Like a t-shirt that used to say something you can’t quite read anymore, a piece of terminology will sometimes grow so faded, or be worn so thin, that retiring it seems long overdue. The threadbare expression “socially constructed” is one of them. It’s amazing the thing hasn’t disintegrated already.
In its protypical form -- as formulated in the late 1920s, in the aphorism known as the Thomas theorem – the idea was bright and shapely enough: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In a culture that regards the ghosts of dead ancestors as full members of the family, it’s necessary to take appropriate actions not to offend them; they will have a place at the table. Arguments about the socially constructed nature of reality generalize the Thomas theorem more broadly: we have access to the world only through the beliefs, concepts, categories, and patterns of behavior established by the society in which we live.
The idea lends itself to caricature, of course, particularly when it comes to discussion of the socially constructed nature of something brute and immune to argumentation like, say, the force of gravity. “Social constructivists think it’s just an idea in your head,” say the wits. “Maybe they should prove it by stepping off a tall building!”
Fortunately the experiment is not often performed. The counterargument from gravity is hardly so airtight as its makers like to think, however. The Thomas theorem holds that imaginary causes can have real effects, But that hardly implies that reality is just a product of the imagination.
And as for gravity -- yes, of course it is “constructed.” The observation that things fall to the ground is several orders of abstraction less than a scientific concept. Newton’s development of the inverse square law of attraction, its confirmation by experiment, and the idea’s diffusion among the non-scientific public – these all involved institutions and processes that are ultimately social in nature.
Isn’t that obvious? So it seems to me. But it also means that everything counts as socially constructed, if seen from a certain angle, which may not count as a contribution to knowledge.
A new book from Temple University Press, Darin Weinberg’s Contemporary Social Constructionism: Key Themes, struggles valiantly to defend the idea from its sillier manifestations and its more inane caricatures. The author is a reader in sociology and fellow at King’s College, University of Cambridge. “While it is certainly true that a handful of the more extravagant and intellectually careless writers associated with constructionism have abandoned the idea of using empirical evidence to resolve debates,” he writes, not naming any names but manifestly glaring at people over in the humanities, “they are a small and shrinking minority.”
Good social constructionist work, he insists, “is best understood as a variety of empirically grounded social scientific research,” which by “turn[ing] from putatively universal standards to the systematic scrutiny of the local standards undergirding specific research agendas” enables the forcing of “the tools necessary for discerning and fostering epistemic progress.”
The due epistemic diligence of the social scientists renders them utterly distinct from the postmodernists and deconstructionists, who, by Weinberg's reckoning, have done great damage to social constructionism’s credit rating. “While they may encourage more historically and politically sensitive intuitions regarding the production of literature,” he allows, “they are considerably less helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.”
And that is being nice about it. A few pages later, Weinberg pronounces anathema upon the non-social scientific social-constructionists. They are “at best pseudo-empirical and, at worst, overtly opposed to the notion that empirical evidence might be used to improve our understanding of the world or resolve disputes about worldly events.”
Such hearty enthusiasm for throwing his humanistic colleagues under the bus is difficult to gainsay, even when one doubts that a theoretical approach to art or literature also needs to be “helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.” Such criticisms are not meant to be definitive of Weinberg’s project. A sentence like “Derrida sought to use ‘deconstruction’ to demonstrate how specific readings of texts require specific contextualizations of them” is evidence chiefly of the author’s willingness to hazard a guess.
The book’s central concern, rather, is to defend what Weinberg calls “the social constructionist ethos” as the truest and most forthright contemporary manifestation of sociology’s confidence in its own disciplinary status. As such, it stresses “the crucially important emphases” that Weinberg sees as implicit in the concept of the social – emphases “on shared human endeavor, on relation over isolation, on process over stasis, and on collective over individual, as well as the monumental epistemic value of showing just how deeply influenced we are by the various sociohistorical contexts in which we live and are sustained.”
But this positive program is rarely in evidence so much as Weinberg’s effort to close off “the social” as something that must not and cannot be determined by anything outside itself – the biological, psychological, economic, or ecological domains, for example. “The social” becomes a kind of demiurge: constituting the world, then somehow transcending its manifestations.
It left this reader with the sense of witnessing a disciplinary turf war, extended to almost cosmological dimensions. The idea of social construction is a big one, for sure. But even an XXL can only be stretched just so far before it turns baggy and formless -- and stays that way for good.
Two people who died at a San Francisco nursing home on Monday night appear to have been victims of a murder-suicide; they were mother and daughter, though few other details have yet been released. A police officer and "self-confessed gun nut" in Dallas extolled the qualities of his new shotgun in a video posted online a few days before using it to kill his wife and then himself last week. It's reported that his jealousy was stoked by her Facebook socializing. The lack of evident motive makes even more horrific the scene in a Chicago suburb, also last week. After killing his parents and his 5 year old nephew, a man set the house on fire, then shot himself.
