)


“We have to recognize that language is part of conduct. Mind involves, however, a relationship to the characters of things . . . Mentality is that relationship of the organisms to the situation which is mediated by sets of symbols ‘ (pp. 124–125)

“Our symbols are all universal. You cannot say anything that is absolutely particular; anything you say that has any meaning at all is universal.” (p. 147)

“A person who is saying something is saying to himself what he says 10 others; otherwise he does not know what he is talking about.’ (p. 147)

Example: Helen Keller

  • “As she has recognized, it was not until she could get into communication with other persons through symbols which could arouse in herself the responses they arouse in other people that she could get what we term a mental content, or a self” (p. 149).



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.