Darin Weinberg's "Social Constructionism"

Social Constructionism
Darin Weinberg

(appears in Bryan S. Turners's The New Blackwell Compassion to Social Theory

Few terms in social theory ignite controversy like the term social constructionism.1 While embraced as a creed by scholars working throughout the human sciences, it is also the focus of some of the most passionate criticism one is likely to find in the academy. Some of this criticism is levied from outside the social sciences and is based largely on caricature and misunderstanding (cf. Gross and Levitt 1994; Sokal and Bricmont 1998). But much of it also comes from social scientists themselves, who fear that social constructionism threatens the very foundations of their craft (cf. Boudon 2004). I do not share this fear, and in this chapter seek to put it to rest. Indeed, I argue not only that it poses no threat to the social sciences but that a commitment to some form of social constructionism is an indispensable feature of all social scientific research. It is only if they are socially constructed that things might be amenable to sociological analysis. Hence the question we should be asking is not the categorical: Are we or are we not constructionists? It is one of degree: Are there any aspects of our lives that must inevitably fall beyond the reach of social scientific understanding? I argue that social constructionists are best understood as those least willing to forsake the promise of the social sciences and, therefore, most dedicated to extending their reach into knowledge domains wherein they have hitherto been discounted. Social constructionism thus entails a thoroughly sociologi- cal regard for all knowledge forms (including, of course, those produced by social scientists).
Quite obviously, this is a partisan definition in a contested theoretical field. While few would dispute the claim that social constructionism is in some sense concerned with the sociology of knowledge, there is a wide range of opinion as to what “knowledge” ought to mean in this context. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, for example, clearly intended their classic text The Social Construction of Reality (1967) as a contribution to the sociology of knowledge, but the knowledge they sought to analyze was, following Alfred Schutz, the commonsense knowledge of lay members of society rather than philosophically or scientifically validated knowledge. They specifically avoided problematizing the epistemological standards by which
The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory Edited by Bryan S. Turner © 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. ISBN: 978-1-405-16900-4
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competing claims to knowledge are judged. Likewise, many constructionist research- ers focus on news programming and other products of the mass media but very rarely explicitly attend to their epistemic merits, except to sometimes summarily discount them by way of uncritical contrasts with received scientific wisdom (Woolgar and Pawluch 1985). This research certainly yields important insights but, because it neglects epistemological questions, contributes little to our understanding of knowledge as such. To my mind, social constructionism’s most original and important contributions to social theory per se stem from its unyielding empirical investigations of what counts as genuine knowledge and why. Therefore the themes I emphasize in this chapter highlight how social constructionism has contributed to our understanding of what knowledge is, and the comparative value of the social sciences for illuminating knowledge as an empirically observable and researchable phenomenon rather than a merely imagined normative ideal.
The chapter is divided into five parts. I first trace the multiple origins of social constructionist thought, paying particular attention to Marxian ideology critique and, more broadly, to what is often called the sociology of error. I note the more prominent debates and challenges that emerged among early social constructionists who sought to show the social forces governing the ideas of others without thereby undermining their own claim to intellectual authority. In part two I consider the contributions of the “strong program” in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Emphasis is given to the consequences of adopting the “principle of symmetry,” or the principle that both true and false beliefs must be explained in the same way. Part three addresses the so-called “practice turn.” Here I consider the main sources and key ideas of those who advocate an understanding of knowledge as competent performance rather than as beliefs or propositions that mirror things- in-themselves. In part four I discuss the concept of reflexivity. Here I consider the value of explaining our own research practices sociologically. I conclude with a brief statement of what I take to be the distinctive virtues of the social construc- tionist approach.
It is all too common in writings on the origins of social constructionism to rest content with a tracing of the phrase itself back to certain landmark texts like Berger and Luckmann’s (1967) The Social Construction of Reality or Spector and Kitsuse’s (1987) Constructing Social Problems. Without discounting the importance of these texts, I would contend that it is deeply misleading to conflate the term “social con- struction” (or any other term) with the concept(s) it is meant to capture (Skinner 1989). As Lynch (1998: 29) notes, since its introduction into the social scientific lexicon, the term “social construction” has been adopted by “diverse constituen- cies . . . for different reasons.” These constituencies have put the term to a wide variety of uses, many of which are plainly incompatible. Most of these constituen- cies also have intellectual roots that go considerably deeper than the trendy terms in which they sometimes express their views. Much more important than tracing the roots of the term social construction itself, then, is to trace the roots of the various intellectual movements within which this term has found a home.
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Nowadays using the term “social construction” is usually meant to convey that something that has been widely considered beyond the scope of social influence is actually the product of specific sociohistorical or social interactional processes. Hence, social constructionism thrives particularly vigorously among social scientists interested in the study of such matters as beauty, gender, morality, pathology, race, science, and sexuality. Whereas it was once widely believed that these phenomena were determined by fixed natural and/or metaphysical laws and were therefore sociohistorically invariant, social constructionists have repeatedly demonstrated the extent to which their characteristics are, in fact, culturally relative or historically specific. The conceptual resources with which such demonstrations are achieved hail from a wide variety of theoretical traditions both within and beyond the social sci- ences (Holstein and Gubrium 2008). But for present purposes it will be useful to begin with the three most prominent founders of modern social theory: Émile Dur- kheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Each of these writers set major precedents for social constructionist social theory.
