Cognition is about knowing the world -- about forming mental representations of the world outside the mind. Put another way, the goal of cognition is to acquire, retain, and use knowledge about reality. In social cognition, the reality is social in nature: Other people and their behavior; ourselves, and our own behavior; and the situations in which we interact with others.
But what kind of reality is social reality?
The philosophical roots of this question go back to the debate between the realists and the idealists.
Other enlightenment precepts:
Of course, an important
implication of Cassirer's
notion of an "Enlightenment Stance" is that the Enlightenment
was not confined to
a specific period of time, but rather represents a way of
thinking, based on
human rationality, that laid the foundation for the importation of the
scientific method to all realms of thought.
The Enlightenment, in
turn, stimulated a "Counter-Enlightenment" in some quarters of
the Catholic Church, and other conservatives, who thought that
the Enlightenment was responsible for the Terror of the French
Revolution. Later in
the 19th century, another countervailing force arose in the form of a Romantic
philosophy that emphasized myth, tradition, emotion -- and unconscious mental life
(think Freud). And again in the 20th century, some
critics argued that the ultra-rationalism of the
indirectly responsible for the atrocities committed by
Nazi Germany. And certain "post-modern" thinkers (where "modern"
like Foucault, argued that values, and even truths, might
not be universal (a point that we'll take up in detail
below). For details and references, see "the Great
Fight Over the Enlightenment" by Keith Thomas, New York
Review of Books, 04/03/2014).
Enlightenment thinking was, of course, closely tied to the Scientific Revolution in the West: In the Enlightenment view, the laws of nature are inexorable -- they are universal, exist independently of the mind, and can be discovered through reason (including scientific experiment). The enlightenment Stance concerning the nature of reality is well expressed by the physicist (and Nobel laureate) Steven Weinberg:
"Any intelligent alien anywhere would have to come upon the same logical system as we have to explain the structure of protons and the nature of supernovae."
All scientists embrace something like The Enlightenment Stance, because we think that there are facts about how the world works, including facts about how the mind works, that are out there to be discovered by observation, experiment, and reason. At the same time, cognitive scientists, psychologists, and other social scientists harbor the uneasy feeling that some of the facts we're trying to discover are actually facts of our own making. That is, that at some deep level our beliefs create the very reality that we're trying to understand.
This is true in nonsocial cognition. Neisser (1976) has emphasized that perception is not merely a process by which information in the stimulus is conveyed to the perceiver. Instead, he has described a perceptual cycle in which the perceiver approaches an object through a schema, or generalized mental representation. Then the perceiver engages in some exploratory activity -- it could be something as simply as tilting his head -- which makes new information available to the perceiver, thus modifying the perceiver's schema. This cycle is continued until a satisfactory mental representation of the object has been achieved. Thus, the perceiver constructs his or her percepts through exploratory activity directed at the object of perception.
Neisser's perceptual cycle is just one example of a number of constructivist points of view on perception, dating back to the earliest days of experimental psychology (Helmholtz, 1867) and continuing up to the present (Hochberg, 1964; Gregory, 1966; Rock, 1980). All constructivists argue that the proximal stimulus is inherently ambiguous, in that there is "an infinite array of distal configurations that are compatible with the momentary state of proximal stimulation".
example, consider the relationship between object size,
distance, and the size of the retinal image:
Thus stimulation must be disambiguated -- perhaps by virtue of an a priori model of the world (a schema), or by the application of inference -like rules. In this way, perceiving entails thinking and problem-solving behavior. We are not perceptually aware of the world, but only of our mental representation of it: perception is a construction of the current environment.
With respect to memory,
Bartlett (1932) argued that the information in the memory trace
was also ambiguous -- vague, fragmentary, and incomplete.
Similarly, he also argued that trace information must be
disambiguated - -again, by the application of mental schemata and
inferential rules. Remembering also entails thinking and
problem-solving. Remembering, no less than perceiving,
entails thinking and problem-solving. We do not remember the
past, but only our mental representations of past events: memory
is a reconstruction of the past.
The point of all of this is that perception entails constructive activity on the part of the perceiver, and remembering entails reconstructive activity on the part of the rememberer. What we perceive are our constructions of the present; and what we remember are our reconstructions of the past.
