Social constructivism: the basics

One of the reasons that my colleague Jordan Peterson has become such a celebrity is that so many of his critics are so confused. On more than one occasion, he has come out of debates looking like the guy who brought a gun to a knife fight (if one can excuse the metaphor). One area in which this is particularly apparent is in his various discussions of social constructivism, some of which have a “shooting fish in a barrel” quality. This is largely because so many people – both academics and activists – are really confused about what it means to say that something is “socially constructed,” and what the political implications of this are.

As a philosopher and a critical theorist, I feel some responsibility for this, because those of us who trade in these concepts for a living have not done a good enough job at saying what we mean. In particular, we have allowed the impression to develop that, if some characteristic or property, such as gender or race, is “social constructed,” that means that it can be easily changed. This idea is what has created the tight connection, in many people’s minds, between “being committed to social justice” and “thinking that everything is socially constructed” (or “wanting to believe that everything is socially constructed”). This has, in turn, generated considerable distortion in the social sciences, as academics endorse the social constructivist thesis, not on the basis of compelling evidence, but because they want to believe it for political reasons (see my earlier post on “The Problem of Normative Sociology”).

As a matter of fact, a lot of things that are socially constructed cannot easily be changed. To explain this, however, we need to get to the basics of what the social constructivist claim is, and how it became so politically charged. It has commonly been observed that a great deal of misery in the world is caused by how people treat one another. Those who hope to alleviate some of this misery are therefore drawn to the question, whether these behaviour patterns can be changed. In some cases, the answer is obviously positive – if the behaviour is learned from others, for instance, it can be changed just by not teaching it, or if it is imposed by social norms, we can stop enforcing those norms. In other cases, however, the answer may well be negative, since there are aspects of human nature that appear to be constitutional, or “biologically determined.” If your plan for utopia involves people refraining from showing partiality toward their own children, for instance, it is unlikely to succeed.

This is, of course, what the great nature-nurture debate of the 20th century was about – basically, how much of the “human nature” we see around us is learned, and how much is innate? The ultimate outcome of this dispute was widespread acceptance of the conclusion that “everything is both,” or more precisely, that there is no principled way of drawing a distinction between the “biological” and the “social,” because human development occurs in an environment (which includes other people), in which there is constant feedback between the developmental plan and environmental conditions. So, for instance, humans obviously have certain biological adaptations aimed at language-learning and speech (physical adaptations, such as the position of our larynx, as well as cognitive adaptations, that allow for rapid domain-specific learning). For anyone who interacts with an 18-month old, it is difficult to avoid the impression that human brains are “hardwired” for language learning. And yet languages are not biological, they are cultural artifacts and a part of the social environment. Furthermore, they contain obvious conventional elements (e.g. the vocabulary, aspects of the grammar), such that children growing up in different social environments learn mutually unintelligible languages. And, of course, children raised in isolation, or under conditions of extreme neglect, do not spontaneously recreate language (the way that, for instance, spiders raised in isolation are nevertheless capable of spinning complex webs).

This resolution to the nature-nurture debate unfortunately left both sides a bit too contented, because the “nature” side interpreted “everything is both” to mean, in practice, “we can treat everything as biological,” while the “nurture” side interpreted it to mean “we can treat everything as social.” The correct conclusion, by contrast, would have been that there is a continuum, with some things being more biological and some things more social. Or to put it somewhat more technically, some trajectories of human development are more “canalized” than others, and thus more resistant to social or environmental modification. (For instance, like every other mammal on the planet, our biological endowment gives us certain “innate” food preferences and aversions. These are, however, not as rigid as in many other mammals, which means that they can be modified through social learning and habituation. We have “acquired tastes.” And yet there are some tastes that are more difficult to acquire than others. Coprophagia, for instance, is normally taken as a symptom of mental illness, not self-transcendence. So cultures that invest a great deal of socializing energy on cultivating acquired tastes will wind up with a palette that is more or less “constructed,” whereas those that do not will wind up with one that closely resembles our biological default settings.)

