Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique

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Future Races? Racial Identity without Racial Biology. Language and Knowledge The Semantics and Politics of Social Kinds" Philosophical Analysis and Social Kinds" See All Customer Reviews. Shop Textbooks. Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Temporarily Out of Stock Online Please check back later for updated availability. Overview Contemporary theorists use the term "social construction" with the aim of exposing how what's purportedly "natural" is often at least partly social and, more specifically, how this masking of the social is politically significant.

Show More. Average Review. Write a Review. Oxford University Press. This is because, although sex can be a meaningful distinction from a political point of view, color cannot and should not be. So, nonhierarchical social meanings of sex would constitute egalitarian genders; Haslanger does not envision parallel possibilities for social interpretations of color though.

Rather, the task of social theory and ideology critique is precisely to undermine such social interpretations constitutive of race. In chapter 9, Haslanger discusses how we should conceive of racial identities or self-understandings given her constructionist account of races as hierarchically positioned social kinds, and constituted by various patterns of social domination and privilege.

She further considers the implications of her view on transracial adoption practices. In so doing, Haslanger draws in a highly interesting and novel manner on theoretical considerations and personal anecdotes as an adoptive mother of two African American children. Haslanger continues to elucidate her constructionist account of race in chapter There she discusses how her view differs from racial eliminativists who maintain that race is a fiction , and neo-naturalists about race who reject racial essences, but take races to be biologically evolved populations.

Chapter 11 concludes the second part of the book. In this chapter, Haslanger offers an account of structural oppression focusing on racial or racialized oppression. Roughly: some group F are oppressed as F s by an institution I in a context iff by definition a certain unjust relation R exists whereby being an F nonaccidentally correlates with being disadvantaged by standing in R to others, and I creates, perpetuates, or reinforces that relation By way of example, Haslanger discusses a study of US child-welfare policies and racism.

The final, and philosophically extremely rich, part III considers more mainstream issues in epistemology, ontology, and philosophy of language drawing on insights gained from the previous discussions. She aims to show that much of feminist work "often deemed irrelevant to the philosophical inquiry into knowledge is in fact highly relevant" Haslanger suggests that a program of normative epistemology informed by feminist insights provides new and novel ways to think about knowledge.

Rather than starting with a priori philosophical reflection about the content of the concept of knowledge , a distinguishing feature of a normative program is that it begins by asking pragmatic questions: What do we need the concept of knowledge for, and what work is it doing for us? Chapter 13 discusses the semantics of social kind terms.


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Haslanger terms the more standard nonrevisionary ways of analyzing concepts "conceptual" and "descriptive" analyses. The former aims to elucidate our everyday manifest concepts by elucidating the conditions under which native English speakers commonly think someone satisfies say the concept of woman. For instance, such an analysis probably reveals that the content of our manifest woman concept is that women are human females. Haslanger terms concepts analyzed in this manner our everyday "operative" concepts. This method will reveal our target concept. Our target concepts of gender and race, according to Haslanger, are those that she outlines in part II of the book.

Now, generally speaking, our manifest, operative, and target concepts at times coincide: we are aware of what we are talking about, and what we are talking about is what we should be talking about. But they may come apart, and to do so due to oppressive ideologies that are "masking what we are doing or saying" In such cases, social constructionist and "debunking" projects may helpfully reveal to us something about our language-use and practice.

Taking these different methodologies of conceptual analysis seriously can also explain why philosophers asking the same questions seem to be talking past one another Social constructionist analyses demonstrate that there are many ways for something to be "our" concept of F , and mainstream philosophers would do well to take this insight on board.

Interestingly, Haslanger also suggests that perhaps her constructivist accounts of gender and race are not as revisionary as might first seem: even though these accounts may appear counterintuitive, given the power of oppressive ideological masking of what we take ourselves to be saying and doing, we may be employing gender and race terminology in a way that results in our operative and target concepts coinciding. So, although we do not take ourselves to be saying that genders and races are social kinds constituted by structural relations of dominance and privilege, we may in fact be tracking gender and race kinds roughly put with this "in mind" without being aware of doing so.