These events all occurred during the short time it took me to read The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide by Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, just published by Oxford University Press. The author estimates that around 2 percent of suicides in the United States are accompanied by the murder of at least one other person. It averages out to slightly more than two murder-suicides per day.
Nearly 90 percent of "ordinary" murders are committed by men, who also make up most (at least 75 percent) of the body count. With murder-suicide, the figures are significantly different: the perpetrators are male more than 90 percent of time, while 75 percent of the victims are female. "Both murder per se and suicide per se involve firearms between 55 percent and 70 percent of the time," the author indicates. "The rate in murder-suicide is considerably higher, with some studies returning rates approaching 100 percent."
But there is the very rare exception, such as the man who killed his wife with an injection cyanide before swallowing some himself. In this case, it was a matter of convenience: "He was a jeweler, and jewelers frequently use cyanide for their wares." Firearms and poison alike can be used in both stages of murder-suicide, while the man who killed his wife and son with a baseball bat three years ago couldn't exactly turn the weapon back on himself. Yet he "did nevertheless arrange that he be bludgeoned to death," Joyner writes; "he placed himself in front of an oncoming passenger train."
An article about the apparent murder-suicide of a man and woman in Cleveland last month reported: "Police have not said which of the two victims they believe was murdered. They also have not revealed why they believe the deaths are the result of a murder-suicide." I have not been able to find more recent news about the case, but Joiner's book makes a confident guess possible on both points.
The author is a prominent specialist in the study of suicidal behavior, and his goal in The Perversion of Virtue is to create "a comprehensive yet parsimonious typology" for what he calls "true murder-suicide." He excludes cases in which a murderer commits suicide to avoid punishment after the attempt to escape has failed, or still rarer instances of the suicide causing someone else's death by accident (say, a pedestrian killed by a building-jumper). In murder-suicide proper, the perpetrator's decision to kill himself is the primary factor. All else follows from it, through a morbid logic in which the thought of the victim(s) continuing to live is "the final barrier to suicide ... in the perpetrator's mind." The resolution to kill himself "necessitates, through an appeal to virtue, the death of at least one other person."
Virtue seems a peculiar word to find in this context, but it is the key to the book's four-compartment typology, defined by the venerable higher goods of mercy, justice, duty, and glory. The perpetrator of murder-suicide considers the death of the other(s) as required by at least one, and possibly two, of the four virtues. The act entails "a perverted and horribly distorted version of [virtue] to be sure," say Joiner, who also indicates that that the decision is always a product of mental illness. From the perspective of anyone but the killer, a murder-suicide compelled by the demands of justice is simply a matter of revenge: the abusive parent or the ex-spouse's infidelity damaged the suicidal person so badly that life is unbearable, but even more unbearable is the idea of them getting away with it.
Conversely, the murder may be committed as an act of violent mercy: a way to spare the victim (or victims) suffering in the wake of the suicide, as when parents in a suicide pact also kill their children. Not altogether distinct from such mercy killings are cases in which the perpetrator feels responsible for a severely ill or otherwise incapacitated person, so that killing them is a duty to be performed before committing suicide.
Finally, and the hardest of the four to regard with sympathy, is murder-suicide as a quest for glory. The primary example Joiner considers is the Columbine killers, who hoped to exceed Timothy McVeigh's death toll, and might have, had their bombs worked. The carnage of Jonestown and Heaven's Gate might also be relevant examples of murder-suicide pursued in the interest of their leaders' heroic self-concept, which to anyone else just looks like grandiosity. Orchestrating mass death was as close to glory as they ever got.
Parsimony, too, is a virtue, though more of the intellectual than moral variety. Having narrowed the scope of the term "murder-suicide," with stress on the suicidal impulse as its driving force, Joiner takes an inductive leap by suggesting a four-part typology of the rationales perpetrators create for their violent actions. Near the end of the book, he points out that the virtues of mercy, justice, duty, and glory can be further reduced to two categories: "one, combining mercy and duty, in which feelings of care and empathy for others are high (if distorting) and another, combining justice and glory, in which callousness and carelessness predominate." But he stops short of pushing any further toward schematism. And a good thing too. Like any virtue, parsimony gone wrong becomes a vice.
Just what value does the taxonomy itself have? Joiner suggests that it could be useful in talking to patients considered potentially violent. People with plans for suicide can be extremely reticent to reveal much about themselves, but a carefully delivered question about some aspect of the four virtues might be useful in assessing their state of mind.
