An article I read for an education class I’m taking said that knowledge is socially constructed. In my written reflection, I said I was “not sure I want to say knowledge is socially constructed”. I’ve thought about it a little, and now I have more to say.
Disclaimer: I’m sure there is a philosophical context to this that I don’t know. In a couple of years, when I’ve learned more, I expect to look back on this post and be embarrassed by how ignorant I was of the real issue. If I waited until I understood things completely, though, I’d never blog anything! So here goes, based on my current halfway-complete understanding.
What does it mean that “knowledge is socially constructed”?
Are the things we know socially constructed? Let’s take as an example, “I know that if I let go of this pencil, it will fall.” It seems to me that this is the kind of thing I could easily come to know completely independently of social factors, and that anyone in any culture would also come to know. I’m not sure what people really mean by saying knowledge is socially constructed though, so let’s take the possibilities one at a time.
1. Beliefs are socially constructed.
There is a difference between saying truth is socially constructed and saying knowledge is socially constructed. That something is true might be culturally independent, and still my realizing it and accepting it might be completely based on my culture.
Suppose we accept the traditional definition of knowledge, for example, as justified true belief: it must be true, I must believe it’s true, and I must have a reason for believing that it is true. Then even if it is true, independent of culture, that the pencil will fall, conceivably in a certain culture I would not have come to believe it. Maybe my culture doesn’t believe in natural laws, for example; it thinks that the pencil might randomly not fall next time.
If this is what people mean, I think it would be clearer to say “Beliefs are socially constructed”. That would make it clear just how social factors have an impact.
2. A lot of knowledge is socially constructed.
I am sure that some knowledge is socially constructed. In fact, I accept that there are some facts that I know that are themselves socially constructed (i.e., not just the knowledge of the facts, but the facts themselves). Rules of courtesy, for example, are largely a product of cultural conventions. So, for that matter, are the meanings of all our words. In turn, that means that many of the concepts we use to organize our experience mentally are socially constructed.
If this is what people mean, I’d rather they said “A lot of knowledge is socially constructed.”
3. The way we organize and articulate our knowledge is socially constructed.
I am sure that some knowledge cannot be articulated without recourse to socially constructed conceptual frameworks. Even if I believe that the pencil will fall, I may not be able to speak of gravitational forces. Maybe knowing about gravity being a force requires a culture that has developed the concept of a force. In another culture, I would have to frame my beliefs about the pencil in other ways.
Nonetheless: even though particular conceptual frameworks may be culturally dependent, it seems likely to me that the general patterns into which some of our concepts fall are forced upon us by reality. Certain concepts may simply be the only good way there is to look at things. An alien mathematician would still have developed some concept of a circle, or of prime numbers, because these things are part of the way shapes and numbers work. The concept of force may very well be the only coherent way to frame our observations about things falling in a general way.
If this is what people mean, I think they should say, “The way we organize and articulate our knowledge is socially constructed.”
4. Knowledge of any subject is socially constructed.
We never know anything in isolation. If I know that “the pencil will fall” it implies I also know things like what a pencil is, and what falling is, and that we live in three dimensions. Every known fact is interwoven with a web of other facts. I am quite ready to accept that many of these other facts are socially constructed. That doesn’t mean that all knowledge is socially constructed, though – just that all knowledge is tied together with socially constructed knowledge.
In a way, I suspect this is what my education article meant. Educators aren’t concerned with our delivering isolated bits of knowledge, but with helping students to “know the subject”. It is this holistic sense that they have in mind when they say that knowledge is socially constructed.
In this case people should say, “Knowledge of any subject is to some degree socially constructed.”
5. The process of learning is socially constructed.
The process of learning, as a process, especially in a formal education setting, is social. Even independent study depends on the relationship of the learner to the books he reads, how his society defines the expert, and so on. So in that sense “knowledge is socially constructed”.
In this case, we should say, “The process of learning is socially constructed.”
This also may be what my education class meant.
As always, I welcome your comments/questions/corrections. Let’s construct some knowledge together. 🙂