It is, of course, a scientific question how canalized the development of a particular trait is, and thus, how much socializing effort would be required in order to divert that trajectory. Unfortunately, there is a powerful political motive that interferes, for many people, with the impartial adjudication of this question. Whenever one has a trait that is involved, in one way or another, with some injustice, many people would like to believe that it is more “social” than “biological,” precisely because they would like to see it changed. This has had numerous consequences, perhaps the more obvious of which is the outrageous misallocation of the burden of proof that prevails in the social sciences, but also in everyday public debate, where proponents of “biological” explanations, in order to vindicate their claims, must rule out every possible “social” explanation, but where proponents of “social” explanations typically feel no obligation even to present evidence for their claims, much less rule out all possible “biological” explanations. For instance, when it comes to observed gender differences in children, biological explanations are ordinarily taken to be defeated by purely hypothetical accounts of how the observed difference could be the result of socialization. (For an example of this from the philosophical literature, see Jesse Prinz’s book Beyond Human Nature. Philosophers are specially trained to think up weird hypothetical examples, and as a result, find it particularly easy to persuade themselves that our biology is completely irrelevant to every aspect of life. This is, incidentally, seldom a step in the right direction on the path to self-knowledge.)

The resulting state of affairs is one in which the typical belief among educated persons dramatically overestimates the importance of social influences (learning, institutions, etc.) on human behaviour, based on an elaborate form of politically motivated wishful thinking. This gives rise to “politically correct” science, which Peterson has had something of field day pointing out and debunking. For instance, he first drew widespread attention by getting into a tussle over the extension of the Canadian Human Rights code to prohibit, not just sex discrimination, but also discrimination based on “gender identity.” Although people routinely say things like, “gender identity is different from, and is not determined by, biological sex,” it is worth pausing to ask what the term “determined” means in this sentence.

Social scientists are often impressed by correlations in the neighbourhood of .3 or .4. In the case of gender, over 99% of the population has a gender identity that maps directly onto their biological sex. If that isn’t what it means for something to be “determined by” biology, Peterson asks, then what is? Biological determinism cannot mean that a particular genotype invariably, in 100% percent of cases, produces a given phenotype. For instance, the fact that we have five fingers on each hand is something that we take to be “biologically determined,” despite the fact that there is a developmental aspect to it, such that some people wind up with six fingers, while others get one or more cut off, and so wind up with fewer. So the implicit definition of biological determination being used in the sentence above (which requires a correlation of 1) is one according to which nothing is biologically determined. This serves to distract attention from the obvious fact that there is an extremely powerful relationship between sex and gender.

At the same time, there is a perfectly coherent sense in which “gender” is a social construct, while “sex” is not. When Simone de Beauvoir said “on ne nait pas femme, on le devient,” what she was observing was that our popular understanding of what “women” and “men” are like involves a great deal of learned behavior. Typically, what happens in childhood is that biological sex is used as a way of partitioning the human population into two classes (“male” and “female”), who are then socialized in different ways, to occupy two distinct social roles (“men” and “women”). Girls may be taught to cross their legs when they sit, boys will not, as a result of which men and women wind up behaving differently, but this is properly explained as a consequence of the gender role, not their biological sex. The fact that the behaviour can easily be changed or unlearned strongly suggests that it is more due to social role than biological endowment.

The distinction between sex and gender is worth making in part because the very strong correlation between the two categories leads many people to assume that aspects of the social role are biologically fixed. (In other words, gender becomes invisible, as people appeal to biological sex to explain various aspects of social behavior that are actually due to gender roles. Precisely because of the near-perfect correlation between sex and gender, the error is not detected, because one so seldom encounters any counterexamples.) It is also worth observing that some people are born with a biology that makes it difficult to classify them as “male” or “female,” and so, historically, have been somewhat arbitrarily assigned to one gender or the other, while other people experience dissatisfaction with their assigned gender, and so have sought to switch roles, despite lack of ambiguity in the underlying biology.

The big question, of course, is whether, or to what extent, the content of the roles can be changed. Can we change the expectations? Can we create new roles? Can we abolish them entirely? Many people mistakenly assume that, if the social constructivist thesis is correct, then the answer is “yes.” Proving that something is not “developmentally canalized” shows that we can do whatever we want – and if there’s any resistance to change, it must not be coming from human nature, but rather from “conservative” or “reactionary” elements in society.

