|“Knowledge”, courtesy of Halans. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
[An aide to President George W. Bush] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. (Ron Suskind, 2004)
Social constructionism, constructivism, post-structuralism, standpoint epistemology, deconstructionism….ever heard of these? Chance are, if you’ve taken a look at some of the recent literature in the philosophical aspects of librarianship, you’ve come across these and/or similar theories. Variously lumped together under the aegis of postmodernism, these theories are distinct, yet they are united through a common belief that we have no epistemic access to a mind-independent reality. Some of these theories go even further and claim not only that we can’t know anything about the world outside of ourselves, but that there isn’t even an objective, mind-independent reality at all—reality is subjective. In effect, these theories advocate various forms of relativism. I’ve criticized this type of relativistic thinking in previous posts, but perhaps it’s time to clarify. Specifically, I want to explain why relativism, in all of its forms, is harmful to librarianship. This type of thinking is self-refuting, it impedes learning, it disenfranchises those who most need our help, it obstructs social progress, and it erodes the value of libraries in society.
The dominant form of relativistic theory in librarianship is constructionism. Generally speaking, constructionism is the theory that our concepts and beliefs about the world are constructed rather than discovered. Constructionist theories deny that the external, mind-independent world (if there is one) is the source of our claims to knowledge. Everything we think about the world around us is the product of some sort of constructive process. However, there are a few forms of constructionism, and I don’t want to mix them up. You see, the first big question for constructionists is “who is doing all of this construction”? We can make a neat division between social constructionists and constructivists.
Social constructionists believe that societies, institutions, or other social groups are the determining factor in how we construct our world-views. On this account, knowledge, information, and truth are determined by large-scale social negotiations and conventions. So, for example, the claim that “electrons are negatively charged” is true only in virtue of the fact that the scientific community has agreed that it is true. There is no external fact of the matter about electrons, there are only contingent social agreements.
On the other hand, constructivists believe that individuals, alone or in small groups, are the ones constructing knowledge, truth, and information. So, you accept the claim that “electrons are negatively charged” is true because you have chosen to agree that it is true (either agree with someone else, or agree with yourself). Your belief is constructed by conversation, communication, or some other discourse and it is entirely contingent on what you agree that reality is like. As Protagoras said, “man is the measure of all things.”
In both cases, knowledge is constructed, rather than discovered, and an objective reality (if there is one) has no causal effect on what we believe to be true about the world. It is a separate question whether there even is an objective reality at all. As presented above, constructionist theories are committed to the view that our claims to knowledge are based in contingent, social or interpersonal agreements. But, some constructionists go even further and make the claim that reality, itself, is constructed. The idea is that there is not a mind-independent world “out there” at all. The distinction I want to make is between constructionism about our beliefs and knowledge and constructionism about reality and fact. Fact-constructionism implies knowledge-constructionism, but not necessarily the other way around.
Fact-constructionism describes those theories that hold that truth is a relative concept. This shows up quite often in conversation, for example, when you hear phrases like “that’s true for you”. The general idea is that there are no objective facts in the world and all truth-claims are relative to a particular culture, individual, historical period, or other source of subjectivity. It follows that the objects we talk about in the world (and the facts corresponding to them) are subjective constructs. To take an overused example, truth relativism requires us to accept that the geocentric model of the Solar System (with Earth at the center) was (or still is) true for many cultures, and the heliocentric model of the Solar System is true for other cultures. Because of this difference between the facts that different cultures (or individuals) accept, there is no independent fact of the matter. The truth of how the Solar System is arranged depends on your outlook.
Knowledge constructionism admits that there may in fact be an objective, mind-independent reality, but that there is no privileged way of accessing that reality. In effect, there are many competing yet equally valid forms of rationality. There is more than one “way of knowing”. So, Western science is just one of many epistemic systems, though there are others out there. For example, the Ptolemaic view of a geocentric universe was founded in an epistemic system based in scriptural authority. The Copernican heliocentric system was founded on the epistemic value of empirical evidence and a rudimentary scientific method. In deciding between scriptural authority and empirical evidence, proponents of epistemic relativism suggest that each is an acceptable means of describing the world, and neither is necessarily better than the other.
(I admit to painting in fairly broad brush-strokes here, but I think these are charitable interpretations of constructionist theory. If any constructivists or social constructionists would like to correct my descriptions, I’d be happy to include revisions.)
Why believe in constructionism?