Chapter 14 continues methodological discussions in philosophy of language, and takes issue with the role and value of intuitions in philosophical inquiry. First, Haslanger holds that, following the discussions in the previous chapters, relying on intuitions when doing conceptual analysis may not be the most fruitful method.

Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann

Ideologies may mislead us about our practices, and "mask what we are really doing with our concepts" --something that Haslanger repeatedly argues in the book social constructionist analyses can helpfully reveal. Second, Haslanger repudiates the charge that if social constructionist accounts of say gender and race are counterintuitive, we therefore have a reason to view them with suspicion.

After all, counterintuitiveness is a criterion often used in standard philosophical analyses to show that our theoretical endeavors have gone astray. However, Haslanger argues convincingly that this in itself does not show constructivist analyses to be untenable. Rather, our philosophical theory choices and the "betterness" of an approach should be made relative to contextually variable semantic, political, and pragmatic considerations Chapter 15 returns to epistemological issues, and considers how we can make sense of genuine disagreement in a social world saturated with ideological baggage.

Given that we live in different milieus even within the same social spaces, Haslanger offers a model for thinking about the truth-values of evaluative claims that avoids simple relativism about such claims, and thereby makes genuine disagreement along with ideology critique possible. In chapter 16 Haslanger explores methods by which we should fix the meaning and reference of racial talk.

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The final chapter, 17, continues considering many of the previously discussed themes, and connects the earlier discussions more closely with ideology critique and social theory. Generic claims in general are part of the "common ground" we rely on to communicate. But this common ground is not free from ideological forces. Ideology as Haslanger understands it is "a set of background beliefs that purport to justify social structures" But our social structures are also partly constituted by ideology in the form of schemas: "intersubjective patterns of perception, thought, and behavior" , and shared dispositions to have such patterns The other part of social structures is resources, which provide "the materiality of social structures" Many problematic generics about women, Blacks seem to have become hegemonic and solidified as part of the common ground.

Part of the task of ideology critique, then, is to refuse and resist the common ground: to expose and undermine the ideological pull of schemas in the formation and maintenance of our social structures.

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Rather than relying on abstracted and outlandish thought-experiments, Haslanger utilizes many personal anecdotes and examples to clarify her points, and to motivate the various discussions. The book is not only philosophically refreshing and inspiring; it is also politically empowering. Nevertheless, I wish to make some brief critical comments about the previously unpublished chapter 6 "Social Construction: Myth and Reality". As already noted, Haslanger argues in this chapter that a central form of social construction relevant for feminist antiracist projects is compatible with "important" forms of realism, objectivism, and naturalism Haslanger targets primarily gender and race constructionists who deny this compatibility, although in the background of this and other essays appears a desire to convince mainstream philosophers of the valuable insights such constructionist approaches have.

Although I entirely agree with Haslanger that constructionist accounts of gender and race are compatible with realism and objectivism about the relevant social kinds, I am less convinced of her case relative to naturalism. How does Haslanger understand realism, objectivism, and naturalism?

Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique

For her, realism is about truth-aptness: a realist about some domain holds that claims purporting to describe this domain are truth-apt they can be either true or false, and "at least some of them are true" On this understanding, typical antirealists are either noncognitivists contra appearances, our claims are not truth-apt , or error theorists all of our claims about some domain are systematically false. Objectivism is cashed out in terms of genuine types, and the existence of types "depends on members of a set of things having some degree of unity" That is, there is some principled manner of unifying and binding together different entities, and our criterion of unification is not utterly gerrymandered and random.


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For a type to be objective is for it to be "real" Haslanger maintains and I think rightly so that constructionist views are not antithetical to these ways of understanding realism and objectivism. First, realism is understood in quite a minimal manner as being about truth-aptness. Second, there are clear and unproblematic cases of objective and socially constructed types. I am, however, less convinced about her attempts to bridge the gap between social constructionism and naturalism.


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  6. But what, for her, is naturalism? It is "a commitment to seeing ourselves as parts of a universe in which all things are interdependent. Naturalism does not entail that there are only physical things, but if there are non-physical things, they must be part of the causal order, that is, they must either have causes and effects, or must supervene on things that do"

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