30.6.05

"Do you believe there is gold in South Africa?"

Nopes I haven't developed a sudden interest in minerals - South African or otherwise. It’s just one of the dots I started connecting today while dissertating, thinking about social construction, and the academic environment in general.

But first a little bit of background so that you know how the question about gold and South Africa fits here.

At the end of the first year, all doctoral students enrolled in the Ph.D. program in my school sit for an OQE (Oral Qualifying Exam). When I took it in 2002, the format was as follows. Examinee is given about 15 minutes to make a concise presentation on a topic usually related to his/her research interests. S/he is then examined by a committee of 3 faculty members (the configuration: current director of the Ph.D. program plus any 2 faculty members who taught one of the then 5 required core classes during the current academic year) on this presentation each of whom have about 15-20 minutes to ask questions of the examinee.

When I took this exam I presented what in retrospect seems like an uninformed and underdeveloped explication of conceptualizing national identity as socially constructed ‘all the way down’ i.e. from a thick or relational social constructionist perspective. What do I mean by that? To be overly simplistic (since this is a post on my blog rather than a chapter in my dissertation) for a second, what I tried to make a case for was that national identity should be conceptualized as always emerging in processes of social interaction rather than as a product of transcendental forces of nature. From a thick social constructionist perspective, national identity is not a noun but a verb. To elaborate, instead of being conceptualized as a variable attribute whose existence is the result of realizing naturally occurring divisions of some kind, national identity is understood to be emergent in social interactions as differences between ‘self’ and ‘other’ are legitimized.

The decidedly-structuralist examiner, during his 15 minutes, caught me somewhat off guard but not surprised when he asked me “Do you believe there is gold in South Africa?” I remember asking him to clarify where he was going with his question. To be somewhat glib, I should have – and did – expect that kind of question from a die-hard structuralist. My ‘everything is socially constructed’ position didn’t quite agree with his ‘there’s stuff in the world that is Real damn it!’. I recall trying to find the patience in me to not fly off the handle there because his question seemed a bit obnoxiously worded for a first-year student’s oral exam. (Add to that the fact that he and I had been struggling with this difference in our analytical commitments throughout the semester while I was taking his class. Confession incoming: I wish I’d made more of an effort to defend my position rather than try to find a middle ground to get through the class with this professor – that would have been much more productive and useful. Chalk it up to being sick of fighting while I was trying to get comfortable in a major I had no prior experience with whatsoever, to recovering from being assigned to professor-from-hell the first semester, and to major issues in my personal life. No use crying over spilt milk. Plus I’m happy to report that I eventually worked my way there so no permanent damage done!) I will give myself a pat on the back for remaining largely calm but not one for defending my position well. I don’t remember exactly what I muttered in response but I recall saying something along the lines that we don’t recognize or value gold because of any transcendental Gold-ness that this material possesses (which it might or might not but is not something knowable to humans) but because we have decided to call this metallic, yellow, shiny substance ‘gold’ and because we, for various reasons, agree that it is something to which we assign high monetary value. Similarly, national identity isn’t a realization of “Nation-ness” but rather a social construction of a ‘nation’ that continues to delineate those within its boundaries and those it considers falling outside.

When I think about this today I have more precise and thoughtful answers to offer – answers that not only defend my position but can take the accusation two steps further to talk about social theory and what’s at stake in this discussion. I’m saving that for the dissertation – at least for now. That and it’ll take time to write out cogently and I’d like to not be on an extended blogging break.

What I would like to talk about are two thoughts and/or questions about and/or around the idea of ‘social construction’, specifically relational social construction, that came to my mind today as I re-read some stuff and recalled this question from my OQE.

1. Why is it that the claim “socially constructed all the way down” meets with vehement accusation on the part of those who think that there are material realities in the world? The claim socially constructed all the way down doesn’t mean that there is no “Truth” or “Reality”; just that we, as imperfect human beings, can’t comprehend what “It” is so we, as Wittgenstein would suggest, pass over all of that in silence. Claiming that there is no “Reality” is very different from claiming that we can’t know it. To me, the first is a matter of theology, the second is an ontological claim.