To see the problem with this, consider an analogy to religion. Religion is obviously cultural, and it is also, obviously, made up. (If there is one thing that everyone – both theists and atheists – can agree upon, it is that religious beliefs are generally false. The only difference between theists and atheists on this point is that theists allow one exception to this generalization (in the case of their own beliefs) while atheists make none.) In any case, from the fact that religions are made up, one might conclude that it would be easy to make up a new one. And indeed, many people have tried. What they discover, however, is that while working up a new “revelation,” or developing a set of new ritual practices, is not that difficult, securing their widespread acceptance is almost impossible.

Social diffusion, in other words, is the tricky part. This is partly because human attention and memory are all subject to powerful biases, of biological origin, that make certain kinds of stories more compelling than others. (Pascal Boyer, in his Religion Explained, describes some fascinating experiments, in which they tried making up new “superstitions” and propagating them, then sought to figure out which qualities made some of them “stick,” while others were ignored or quickly forgotten.)

There is a similar dynamic in children’s books. There are literally thousands of these published every year (people spend so much time reading these simple books to their kids, everyone at some point thinks “I could write one of these.”) But it’s a competitive market out there. Only a handful are actually successful. The system that picks them out is essentially one of natural selection. What is the environment? Human cognition, and in particular, the protean biases of the unsocialized human brain. That’s why “Freudian” readings of children’s books are so persuasive. It’s not because this is what the authors secretly had in mind. It’s because these themes are what cause certain stories to resonate, to be remembered, and to be retold.

This is, incidentally, Peterson’s reason for thinking that the great world religions, and religious texts, contain deep truths, which we have not yet succeeded in fully articulating. It’s that certain stories have resonance, they appeal to us at the deep biological level, which is what caused them to become successful, and to be reproduced over time. We don’t actually know what it is about these stories that causes them to resonate so powerfully, so there is still much that we can learn about ourselves by exploring them. (I’m inclined rather to think they involve ‘misfiring’ learning heuristics adapted to other contexts, rather than esoteric wisdom. Just goes to show that one man’s deep truth is another man’s arbitrary cognitive bias.)

All of this creates some rather significant constraints on how easily social institutions can be changed. For instance, the “family” is in some respects an extremely flexible social institution. It exists in very different configurations in different societies, it can be extended quite arbitrarily through practices like adoption, and so on. And yet, social reformers have been trying, off and on, to abolish the family for literally thousands of years, without success. That is because the institution organizes and channels a set of emotional and behaviour dispositions that are deep feature of mammalian psychology, which are extremely difficult to override. The most that anyone has been able to accomplish is to create a “sterile caste” (such the Catholic priesthood, or the Chinese imperial eunuchs), and these also tend to be unstable. By contrast, the “guardian” arrangement that one finds in Plato’s Republic has been tried innumerable times, and has never been made to work.

The commune movement of the 1960’s counterculture provides some instructive lessons in this regard. At one time, there were more than 5,000 communes active in the United States, engaged in a variety of more or less extreme “experiments in living.” A friend of mine spent several years in a “child-rearing collective,” a group of five men and five women who decided to have children and raise them collectively, without any distinctions of biological parenthood. (The plan involved not telling the children who their biological parents were, but for all ten to be treated as the parents, and all to be equally involved in each child’s care and development.) The entire thing was an ignominious failure, and collapsed in acrimony within a few years. Many of the people involved wound up in family court, suing each other for custody and visitation rights.

What is perhaps most striking about the commune movement is the fact that almost everything that was tried failed. Of the literally thousands of experiments that were undertaken – different ways of organization social relations, in practically every dimension of life – almost everything fell apart. Depressingly, there were only two types of communes that proved capable of surviving for more than a few years: those that had a powerful religious orientation (e.g. cults), and those that chose to bureaucratize, adopting written laws and formal decision-making procedures. In other words, what the commune movement wound up proving was that the only ways people have of reliably getting along with one another are ones that are already being used in mainstream society.

So what are we to conclude from all this? It’s that humans are in many respects an extremely flexible species, heavily reliant upon social learning, and able to exercise a great deal of control over our social interactions by enforcing norms of behavior, and yet we remain at the same time heavily constrained – sometimes in rather surprising ways – by our evolved psychology, and a set of biologically inherited dispositions, which bias our social relations in particular directions. So a great deal of what we naively think of as “human nature,” is in fact social in origin, not natural at all, and yet is also, in many cases, remarkably resistant to modification.

