Sunday, September 21, 2014

Platitude Storm: Race As A Social Construct

Some pretty good points (at West Hunter)

The most important thing to understand about the proposition that race is socially constructed is not about that proposition in particular. It's rather the general point that claims of the form "x is socially constructed" don't really make any sense. Such claims are ambiguous as between two almost opposite meanings (we make x and we make x up)--and that is almost the least of their problems...  The phrase 'socially constructed' is simply not clear enough to be used in any even semi-serious discussion. Confronted by these objections, those wedded to the jargon will insist that its meaning is perfectly clear, and to object to its use is to display ignorance of the state of play in the relevant sectors of academic literature. But that simply isn't so. Assertions of the form "x is socially constructed" are, even there, used so indiscriminately and in such inconsistent ways that, though they don't quite mean nothing, it's not by much...
Assertions of the form "x is socially constructed" are variously used to mean:
A. Our beliefs about x are caused by social forces (but this has no effect on x's themselves).
B. There are no x's, but we agree that there are.
C. We agree that there are x's, and to say that x's are real is equivalent to saying that we agree that there are x's.
D. x's are real--really real--and they are real because we believe in them. (This is the magical option...)
And these aren't the only ways in which such assertions are used--not by a long shot...
But the biggest problem with assertions of the form "x is socially constructed" is that they commonly are not used to determinately mean any of the options A-D (nor any of the large number of other options not discussed here.) Rather, nothing very determinate is meant by the phrase at all. And terminology that is used so loosely is dangerous for any number of reasons. For one thing, such terminology allows its defenders to slip around indiscriminately from one suggested meaning to another as a way of avoiding refutation. This is handy for the bait-and-switch strategy: strongly suggest that radical interpretations are at issue for the purposes of advertising the importance of your theory...but then retreat to the modest ones when challenged.
That's often what happens with the "race is socially constructed" version of the claim. It's used to mean "society made race" or "society made up race"...until such claims are refuted...when proponents of the claim fall back on the "many of our beliefs about race are caused by society" interpretation. Which, of course, everybody already knew... Worse, that's not a legitimate meaning of the words "race is socially constructed." The way to say that is, well, "many beliefs about race are caused by society." Which is a completely different claim... And everybody knows it. And it's boring. And it won't get you any attention. And it won't help you pretend that your theory has metaphysical implications...
But, of course, it's hard to have a philosophical or scientific discussion of a view that is not advanced for philosophical or scientific reasons. This claim (like so many claims about "social construction") is  largely advanced for political reasons.
Good political reasons...  Many proponents of the view naively think that it will help fight racism, and falsely seem to think that it's necessary for fighting racism...but political reasons nonetheless.
But introducing politics into science is Lysenkoism...even when your goals are admirable...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It really seems like about 90% of your objections to "social construction" claims are about the term itself, rather than arguments that might lead people to embrace it. "Social construction" is a terrible term, both for the vagueness and ambiguity you describe, and for the way it smuggles in all of Foucault. But you act as though the alternatives are to either embrace "social construction" or a very simple, rather table-poundy, realism on race, sex, and every other category that the SJWs go on about. That can't be right. The considerations that Coates, for example, uses to motivate a claim that race is "socially constructed" may not get him that much, but they certainly point up that there is a significant difference between human racial categories and, say, chordates. Would you be more receptive to these arguments if they were in support of a claim that racial categories were "conventional"?

12:38 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Actually, the disastrous unclarity of 'social construction' is just the *beginning* of my objections to that mess, not the end of it by far.

There are at least two major ambiguities in such views, even before we get to any of the more fine-grained stuff. Take the ambiguity as between "society made race" and "society made race up." Neither is true. Take the next big ambiguity, which pervades every discussion of "social construction" since Berger and Luckman introduced the term: about half the time "x is socially constructed" means one of the two things above...and about half the time it means "society caused our *beliefs* about x." A completely different kind of claim...and the interpretation that led to the so-called "sociology of knowledge"...also a misnomer...also disastrously confused...

You don't need to pound any tables to be a realist about racial differences--there are real biological differences between whites, blacks, and Asians. Hell, there are real biological differences between the Irish and Italians...

If politics were not intruding into science, exactly 0 people would deny those things.

Racial differences aren't very important, biologically speaking, but they aren't fictitious, and we didn't create them by the magical mystery power of social agreement.