This is all the more true when it
comes to social reality and social cognition.
In large part, social reality is created through expectancy confirmation processes related to Merton's notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy:
Definitions of a situation... become an integral part of the situation and thus affect subsequent developments.... The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true. The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy creates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning. Such are the perversities of social logic.
Following Snyder (1978), Darley and Fazio (1980), and Jones (1986), we can distinguish between three different expectancy confirmation processes operating at the individual level:
Through behavior, private beliefs can create a public reality.
We have already seen experimental demonstrations of expectancy confirmation effects, both perceptual and behavioral, in the classic experiments of Snyder, Swann, and others. Now we approach the issue of social construction from other perspectives.
George Kelly's personal construct theory also provides a perspective on constructivism. In Kelly's view, events can be construed in multiple ways. People are able to choose among available constructs, to abandon old constructs that are no longer useful, and to acquire new constructs that are more useful. Whatever the choice, the person's construal of the situation will shape his or her subjective reality, and this mental representation will determine his or her behavior.
of social construction has its roots in the old philosophical
debate between realism and idealism;
Idealism does not deny that there is a real world outside the mind. However, it does assert that some aspects of our perceptions are context dependent, appearing in some circumstances but not in others. Therefore, these aspects of perception do not reflect intrinsic properties of the world, but rather are created in our minds.
there are two levels of constructivism.
Translating De Beauvoir
The English-language rights to The Second Sex were originally purchased by Alfred A. Knopf, whose wife, Blanche, had spotted it in a Paris bookstore and thought it was a sex manual. The original translation was by Howard M. Parshley, a zoologist at Smith College who had only a journeyman's knowledge of French -- and who, at Knopf's urging, excised large portions of the text in order to make it more palatable to American readers. Nevertheless, it is this edition of the book that became a sort of Bible for the "second wave" feminism that emerged in America in the 1960s, stimulated by the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystiique (1963) and the successes of the civil rights movement.
Almost from the beginning there were complaints about Parshley's cuts and translation, and in 2010 a new translation was released by Constance Borde and Sheila Mallovanay-Chevalier -- two Americans who live in Paris and teach English there. But even though the new edition is unabridged, there have been complaints about the new translation as well.
But, for all his limitations, Parshley seems to have gotten the gist of the book right. The core of De Beauvoir's argument is consistent with Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist dictum that "existence precedes essence". Parshley translated De Beauvoir's original
On ne nait pas femme: on le devient
One is not born, but rather, becomes, a woman.
Borde and Mallovany-Chevalier, instead, offer
One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.
I get the difference, but I still prefer the original -- not least because the phrase a woman seems more consistent with the individualism celebrated by Sartrean existentialism.
So if you want the whole 972-page text, you've got to get the second edition. But for most purposes, the original will do just fine.
Since de Beauvoir, the term "social construction" has become extremely trendy. The philosopher Ian Hacking (1999) has listed dozens of books with some variant on "the social construction of X" in their titles -- including authorship, emotions, knowledge, nature, quarks, and even reality itself. This last one gave Hacking the title for his book: The Social Construction of What?. After all, reality is supposed to be what's real -- the reality that lies outside the individual's mind, knowledge of which is inexorable.
Something similar could be said about race, as discussed in the lectures on "Social Categorization". setting aside the social construction of racial minorities, as expressed in policies such as the "one drop rule" for classifying people as African-American
it turns out that even racial majority categories, such as "Caucasian" or "white", are the product of social construction.
And, for that matter, something similar could be said
about personality, and especially our implicit theories of
personality. Personality theory, and person
perception, has lately focused on the "Big Five" structure of
personality -- the idea that individual differences in personality
can be summarized in terms of five major dimensions of
neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and
openness to experience. Consensus around the Big Five has
been building for more than 50 years, but it turns out that the
definition of the five factors has changed somewhat over this
interval. This is especially the case with Factor V,
currently labeled openness to experience.
In Hacking's view, all
versions of social constructivism share the view that meanings are
not inherent in objects and events, nor are they immutable.
