Ian Hacking: The Social Construction of What

Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? (1999)

I’d like to take a step back for a moment, dive into the matrix of this text, in order to approach the issues Hacking raises here more attentively and appreciate what he is doing. The social sciences have always had a complex of sorts as Hacking notes on page 104. It has always tried to reach a level of certainty about a kind of object, which the sciences claim to reach with the backing of its instruments, math, technology and techniques. Of course the certainty which science reaches is not stagnant nor is it linear –it is wiped clean or added to again and again with the advent of new technologies and instruments and techniques. But still these changes to the logic of science flow and build in a much more pure, antiseptic way then they do with the social sciences. At least this is science’s constant claim. This is to say, the sciences have reached a level with its techniques and progress, which is so rarely contaminated, a situation the social sciences could only dream of. Though perhaps a bit misguided in the attempt to match the sciences and match it in the details and accuracies of its theories and discoveries, the social sciences have told us a great deal about humans and human society and the interactions between the two, that is; the individual and the society to which he or she is a part of. Philosophers of science and many scientists, who find themselves on the fringes of the science that they are doing however, would tell us that science takes place in this same rather messy space where the scientists and the science they are doing is entrenched and constantly interacting with the society around it. It is handled, manipulated and discovered by humans within an endless number of matrices, all connected or a part of, or making up that very vague but very real encapsulating entity we call society.

Enter social theory and the notion of social constructionism. There are many versions and addenda to this theory but the basic idea, crudely put, is that society creates the individual. The flip side of this, equally important, is that groups of individuals construct their social reality. These basic premises dominate the social sciences and since the late 19th century, this notion has grown to the point it now even invades not only the doing of the science we do, but forces us to question those aspects of science which are on the fuzzy border of science/society, particularly those related to the human body. Is madness socially constructed? Schizophrenia? Depression? How about highly common patterns of human phenomena that surfaces over and over in human history, such as violence, child abuse, or homosexuality? The observations of the social sciences, the doing of the sciences, and the science itself, are all coming into contact with one another in a way that never happened before. Hacking, clearly frustrated with social constructionism though well aware of the social matrices in which sciences are done, is not quite ready to completely toss the idea aside. While he is undeniably more on the side of science, often claiming that while “at the bottom” we are likely to find out a biological or chemical or physical reason for most of our questions, he believes now, specifically right now because we do not have these answers just yet, now, us we need away to navigate these two vastly different approaches in order to better understand our object of study. In many ways therefore, Hacking’s text works as a disruptor in the debate between essentialists and constructionists. Essentialist argue that a particular feature or characteristic of someone is essential to them whereas constructionist say there is no part, no pre-given part of one’ essence (p.17). The history of modern philosophy, going back to Kant and developed much more intently by Heidegger and Sartre, is a play where these two perspectives battle it out again and again not with the weight of any particular human disorder or circumstance as mentioned above, but with the very basic question of whether or not the “self”.

Those who use the concept of “social construction” often consider themselves radical, those who abhor the term deem themselves “rational, reasonable and respectable” (p.vii). As we have just mentioned, Hacking is of two minds, he despises the term, but can’t shake it off. In the end, this text is an attempt at understanding the very term “social construction”. By categorizing it and pointing to its flaws, it is also an attempt to acknowledge it and use it, ultimately, as we get on with our sciences.

One of the reasons the concept of social construction has become so commonplace is that it is a liberating idea. We might be mothers, homosexuals, people with OCD, or drug addicts. It is comforting to know that the way we are supposed to feel and act with these various labels is the consequence and product of history and ideology (p.2), it is not “us” so to speak, these labels do not define us. For these reasons, it is a catchall phrase loved by social activists and individuals who debate race, gender or just about any kind of cultural difference and disagreement imaginable. Hacking quickly points out that social construction is only liberating for those on their way already towards a raised consciousness and even this is limited, taking for example, the case of anorexics, a recent phenomenon in human history. Such “transient mental illnesses”, as Hacking calls them, though flourishing at certain times and certain places, are nonetheless very real, and social construction or not, anorexics are unlikely to eat, even if they have come to some kind of realization that they are dupes in some kind of twisted socio-cultural trend.