Despite his common association with positivism, Durkheim has exercised a con- siderable influence on social constructionist research through his later thought as exhibited, for example, in Primitive Classification (1963) and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1954). In these writings, Durkheim argued that systems of classification reflect the social organization of the societies in which they occur. Though it may be debated whether he was referring to “knowledge” in the conven- tional sense, his influence can be seen in the work of various important twentieth- century anthropologists like E. E. Evans-Pritchard who articulated and effectively promoted a culturally relativist sociology of knowledge (Douglas 1980). This turn toward classification and the sociology of knowledge in anthropology provided important precedent for a diverse assortment of writers including Pierre Bourdieu, Mary Douglas, Peter Winch, and Michel Foucault who, in their turn, have also become important figures in the constructionist canon. A more direct Durkheimian influence can also be seen in the work of David Bloor and other contributors to the “strong program” in the sociology of knowledge (cf. Bloor 1982), of whom I will have more to say below.
Because social constructionists tend to stress the diverse meanings social actors confer upon their experiences, Weber’s role in legitimating and popularizing Ver- stehen sociology must be acknowledged as an important precedent. Weber’s thoughts on Verstehen reflect the influences of a variety of earlier writers associated with German idealism, including such patriarchs of the constructionist tradition as Immanuel Kant, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Though the specifics of Weber’s often obscure reflections on social action, rationality, and knowledge are rarely given explicit coverage in constructionist texts, he must nonetheless be cred- ited with helping to create a space wherein subjective meaning could be considered a legitimate topic for social scientific study. Were it not for Weber’s influence, the social sciences may well have provided far less fertile soil for social constructionist cultivation than has in fact been the case. More concretely, Weber’s writings on ideal types, meaning, values, and rationalization also exercised a variety of specific influences on other seminal contributors to the constructionist canon, including Alfred Schutz, Karl Mannheim, members of the Frankfurt School, and Jürgen Habermas.
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Among the classical theorists, it is Marx who has had the greatest impact on social constructionism by way of his writings on ideology. Marx developed this concept to suggest how people can suffer from a false consciousness that renders them complicit in their own oppression. This idea was developed by later Marxists like Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, whose elaborations on concepts like class consciousness, reification, and hegemony have exercised immense influences on social constructionist research by linking the putative legitimacy of ideas to the interests of actors sufficiently powerful to influence the standards by which their legitimacy is measured. This linkage of what societies regard as valid knowledge to the power structures comprising those societies has remained a lively and fruitful enterprise. Beyond its Marxian roots, the linkage of power and knowledge can be seen in the social constructionist traditions stemming from the postcolonial writings of people like Edward Said, Stuart Hall, and the Birmingham School of cultural studies, Michel Foucault’s studies of power/knowledge, Pierre Bourdieu’s studies of symbolic violence, the feminist standpoint theories of people like Dorothy Smith, and, of course, Howard Becker’s, Edwin Lemert’s, and Erving Goffman’s studies of labeling.
Transforming the Marxian critical concept of ideology into a general and non- critical concept of knowledge as such, Karl Mannheim (1936) called for the socio- logical analysis of all knowledge (except natural science) as socially embedded and constructed. This was, of course, a monumental precedent for social construction- ism, but it tended to undermine the possibility of critiquing knowledge claims by leveling the epistemological ground between critic and the object of critique. Man- nheim’s sociology of knowledge was therefore looked upon by his Marxist contem- poraries with considerable suspicion. Indeed, it has been precisely this difficulty of reconciling the sociology of knowledge (which seeks to explain ideas with reference to their social contexts) with epistemology (which seeks to establish procedures for validating ideas), that has, since Mannheim, continued to provoke the most pas- sionate debate amongst social constructionists and their critics (cf. Hacking 1999; Hollis and Lukes 1982; Wilson 1970). Mannheim (1936) sought to achieve this reconciliation by both exempting the natural sciences from his purview and by arguing that a “socially unattached intelligentsia” (p. 155) might succeed in over- coming the biases inherent to their original class positions. However, he gave no real account of how they could do so and has been taken to task by critics for ducking the problem more than truly resolving it (cf. Merton 1937; von Schelting 1936).