One other point bears repeating. This analysis helps us to understand both why and how the “progressive left” has the capacity to become dangerous. Most people who identify with the left think of themselves as such morally upstanding people, that they have difficulty imagining themselves as capable of doing anything bad. This is why is it worth remembering that the left, or at least governments that enjoyed widespread support on the left, killed somewhere between 70 and 100 million of their own people over the course of the 20th century. A large part of this was due to the fact that they were pursuing utopian political projects, which required individuals to exhibit levels of prosociality that were beyond the capability of most people. When these projects began to fail, or to encounter resistance, instead of acknowledging that they were encountering the limits of “human nature,” governments instead looked for scapegoats, “counterrevolutionary,” “bourgeois,” or “reactionary” elements, who were then held responsible for sabotaging the project. The results were tragic.

This is why all the “social constructivism” talk makes some people nervous. The problem is that we have, on the one hand, the requirements of justice, and on the other hand, the constraints of human nature. We still have not formulated any principled way of thinking about the relationship between the two, or how we might reasonably accommodate the former to the latter. The problem was identified quite clearly by Sigmund Freud, who in his conclusion to Civilization and its Discontents, offered the following as a critique of what he called the “cultural superego”:

It, too, does not trouble itself enough about the facts of the mental constitution of human beings. It issues a command and does not ask whether it is possible for people to obey it. On the contrary, it assumes that a man’s ego is psychologically capable of anything that is required of it, that his ego has unlimited mastery over his id. This is a mistake; and even in what are known as normal people the id cannot be controlled beyond certain limits. If more is demanded of a man, a revolt will be produced in him or a neurosis, or he will be made unhappy. The commandment, ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’ the strongest defence against human aggressiveness and an excellent example of the unpsychological proceedings of the cultural super-ego. The commandment is impossible to fulfil; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty. Civilization pays no attention to all this; it merely admonishes us that the harder it is to obey the precept the more meritorious it is to do so.

It does not seem to me that we have made any progress in our thinking on this problem, over the course of the past century.


Social constructivism: the basics — 16 Comments

  1. I think that the last bit about the “progressive left” being dangerous and then invoking the crimes of Stalin and Mao was a bit too much. Surely this speaks to a rather lazy reactionary habit of seeing the Soviet Union lurking behind all progressive causes. This ain’t the 1930s. These spurious historical analogies are no help in assessing the cogency of arguments concerning the modern world. To me the only point in stressing past crimes in this context is warning us about their recurrence. Are we seriously entertaining the possibility that the Gulag will reappear because of an argument over whether gender and sex are socially constructed?

    Professor Heath is too smart a person to simply say “leftism equals Stalinism”. I know this is not what he is saying. But he is falling into a trap I see many, like John Gray, consistently fall into. And that trap is assuming a.) that ideas in themselves can be held responsible for political outcomes, whether monstrous or benign and b.) assuming that just because ideas mentioned in one era sound similar to ones invoked in another, that the outcome must necessarily be the same.

    Heath obviously sees a connection between contemporary debates around the social construction of gender and the utopian propensities of leftist radicals of earlier eras, because they are both based on the desire to modify aspects of our biological nature that resist such modification. But so what? One can draw all sorts of connections between patterns of thought from different eras and not then go on to say that the consequences will be similarly disastrous.

    I know this point seems small, but it points to the tendency among some to exaggerate the importance of ideas in influencing events.

    Historical events of the magnitude of Stalin and Mao’s crimes are too complicated to say that they would not have happened had the idea-systems been different. If the crime in question is state-enforced murder and torture, then it becomes more a matter of state capacity, military resources, economic security etc., then whether their general outlook resembled those of cafe intellectuals in another continent. In other words, it is in the realm of the political, not the philosophical, that the questions of how and why state crimes occur.

    Thank you for time, back to Stephen Holmes’ study of Benjamin Constant. Good day.

