The Social Construction of What?

The Social Construction of What?

3.85 (418 ratings by Goodreads)
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Lost in the raging debate over the validity of social construction is the question of what, precisely, is being constructed. Facts, gender, quarks, reality? Is it a person? An object? An idea? A theory? Each entails a different notion of social construction, Ian Hacking reminds us. His book explores an array of examples to reveal the deep issues underlying contentious accounts of reality.

Especially troublesome in this dispute is the status of the natural sciences, and this is where Hacking finds some of his most telling cases, from the conflict between biological and social approaches to mental illness to vying accounts of current research in sedimentary geology. He looks at the issue of child abuse--very much a reality, though the idea of child abuse is a social product. He also cautiously examines the ways in which advanced research on new weapons influences not the content but the form of science. In conclusion, Hacking comments on the "culture wars" in anthropology, in particular a spat between leading ethnographers over Hawaii and Captain Cook. Written with generosity and gentle wit by one of our most distinguished philosophers of science, this wise book brings a much needed measure of clarity to current arguments about the nature of knowledge.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 272 pages
  • 156 x 235 x 16.51mm | 345g
  • Cambridge, Mass, United States
  • English
  • Revised ed.
  • None
  • 0674004124
  • 9780674004122
  • 118,260

Back cover copy

Lost in the raging debate over the validity of social construction is the question of what, precisely, is being constructed. Facts, gender, quarks, reality? Is it a person? An object? An idea? A theory? Each entails a different notion of social construction, Ian Hacking reminds us. His book explores an array of examples to reveal the deep issues underlying contentious accounts of reality.
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Review quote

[A] spirited and eminently readable book...Hacking's book is an admirable example of both useful debunking and thoughtful and original philosophizing--an unusual combination of good sense and technical sophistication. After he has said his say about the science wars, Hacking concludes with fascinating essays on, among other things, fashions in mental disease, the possible genesis of dolomitic rock from the activity of nanobacteria, government financing of weapons research, and the much-discussed question of whether the Hawaiians thought Captain Cook was a god. In each he makes clear the contingency of the questions scientists find themselves asking, and the endless complexity of the considerations that lead them to ask one question rather than another. The result helps the reader see how little light is shed on actual scientific controversies by either traditionalist triumphalists or postmodern unmaskers. -- Richard Rorty The Atlantic Hacking is a Canadian philosopher of science, with important studies of probability and psychology to his name. He is no less at home in Continental philosophy and social theory than in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. His ability to leap with enviable facility from one to the other qualifies him well to bring some order into this intellectual quagmire. -- Daniel Johnson New York Times Book Review Ian Hacking is among the best philosophers now writing about science...He discusses psychopathology, weapons research, petrology, and South Pacific ethnography with the same skeptical intelligence he brings to quarks and electron microscopy. It is not his aim to enter a partisan controversy, still less to decide it. Instead, he clearly explains what is at stake--nothing less than the intellectual authority of modern science. -- Barry Allen Science The Social Construction of What? explores the significance of the idea of social construction, not simply in science but also in other arenas...Hacking's arguments are important. -- Kenan Malik The Independent The commonplace idea of science as the construction of models caught fire in the 1970s. It became--as Ian Hacking notes in his intelligent miscellany, The Social Construction of What?--a rallying cry for the radical optimists who relished the thought that social forms are transient and resented any attempt to freeze them for eternity on the authority of something called 'science'...[Hacking] prefers to explore the territory that lies between the banalities. He concentrates on phenomena such as 'child abuse' or 'women refugees', wondering in what sense they existed before they were conceptualised as such and noting the 'looping effects' through which objective realities can be moulded by intellectual artefacts and hence by transient political and conceptual interests or even facts. Times Higher Education Supplement Hacking's good humour and easy style make him one of those rare contemporary philosophers I can read with pleasure. -- Steven Weinberg, Times Literary Supplement A welcome and timely arrival. Both a philosopher of science and a contributor to constructionism, Hacking speaks across the great divide. As his book title implies, he finds that the terms of this intellectual engagement vary considerably from case to case, and that the terminology of this engagement has all too often been sloppily employed on both sides. Examining an eclectic range of examples, from a nasty ethnographic spat over Captain Cook's murder on a Hawaiian beach to the influence of weapons research on the related hard sciences, he teases out the finer points that constitute the middle ground...By meting out credit while illuminating complexities, nuances, and missteps on both sides, Hacking's work implicitly urges a truce in the science wars. -- Kenneth Gergen Civilization While informed by a sophisticated grasp of the issues, [The Social Construction of What?] is accessible, witty, and good-humored in tone. There are fascinating discussions of social constructionist claims regarding subjects are diverse as gender, Zulu nationalism, quarks, and dolomite. -- T. A. Torgerson Choice Hacking is one of the best philosophers of science and society of our time. Here, as usual, he argues from carefully researched examples...This is a delightful book--evenhanded, fun to read, and packed with information on everything from nuclear physics, nanobacteria, and madness to the deification of Captain Cook. -- Leslie Armour Library Journal [Ian Hacking ] dispute[s] the claims of leftist professors, who try to fight oppression by showing that race, gender and sexuality, far from being legitimate bases for discrimination, are hardly real at all and merely the results of 'social construction.' In The Social Construction of What? the distinguished philosopher [he] looks at how this kind of argument works, and particularly at cases--in the natural sciences, and with social phenomena like child abuse in which it can endanger a clear sense of what 'reality' is. Publishers Weekly This book offers a helpful contribution to the discussion of social constructionism and its limits, both for hard scientists who feel threatened by it and for those who practice it. This is a fun book, as Hacking takes pokes at social constructionists and clarifies what they are about. -- Matthew P. Lawson Health, Illness, and Medicine
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About Ian Hacking

Ian Hacking is University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto. He holds the Chair of Philosophy and History of Concepts at the College de France.
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Rating details

418 ratings
3.85 out of 5 stars
5 26% (108)
4 44% (183)
3 22% (93)
2 6% (25)
1 2% (9)
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