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30.4.04

The Social Construction of Nature

I've been reading about the "social construction of nature" debate recently. In basic form, the debate is between constructivists, who believe that our ideas about nature tell us more about the social conditions that produced them than about nature itself, and realists, who believe that we can have some reliable objective knowledge about nature.

It seems to me, though, that we can identify a wider variety of forms of constructivism based on how they connect the three elements of social conditions, ideas about nature, and interactions with nature.

The realist position is that social conditions are either not relevant to the development of ideas about and interaction with nature, or that they can be accounted for in a way that removes their distortion. We can even shape social relations in accordance with our clearly-developed (and thus objective) ideas about nature.

On the constructivist side, there's a distinction to be made between what I call "social constructivism" and "cultural constructivism." Social constructivism -- such as Donna Haraway's idea of "situated knowledges" claims that social conditions shape people's interactions with nature, which in turn shapes their ideas about nature. For example, feminists might argue that social conditions in certain societies assign men work like clearing forests, which encourages them to think of nature as something to be dominated by humans, whereas women's gardening inclines them to view nature as a partner.

Cultural constructivism says that social conditions directly shape ideas about nature, which in turn shape people's interactions with nature. So (to stay on the gender theme) one might argue that men's position of domination within society leads them to apply the domination template to other interactions, and thus they go out and dominate nature. In this view, nature itself plays little role in idea formation. A variant of cultural constructivism could be called idealist constructivism. Under this theory the ideas about nature (including human natue) come first, shaping social relations, which in turn shape how people interact with nature. Such an idealist constructivism is the goal of utilitarianism -- once we have our ideas about nature (derived through realist methods), we can apply them through social systems to shape our interactions with nature.

A crude materialist or environmental determinist perspective would be that interactions with nature shape social relations, which in turn shape our ideas about nature. Social relations thus mediate between nature and thought, shaping the latter to serve the former. If this serving makes a difference -- if the ideas are more than mere epiphenomena -- then the materialist position extends into cultural constructivist territory.

These are not mutually exclusive positions. Chains of causality can run many ways. But they are distinct arguments, which can get lost in the polarization of the constructivist vs. realist battle.

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