Is knowledge socially constructed?

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.

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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. 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Is knowledge socially constructed?

  1. But surely your knowledge that the pencil will fall is a social construct.

    We ‘know’ that gravity will act on the pencil only because that is what our society chooses to believe – yet we have no real idea what gravity is or where it comes from. We ‘know’ that gravity will act on every pencil without exception, and can thus predict that the pencil will fall. But it is our convention to assume that something that happened in the past it will happen in the future. Without actually letting go of the pencil you can not know with 100% certainty that it will indeed fall.

    This leads on to the nature of truth – is truth absolute or relative? Is it an absolute truth that a pencil will accelerate towards the Earth at 9.8m/s^2? Of course we ‘know’ that it is not absolute – gravity varies slightly at different points on the Earth, so perhaps we can say that the absolute truth is that gravity will cause the pencil to fall to Earth at some rate dependent on the local environment. Hmm. What if we let go of the pencil in deep space, out-with any gravity fields? Will it still fall to Earth?

  2. This is what I love about the modern era, an article or blog discussion on just about any topic you could want, at any given moment. I too am embarking on an Adult Ed course as part of my graduate studies and I was reviewing an article where the author says that knowledge is socially constructed. I asked myself what the heck that meant, plugged it into google, and there you were. Thank you.
    Here’s what I think. Apart from some knowledge being the result of a social construct, I am with you, at least today, that not all knowledge is a by-product of such assumptions. I found this definition of knowledge: awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation. If this is true, then I only need awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation. I breathe, I think, I am alive, I am aware of me. I am aware of the world around me. However, as the other post suggests, my specific understanding of the physics and science that makes me an alive being is lacking and I have to accept a certain construct, in this case an experiential construct. I can only learn certain additional truths like touching something hot results in pain through more experience. So maybe, what we need to say is that much of knowledge is developed through experience with or without a social construct. Onward I go into the murky waters… Thank you for helping me process.

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