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8.5 Social Constructionism in Science

Based on the argument regarding culture presented in the previous section, we implicitly assume that each culture is concrete or essentially unchanged. However, postmodern movements in science have questioned this assumption. Social constructionism is one of these movements whose origins can be traced to Berger and Luckman (1966). Social constructionists have cast doubt on the foundations of modern thought such as the Enlightenment. Gergen (2009) has identified three major dialogues within social construction pertaining to value neutrality, rational arguments, and scientific knowledge. According to Gergen (2009), social construction is not a tool for reaching the truth but an activity aimed at fostering understanding:

constructionism does not seek to establish the truth of its own premise…Constructionism is not, then, a candidate for the truth. Nor is it a belief system. Rather, the constructionist dialogues represent invitations to a way of understanding. [1]

An anthropological research direction that emphasizes cultural understanding through ethnography [2] is one of the approaches for enabling an engagement with constructionist dialogues.

The social constructionism approach has been applied to sociological studies of science and technology. In 1982, historians of technology and sociologists of technology, and of science, jointly held a workshop on the Social Construction of Technology Systems (SCOTS). The presentations at the workshop were synthesized and published as a book (Bijker et al. 1987, 2012). [3]

Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, and John Law, who participated at the workshop, proposed an approach that later came to be known as actor-network theory (ANT). In brief, ANT is a method for interpreting social connections (and relations) among actors. According to Law (1999), ANT can “be understood as a semiotics of materiality.” It features two stories: one on relational materiality and the other on performability.


Understanding what the three words, actor, network, and theory, mean requires special attention. Actorsactants is actually the correct word—consist not only of humans but also of nonhumans. This is one of the key characteristics of ANT. The word network “clearly meant a series of transformations—translations, transductions—which could not be captured by any of the traditional terms of social theory” [5] and differs from the current usage of the term. The use of the word theory differs somewhat from its standard usage. As Latour (1999) explains:

…ANT is merely one of the many anti-essentialist movements that seems [sic] to characterize the end of the century. But it is also, like ethnomethodology, simply a way for the social scientist to access sites, a method and not a theory, a way to travel from one spot to the next, from one field site to the next, not an interpretation of what actors do simply glossed in a different more palatable and more universalist language. [6]

To avoid any misunderstanding regarding the meaning of ANT, Lynch (1995) proposes renaming ANT as “actant-rhizome ontology,” wherein the meaning of the term rhizome is the same as that proposed by Deleuze and Guattari (1987).

With the inclusion of ANT, studies on science and technology have expanded into science and technology studies (STS), a dynamic, interdisciplinary field constituted by the “intersection of work by sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and others studying the processes and outcomes of science…and technology.” [7]

These social constructionism movements were reexamined by Hacking (1999) from a philosophy of science perspective. Hacking defines social constructionism as a conception that things are socially constructed. He states that there are three distinguishable categories of things: objects, ideas (including concepts and theories), and “elevator words” that refer to “what Quine calls semantic ascent: truth, facts, reality.” [8] Here, we draw attention to two of his critical arguments. The first concerns constructionism relating to the natural sciences and metaphysics. This is quite

similar to “what Nelson Goodman calls irrealism: not realism, not anti-realism… which in itself is a metaphysical stance.” [9] He shows that constructionism is contingent, which does not mean predetermined or underdetermined. He uses concepts introduced by Pickering (1984), indicating that a constructionist argument in the natural sciences is not truth but a dialectic process between resistance from nature and accommodation by scientists. The second point relates to distinctive arguments on processes and products. Hacking emphasizes the necessity of construal within construction arguments to distinguish between process as construction and product as construction.

Process and product are both part of arguments about construction. The [social] constructionist argues that the product is not inevitable by showing how it came into being (historical process), and nothing [is] the purely contingent historical determinants of that process. [10]

Employing social constructionism and related concepts seem to be inevitable within business studies. There are two possible reasons for this. The first relates to the interests of those engaged with business studies. Professionals in business— professors, business consultants, and businessmen—are, of course, interested in the results of actions and whether or not there is an element of gain (profit). At the same time, however, they are keenly interested in its processes. Another reason relates to the contingency of business theories. As business environments frequently and rapidly change, the result of a business activity is presumed to be state contingent. Therefore, the use of anthropological methods within business studies is not surprising.

  • [1] Gergen (2009), p. 29.
  • [2] Gergen (2009), p. 63.
  • [3] For a review of the social construction of technology, see Pinch (1995).
  • [4] Latour (2005) cites three articles: Latour (1988), Callon (1986), and Law (1986) that led to the inception of ANT.

    19 Law (1999), p. 4.

  • [5] Latour (1999), p. 15.
  • [6] Latour (1999), pp. 20–21.
  • [7] Sismond (2010), p. vii.
  • [8] Hacking (1999), p. 21.
  • [9] Hacking (1999), pp. 60–61.
  • [10] Hacking (1999), p. 38.
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