We might even take the concept of social construction into the sciences. At an extreme we could say that scientific results are social constructs. In these “science wars”, and “culture wars”, and infused in the concept of social construction is the idea of relativism. Moreover, with social constructionists is the idea of the decline of the West, a loss of tradition (p.5). Hacking is setting himself up here, and it’s only in passing, but it is an important distinction for us and much of what we have read for the past few months in our group. He is not interested in relativism, or the decline of the West (the malaise we read so much about with the Frankfurt School), or the culture wars. His highly analytical approach briskly deters him from speculating on these things. In fact, this approach is as evident as ever in his text when he finally gets down to addressing the issue and meaning of social construction directly. This section, entitled, “Don’t define, ask for the point”, does just that, hunts for the point.

The point, claims Hacking, is not to describe what is happening in a particular relationship which has been socially constructed (A exploits B). The point is it to raise consciousness and change how we see this relationship. Hacking creates a very useful scheme for understanding this. A social constructionist holds that X is a social construct, in so doing this, Hacking says they tend to hold the following 3 theses (from page 6):


  • X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.
  • X is quite bad as it is
  • We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed.


Again, we can plug in many things for this X, perhaps anything. Illness, woman refugees, emotions, quarks, nanobacteria are all nice cozy Xs, for example. One of the first and therefore most looked at X, is gender. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous words from her 1949 text, The Second Sex, that one is not born a woman, but becomes one, is an opening if there ever was to explore here. Following this text, feminist with an agenda, mobilized X and took to all three of the theses above. In tracing the directions different feminists have taken in relation to these three theses, Hacking unravels a fantastically helpful outline for understanding “the point” of social construction, and we might even say the point of social theory more generally. It should be clear, Hacking is not denying the strengths of these approaches, nor is he denying the necessity for understanding them thoroughly.

Looking at this outline, as far as from the perspective of different feminist approaches to getting at X, Hacking identifies three types: the unmasker as reformer, the rebel and the revolutionary. He furthers these three types later in the chapter but for the moment lets stick with these three. The unmasker takes very seriously to the first thesis above, X need not have existed in the first place. But, since it now does, it serves a particular end, and members of this or that group categorized by this term may not be aware of it. In short, the unmasker, unmasks the ideology behind the use of the term, “gender”, or X more broadly (p.8). When we go into the next thesis, that X is bad, we have a certain normative view, we perceive something is amiss. When someone like Naomi Scheman claims that gender is socially constructed, she insists that, women are subjected to male domination. Here, we shift into the want to reform the category of gender. Judith Butler pushes this further. Gender for her is a performance, male and female bodies are not givens, sex itself is as culturally constructed as gender. For Hacking, Butler is the rebel because she rejects the idea that gender is just an add-on to sexual identity. We presume that that sex is a physiological given prior to human thought, but Butler makes us question that given. In turn she begins to turn us away from social construction talk altogether. We still tread however within the first and second theses, however Butler cites the fourth type, the revolutionary who insists that our gender categories be completely overthrown.

The obvious unanswered question that we have yet to look at, is, “what” is being constructed, when we say someone is socially constructed? This takes Hacking into the territory of language and the act of naming. There are Xs where these distinctions above are less obvious and accepting the three theses do not require much effort on our part. No one would argue, for example, that “women refugees” is good idea (going against thesis 2). The concept is much less controversial, nearly everyone would admit all three theses are obvious, since no one wants women refugees. But minus any controversy, we have to examine the context what is laid bare is that we have an idea. This is to say, what is being socially constructed is not individual women who are fleeing this or that, it is through the particular activities of particular women, given certain circumstances that a classification of, the idea of “the women refugee” which is being constructed, as if this kind of human being, is seen as a species, like “the whale” (p.10). This is a kind of person, and this kind or idea is what is being socially constructed. As is always significant for Hacking, kinds exist within a matrix, in other words they inhabit a social setting. To be clear, this matrix that “forms” the woman refugee involves, as Hacking writes, “the complex of insitutions, advovates, newspaper articles, lawyers, court decisions, immigration proceedings…[and] the material infrastructure, barriers, passports, uniforms, couters at airports” (ibid). For Hacking we tend to call these things material, but they are material and given this materiality, they make substantial differences to people.