Berger and Luckmann (1967) also exempted the natural sciences from their analysis and, rather than seeking to resolve the tension with epistemology, simply declared it beyond the scope of the sociology of knowledge:
To include epistemological questions concerning the validity of sociological knowledge in the sociology of knowledge is somewhat like trying to push a bus in which one is riding . . . Far be it from us to brush aside such questions. All we would contend here is that these questions are not themselves part of the empirical discipline of sociology. They properly belong to the methodology of the social sciences, an enterprise that belongs to philosophy and is by definition other than sociology. (Berger and Luckmann 1967: 13)
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Like Berger and Luckmann, most social constructionists have sought to avoid direct confrontations with either the natural sciences or epistemology. Hence, it has been common to distinguish between the natural and social dimensions of studied phenomena and confine attention to the social construction of the latter (as when feminist scholars distinguished between biologically determined sex and socially constructed gender, or when medical sociologists distinguished between biologically determined disease and socially constructed illness experience or disability). Like- wise, most constructionists have passed the buck when it comes to dealing with the difficult question of distinguishing truth and falsity, or, for that matter, establishing any technique for arbitrating the intellectual value of competing claims once the presumption to possess universal epistemological criteria has been abandoned. They instead rely implicitly on the epistemological standards of their own respective dis- ciplines, or sub-disciplines, to assert the legitimate authority of their ideas and sociologically reductionist accounts of the ideas of those they study. The result is that most social constructionists have been forced to choose between an unsustain- ably parochial relativism and what Bloor (1991: 12) called the sociology of error. More precisely, they have had either to advocate a permanent suspension of ques- tions concerning the comparative value of their own ideas and those they study, or dogmatically insist that their own ideas are epistemologically sound and those they study amount to mere myths and illusions. In any case, most social constructionists have remained studiously silent on the question of how we might more reasonably, justly, compassionately, or systematically arbitrate the intellectual value of compet- ing claims. It is this silence that has most consistently infuriated critics.
Social constructionist theory has also drawn a great deal from the legacy of what is often called microsociology. For the most part this tradition stems from the American pragmatist tradition inaugurated by people like Charles Pierce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead. In contrast to many of their Euro- pean predecessors, the pragmatists tended to emphasize creative agency over struc- turally deterministic explanations of social events and to highlight how social order can be a product of egalitarian negotiation rather than exploitation and domination. Central to this theoretical program was the tenet that human experience of the world is always mediated by the socially inherited meanings actors actively confer upon it. The Chicago School of sociology enthusiastically embraced this tenet, as may be seen in W. I. Thomas’s famous theorem, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928: 572). The turn away from structural determinism toward a focus on the situated negotiation of meaning was codified by Herbert Blumer (1969) into what he christened symbolic interactionism. Long before Berger and Luckmann published The Social Construc- tion of Reality, symbolic interactionists took it as axiomatic that whatever grasp people have of the world is inevitably mediated by socially constructed symbolic devices. Through labeling theory and, later, the “social worlds” perspective first outlined by Anselm Strauss, Tomatsu Shibutani, and Howard Becker, symbolic interactionists have made major contributions to the constructionist canon (cf. Clarke 1990; Star 1989; Wiener 1981).
However, it was not until the advent of ethnomethodology in the 1960s that critical attention was given to questions of epistemology as such. Harold Garfinkel and Harvey Sacks (1970) notoriously recommended a policy of indifference to
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received sociological wisdom in studies of the routine production of social order. Sociology was thus placed on an epistemological par with all other forms of practi- cal reasoning (including water witching!). The presumption that epistemology might somehow facilitate the transcendence of our ordinary practical reasoning skills was abandoned in favor of a radically empirical approach to the study of what Mel Pollner (1987) has called mundane reason – not the normative ideal of Reason val- orized in the academy, but the actual, empirically observable, ways in which people organize judgments of rationality and competence as they go about their everyday lives. Beginning in the late 1970s this approach was trained directly on the research practices of natural scientists and mathematicians, thus making even more explicit the anti-epistemological ambitions implicit in Garfinkel’s program.2 Though its rela- tion to social constructionism has sometimes been contested (Button and Sharrock 1993; Lynch 2008), there can be no questioning the fact that ethnomethodology has exerted a profound influence on the development of social constructionist studies throughout a very wide range of research domains (see chapter 8).
By explicitly forsaking a priori justifications of epistemological privilege in favor of a thoroughly empirical regard for rationality in action, ethnomethodologists have given powerful impetus to the social constructionist agenda. However, they also invited some rather thorny questions that have haunted not only their own work but that of others who have followed the radically anti-foundationalist path. Perhaps most significantly: if they endorse neither the positivist presumption of direct obser- vational access to the world nor any rationalist presumption to possess a universally valid epistemology, then exactly what grounds can ethnomethodologists, or any other anti-foundationalists, provide to support the intellectual legitimacy of their claims? By far the most prominent answer to this question has been to reference the real-time contingencies of academic dialog (cf. Lynch 1993: 144–7). In other words, rather than staking claim to any principled entitlement to intellectual respect- ability, ethnomethodologists offer both a retrospective claim (and a prospective pledge) to have been (and to continue to be) competently responsive to the contin- gent demands of academic dialog as they emerge in situ – that is, in any actual case. This is a pretty good answer that is well supported by the manifest fact that eth- nomethodology has been taken quite seriously indeed throughout the social sciences. However, it also begs some important questions.