    • You seem to have misread that last bit. I didn’t say the progressive left is dangerous, I said that it has the capacity to become dangerous. There are of course multiple countervailing forces in liberal societies. I was just trying to explain why not everyone sees the left as completely anodyne — something that, I think, many people on the left genuinely don’t understand.

      At the same time, I’ll admit to being in a slightly somber mood on these topics. I was in Riga last week, and went on a tour of the old NKVD/KGB prison that’s right in the middle of the downtown. Realizing that it was shut down only in 1991 was sobering, given the number of friends and colleagues I have who, back in 1991, were sympathetic to, and in some cases supporters of, the government that ran it. In any case, I was just trying to explain why the social constructivism issue is so politically charged, on both the left and the right. I think we all understand why the left cares so much about the issue, but it’s important to understand (as well) why many people on the right are alarmed by it. The boilerplate explanation is that “they’re just being reactionary,” or “they just want to keep the status quo.” This is sometimes true, but is more often a way of avoiding the deeper problem that is being raised. I mean, who has thought seriously about that problem Freud raised? Who has a good answer to his question?

      • Fair point(s).

        One of the interesting things you made me realise has to do with a generational difference. You’re old enough to remember the Soviet Union actually existing, whereas I was born the year the Berlin Wall fell down, and so it is not a point of reference for me. I obviously can’t do anything about your colleagues from 1991, other then to keep in mind that while Communist dictatorships were massacring their citizens, social-democratic parties in England and northern Europe were building the welfare-state-capitalist model you’ve theorised about in your books and articles.

        As for the problem raised by Freud, I’m afraid I can’t lay a glove on it. Is the problem to do with the dynamic of subjugating our instinctual nature to the demands of civilisation, something we do because the benefits of the latter exceed that of the former? I’m not deeply familiar with the political implications of psycho-analysis.

        • The Soviet issue is not as much in the past as all that.

          For instance, every year the Canadian Political Science Association awards the C.B. Macpherson Prize to “the best book published, in English or in French, in a field relating to the study of political theory”, and the CPSA states that the Prize “seeks to encourage the ideals of scholarship represented by this great Canadian political scientist [Macpherson]”.

          This year’s short list for the C.B. Macpherson Prize is comprised of a Professor and Department Head at the University of British Columbia, and one Assistant and one Associate Professor at McGill University, while the jury is comprised of faculty from the University of California, Irvine, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Ottawa.

          Macpherson was someone who in his writings considered the Soviet Union (and various other autocratic or totalitarian governments in what was then called the “third world”) to represent forms of “democracy” that were different from, but not inferior to (in fact, in some respects very much more admirable than) Western “democracy” (which Macpherson was rather more skeptical of as actually deserving that title).

          These are the “ideals of scholarship” that the CPSA seeks to “encourage”, and which is treated as a great honour by faculty from the aforementioned institutions.

          Now, these faculty might echo your remarks by saying: hey, but that’s all in the past; we don’t have to endorse every part of Macpherson’s legacy, just the good parts, and besides, who remembers all the details of the Soviet Union anymore anyway?

          This is, of course, exactly NOT the approach which these same faculty would advocate taking towards a prize named after, say, John A. Macdonald.

          “No enemies to the left” is the implicit ethos of the largest chunk of “right-thinking” (i.e., left-wing) academics (i.e., the overwhelming majority of academics).

          So reminding them that their schemes don’t always work out as promised seems more apposite than you suggest.

          • The recent article by former Peterson mentor Bernie Schiff was a great example of how not to criticize Peterson. Some of it was just inside griping about how Peterson chafes against academic folkways and some of it was legitimate criticism about how Peterson could be more careful labeling his more speculative claims as speculative.

            But the big mistake Schiff makes is actually defending Marxism. Given that every single time anyone claiming to be a Marxist gets into power you get a human rights disaster, I’m really having trouble taking seriously his claim that it’s really Jordan Peterson’s slightly right-of-centre liberalism that is the real danger.

            So, yeah: apologists for Marxism are far from a thing of the past.

      • Heath’s views are not that different from someone like Bret Weinstein, a Bernie Sanders man after all.

      • Most of the IDW thought they were mainstream too. Most of them consider themselves classic liberals. And yet liberal neutrality is quickly giving way to social justice progressivism. You may have much more in common with folks like Bret Weinstein, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Summers, and Glen Loury that anyone in a women’s studies or anthropology department. And I suspect you’d get more out of reading Quillette than The Atlantic.