Why is constructionist thinking popular among? I think Paul Boghossian is on the right track when he writes,
Ideologically, the appeal of the doctrine of equal validity [that all claims to knowledge are equally valid] cannot be detached from its emergence in the post-colonial era. Advocates of colonial expansion often sought to justify their projects by the claim that colonized subjects stood to gain much from the superior science and culture of the West. In a moral climate which has turned its back decisively on colonialism, it is appealing to many to say not only–what is true–that one cannot morally justify subjugating a sovereign people in the name of spreading knowledge, but that there is no such thing as superior knowledge only different knowledges, each appropriate to its particular setting (2006, pp. 5-6)
To post-colonialism, I might add that the history of oppression in the name of absolute knowledge also includes the subjugation of women, minorities, non-heterosexuals, and lower economic classes. Absolutist, objective facts are routinely pointed to as a means of disenfranchisement and maintaining power. So-called “scientific” theories about racial intelligence, women’s ability to think rationally, or that homosexuality is a mental disorder are often held up as evidence that objective thinking has routinely lead to oppression. Since these theories have since been abandoned, so the argument goes, it must be the case that the scientific worldview doesn’t get things right, and therefore there is no “superior knowledge only different knowledges.”
Constructionist theorists often describe their positions as liberatory or empowering, and they portray themselves as a counter to the positivist, conservative, fundamentalist, oppressive, authoritarian theories that adopt an objective stance towards reality. Positivism, in particular, is often held up as the scapegoat for what ails society and constructionism is the only alternative. Is it any wonder that many librarians would want to gravitate towards “anti-positivist” theories?
Libraries and social constructionism
Libraries are at a watershed moment. The past two decades have seen a technological and informational revolution not seen since the so-called Gutenberg Revolution. The democratizing effect of the internet has found librarians shying away from their old roles as the archivists and arbiters of knowledge and the rise of social media has found us celebrating the participatory culture. Indeed, the new information landscape is so democratic, so participatory, and so complex, that it has lead librarians to reconsider the very meanings of the terms “true” and “knowledge”. How can there be a single, objective fact-of-the-matter to which libraries are somehow privileged, when the participatory internet seems to accept all claims to knowledge?
I think the fear is that if we adopt objective, realist theories of truth or knowledge, then we will be situating the library above the flow of information on the internet, thereby distancing ourselves from the information-seekers we depend upon. If librarians cling steadfast to objectivity and realism, we will be casting ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner of information, thereby standing in the way of a free and open information exchange. Here’s a sampling of this fear in the literature:
Without this suspension of truth in librarianship, the accumulation of past and present knowledge could be compromised. This compromise can take various forms, such as eliminating whole collections or suppressing information that does not share the present majority view, be that view scientific, religious, or political. (Labaree and Scimeca, p. 63)
Cultural diversity and recruitment practices within academic libraries are currently limited by the profession’s dominant worldview. Moreover, unmodified Enlightenment worldview values of rationalism and individualism necessarily condition the profession’s overall understanding of diversity and fairness. (Weissinger, p. 37)
By scientizing itself, LIS may be attempting to intimate a relationship with the so-called “hard” sciences. From a critical theorist’s perspective, this suggests that the claim to legitimacy by service is being replaced by a claim of legitimacy that is inherited by relying on empirical method: an appeal to the a priori truth and universal application of the methods. Moreover, social and linguistic distances are increased between user and LIS because reliance on technical performance to imply responsibility removes LIS from the role of a responsible agent. (Benoit, p. 463)
When one discourse takes up a dominant position in relation to others it potentially means that marginalized groups within, for example, an organization are forced to use tools that have been created to further the interests of other more “powerful” groups. (Sundin and Johannisson, p. 35)
The modern library experience for both librarian and user is structured by the values of order, control, and suppression…Such an experience is ultimately grounded in a positivist epistemology which renders the library an emotionless, cold, and mechanistic place. (Radford, 1998, p. 621)
The recurring theme is that objective, fact-oriented approaches to knowledge are destined to lead to alienation and disenfranchisement. Information will be suppressed, collections will be decimated, cultural diversity in the workplace will suffer, LIS practitioners will abdicate themselves of responsibility, the powerful will continue their oppression, and the library will become an “emotionless, cold, and mechanistic place.” With this sort of characterization of realism in the literature, is it any wonder that librarians are attracted to constructionist theories? I’ll answer these criticisms of realism in the next post, but for now I’d like to turn my attention to the problems of constructionist thinking.
Where it all breaks down
What really happens if constructionist theory is adopted as the foundation for library science? Would we achieve the liberatory results we so desire? Quite the contrary. Constructionist epistemology is no cure for librarianship, it is a cancer. Let me explain.
(1) Fact-Constructionism is self-refuting.
