I’d like to call a moratorium on the use of the word “constructivism” (or “constructionism”) to refer only to social constructivism.

(This post was prompted by Tim  Morton’s Object-Oriented Strategies for Ecological Art, but his point there is somewhat differently directed and mine addresses a more general issue that can still be found in a lot of writing in social and ecological theory, and which concerns what’s at stake when we speak of “constructivism.”)

Ecological thinkers like Michael Soule and Gary Lease, Anna Peterson, and others have argued that social constructivism — the idea that all our ideas about the world are products of our social and discursive practices — doesn’t provide an ecologically adequate way for understanding the nonhuman world or our relationship with it.

Their critiques have tended to follow in a more general line of criticism of social constructionism by defenders of science like Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, Alan Sokal, and others. The general point in these critiques, put nicely, is that social constructivism claims too much for itself; it may account for some of the social dimensions by which people make sense of phenomena, but it in no way accounts for their material or biological realities. These debates are all rather old and stale by now, and I mention them only to put a broad frame around the comments that follow.

The use of the word “constructivism” to mean social constructivism, however, takes away one of the best tools we have for understanding a universe that is always in the process of being constructed — or co-created, or orchestrated, or collectively improvised; choose your favorite creative-verb metaphor — by all the effective entities that make it up.

I’ve criticized “construction” myself in the past (e.g., here and here) for its limited usefulness as a metaphor for what eco-social theorists are interested in. Constructing things is clunky; it’s done brick by brick, piece by piece, like Lego blocks, not like the slippery, complex, and thickly relational sorts of processes that characterize the universe. (Words like “systems,” “networks,” and almost any other way of depicting the “building blocks” — ha, there’s another one — of the universe all have their limitations.) A similar critique has been made by Ian Hacking, Anna Peterson, and others.

However, the term is not entirely inappropriate, at least not all the time. Far from it, even: birds construct nests, beavers construct dams, ants construct cities, and humans construct civilizations, commodity markets, megaton bombs, and cities and dams and maybe occasionally nests, too. Each of these is recognized as what it is by other birds, beavers, ants, and humans (respectively). That means that each is both social and material — which is precisely the point of a more generalized eco-constructivism.

The point is that there is a very important difference between the social constructivism that has been used, quite effectively at times, to understand the social sources of ideas, discourses, and power-laden institutional practices — everything from “normalcy” to “madness” to “religion” to “the social” itself — and, on the other hand, the generalized constructivism, sometimes called relational constructivism, heterogeneous constructivism, co-constructivism, discursive-material or material-semiotic constructivism, radical constructivism (which gets confusing as that term is used to refer both to the social and the much-more-than-social kinds), artifactual constructivism, evolutionary or biological constructivism, constructive empiricism, etc., by which the universe is crafted into existence by its many participants. (See here for some of these varieties.)

It is the latter (Latourian-Deleuzian-Stengersian-et al.) kind of constructivism that gets elided when the word is used to mean only the first kind.

One of the implications of a generalized constructivism is that all of our knowledge practices contribute to constructing their objects; none are so innocent as to be entirely passive and neutral, observing without being somehow registered in the world that they observe. Laboratory settings are intended to create that kind of pure state of observation; but ecological reality does not take place in laboratories, and in the field, that kind of purity is always somewhat elusive.

So I would like eco-theorists, at least, not to follow sociologists in assuming that “constructivism” is only social constructivism, but to acknowledge that there are constructivisms… and there are constructivisms. It’s important to specify which kind we mean.







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