The thing about the idea in a matrix, particularly when the thing (that is the individual person here) becomes conscious of this idea, is that they evolve and change by being so classified as a “woman refugee”. Though this may seem obvious this is an important point, that is—people are affected by their classification and make conscious adjustments.

Hacking here is leading to a precondition of the three theses above. The first thesis tells us that X need not have existed. This is a set up, everyone knows this, such social construction is obvious, and sharing his frustration with the term, he says we do not have to keep pointing this out. Instead, Hacking asks why do people begin to argue that X need not have existed. Here he introduces a preconditional theses, thesis (0), stating that “in the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted; X appears to be inevitable” (12). Without this precondition there is no inclination to talk about the social construction of X. This is why there are no books on the social construction of banks, dollar bills, the Federal Reserve, British monarchy or Japan. No one would doubt that these things are socially constructed, and we would never presume that they came inevitably. This distinction, between objects and ideas is of great importance for Hacking. The starting point, thesis (0), does not work for objects. A bit later, Hacking discusses emotions and asks if they are social constructs. Many argue that emotions vary from culture to culture and even the character of these emotions change across time and place. These authors do not claim that the idea of emotions is a social construct, but the emotions themselves, grief for example, are socially constructed. Hacking’s point, and this is tricky, is that damned word “constructed” here loses all force. Unfortunately he does not bring much to why this is the case, though he does quote Griffiths who concludes that the “insights of social constructionism are perfectly compatible with what is known about the evolutionary [and therefore biological, pre-cultural] basis of emotions (p.19).

Still coming to no official resolution, Hacking finds himself once again asking the question of why use social construction talk in the first place. As is the case above, he turns to grades of commitments given the 3 theses. He adds two new dimensions—historical and ironic. He places these at less demanding levels of constructionism in comparison to the reformist/unmasker positions. He states that someone who presents a history of X and argues that X is socially constructed, but goes no further than that would be presenting a historical and non-committed construction. The ironist is a powerful intellect and sheds a fantastic light on why X is X, and why it could have been nothing other than X given the particular development of its construction. But in our lives and in the current state of affairs, there is not much we can do about it.

Lets walk through all of this and see what comes from it. The “child viewer of television” is a social construct. Now labeled, the child viewer, this new species, like the “whale” from above is a relation involving this child, the producers of the vieweing material, the advertisers attached to it, the products, etc (p.27). The child is no longer a passive victim, but becomes actively present and actively participates in the milieu of Television. We would consider the precondition (thesis 0) and say that, “the child viewer”, is an inevitable category in our times. But the constructionist of course want to argue for thesis 1, this is indeed not inevitable at all. The child who watches television never needed to be conceptualized in this way. Though this seems like a sensible classification, it was imposed upon us, namely through a vast network, a matrix. From here comes thesis 2, the idea that the child viewer of society is not a particularly a good one. Some may take it further (the revolutionary), that we would be better off without it. What is problematic in all of this is that having this kind to work with, this “child viewer of television” presupposes that there is a coherent object. We then collect data about watching television, ages, sex, attentiveness, school scores, and acts of violence, all which may very meaningful, but are all artifacts of a construction. Such data might be meaningful, but they are artifacts of a construction. In this constructing process, “child viewers”, the actual individuals adapt and react to these labels. This process Hacking calls a “looping effect” (p.34). The studies then change and revise to these changes. What is constructed is not only the classification, but the child, who is constructed and reconstructed within the matrix. Under all of these complications, Hacking’s insight is simple. What is the “what” being constructed? When social constructionist, talk about the social construction of “what”, they very likely are talking about different “whats”. It is the interaction between these “whats” that Hacking’s interest lies and he believes the mistake in all of this lies in blurring of objects and ideas. The example he leads to at the end of this chapter takes on quarks and baseballs. Quarks, the objects, are not constructs, are not social and are not historical, whereas baseballs are (p.30).