Let’s assume that fact-constructionism is the correct theory to adopt. The theory entails that there are no universal facts, everything is socially constructed. But, isn’t the pronouncement that “all facts are socially constructed” an absolute statement? The only way that fact-constructionism can survive is to admit that it is not a universal theory, thus allowing realists to continue being realists. Of course, this is the sledgehammer approach, Paul Boghossian offers a more precise and even more damning criticism: constructionism leads to a theory that “consists in the claim that we should so reinterpret our utterances that they express infinitary propositions that we can neither express nor understand.” (Boghossian, p. 56). For example, look at Lankes’ Conversation Theory. His brand of constructivism asks librarians to think of knowledge as “a set of agreements in relation to one another through a memory that is derived from language exchange between conversants” (Lankes, p. 32). So, the claim “electrons are negatively charged” is to be interpreted as “According to the agreement we have reached, electrons are negatively charged.” But, isn’t the description of this agreement an absolute statement? We can’t have that! So, we have to reword it as, “according to the agreement we have reached, there is an agreement that electrons are negatively charged.” Oops! Still absolute! One more time: “According to an agreement we have reached, there is an agreement we have reached according to which there is an agreement that electrons are negatively charged.” The infinite regress is unavoidable; at some point there simply have to be mind-independent, objective facts. Any theory that is based in acceptance, agreement, or assent as the foundation for truth will fail in this respect.
(2) Constructionism impedes learning
Paradoxically, knowledge-constructionism is purported to be a boon to education, even though it actively undermines the learning process. (I should be clear: there is a distinction between constructivist epistemology and constructivist or constructionist learning theories. This distinction is consistently ignored, which leads to some fairly significant problems.) Consider the student who comes to the reference desk inquiring after books or articles that prove that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can and should be treated (I have had this request). Assume that this student was raised in a devout Christian home, home-schooled, and has otherwise always lived within a community that believes that homosexuality is a a mental disorder. It follows from constructionism that this student knows that homosexuality is a mental disorder. His community of discourse has discussed homosexuality persistently and consistently, the relevant agreements have been reached, and so their belief constitutes knowledge. But, if the goal of education is to learn, and learning is knowledge creation, then I, as a reference librarian, would be acting against this student’s best interests if I provided anything that contradicted his “knowledge”. So, all I can do is hand him a pre-1974 DSM-II and a few articles from fundamentalist websites and send him on his way. Here’s my question: how can a student be expected to learn when everything he or she believes upon entering the library is already knowledge? Put another way, how do we define ‘learning’ without appealing to knowledge?
I suppose the constructivist might respond: “But, it’s about creating new knowledge.” But, this doesn’t make sense. If prior beliefs already constitute knowledge, why change them? Unless we adopt a realist stance and distinguish between “is true” and “is believed to be true” or “knows that homosexuality is a mental disorder” and “believes that homosexuality is a mental disorder”, all claims to knowledge are equally valid and there is no point in learning.
(3) Constructionism disenfranchises those who most need our help and obstructs social progress
Of course, as librarians, we must operate within the socially constructed bounds of our profession. Our social agreements with other librarians dictate how we are to act as librarians. Indeed, if constructivism is true, our entire code of ethics is a social construct. To that end, the desegregation of libraries during the Civil Rights Era must have been unprofessional and against our code of ethics. If our social group had agreed that public libraries should not be integrated (as was the case in libraries throughout the South), then any librarian who checked-out a book to an African-American was violating his or her responsibilities as a librarian. And the black patrons who sought to improve their own knowledge? Well, according to constructionism, they should have just “agreed to disagree” with the white majority and been content in their own indigenous knowledge. As Boghossian puts it, clearer that I can:
if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful (p. 130)
If it really is social agreement all the way down, and there is no privileged way of knowing about the world, then who is to criticize epistemic systems that are founded in tradition and scriptural authority? For the constructionist, there can be no substantive criticism of entrenched social agreement, hence there can be no social progress. And if there can be no social progress, the mission of libraries is reduced to little more than a warehouse of artifacts for maintaining the status quo. [Yes, this is what social constructionism and constructivism really entails. If you can’t tell how much this pisses me off, I think we’re almost at 2,500 words.]
(4) Constructionism erodes the value of libraries in society.