        • He’s got very little in common with Haidt!!! A big chunk of his most recent book book was devoted to explicitly arguing against Haidts key idea, and it’s underlying noncognitivism. To the extent I understand the positions of many of the other ‘idw” club, I think the same critique won’t often apply.

          • That’s right. The IDW folks do vary quite broadly in terms of their thinking. But what they share, and what I intended to suggest that Prof. Heath shares with them, is a methodological commitment to a scientifically-informed approach to normative theorizing, as well as a fundamental underlying commitment to open inquiry about politically sensitive subjects. I suspect Prof. Heath could engage with those folks in a much more fruitful way than, as I suggested, most of the folks in the humanities these days.

          • Well there’s a caricature of “the humanities” built on selective sampling of concepts that are wielded in public discussion despite getting less fuzzy pushback in their originating disciplines. Some of the criticism is on the mark but it’s also blocking the path to inquiry with the assumption that there isn’t an interesting and more deep discussion in the literature about those questions. Don’t assume the half baked ideas in the zeitgeist are representative of the humanities or social science. I enjoy podcasts that some of these “dark web” people produce and participate in but in a lot of instances they speculating about topics they haven’t done much reading, reacting to the general sea of ignorance not the best well formed ideas. Yes some disciplines have systematic biases that color their output but there often is a practice of justification between politically valenced factions within and between disciplines. Writing them off is just degrading public understanding.

  2. Once you dispense with the assumption that left wing automatically means morally superior though, there are wider implications. It isn’t just that the left has the potential to be really dangerous in some other, safely distant, set of circumstances. The current mainstream left shouldn’t be given the moral benefit of the doubt either.

    Simply because the current mainstream left isn’t outright murdering people doesn’t mean it is a force for good. There’s a lot of room to be quite pernicious while stopping well short of a Stalin or Mao.

  3. Great piece. I found this very helpful in sorting through the academic and public debates on social constructivism. It is also very refreshing (and relieving, to be frank) to find an academic willing and able to seriously engage with Peterson’s thought. Prof. Heath may be the only one, as far as I can tell. (By contrast, you can find a very disappointing string of mischaracterizations by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, whose work is otherwise quite good, here:

    I was especially appreciative of this paragraph: “This is, incidentally, Peterson’s reason for thinking that the great world religions, and religious texts, contain deep truths, which we have not yet succeeded in fully articulating. It’s that certain stories have resonance, they appeal to us at the deep biological level, which is what caused them to become successful, and to be reproduced over time. We don’t actually know what it is about these stories that causes them to resonate so powerfully, so there is still much that we can learn about ourselves by exploring them. (I’m inclined rather to think they involve ‘misfiring’ learning heuristics adapted to other contexts, rather than esoteric wisdom. Just goes to show that one man’s deep truth is another man’s arbitrary cognitive bias.)” This is a central claim in Peterson’s work, which you have articulated quite nicely. I had a similar thought in mind, and it’s been extremely disappointing that most critics go for the ad hominem attacks rather than the more effective critique you’ve sketched here.

  4. “The problem is that we have, on the one hand, the requirements of justice, and on the other hand, the constraints of human nature. We still have not formulated any principled way of thinking about the relationship between the two, or how we might reasonably accommodate the former to the latter”

    This accommodation is really the starting point for moral skeptics and Jonathan Haidt types. “Justice” is definitely socially constructed, and there are no “true” requirements. There is little purpose in trying to define the mathematical function that pops out “justice” – is it the non-aggression principle? The veil of ignorance? The ten commandments? No function would satisfy everyone in practice. But just under the surface is the biological reality of an a moral toolkit that evolved to facilitate pro-social, fitness-enhancing behavior. These would be concepts such as authority, transgression, outrage, punishment, and repentance. It’s so baked into human existence that we tend to recreate the same patterns in all our institutions, such as civil governments, religion, sports teams, the family, etc. In practice, people choose a theory of justice that soothes them in their social setting and feels good emotionally.

  5. I would love to see you write a piece about what the section on communes above implies for corporate (or more generally organizational) structure and governance.