If that sounds table-poundy to you, I'll offer up an experiment: take a random selection of people born in Sweden and a random selection of people born in Senegal, and a random selection of people from around the world. Ask the members of the third group to look each member of the first two groups and guess whether they were born in Senegal or Sweden.

They will be able to do so at a rate greater than that predicted by chance.

And there is simply no doubt about that.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right, it still sounds table-poundy to me, and here's why: Take a straightforwardly conventional category of thing, like a chess bishop or a greenback dollar bill. (I hope you will agree that it really is the mysterious power of our agreement that renders a chess bishop such, and that it really is the law that makes a dollar bill a dollar bill. If not, I don't know where we go...) Now, perform your experiment on these types of things. Randomly pickpocket people from all around the world, and tell me you won't be able to guess with great reliability which wallets were taken from people in US, and which were not. You can do this based only on the physical characteristics of the paper alone! There really is a physically definable set of things called dollar bills, to claim that the government can just call any old thing a dollar bill is Lysenkoism, &c. &c.

If you have ever played milk crate chess (which is just chess on a milk crate, played with the crappy set from the break room), you have had to improvise a piece at some point. The second black bishop is missing, and you and your opponent must agree that something is now the black bishop so you can get on with the game. Accepting that the class of black bishops is conventional, we might be tempted to say that saying out loud that something is a black bishop is all there is to it, that there are magic words, but we would be wrong. Here are some things that you cannot make a black bishop, no matter how hard you insist: a beach ball, your left hand, one of your opponents' white bishops, an extra black queen from the same set (unless you mark it somehow), the Empire State Building, the number 6. The very act of agreeing to treat something as the black bishop depends crucially upon the physical characteristics of the thing in order for the act of agreement to not, as J L Austin put it, misfire. If you agree to treat something as the black bishop that you cannot move across the board, or cannot distinguish from other pieces, your agreement is moot. One could make a study of the physical characteristics that make a thing particularly well suited for such an agreement, which I guess is just the principles of chess piece design: a typical black bishop will be light enough to move easily, but heavily enough to be stable, discernible from the other pieces on its side in one easily identifiable characteristic, but the same in some other respect... But, on the milk crate, with lunch hour running out, you have a very wide range of options that are good enough: you agree that a tin foil ball is a black bishop. And, for the duration of the game at least, the tin foil ball really is a black bishop. The agreement is what establishes membership in the class, even if the range of possible agreement is constrained by the physical properties of the items to which your convention applies. If a person came along and claimed that your tin foil ball were not really a bishop, that you were merely pretending that it was, that the actual class of chess bishops were only those that conformed to the best practices of chess piece design, well, it would be fair to say that this person had some obtuse ideas of what chess pieces are.

12:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[Part 2. Sorry, Blogger made me spit it up.]

Here's what I take to be a reasonable reading of someone like Coates saying that race is "socially constructed": In learning the long-running, wretched social game of racism, the first step is figuring out the classes of people to whom its rules are going to apply. Really, almost anything could work to establish the basics. You simply pick out a group of persons to devalue, and as long as they are practically identifiable, game on. (For the extensive limits of practicality, look up the "Cagots", a class of people that were shunned as outcasts is France for hundreds of years, and for whom historians still have no idea what united the members of the class beyond the shunning itself.) Of course, societies have established these classes without using what you would think of as race. In India there is a complicated theological explanation as to how one ends up in one caste instead of another, and complex social institutions that serve to make caste members identifiable: family names, the village you live in, &c. But, in 18th and 19th century America, there were severe practical problems with getting the categories settled in a way that could be applied for any appreciable period. The society was physically mobile, so birth place wouldn't work; it had no established set of people keeping birth records; people's last names, accent, and religions were hopelessly diverse and changing. (Modern social dynamics are often fatal to outcast class definitions. The Cagot didn't survive the end of the parish register during the French revolution, and in postwar Japan a company had to publish a secret address list of villages where the Eta lived, to make it possible to discriminate against them.) At the same time, the racial game was being asked to do a great deal more than, say, the British class system: it must rationalize chattel slavery in a liberal democratic state.

Of the possible ways to establish a stable racial hierarchy, reliably heritable external characteristics are the only ones that could work. When Coates states that biology matters to race, because we have decided that it does, what I would take him to mean that the practical conditions on establishing a racial hierarchy required the kinds of characteristics that biology, in the form of skin color, curly hair, and geographic concentration could by chance provide. Obviously, there is an visible, biological determined difference between black people and white people; any child can see it, and every child does. You note yourself that its easy to tell apart, by and large, the Irish from Italians, but there's not much more to that claim than the very thin observations that physical characteristics are largly heritable and that people mostly produce children with the people they live amoungst. For these differences to actually circumscribe a race presupposes that we are playing the game of racism, just as visible, physically determined characteristics differentiate a bishop from a pawn insofar as we are playing chess.

