Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Faith and social construction

This may be one of those posts where the title is more interesting than the text...

Some days I think that everyone has about the same level of faith in some opinion/ proposition being fact, we just differ in what. That is, we're all "believers", we just believe in different things.

The other day I spoke with a fellow sociologist who had asked their students to define race. All the students, being good sociology students, reported that race is a social construction. The sociologist elaborated that there is no biological or other reality to race--it's only a social construction.

Now, I think it's a good idea to consider the social construction of race, but to state this social construction as an innate fact is, well, ironic. Sociologists view of race (and lots of other things) as a social construction is, itself, a social construction.

So, I guess my null hypothesis here is that we all have similar levels of faith/ belief in something unseen or unproven, and so the real issue is not one of belief versus reality rather belief in what.

(I may just be grumpy because it's another cold, gray day).


Corey said...

I find the statement, "race is a social construction" to be nearly devoid of meaning. There are lots of "real" things that are also "constructed". Consider sex & gender. There are in fact differences between the male and female sex [plumbing, hormones, body structure, etc]. But we take these differences into a social space and imbue them with meaning (ala Larry Summers, or men are from mars and women are from venus, or whatever... and lest someone thinks I'm referencing that book as a serious source to back a substantive argument, I am not; it's the kind of essentialist dribble that is characteristic of pop psychology).

Concerning race... It is in fact real. Not a biologically testable state of nature, but a socially mediated identification. There are many visible differences that we collectively use to classify race (skin color, hair growth patterns, and so forth). We then act upon these visible differences in socially mediated ways. Our actions may be predicated on false assumptions or reasoning about race (or sex, or religion, or whatever). But as W.I. Thomas wrote many years ago, it doesn't matter because "what's real in consequence is real in deed."

I don't see social constructionism itself to be ironic. In fact, I'd argue that this is one of the central premises in sociology... that the person on the street makes sense of his or her world artfully from available contexts or clues. Take the stereotype of the "scary evangelical." That's a social construction if I've ever seen one. But it's rooted in observation of real behavior... witnessing, praying, doing deeds for the kingdom, etc... but the meanings are filtered through social scripts.

What I do see as ironic is the dumbed-down way that constructionism gets taught... both through the standard sociology textbook and in the graduate seminar room. The textbooks reduce it to a few bold lettered terms that strip out the nuance and lead to the types of blanket statements you cite in your post. The graduate seminars (or at least the seminars that I suffered through) invoke Derrida or some other French guy to overwhelm the topic with nuance and deconstruct everything. The result is that we tear apart stuff before we understand what is that we're doing.

Brad Wright said...

You're right about the light-weight teaching of this concept. (Add French name and go).

As for irony, I don't see social constructions as ironic, rather not realizing that we socially construct our constructions to be ironic. (At this point, I'm no longer sure I'm making any sense).

The interaction of race & society is certainly a *big* question.

kent said...

To start with, grumpy is good. Very useful in certain situations, and at times emotionally satistfing.

As to the topic in hand, I agree that we all have a level of faith and the primary difference is the object of faith. Faith in atheism or any other belief system is universal in us. There may be different levels of faith, but we do have base point in terms of faith.

As to the issue social contructs, not being a sociologist, how else do make sense of our lives? Aren't they the primary method of understanding our world?

Jay Livingston said...

I agreee with what Kent said and was about to say the same thing: it's about the object of belief. The categories of "Race" are social constructions we place on the reality of those differences just as "red" and "orange" are constructions we place on wave-lengths in the spectrum. Those are different from invisible and mysterious things like God.

To say that terms like "white" or "black" or "Asian" are social constructions doesn't make them any less real. The same sociologists who dismiss race as mere social construction might well be the same ones who decry the income gap between whites and blacks.

And some people who dismiss race as a mere social construction talk about "social class" as though it had the solid reality of a steel girder.

Brad Wright said...

I agree Kent & Jay... as a sociologist, I am aware of the social construction of many things, and the power of these social constructions. In fact, a lot of the fun of teaching sociology is pointing out the social construction aspect of various social phenomenons.

Good points.