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Sunday, November 05, 2006

social construction/conciliation/clarification

On an impulse purchase at Border's this weekend, I bought Ian Hacking's "The Social Construction of What?" and spent much of the weekend reading this book. The last thing I'd read by Hacking was an article about how certain types of illness such as multiple personality disorder have been socially constructed in the sense that the existense of a new "disease" where no such diagnosis existed before has a real affect on those who now suffer from this disease. He is pointing out how even though something real about the disease predated the new diagnosis, the diganosis itself in certain ways serves to create the disease.

In this book, Hacking seeks clarity on the entire subject of social construction. I was particularly interested in the physics chapters, though I am looking forward to reading the chapters on mental illness as well. A book that brings mental illness and physics together into the same investigation!

The following passage was particularly interesting to me:

...Thus my strategy here is the exact opposite of Sergio Sismondo. He is a peace-maker. One "reason for the lack of realist/constructivist debate lies in the fact that each side usually views the other position as obviously untenable" (Sismondo 1996, 10). By lopping off extremism on the edges of both doctrines, he hopes to find common ground. In constrast, my sticking points emphasize philosophical barriers, real issues on which clear and honorable thinkers may eternally disagree. (p 68)

I have often thought of myself as a peace-maker, but find this role exhausting in the face of so many extreme differences out there. Here, Hacking offers me a new suggestion for an approach to strong diasagreement. In a way, one can be more modest in one's goals. Instead of seeking reconciliation and hoping that eventually everyone will come to a common understanding, one can at least seek a mutual respect for each other's opinions relating them to age old controversies.

My first impulse on hearing this is a gut sadness that people with opposing views will forever remain embattled. But then I remember that there is more to a person than their views on a few philosophical positions. This perspective allows people to more clearly say "fine, we disagree on x, y, and z" and once that is articulated, maybe the areas of agreement and mutual humanity can be more clearly articulated and appreciated as well.


Anonymous said...

What piques my interest from this post is the idea that language (in this case the definition of MPD) creates reality. I once did a research project on infantile amnesia. One theory of why we do not remember our infancy is that we do not have the language with which to encode the experience; once language develops so do memories. I came upon your blog during my random sojourn through the "next blog" button and wanted to let you know that I visited.

Nani said...

Interesting post! I am interested in social construction, too. Several people I've talked to have mentioned ADD - is there really such an illness, or does every kid/ teenager have ADD, albeit in different degrees? How do biology and environment (non-innate/ non-biogical elements) play a role in such illness (and others as well)?
Another interest of mine is sex/gender as social construct. In the class that I TA for, we've talked a lot about the concepts of femininity and masculinity as social constructs - and the way they are constructed (as bipolar opposition, or, as you've said on the post, as extremes). The danger in extreme positions is that it leaves no room for people or things that are in between or that do not fit in either/any extreme position - which exist and are real.
I like what you said in the last paragraph - and I, too sometimes forget that there is more to a person than the X, Y, and Z that I may not agree with her/ him.
As I am doing fieldwork for my thesis, I have learned this approach: the approach that two people do not pretend that they have critical disagreements about something, but at the same time they are best friends (the two people are one archaeologist and an Indian).
Thanks for posting!

Boaz said...

Hey Mrs. Joseph. In case you check back here... thanks for stopping by! Interesting point about not forming memories before we form language...

Boaz said...

Thanks for the comments Nani. If you ever read this book, I'd be curious what you think about it.
Hope your thesis work is going well!