12:20 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

That's a whoooole lotta stuff, A... I think it's wrong, but very clear and cogent, and thanks for that.

I might not try to address every point there, but I'll try to hit the main ones:

1. This shouldn't matter, but it's been bugging me since I hit 'enter': It doesn't matter whether we can guess where a given individual is from (Sweden or Senegal)--all that matters is that we can separate the people into As and Bs.

2. Your money case doesn't work because no one denies that there are physical differences between types of money. Yes, we'll be able to tell West African Francs (say) from Krona--because they are physically different. And that's why we'll be able to divide up the people, too. So, as a counterexample, this fails completely.

2. Agreement can do *some* things, of course--just not the kinds of things it has to be able to do to make "social constructionism" true. Agreement about the meanings of words, for example, makes language usable for communication, as everyone realizes. Money doesn't work just because of agreement--we might all believe that others will accept a dollar for goods and services...but if they don't accept it, it won't work. SCs often casually gesture at economies without thinking about them very hard... At least more has to be said about them. More importantly, *economies are social institutions.* We're not talking about constituting anything physically out of agreement.

So bad analogy, again.

3. The bishop counterexample also fails, because bishops are notoriously the kinds of things such that their physical nature is irrelevant. Race is the opposite of that: it's an entirely physical thing. To be a bishop is to play a functional role in a game of chess. The difference between a bishop and a rook is completely one of functional role, and 0% physical. We can change something from a rook to a bishop by treating it differently. You can't change someone from racially Asian to racially white by treating them differently. far as I can see, contrary to your claim, nothing I've said is "table-poundy"... Or, if what I'm saying is table-poundy, then what you are saying is...

More below.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Two final main points--just attempting to clear this up in a fell swoop:

4. Sometimes I think that folks on your side of the issue are just equivocating on 'race.' 'Race,' by the time I came onto the scene, meant exactly one thing, a biological thing. Your race was determined by your biological heritage and was typically revealed in your overt physical characteristics. Until the recent attempts to make race out to be "socially constructed", I had honestly never in my life heard anyone say or suggest otherwise. And, honestly, I think to say otherwise is to try to distort things in the service of politics (and "social constructionism").

The standard view goes like this: S's race is determined by S's ancestry. That's what S's race *is*. Now, people have made all sorts of contingent and often false claims about non-physical characteristics typically had by various races--and a lot of that stuff is *racism.* E.g. thinking that all people of race R are cheaters or whatever. On this picture: there are races, of course, because there are the relevant physical differences associated with ancestry. Then there are (usually false) beliefs about character, and some associated social institutions of discrimination. But none of those things *are* the race. Any more than the fact that we cultivate roses and try to stamp out dandelions is part of what it is to be a rose or a dandelion.

If you want to use 'race' that way...well, I say it's wrong, it's inconsistent with what the word means, it's neologistic, there's no reason for it except that, if you start using it that way, then we can give the illusion of making certain political and philosophical views true...but...despite all those things...we can just say "ok...well, there's race1, a purely biological notion and race2, a strange hybrid of biology and social stuff...

5. But I'd never go that second way, personally.

On the standard view:
There are, of course, races. And people often believe false and defamatory things about them. But they're wrong. People think, e.g., that Asians are inscrutable. But Asians are no more inscrutable than anyone else.

YOU have to say: *by definition* Asians are inscrutable. And, in fact, *by definition* every single racist belief anyone has ever had is true! Jews are greedy! Blacks are lazy! Whites are warlike!

But there are no Jews, blacks, Asians nor whites.

Silliness, in my book.

6. As for the Cagot: doesn't work. No one is saying that *all* races exist. The claim is that *some* races exist. Better yet: some racial differences are real. That's consistent with a shit-ton of them being made up. But there are real, physical, biological differences between, say, the Japanese and the Jews.

So, that's all fast, but way too much is happening in these comments. So I've given fast answers to fast objections. I'd prefer to pick out one point and run it to ground.

But, the central point:

There are some real physical differences between races.

That's true, and it's really the end of the thing.