On this note, many would agree today that schizophrenia is at the bottom a biochemical or genetic disorder whereas others would say it is a social construct (p.101). Hacking does not want to take sides, as it should be clear by now. Instead he wants to create a space where both ideas can be developed. As he is so apt to do, Hacking creates a scheme for distinguishing between the “kinds” we have been discussing. There are two kinds of “kinds”: interactive and indifferent. Children are interactive kinds, because they are self-consious and react and interact with their social environment, they are, in a word, aware (103). If we are “females” or “disabled”, we interact with the categories put upon us, as well as consider the actions expected of us and the whole network of milieus that we live in and are engaged with. Returning to an earlier point above, social sciences strive to grab hold of this, but it is so troublesome to get to that fixed target, as Hacking notes, because, just perhaps, it’s a moving target (given the looping effect).

There is a second kind, the indifferent. While our knowledge of quarks might affect quarks, it is not because they are aware of our knowledge of them. Similarly Plutonium interacts with people certainly, for it kills us. But it is indifferent to our knowledge of it, it is indifferent to the idea of plutonium. He gives two further interesting examples, microbes and horses, the latter of which he says undoubtedly interacts with us, but is no different for being classified as a horse. More then anything Hacking is invested in the principle of classification and the individuals (objects, yes) that interact with this classification.

What if something, as is the case with psychopathologies (and can we think of something else?), is both an interactive kind and an indifferent kind? Though he might wince at the idea of someone calling something like childhood autism a construct, he wants to find a space between this and the biological and chemical processes happening in the child. The reason he is not so quick to denounce social construction, apart from the socio-historical richness it endows objects with, at least in the case of disorders and disease, it is well proven they can influence one another. This is the case of biolooping, where, for example, a cancer patients better mood do to behavioral or cognitive treatment, extends their life expectancy.

Having said all this, the problem Hacking has with social construction, particularly in the case of various disorders, is that society is meant to construct it. That’s how it is understood of course. But when something is both an interactive and indifferent kind, the disorder does not really exist in the way it is being described, indeed it may not ever have existed in that way if it weren’t described (p.117). What Hacking insists here is that it is not a one-way street, its not as simple as the construction of the thing by society. By introducing the idea of an interactive kind, we can understand that what we have here is a two-way street, or perhaps a city. Even if we finally come to some kind of conclusive result that pathology P is of a completely indifferent kind, how might we explain psychological treatment? This is because child autism, taken for example, is of both kinds it is almost certainly of a particular pathology P and it involves interactive children.


In the last chapter on rocks we were meant to read for our meeting, Hacking puts much of his criticisms and insights from the previous chapters to work in story form—the story of what dolomite is and how it is formed. And, to really push it now, how we form it, how it is categorized, how we interact with it, how it, the object, extends into all aspects of our lives. We might consider it an attempt to create a stirring philosophical, sociological and historical example of a more sensible collaboration between the insights of social construction and that “bottom” which science can get to for us. Hacking’s attentiveness to the science is evident here, but so is the messiness which humans bring to it. A last point rests on Hacking’s philosophy, since that is what he is, after all. He writes, “One way to do philosophy is to take a careful look at some corner of the world…The example must illustrate, and serve as a parable for, a general point of great interest. My choice here is up to the minute and into the future. No one knows how the story will end. The facts have not stabilized. But it certainly is an exciting story. We could be talking about the origin of life, maybe even life before Earth. And, like some of the most fascinating science, it starts with the dullest, most ordinary stuff imaginable” (p.186).


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