For the lay reader, there's a certain relief at learning some kind of order or intelligibility can be found amidst all the mayhem. If, in addition, the book prevents even one more horror of the kind it describes, it will have served its purpose.
In one of those cases where satire cannot trump cold hard fact, the power brokers and heavy thinkers who gathered at an Alpine resort in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum last month expressed great concern about the danger that growing inequality poses to social stability everywhere. As well they might.
Strictly speaking, "widening income disparities" was only one of 10 issues flagged by the Forum's Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014report, along with "a lack of values in leadership" and "the rapid spread of misinformation online." But a couple of concerns on the list -- "persistent structural unemployment" and "the diminishing confidence in economic policies" -- were variations on the same theme. Two or three other topics were related to income disparity only a little less directly
In case you didn't make it to Davos last month (my invitation evidently got lost in the mail this year ... as it has every year, come to think of it), another gathering this summer will cover much of the same ground. The 18th World Congress of the International Sociological Association -- meeting in Yokohama, Japan, in mid-July -- has as its theme "Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for Global Sociology." The scheduling of their events notwithstanding, it was the sociologists who were really farsighted about the issue of growing inequality, not the "Davos men." The ISA announced the theme for its congress as early as December 2010.
And the conversation in Japan is sure to be more focused and substantive. A lot of business networking goes on during the World Economic Forum. By some accounts, the topic of inequality figured more prominently in the news releases than in actual discussions among participants. It's almost as if all of Bono's efforts at Davos were for nought.
Available a solid six months before the sociologists put their heads together in Yokohama, Goran Therborn's The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity) ought to steer the public's thinking into deeper waters than anything that can be reached with a reductive notion like "widening income disparities." Money provides one measure of inequality, but so do biomedical statistics, which record what Therborn, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Cambridge, calls "vital inequality." (Income disparities fall under the heading of "resource inequalities," along with disparities in access to nutrition, education, and other necessities of life.)
A third, less quantifiable matter is "existential inequality," which Therborn defines as "the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development." A big-tent concept of Therborn's own making, existential inequality covers the limitations and humiliations imposed by racism, sexism, and homophobia but also the experience of "people with handicaps and disabilities or just the indigent overlorded by poorhouse wardens or condescending socio-medical powerholders," among others.
While analytically distinct, the three forms of inequality tend to be mutually reinforcing, often in perfectly understandable but no less miserable ways: "Nationwide U.S. surveys of the last decade show that the lower the income of their parents, the worse is the health of the children, whether measured in overall health assessment, limitations on activity, school absence for illness, emergency ward visits, or hospital days."
The differences in health between the offspring of well-off and low-income parents "have been measured from the child's age of two, and the differentials then grow with age." A study of mortality rates among men in Central and East European countries shows a pattern of higher education corresponding to a longer life; men with only a primary education not only died earlier but were more prone to longstanding illnesses. (The patterns among women were comparable "but differentials are smaller, less than half the male average.")
Such inequalities within countries look small compared to those between countries, of course -- and Therborn piles up the examples of so many varieties of inequality from such diverse places that it becomes, after a while, either numbing or unbearable. Generalization is hazardous, but the pattern seems to be that a considerable variety of inequalities, both inter- and intranational, has sharpened over the past 30 years or so. Not even the author's own country of origin, Sweden -- so long the promised land for social democrats -- has been spared. Therborn's study of income developments in the Stockholm Metropolitan area between 1991 and 2010 showed that "the less affluent 80 percent of the population saw their income share decline, while the most prosperous 10 percent had their share augmented from 25 to 32 percent."
Furthermore, the share of the income that top tenth earned from playing the Stockholm Stock Exchange grew 282 percent over the same period. In Sweden as elsewhere, "the top side of intra-national inequality is driven primarily by capital expansion and concentration, and that at the bottom by (politically alterable) policies to keep the poor down and softened up to accept anything."
It seems unlikely that the CEOs, financiers, and politicians at Davos ever had it put to them quite like that. But Therborn seems equally unhappy with his own discipline, which he thinks has somehow managed to dodge thinking about inequality as such.
"Among the fifty odd Research Committees of the International Sociological Association," he writes, "there is not one focused on inequality." The closest approximation is the one on "Social Stratification," which he says "has mainly been interested in intergenerational social mobility."
That mobility having been, for the most part, upwards. But the distance from the bottom of society to its top verges ever more on the dystopian. In a rare flourish, Therborn invokes the alternative: "the positive lure of enlightened societies governed by rational and inclusive deliberation, where nobody is outcast or humiliated, and where everybody has a chance to develop his/her abilities."
To reach it, or even to move in that direction, implies a battle. "Nobody knows how it will end," he concludes. "Which side will you be on?"
I don't think he's asking just the people who will be there in Yokohama this summer.