Instead, meanings are historically contingent, and the products of
Beyond this, Hacking identifies
several stages through which social constructivist theory can
Hacking also distinguishes between
traditional and "unmasking" social constructivists:
Social Construction and the
Faith-Based Presidency of George W. Bush
Social cognition explores how people acquire, represent, and use social knowledge -- how they cognize the social environment in which they live. And it is an assumption of cognitive psychology in general that reality is independent of the perceiver -- that the goal of the perceiver is to construct a valid mental representation of reality. But one of the important insights of personality and social psychology is that, to some extent at least, people create the environment to which they respond. In other words, reality isn't so independent of the perceiver after all.
In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Ron Suskind, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article about the 43rd president's "preternatural, faith-infused certainty in uncertain times". In addition to his political insights, Suskind also captured succinctly the difference between social cognition as an empirical process of acquiring knowledge about the world and social construction as a process of creating that world through action and belief. Suskind writes ("Without a Doubt", New York Times Magazine, 10/17/04).
The case illustrates both the scope and the limits
of social constructivism. We act in accordance
with our mental representation of the world.
And through our behavior, we can bring the world
more in line with our representation of it. To some
extent: even President Bush, Vice-President Cheney,
and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld couldn't
create weapons of mass destruction just by
thinking they existed!
Hacking makes clear that there is a close connection between social constructivism and political ideology. But, as the George Bush example shows, the ideology is not necessarily of the left. And one doesn't have to be particularly political to take the idea of social constructivism seriously.
That is because social constructivism raises
important questions about the limits of knowledge. We
ordinarily think of objective reality as observer-independent,
and of social constructions as somehow subjective, and thus
observer-dependent. But the philosopher John Searle (1995)
has pointed out that this easy equation confuses ontogeny and
With respect to ontogeny:
respect to epistemology,
The Trouble with Intentionality
Philosophical jargon is often confused with ordinary language.
In philosophy, intentionality has nothing to do with free will, but merely refers to the fact that mental states refer to things in the world.
Similarly, attitude has nothing to do with good or bad feelings about an object, but rather to specific propositional contents -- the person's beliefs, desires, hopes, and wishes about the world.
distinction between observer-dependent and observer-independent
features is not quite the same as the distinction between
objective and subjective reality.
Some post-modern claims concerning social constructivism can seem downright silly, but the philosopher John Searle finds that there is actually a deep and interesting philosophical claim: that there is "an objective reality that is what it is only because we think it is what it is". As proof, he offers the examples of money, marriage, and property rights. Money is money only because we say it is; but money is money, objectively -- it's not merely a matter of someone's belief. Same holds true for marriage and property rights, among many other things.
The trick to understanding how this can happen, in Searle's view, is to understand that the terms "objective" and "subjective" have two quite different meanings, ontological and epistemic. In terms of ontology, something has an objective mode of existence if it does not depend on the subject's experience; and a subjective mode of existence if it exists only as experienced by some subject. In terms of epistemology, knowledge is subjective if its truth-value depends on the attitudes and feelings of the subject; knowledge is objective if its truth value is independent of the attitudes and feelings of the subject.
The point is that ontological objectivity-subjectivity and
epistemic objectivity-subjectivity are not perfectly
correlated. Using Searle's examples:
It's tempting to cast all of this into a 2x2 table:
(Claims about Truth)
Ontology (Facts About Existence)
|Earthquakes are caused
by the movement of tectonic plates
|Earthquakes are bad
for real-estate values
|Earthquakes are more frightening
|It's a good thing that earthquake are bad for
real-estate values, because people should be discouraged
from living in earthquake-prone areas.
Searle put the distinction succinctly in Making the Social World (2010):
Understanding how someone could categorize an object as a paperweight, or evaluate the moon as beautiful, are matters of individual psychology. They're what cognitive psychology is all about. But understanding how someone could state that earthquakes are bad for real-estate values requires an understanding of the social context in which the individual's thoughts occur. Put bluntly, earthquakes can't be construed as bad for real-estate values unless one is in a particular kind of society -- a society in which people share a concept of real estate (and property rights) to begin with -- which themselves are constructions of the human mind.
