Sociology, Social Construction and Logic

July 12, 2006 at 12:21 am Leave a comment

During a lecture in sociology class (soc. 301; social problems), the professor was talking about socially constructed realities with regard to language. She was arguing that different positions on social issues could be ‘shaped’ (or ‘created’) using different words. She used the example of ‘pro-life,’ which according to her was the Political Right’s way of limiting the freedom of women and additionally justifying the death penalty.

Her theory of language-created social realities might go something like this,

(L) For any x, if x is a social fact, then x can be renamed such that x takes on the appearance of being something other than itself (~x or y).

But is this theory of language-created social realities true? I am skeptical. Let’s test this theory with a simple thought-experiment. Suppose the police force of a particular city were on patrol and they came across an alleged homicide suspect. After checking his identification they took him into custody with the intention of admitting him to the county-jail to await trial.

But let’s suppose the arresting officer was a sociopath who enjoyed killing people, and thus decided this suspect would make the perfect victim. So the police officer decided to the let the suspect “have a breather” and let him out of the car. After the suspect got out the police officer shot in the head for trying to escape, claiming that he had made a wrong move (i.e. getting out of the car). Would this be convincing?

Of course not. Because the language had nothing to do with the actual facts of the case. Calling something an escape attempt, does not in fact make it one. Consider, i. the suspect was safely in custody, ii. the officer allowed the suspect to leave the patrol car for a bit of a break, and iii. the officer unjustifiably shot (and killed) the suspect. Simply renaming this state of affairs an ‘escape attempt’ does not make it one. (In other words, there is a distinction between appearance and reality that needs to be made, and isn’t being made).

Of my professor might respond by saying that we witnessed the event, and thusly renaming the event doesn’t change its reality. But according the theory L (above), we can the reality of something by simply changing its name. It is clear from the thought experiment that simply remaning an event is not a sufficient condition of changing its ‘reality.’ This is true, of course, because we have knowledge of what actually happened. We are not ignorant of the event.

In other words, we can add something the theory L,

(L2) For any x, if x is a reconstructed social reality s, then those for whom x is recontructed are ignorant of x such that they have no reason for rejecting s (or accepting ~s).

Or to put it another way, the construction of social realities with language will only work on those who are sufficiently ignorant of the events which are reconstructed to accept the social realty. Much more than language is needed if the social reality is going to be successful.

Of course this creates another problem. It would seem with this move we have stumbled upon a principle,

(R) For any x, and any person (p) convinced of x, if x is a social reality, the degree to which p is convinced of x is directly proportional to the degree of ignorance possessed by p.

So, the more knowledge someone has of an event, the harder it is to socially construct alternative realities with regard to the person, and x. To put it another way, this presents a dilemma for the ‘language creates reality’ theorist.

Either, people who are ignorant can be deceived (which is an obvious truth, and it very uninteresting),

Or, language can create alternative ‘realities’ in spite of out knowledge of those facts (which is clearly false, but outlandish).

Or, there are no truths strictly speaking (Nietzschean), but only interpretations of which language is a part (which is controversial, hard to prove and philosophical not sociological).

To drive the point home even more, strictly speaking lying/deception are not ‘creating realities,’ they are convincing people of falsehoods. Unless the word ‘reality’ is redefined to mean what people believe. Something cannot be called reality, strictly speaking, unless it corresponds to an actual state of affairs (correspondence theory of truth). The words reality and falsehood only make sense if in fact they correspond to actual states of affair.

So in summary, this whole exercise boils down to a word games–which results in bad sociology, and worse science!

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Entry filed under: metaphysics, social philosophy.

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