Since social constructionism and constructivism stand in the way of social progress, disenfranchise the oppressed, and impede learning, in the constructionist world these cannot be core library values. So, in their absence, what is left of the library? Well, the value that libraries provide as a source of entertainment is intact. Likewise, the value of libraries as a meeting place is maintained. But, these are hollow values and they make the library little more than a public park or town hall. These are good things, but they are a far cry from the once and future mission of the library as a place of knowledge and learning, a place where our community can better itself through education.
|“Beach House” courtesy of skagman CC-BY 2.0
A library built on sand
I’m adopting this metaphor from Noretta Koertge’s 1998 A House Built on Sand, because I think it is the perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with social constructionism. For as fascinating as some constructivist theories are, and for as compelling as their social ambitions can be, these theories lack a meaningful foundation. In fact, that lack of a foundation is often a point of pride. But, once we start down the path of social construction, we have to give up any sense of the library as a place of knowledge, learning, or social progress. These are foundational concepts, and constructionism will not allow them to exist without being subjected to intersubjectivity and bias. Where libraries were once viewed as the bedrock for an enlightened society, constructivism erodes that cultural solidity and replaces it with shifting uncertainty. And that uncertainty opens the door to doubt, which I would hope libraries would like to avoid.
Surprisingly, one of the best defenders of the profound importance of objective knowledge and rational foundations is one of the architects of social constructionism: Bruno Latour. Yeah…that Bruno Latour. In recent years, Latour has turned his back on postmodern studies in general and social constructionism in particular, and he dropped quite a bombshell with his 2004 article “Why has critique run out of steam?” I started this post with a rather long quote from a Bush aide (thought to be Karl Rove), and I’ll end with another lengthy quote, this time from Latour:
I’d like to believe that…I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectiﬁed facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast? In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive conﬁdence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. (Latour, p. 227)
I realize that this is a long
blog post, but I admit that it barely scratches the surface and it paints in rather broad strokes. But, after four hours, I think I’ll retire. I’d be delighted to defend my take on constructionism if any social constructionists want to step forward with particulars.
In the next post, I’ll try to defend objective knowledge as the most intuitive, progressive, and flexible approach to librarianship. Rather than take the constructionists at their word and believe that objectivity is undermined by hidden biases, cultural differences, power struggles, or whatever other social forces are out there, it is much simpler and liberating to understand that biases, cultural differences, power struggles, and other social forces are undermined by objective knowledge. This is the real power of libraries.
Some things I pulled off the shelf while thinking about this post
Criticism of social constructionism
- Boghossian, P. A. (2006). Fear of knowledge: Against relativism and constructivism. Oxford: Clarendon Press
- Burge, T. (2010). Origins of objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Koertge, N. (1998). A house built on sand: Exposing postmodernist myths about science. New York: Oxford University Press.
Latour, B. (2004). Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225-248.
- Meiland, J. W., & Krausz, M. (1982). Relativism, cognitive and moral. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Sokal, A. (2008). Beyond the hoax: Science, philosophy, and culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sosa, E., & Villaneuva, E. (2002). Realism and relativism. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Windschuttle, K. (1997). The killing of history: How literary critics and social theorists are murdering our past. New York: Free Press
Social constructionism in library science
A short list of recent articles in scholarly publications. This is just what I’ve read in the past year, and I’m sure there’s more out there:
- Andersen, J. and Skouvig, L. (2006). Knowledge organization: A sociohistorical analysis and critique. The Library Quarterly, 76(3), 300-322.
- Benoit, G. (2002). Toward a critical theoretic perspective in information systems. The Library Quarterly, 72(4), 441-471.
- Campbell, D. G. (2007). The birth of the new web: A Foucauldian reading of the semantic web. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 43(3/4), 9-20.
- Haider, J. (2007). Conceptions of “information poverty” in LIS: A discourse analysis. Journal of Documentation, 63(4), 534-557
- Huang, S. (2006). A semiotic view of information: Semiotics as a foundation of LIS research in information behavior. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 43(1), n.p.. [link]
- Labaree, R. V., & Scimeca, R. (2008). The philosophical problem of truth in librarianship. The Library Quarterly, 78(1), 43-70.
- Lankes, R. D. (2011) The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Olsson, M. (2007). Power/knowledge: The discursive construction of an author. The Library Quarterly, 77(2), 219-240.
- Radford, G. P. (1992). Positivism, Foucault, and the fantasia of the library: Conceptions of knowledge and the modern library experience. The Library Quarterly, 62(4), 408-424.
- Radford, G. (1998). Flaubert, Foucault, and the Bibliotheque Fantastique: toward a postmodern epistemology for library science. Library Trends, 46(4), 616-34.
- Sundin, O., & Johannisson, J. (2005). Pragmatism, neo-pragmatism and sociocultural theory: Communicative participation as a perspective in LIS. Journal of Documentation, 61(1), 23-43
- Weissinger, T. (2003). Competing models of librarianship: Do core values make a difference? The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 29(1), 32-39.
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