Searle notes that intrinsic facts are the domain of the physical sciences, such as math and physics, while observer-relative facts are the domain of the social sciences, such as sociology and economics. Psychology, for its part, seems to be both a physical science and a social science. In part, psychology tries to discover universal -- intrinsic -- principles about how the mind works (and how the brain does it). In that respect, it's a natural science. But it's also true that a great deal of the subject-matter of psychology are matters of meaning -- facts that are observer-relative, because they are products of mental activity. Some of these observer-relative facts are the product of individual mental activity, while some of these are the product of what Searle (and other philosophers) call collective intentionality.
And, just to bring this all back to earth, social cognition tries to understand how people acquire, represent, transform, and use knowledge about the social world. But some of these social facts are themselves the product of individual mental activity -- they're not independent of the mind of the person who knows them. And some of these social facts are true only in certain social contexts -- because they are the product of the collective mental activity. Still and all, these facts are objectively true, even though they are observer-relative. In this sense, social reality is, at least in part, a social construction. In Hacking's terms, the challenge of social cognition is to understand things that are true, but which might be true only for those who think they are -- things that are true, but which might not be true for everyone, everywhere.
How can there be "an epistemically objective social reality that is partly constituted by an ontologically subjective set of attitudes?"
Put another way -- Searle again, in Mind, Language, and Society (1998),
How can there be "an objective reality that is what it is only because we think it is?"
How can there be objective facts about the world that are created only through shared belief?
First, let us remind us
that this is, simply, the case:
Searle's solution to these puzzles begins with the notion of collective intentionality. We usually think of intentionality in terms of statements taking the form "I believe that X", or "I wish that X" (where X = some proposition like "cars have wheels" -- that all intentionality is individual intentionality. This is because most philosophers (except, perhaps, for thinkers like Hegel) want to avoid entities like group minds. As such, collective intentionality is usually reduced to individual intentionality, in terms of statements of mutual belief like "I believe that X, and I believe that you also believe that X." When there are a lot of people involved, however, such statements can get pretty long. Characteristically, Searle cuts through this by simply asserting that individuals minds can entertain statements of collective intentionality like "We believe that X". Just because intentionality has to exist in individual heads doesn't mean that all intentionality has to be expressed in the first-person singular. Collective intentionality of this sort is the foundation of all social activity: without it, cooperative activities simply couldn't occur. For Searle (1998), "a social fact is any fact involving two or more agents who have collective intentionality". But there are also institutional facts, involving social institutions, not just social groups.
In Searle's analysis, institutional facts emerge from the human capacity to assign functions to objects (Searle asserts, provocatively, that functions are observer-relative facts, because functions exist only relative to the observers who assign functions). In the case of institutional reality, humans organized into social institutions assign status functions to objects and behaviors -- functions that they possess not because of their physical nature, but because the acceptance of that function by individuals organized into a collective.
is a product of constitutive rules, which not only regulate some
activity, but make the activity possible in the first place.
Thus, to return to the example of money, there is nothing about the physics of money that enables it to perform its functions as money. Money, at least the kind of currency we are familiar with (which economists call fiat money), is money only because it has been declared to be money by a government agency.
From Social Construction to Biological
Reality -- and Back Again(?)
So Searle addresses the
paradox, and the puzzles of social reality, as follows:
Triangulation and the Social Bases of Knowledge
Although Descartes claimed that knowledge was possessed by individual minds ("I think, therefore I am"), other philosophers have emphasized the social basis of knowledge. Among these was Wittgenstein, who argued that reality was defined by linguistic communication. Along similar lines, the late UCB philosopher Donald Davidson (1917-2003) opposed Descartes' "egocentric predicament" with the notion that language and thought are created by the individual, all other people, and the nonhuman universe all interacting with each other -- a condition Davidson termed triangulation.
Searle has also noted that the distinction between observer-independent and observer-dependent facts is fundamental to the distinction between two types of science.
An interesting case is that of economics:
This is the difference
between economics and political economics, I suppose.
of all of this is that there may be two quite different kinds of
facts about people at issue in social cognition.
cognition is a subfield of psychology, and psychology is a
science. Like any other field of science, social cognition
seeks objective knowledge of how we understand social
This page last revised 05/12/2014.