Given the historically enduring fact that academic dialog tends to be a deeply fragmented, contentious, and polysemous set of activities, what exactly could it mean to be adequately responsive to its contingencies? Aren’t we inevitably com- pelled to make hard choices about whom and what to take seriously amongst a din of ongoing, cross-cutting academic disputes and discussions? Armed with founda- tionalist, or unquestioned, standards of epistemic authority, we are a good deal better equipped to make and defend these choices than we are if, following the ethnomethodological lead, we seek to improvisationally negotiate whatever epis- temic landscapes in which we may find ourselves. The improvisational solution to the problem of epistemic legitimacy can also seem rather anemic and parasitic insofar as it conspicuously fails to provide guidance as to how one might legitimately devise and defend epistemic standards of one’s own. So it is that we find the bulk of contemporary constructionist research situated between the horns of an apparent dilemma. Either (1) refuse to problematize one’s epistemic standards and slip into
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a parochial relativism or mere sociology of error, or (2) actively problematize those standards thereby confining oneself to the ephemeral posture of what Theodor Adorno (1990) called a negative dialectic with the orthodoxies of others. Adopting the first option one remains vulnerable to the charge of blind dogmatism, while adopting the second option relegates one to the posture of gadfly or perpetual critic and systematically undermines one’s capacity to defend any manner of constructive and/or cumulative research program. To my mind, the most important develop- ments in contemporary constructionist theory stem from efforts to resolve this dilemma.
Proponents of the strong program in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) have exercised a profound influence on social constructionism (see chapter 23). Scientific knowledge is the archetypal empirical example of valid knowledge in Western societies. It therefore provides the indispensable critical case for social constructionists who would hope to move beyond the sociology of error. Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Simon Schaffer, Steve Shapin, and others associated with the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh, are widely credited as the first to consistently treat the theoretical contents of the natural sciences and mathematics as amenable to sociological explanation (but see also Bourdieu 1975, 1990a; Fleck 1979). Building on Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) groundbreaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Barnes, Bloor, and company articulated cogent critiques of the claim that sound science and epistemology are beyond the scope of sociological explanation. In Shapin’s (1995: 297) words:
SSK set out to construct an “anti-epistemology,” to break down the legitimacy of the distinction between “contexts of discovery and justification,” and to develop an anti- individualist and anti-empiricist framework for the sociology of knowledge in which “social factors” counted not as contaminants but as constitutive of the very idea of scientific knowledge . . . SSK developed in opposition to philosophical rationalism, foundationalism, essentialism, and, to a lesser extent, realism.
However, despite their fierce opposition to philosophically foundationalist con- struals of science and mathematics, SSK remained equally fiercely committed to defending the sociology of science as itself a thoroughly scientific rather than anti- scientific research program (cf. Barnes 1974; Bloor 1991). Just like any other sci- entific enterprise, the sociology of science, they argued, must be a wholly naturalistic form of empirical inquiry dedicated to the production of maximally general theoreti- cal laws that provide causal explanations of the phenomena under consideration. Far from being antithetical to the scientific ethos, they insisted their sociologically relativist understanding of scientific knowledge was required by it (Barnes and Bloor 1982: 21–2). The indisputable fact that beliefs regarding what is and is not credible knowledge vary both culturally and by historical period requires the sociologist of knowledge to adopt a value-free naturalism that neither consecrates nor denigrates particular beliefs but seeks only to explain why people have adopted them. The
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Edinburgh School succeeded in articulating a theoretically powerful and radically sociological alternative to philosophically foundationalist arguments regarding the nature of valid knowledge. In doing so, they decisively established their studies as both the most important precedents and most important critical foils for all sociolo- gists of knowledge who have since sought to follow in their wake.
The Edinburgh School offered macro-sociological explanations of scientific knowledge. The fact that controversy has been endemic to the scientific enterprise provided Edinburgh scholars excellent opportunities to use fine-grained descriptions of the arguments asserted by scientific disputants to empirically demonstrate the manifest variance in their willingness to be persuaded by one another’s reasoning. These episodes provided stark evidence that neither scientific reason nor the experi- mental findings brought to bear in these debates provided unequivocal grounds for their resolution. Hence, they inferred, the causes of both the disputes and their reso- lutions must be found beyond the manifest conduct of the debates themselves – that is, in the social structurally determined interests and intellectual dispositions scien- tific disputants brought to those debates (Barnes 1977; Shapin and Schaffer 1985). With relatively minor modifications this approach was applied at a more microso- ciological level of analysis by Harry Collins and his colleagues at the University of Bath (cf. Collins 1985). The sociological study of scientific controversies and their closures became a prime device for demonstrating both the disunity of scientific rationality and the insinuation of broader social interests, dispositions, and proc- esses into the very heart of scientific theory development. Because scientific knowl- edge production, it appeared, is inevitably socially interested, scientific knowledge must therefore be recognized as inevitably socially constructed.