Everything else, so far as I can tell, is an attempt to try to merely change the meaning of 'race' so that 'race' is associated with a new concept, one that includes more than just biological stuff in it. So the argument basically goes: "Hey, let's stop using 'race' to mean *race*, and start using it to mean schmace! 'Schmace' we define as something with intrinsically social components! So see? Race is socially constructed!'

And none of that is right, as far as I can tell.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, I will withdraw use of the made up word "table-poundy" if we can put aside "No, it is you who pounds tables!" as a point of dispute. It's too much like fighting in the War Room to keep a straight face.

My goal was never to defend "social construction" as an account of racial concepts. Having you characterize them as my side is mentally pretty painful, like being told the DaVinci Code is something I'd really be into. The "social construction" theorists believe that its turtles all the way down, right? They wouldn't merely deny that racial categories were objective, but every other category as well, either into the infinite depths or resting as some point upon a foundation of "power" or the like. I consider that position nuts, for the record. No, what I was trying to do was open up some room for an account of how an apparently biological concept could, in fact, be conventional, and to point out way non-crazy people could be drawn to uncritically use the phrase "socially constructed" to identify some of such concepts, including race. I think you are stuck on a false dilemma between full blown "social construction" theory and an overly simple realism.

The point of the bishop example was that showing there to be real physical differences between the races is not at all the "end of the thing". The internal requirements of the social institution itself can be what require biological differences, just as a game of chess requires objective physical properties of its pieces. You say that the definition of a chess piece is "100% functional, and 0% physical". This makes no sense. The functional role of a chess piece entails a disjoint set of physical properties, which was the point of my short, silly list of things it's impossible to make chess pieces. A category's being conventional and its coinciding with obvious physical characteristics are not contrary to one another, so you can't use the presence of physical characteristics to answer the question of what kind of concept you are dealing with.

So how do you determine what kind of concept you are dealing with? I would say: boundary cases, counterfactuals, history of the concept. None of those point to race being the bare, physical concept you claim it is. You claim that, at best, the analysis of race as a conventional concept can create a neologism. But it's the other way around: your stripped down, only-a-few-heritable-physical-characteristics-whats-the-big-deal notion is the novel one. Linneus didn't think of race that way, nor did Darwin, nor the natural history museum even in the 80s. Bracketing all the really nasty stuff, each of them would at least agree on a low, stable number of races: 4 or 5. Your idea of race entails dozens of races, more or less of them depending on what physical characteristic you are looking at. The best analogue to your concept might be "population" as used by a geneticist today. There were no geneticists in the 18th century, but there were a shit ton of racists, and they got there first.

And yes, accepting this account means rendering good number of racial judgements, including many evil ones, analytic. So what? You seem to think that affirming a judgement to be analytic means wholehearted acceptance of the applicability concept itself. But I know that by definition no true Scotsman could tell a lie and that the Seraphim are form without matter, and do not accept that I will run into either.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

"First off, I will withdraw use of the made up word "table-poundy" if we can put aside "No, it is you who pounds tables!" as a point of dispute. It's too much like fighting in the War Room to keep a straight face."

Righto. I agree. You, sir, are a gentleman and a scholar.

"My goal was never to defend "social construction" as an account of racial concepts. Having you characterize them as my side is mentally pretty painful, like being told the DaVinci Code is something I'd really be into."

LOOL my bad, and I withdraw the comment.

"The point of the bishop example was that showing there to be real physical differences between the races is not at all the "end of the thing" "

Well, I'm going to have to go actually do stuff here directly, but here's a quick response that gets at what I take to be a main point, and I'll say more later:

I think that the ordinary view of the matter is right, and it's this:

Your race *is* your ancestry--and that's it. The category is simply a biological category. The concept *is*, in fact, exhausted by the biological stuff.

Now...there are other things that are *true* of the races--but not essential to them. It is true that blacks were enslaved and oppressed in America, then later not oppressed but discriminated against, and so on. Those things are *true* of blacks...but not part of the concept *black*. Blacks in America tend to be discriminated against and impoverished--but that is not what it is to be black.

Michael Jordan is a rich, black man.

He did not cease to be black when he became rich.

If we stop discriminating against black people, black people will not cease to exist.

There are generalizations we can make about social roles...but those are not essential to the races. Not everything true about something becomes part of the concept of that thing.

And one more point:

Even if there were a social component to the concept of race--which I think is false--there'd still be a biological component. And that's the really important point. That alone falsifies all the view I'm skeptical of, really.

4:23 PM  

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