Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Social Construction

At Sociologically Speaking a quick (~20 min.) podcast on social construction.

It is a good overview of social constructionism.

For most of behavior, dissecting the social element is very difficult, especially as developed entities within our particular cultural system. This is because of two processes that we will call reification and essentializing. Reification has to do with the inability to see social institutions as contingent, as artifacts that are capable of being changed. That is, we reify, objectify, or see as unchangeable those social institutions. This can be applied to object descriptions and valuations (diamonds), categorizations and beliefs, and institutions and norms (say marriage structures and roles). Essentializing has to do with identity. It is to place identity structures and behavior structures as givens to human behavior or to an individual's behavior. Though a certain developmental process (socialization/education) and a certain social matrix may have created an individual who has certain behavioral aspects, the ability to ask about those processes become difficult to assess as we essentialize the identity of a person. If we say something like “she is smart,” we first, perhaps, have a problem with defining the trait itself, but also we have a language instance that simply postulates and ensconces a given being. This is useful for social behavior but it can make reflection on self and society difficult. It encourages us to see identity of individuals as simply unalterable givens to the world instead of reminding us of the developmental process that creates that identity, those behaviors, that brain/mind.

This brings me to one slight criticism of the audio above. Her story about buying a diamond ring is presented as a bit of a personal struggle within the telling. That is, I feel like the author realized the problem that I present, but sometimes life is messy.

There are parts to our social world and hence our selves that we can shrug at to a great degree. Some of the meanings that are imbued onto objects and behaviors, and that we reproduce through our actions, are ephemeral, or perhaps even those processes are enjoyable or practical in rather unproblematic ways.

I feel like things such as the diamond ring example are going to have to be a place where people who are in the best position to stop reinforcing more problematic social reproductions need to also take a stand against reproducing something seemingly more benign. Undoing, unraveling the more simple reproductions needs to happen because other instances where we would consider it vitally important to undermine such social meaning making or change a social behavior are going to be very difficult to achieve.

I have an intuition that two people standing at a privileged point to bring about such changes, to help reshape our social worlds, are going to need to have a better resolve towards not being so immersed in the world that shaped them. And thus it is worrisome that such people could not, or did not, reject the empty valuing of diamond rings and the belief that they need such a social symbol in order to have a good relationship (they don't). Continuing on with such practices seems like a marker that suggests that they or we may not be able to achieve the larger tasks. I use the diamond ring here but there are probably many objects, behaviors, and norms that I think need to be undone, or whose value reproduction are suggestive of a non-aggressive attitude towards social change or to opening up our selves and society to be better understood. The places in society and in our behaviors that are the most reified, that are the most unseeable contingent factors, are places that need to be marked as such. To continue to non-reflectively reproduce those instances, to not set in the possibility that there are others way to organize our selves, is to blur over those institutions. It is to encourage the reproduction of the world that we found, and that is problematic.  

One quick note on social behavior reproduction, played out a bit in this example, is that stopping the reproduction of such is often difficult for individuals. Mainly, one of the ways we continue to reproduce our social world is through social regulation. That is, individuals will become upset or find others unfriendly if others do not have standard behavioral structures. As individuals we are greatly moved by social regulation. Some of this is good as it was developed either biologically or socially over a long time to encourage more harmonious living. But as we strive to build better societies and better selves, worlds we want to live in, there is a need to stop reproducing a great deal of social institutions, for instance gender norms, gender roles, and socialization/education practices. Undercutting emotional responses, to put these things on the table of reflection outside of social regulation, is an important way to be able to adequately reflect on those processes. It is difficult to ask about whether we want to change institutions while under the emotional gaze of others. 

That last thought brings up another point. All of this is why Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) is wrong, and why Joshua Greene (Moral Tribes) only goes part of the way in dispelling him. Our moral world is our institutional world. All social policies and institutions are political policies, they are political institutions. As individuals we are the environment that created us, we are the end products of a socialization/education process and the institutional world that is around us. The world that we found needs to be drastically changed. And all of it needs to be open to reflection.

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