Echoing broader Durkheimian tendencies in anthropology and sociology toward the study of “belief systems,” the Edinburgh and Bath schools cast the beliefs of scientists as relatively coherent conceptual schemes comprising general propositions woven together by a diverse set of Wittgensteinian family resemblances. Scientific practice was seen to consist primarily in efforts to expand the scope of particular conceptual schemes by applying them to new cases in ways that could be justified among one’s peers. Hence, the benchmarks of scientific validity were identified as the locally agreed upon epistemic standards of particular scientific movements rather than somehow transcendental epistemologies or ontologies. In opposition to foun- dationalist philosophy of science, SSK appealed to empirical cases of science in action to show that the progressive articulation of what Kuhn (1970) called scientific paradigms is demonstrably not governed by any discernibly uniform methodology nor the intrinsic nature of things studied but by the creative inclinations of scientists themselves. However, because these inclinations are governed by the shared and relatively enduring interests of those involved, the continuous propagation of a paradigm does not result in its disintegration. Rather, epistemic standards remain as stable and enduring as are the shared social interests of those who honor them. Intellectual consensus follows shared interests. The empirical confirmation of scien- tific theories is thus cast as analogous to the empirical confirmation of witchcraft documented by Evans-Pritchard among the Azande (Bloor 1991: 138–46).
Bloor’s impartial and symmetrical characterization of the reasons scientists and the Azande hold to their respective belief systems exhibits the SSK axiom requiring a totally value-neutral and naturalistic regard for the causes of people’s beliefs. This
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so-called “principle of symmetry” has proven a valuable rhetorical tool in SSK’s struggle to emancipate the sociology of knowledge from the sociology of error imposed upon it by foundationalist philosophers of science. It has allowed SSK to align itself with the value-neutrality espoused by scientists since the Enlightenment and to mount the serious, and credible, charge that philosophical foundationalism amounts to little more than a vestige of the theological dogmatism against which the likes of Galileo had to struggle. However, the principle of symmetry also has costs. Though a thorough account of these costs is beyond the scope of this chapter (see Freedman 2005; Pels 1996), it will suffice to note here that the posture of value- neutrality implies a level of detachment from the world under study and an apparent commitment to what John Dewey called the “spectator theory” of knowledge that is difficult to reconcile with the interest-governed theory of scientific knowledge with which SSK explains the scientific work of others. If, as Bloor (1991: 7) has argued, SSK style explanations must be reflexively applicable to SSK itself, this tension seems to present a rather considerable problem. To date, there are conspicuously no SSK case studies of the social interests governing SSK. Insofar as reflexivity is a funda- mental tenet of SSK, this seems a rather puzzling omission. One particularly plau- sible explanation for it is that the presumption to value-neutrality very seriously hobbles the prospects of reflexively identifying the interests governing SSK analysis.
Despite this gap in its literature, SSK has done much to lead the way toward a viable solution to the social constructionist dilemma of reconciling the production of tenable epistemic standards with a thoroughly naturalistic, or empirical, regard for the processes through which that production takes place. SSK may have so far downplayed the extent to which sociology too is socially constructed, but this need not require others to do so (cf. Bourdieu 1988; Calhoun 2007; Turner and Turner 1990). However, if this is to be made a viable enterprise we must refine SSK’s prin- ciple of symmetry. While all “good reasons” for holding a belief are inevitably socially constructed, or provisionally institutionalized normative conventions, it does not follow that they are equivalent to other kinds of social causes of belief (Freedman 2005; Kusch 1999). A viable approach to reconciling the assertion of tenable epistemic standards with a thoroughly sociological understanding of their production will require a more careful, and less reductionist, regard for the relation between our commitments to particular epistemic standards and our other social interests.
At least since Marx penned his famous “Theses on Feuerbach,” social scientists have found much to value in the notion of practice. Its appeal has been various. Marx himself saw the concept of practice, or “human sensuous activity,” as a resource with which to avoid the antinomy of idealism and materialism. This would, in turn, free us from “the chief defect of all previous materialisms” which was to understand “the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses . . . only in the form of object or contemplation” (Marx 1983: 155). The erroneous cleavage of reality from human sensuous activity resulted in a false Cartesian dichotomy
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between mind and body – subject and object – that prevents our properly grasping either the nature of knowledge or the worldly causes and consequences of our various intellectual habits. Marx insisted that contemplation does much more than ethereally reflect upon the nature of reality. It is, for better or worse, a product, feature, and consequential producer, of reality. Hence, for Marx, the idea that knowledge could ever be “detached” or “disinterested” is at best a mistake and at worst a ruse designed to mask the complicity of intellectual authority with political and economic power.
The ideas that reason and knowledge are not detached and disinterested, but historically conditioned and materially embodied forms of practical engagement with the world are also central to American pragmatist thought. The pragmatists argued that knowledge production, scientific or otherwise, should be freed from the misconceived dream of transcending the human condition. Epistemic standards should instead reflect our much more realistic concerns to merely improve the human condition. By pragmatist lights, the acquisition of knowledge thus consists not in developing what Richard Rorty (1980) called a mirror of nature but in developing habits and practical skills that promote the good of the individual and society. Moreover, grounded as they are in the pursuits of actual communities, epistemic standards are best understood with reference to the interests and activities of those for whom they hold rather than as abstract, universally valid principles. Pragmatists advise us to expect our epistemic terms of reference to be multiple and to change along with the changing conditions under which they are applied. The comparative evaluation of knowledge claims is not forsaken but is nested deeply within the specific practical contexts within which it must inevitably be accomplished.