2. Relational social constructionism is often viewed by those on the other side of the fence as apocalyptically relativistic. Did any of us relational folks ever say anything and everything goes? Please pardon my ranty accusation, but I find that there are several ‘nutty-hermeneuticians’ or those with a ‘multiple interpretations’ fetish (these are the kind who don’t bother to explore whether it would be useful for them to use hermeneutics to answer the questions they’re interested in but simply latch on to the idea of multiple interpretations because the aspect or part of the world they’re interested in that they think needs saving from someone or something can only work if they can convince everyone else that there are many ways of being – aka multiple interpretation, the current way of being is screwed up, theirs is a better/Truer option so let’s jump on the bandwagon of Equality and Justice and all will be well with the world) who are much more guilty of this charge than us. As a card-carrying relational social constructionist, I don’t recall ever having suggested or argued that anything goes. On the contrary, I – like other social constructionists of my ilk – would claim that outcomes might be contingent but they’re certainly not arbitrary. What does that mean? It means that past ways of making sense form the landscape, if you will, of how that entity has been and will be narrated. Therefore, for example, the India-Pakistan conflict is sustained not as a matter of transcendental fact but because particular ways of relating to each other, of imagining difference (whether that is based on Hindu-Muslim differences, trauma or unfinished business of partition, or something else is inconsequential – what matters is that certain factors are woven together to make meaning in particular ways) such that the other is viewed as an enemy (albeit to different degrees at different times), are re-deployed. If at all relative, I’d say a relational stance is about social relativity (such that outcomes are connected to the logical possibilities that social actors have constructed) which is not the same thing as the overarching relativism (here outcomes are generally viewed as the product of rationality and reason such that agency plays a minimal role in such accounts) we’re traditionally accused of by conservative structuralists.

Having shared these two thoughts I'd like to head down a different, but related, tangent before I sign off for today.

What I’m still wondering about is not the fact that relational social constructionists like myself have to defend our positions and arguments or that there are differences that elicit contention. What I continue to find perplexing is the character of these kinds of exchanges. To me these interactions have become increasingly useless because they hover around the same misunderstandings in a more or less circular fashion. I’d like to think we have more substantive stuff to talk about. Unfortunately, these discussions tend to obsess with (in largely passive-aggressive ways) arguments over value-commitments rather than the phenomena being studied or talked about. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and decide that my question would be better answered from, let’s say, a structural Marxist perspective. It’s just not going to happen – not because I believe Marxism is undeniably useless but because it doesn’t help me answer the questions I’ve been interested in.

So is the problem that we relational folks have yet to explicate our positions clearly and more convincingly (although I can name several folks in the relational camp who have, IMHO, done so)? Or perhaps what I view as misunderstandings are really substantive debates about theoretical commitments that are poles apart and I, as the student in most of these interactions with individuals much more qualified than I am at present am painfully aware of my position on that totem pole, feel compelled to explain myself rather than argue the way I should to take advantage of that exchange? Or perhaps it’s just that the theoretical commitments of positions are usually so opposed that hell would have to freeze over or pigs would have to fly to let me have the kind of non-circular, more interesting conversation with non-relational folks?

Whatever it is I wish we could have discussions with those outside the choir in more productive ways. It just seems to me that if we agreed to disagree and acknowledged that our interactions are not exercises in conversion that we might get somewhere. To me, this war-of-the-worlds kind of environment that prevails most of the time in academic settings overlooks one important thing – the positions we take come are connected to the kinds of questions we answer…so perhaps our conversations ought to be more focused on the questions or, to be more precise, the puzzles we’re trying to solve, on elaborating our value-commitments, and the soundness of the accounts we offer in an attempt to answer the questions that bewilder us. I think that would get us someplace much more interesting.

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