While these Marxist and pragmatist ideas never completely disappeared, their influence declined dramatically during the mid-twentieth century as structuralist, positivist, and otherwise scientistic sensibilities overtook the social sciences. Due primarily to felt social pressures to emulate the natural sciences, mid-century social scientists embraced the principles of value-neutrality, detachment, and disinterested inquiry, and thereby installed Cartesian fallacies into the heart of mainstream social science. The contemporary resurgence of interest in the idiom of practices reflects the widespread rejection of structuralism, positivism, and scientism by many of the most important social theorists of the last 40 years (cf. Alexander 1982; Bourdieu 1990b; Calhoun 1995; Collins 1991; Foucault 1980; Garfinkel 1984; Giddens 1984; Habermas 1984; Smith 1989; Turner 1996). It also reflects a broader set of social scientific interests and challenges, including the antinomy between structure and agency, that between macro and micro levels of analysis, the ramifications of the fact that social action is embodied, and an increasingly meticulous regard for the phenomenology, temporality, and spatiality of “lived experience” and social interac- tion (cf. Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina, and von Savigny 2001). These are, of course, a mutually implicative set of themes, but it is important to note that the practice turn in contemporary theory consists only in a partial confluence of relatively distinct research programs. The practice turn has also been influenced by many of the major philosophical developments of the twentieth century, including the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Michael Polanyi; Ludwig Wittgenstein’s insights regarding language use and rule-following; Michel Foucault’s
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genealogical investigations; Richard Rorty’s anti-representationalism, and post- structuralism more generally.
Proponents of the practice turn take seriously what SSK, following the philoso- pher Mary Hesse, calls the thesis of finitism (cf. Barnes, Bloor, and Henry 1996). This is the idea that all our criteria for adequate understandings of the world, including our scientific understandings, are inevitably learned. That is, they are the products of our particular, finite, experiences and the specific, finite, techniques we have acquired practically to cope with our lives. To the extent that we share epis- temic standards at all they have been forged in, and enforced through, specific col- laborative efforts to more effectively manage the myriad practical challenges we encounter. These standards, like any other tools, are things we devise and learn to use in the accomplishment of particular tasks. It follows, then, that epistemic stand- ards well suited to one domain of practical activity may or may not be well suited to another. For example, the criteria we have devised to judge epistemic excellence in Western university settings may or may not be suitable outside those settings. The criteria we use to judge excellence in the study of demographic trends may or may not be adequate to the study of conversation, and so on. By these lights, it is only under the specific conditions of their practical use that we may judge either the adequacy of our epistemic standards themselves or the adequacy with which they have been applied in any given case. Hence we may note that various types of scientist may hold various levels of commitment to different epistemic standards depending upon the types of research in which they participate.
Relatedly, insofar as they are devised, learned, and applied in the course of spe- cific practical activities, it follows that in the first instance epistemic standards are tied to those activities rather than the particular people who participate in them. Whereas philosophically foundationalist epistemologies have tended to cast knowing as a relationship between an isolated rational mind (or linguistic proposition) and an enduring and self-consistent natural world, proponents of the practice turn tend to cast knowing as a matter of observably competent performance within a particu- lar domain of practical activity (cf. Chaiklin and Lave 1993; Hutchins 1995; Lynch 1993; Weinberg 2002). Epistemic standards are thus seen to pertain to more than just the use of descriptive, explanatory, or logical propositions. They extend to the whole range of discursive and non-discursive competences required to adequately participate in a given practical domain. By these lights, epistemic standards cease to exist as fixed universal rules for validly linking “the mind” or “language” with a preformed natural world and come instead to be seen as provisional and socially situated rules for defining and identifying adequate performance.
And because their valid definition, identification, and practical engagement is inevitably predicated on these provisional and socially situated rules, the ontological characteristics of both knowing subjects and known objects lose their fixity and universality. Whatever characteristics subjects and objects are observed to possess are held to exist only in and through the embodied activities comprising the particu- lar practical domains wherein they are observed to occur (cf. Bourdieu 1990b; Coulter 1989; Goodwin 1994; Knorr-Cetina 1999; Pickering 1995). Hence, for example, I have shown in my own work how the mental illnesses and addictions held to afflict patients in two recovery programs were given empirical form and causal force only in and through the distinctive patterns of therapeutic practice
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found in these programs (Weinberg 2005). Not only were patients’ disorders identi- fied and engaged in ways bearing no evident relationship to formally codified nosologies like the DSM IV, but assessments of both their presence and absence in patients’ behavior were dictated only by the moral economy of program practice. Genetic, neurological, and other kinds of biological evidence that might be used to great advantage in other settings for the treatment of mental disorder had absolutely no part in it. This is not to argue, as some social constructionists have in the past, that ontology ought to be reduced to epistemology. Rather, it is to argue that neither our various ontologies nor our various epistemologies should be divorced from the historically and culturally situated social practices in which they arise, develop, and are given meaning and value.
The idiom of practice calls our attention to the fact that theorizing, language use, social action, and worldly events more generally, derive both their intelligibility and their value only from the socially constructed contexts within which they are observed. These social contexts may be those within which events actually occur, as when people observe and track the practical upshot of one another’s actions in the course of interacting with each other. But they may also be the social contexts of more distant observers, like social scientists, who track the practical upshot of people’s behavior for their own social scientific activities (Bourdieu 1984, 1987). Because different people know and value different things about these social contexts they often interpret events differently.3 This is as true of social scientists as it is of the people they study. Neither segments of human behavior nor any other worldly events have intrinsic or unequivocal meaning. Their meanings are instead multiple and projected upon them by actors with any number of different practical interests in them. However, this by no means forecloses on the possibility of evaluating dif- ferent accounts of events as more or less helpful or astute given the practical pur- poses for which these accounts are made. But such evaluations, and a critical consideration in the social construction of our epistemic standards, must involve identifying just what those practical purposes happen to be.
The expression reflexivity has a wide variety of definitions (cf. Ashmore 1989; Lynch 2000; Woolgar 1988), only some of which are pertinent here. One early definition was given by Garfinkel (1984: 4), who wrote of the “essential reflexivity of accounts of practical action.” By this he meant to note the inevitable fact that, in order to make sense of one another, interactants formulate the meaning of each other’s actions in light of more inclusive formulations of their relationships and their ongoing interactions. In keeping with the idiom of practice, the meaning of social action is thus seen to derive solely from its perceived practical relevance to the ongoing accomplishment of some shared activity. Pollner (1991) has called this endogenous reflexivity, reflexivity as an inevitable feature of the ordinary forms of collective action that social scientists study, and distinguished it from what he called referential reflexivity, or reflexivity as not only a topic of social scientific inquiry but a resource for it. Just as ordinary activities are seen to be reflexively organized and to reflexively constitute their realities, so too are scientific activities seen to do
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so (cf. Drew, Raymond, and Weinberg 2006; Holstein and Gubrium 1995). By these lights, reflexivity is conceived as a locally achieved phenomenon largely of interest to those who study dyadic or small group interactions.
Another prominent understanding of reflexivity takes a more macrosociological view. Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash (1994) have noted a global trend among late modern societies wherein the epistemological privilege historically accorded technical and scientific expertise itself becomes problematized, a process they have dubbed “reflexive modernization.” In a related trend, factions in different political, cultural, and economic struggles have grown increasingly savvy in their ability to use experts as mercenaries – as is evident, for example, in debates concern- ing global warming, intelligent design, and the linkage of cigarette smoking and cancer. Scientific and technological projects are thus seen to be deeply embedded in and bound up with wider social, economic, and political activities that not only influence the direction of their development but contribute to the stability or insta- bility of their perceived epistemic legitimacy and, indeed, the perceived legitimacy of science and technology in general. This insight has led prominent intellectuals as otherwise dissimilar as Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas to cast aspersions on the very possibility of dissociating technical or scientific expertise from the regimes of power within which they operate and to question the compatibility of scientific expertise and liberal democracy (see also Jasanoff 2005; Turner 2003).
We see, then, that both (1) the micro-interactional practices that engage particu- lar researchers with their research subjects and professional colleagues, and (2) the macro-interactional practices that engage scientific (including social scientific) projects, movements, and disciplines with their wider social contexts have become the foci of empirical sociological investigation. This research decisively demon- strates, at both micro and macro levels of analysis, that the social sciences cannot be dissociated from the social worlds they seek to understand. They are, inevitably, constituent features of those worlds. Hence, beyond the litany of powerful theoreti- cal arguments against philosophical foundationalism (Weinberg 2008), we may also point to any number of empirical demonstrations of the fact that a detached, disin- terested, or value-free social science is now, and has always been, an ill-conceived illusion. Social scientific knowledge is itself socially constructed. However, it by no means follows that the interests that govern social scientific work are reducible to mere economic greed, political ambition, tribalism, or any other such generically specified interests. Following Bourdieu (1975), we may instead find that, depending on the level of institutional autonomy achieved among members of a scientific com- munity, the interests governing their research are more or less uniquely adapted to their positions in that scientific community. Moreover, we may also find that peo- ple’s interests change along with changes in their practical understanding of their research and/or their position in the social world (Pickering 1995). Therefore, the critical question is not whether or not knowledge production is governed by social interests – of course it is – but, rather, which specific interests, to what extent, how stable are these interests, and why?
A growing contingent of social scientists now takes seriously the idea that by reflexively interrogating the interests served by social scientific work we may succeed in making it a subtler and more valuable craft (cf. Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992; Camic 1996). To the extent that we have lost faith in Berger and Luckmann’s (1967:
294 darin weinberg
13) foundationalist claim that devising “the methodology of the social sciences . . . belongs to philosophy and is by definition other than sociology,” we increasingly appreciate the need to naturalize our regard for own epistemic bearings, locating them empirically in the historical legacy of our craft and in our worldly aspirations for that craft, rather than the otherworldly realm of a putatively transcendental analytic logic. Forsaking the false dream of achieving what Rorty (1991: 13) has called a “God’s eye point of view” of the world, means that we must assume responsibility for the mortality of our epistemic projects and the techniques by which we seek to see them through. This entails acquainting ourselves empirically with the worldly circumstances of our research, their attendant possibilities for learning and progress, and then devising the specific role(s) we would hope for our research to play in realizing those possibilities. If we no longer countenance the claim that knowledge consists in articulating the sentences in which nature would, if she could, describe herself, then we must provide more justifiable statements of what it is we think our research is, and ought to be, doing.
Some of the best-known efforts in this regard have construed the work of social scientists predominantly as a form of writing, calling attention to many of the textual techniques by which epistemic authority is conveyed (cf. Atkinson 1990; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Van Maanan 1988; Woolgar 1988). However, as often as not, these exercises have been undertaken not to epistemically ground the social sciences but to deconstruct and destabilize them. While critical interrogations of the pretenses of academic writing are by no means without value, they do little to overcome what I have been calling the constructionist dilemma of reconciling the production of tenable epistemic standards with a thoroughly empirical regard for the processes through which that production takes place. Moreover, they overlook the fact that writing is itself only one component of a much more richly organized round of collective activity that both influences and is influenced by what we write. Epistemic authority, and the legitimacy of the various epistemic standards upon which it rests, is not achieved unilaterally through textual tricks, but collectively, as all of us engaged in a given domain of knowledge production proffer mutually critical assessments of the value of our own and each other’s contributions to the work and worlds we share (Pels 2000; Wacquant 1992: 36–46; Weinberg 2002, 2006). Empirically informed reflexive dialog hones our research skills by facilitating a more explicit regard for the specific nature of our collective work in all its myriad forms and the distinctive resources and constraints that attend the specific condi- tions under which it is accomplished. Indeed, this point can be generalized. Far from being threatened, all knowledge production stands to benefit considerably from a detailed regard for the myriad macro and micro social conditions that shape, facili- tate, and constrain it.
Because social constructionism is far too diverse, both theoretically and substan- tively, to yield to a chapter-length synopsis, I have been content to provide only a more focused discussion of the aspects of social constructionism most interesting and important from the standpoint of contemporary social theory. To my mind,
social constructionism 295
these are those aspects that pertain to the nature of knowledge as such and its rela- tion to the worlds it concerns. Too often both boosters and critics of social con- structionism alike have assumed that to argue something is socially constructed is to argue it is mythical or unreal. This assumption, of course, requires that it be possible to distinguish between the mythic and the real in ways that avoid implicat- ing culturally and/or historically specific epistemic standards. This is precisely what I have argued here is impossible.
Neither nature, nor logic, nor the words of those we study provide guarantees that our descriptions correspond, in the positivist sense, with the things they are about. Instead, our interpretations, descriptions, analyses, and theories are socially constructed to do particular kinds of work. Their forms are thoroughly mediated by the interests and practical involvements for which they are devised. But, contra Descartes, these interests and practical involvements do not necessarily distort our understanding. Because no understanding of the world is disinterested or divorced from practical action, it is senseless to speak of distortion without also speaking to the specific, socially constructed, standards by which distortion is measured. These standards are inevitably contestable, in science and philosophy no less than any- where else (Habermas 1987: 408–9). Hence, if and when epistemic disputes arise they are not, and could never be, resolved by recourse to fixed natural or logical standards. They can be resolved only by recourse to the provisional standards we ourselves create in light of the specific practical projects we hope to fulfill. These standards embody our claims to power/knowledge and we must expect to be held accountable for them. But while our claims are certainly fallible and may be flawed, they are by no means always arbitrary. Their legitimacy resides in the practices they make possible and in our willingness to defend them in open and inclusive dialog.
  1. 1  For present purposes I am treating the term “social constructionism” as synonymous with terms like “constructionism,” “social constructivism,” etc. Though I am aware that these terms are sometimes used to draw more refined lines of theoretical distinction, more often they are used interchangeably.
  2. 2  One might also call this research anti-ontological insofar as Garfinkel and his colleagues wished to demonstrate how both ideas and their worldly referents are constructed through socially situated practice. In other words, they sought to demonstrate how ideas and the things those ideas concern are socially constructed in tandem. Hence, for example, Gar- finkel, Lynch, and Livingston (1981: 137) insist their analysis is not of ideas as such but the optically discovered pulsar itself as a “cultural object.” The notion that ideas and their worldly referents are co-constructed has since become a major concern of so-called posthumanist or post-social investigators like Michel Callon, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, John Law, Karen Knorr-Cetina, and Andrew Pickering. I have more to say on this below.
  3. 3  Stephen Turner (1994) notes an unfortunate tendency among some practice theorists to neglect this fact and treat practices as if they implicate identical contents in the minds of their participants. While it may be sensible to speak of the enforcement of normative standards as causes of people’s capacities to share in social practices, we should not assume these capacities take identical forms.
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