The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Constructing ‘the solar system’

February 2, 2006

From the “galactic politics” department:

At the edge of solar system, a 10th planet may lurk

With a title like that, how can you resist? Especially since it provides a convenient occasion to clarify some persistent ambiguities in the notion of “social construction.” Ian Hacking has already done this quite brilliantly, but I think that point is important enough to repeat it in a different context: ‘the solar system’ is a construct, a human product, but this does mean that people somehow willed it physically into existence — or that they are now willing a 10th planet (at the moment charmingly called 2003 UB313) into existence.

Well, not exactly.

Let’s first be clear about what we are saying is “socially constructed.” If we say “the social system is socially constructed,” I seriously doubt that we are making a claim that the physical objects that we designate with the label “the solar system” are somehow dependent on our labeling of them as such. That wouldn’t be a constructionist position; that would be an idealist position, in which what exists only does so as a consequence of our ideas about it. And such a position depends on a whole bunch of ontological baggage, most importantly the notion that observers and their observations are essentially separate from the world: our picture of the world is here, the world itself is there, and idealists claim that the picture in some sense trumps the world (and a materialist position would claim the opposite).

Let me be very clear about this: social construction is not idealism. Indeed, robust social constructionist positions aren’t actually all that centrally about “ideas”; they are about social practices. To say that “the solar system is socially constructed” therefore means three distinct but related things:

1) absent human beings, there would be no concept or notion of ‘the solar system.’ This piece of conceptual knowledge does not somehow spring full-blown from the Nature Of Things, and it is conceivable that other beings might have developed a different set of concepts to cover the empirical stuff to which we refer when we use the term ‘the solar system.’ Indeed, even a different course of human history could have established a different piece of conceptual knowledge — nature doesn’t univocally determine the scope of concepts — and in that sense our knowledge is socially constructed.

2) beyond the dependence of our knowledge on specific histories and debates, a claim about social construction often means that there might be plural forms of “valid” knowledge. This is not because reality is somehow plastic and can be fundamentally modified by our knowing of it (which would be a slide back towards idealism), but because pieces of conceptual knowledge don’t occur in a vacuum — they are instead linked to different standards of validity. This manifests itself in two ways:

a) ambiguities about definitions, such as ‘planet’ and ‘system.’ One of the debates raging among planetary scientists at the moment is whether this new body (2003 UB313) constitutes a planet or not; this is a fascinating debate because in a very important sense there’s no right answer. We can define ‘planet’ however we want to, and once we have done so our picture of the solar system changes. Is it valid to say that the solar system consists of ten planets? Sure — for some definitions of ‘planet.’ But not for others.

b) the availability of different conceptual descriptions that can serve similar practical purposes. One can navigate fairly successfully with a Ptolemaic notion of the heavens, and can predict elections pretty well with the Aztec and Mayan ways of calculating the progression of bodies across the sky. This is not to say that these older ways of conceptualizing things are “correct” by our standards, only to point out that for many purposes they serve just fine. Validity depends on the purpose to which knowledge is being put. And this isn’t just about our science versus other age’s myths or beliefs; one can land a spaceship on the moon with basic Newtonian calculations, even though every practicing astronomer would readily agree that Newton’s equations aren’t really an accurate account of the way that objects move through space (although if everything is moving at a speed substantially below the speed of light, they’re a useful approximation).

3) finally, social practices of meaning-making are complicit in the production of the objects that they purport to study. This is where a claim about social construction looks the most like an idealist claim, so I want to be very careful here: “the solar system is socially constructed” means that it is impossible to refer to the solar system except through the concept of ‘the solar system.’ We never approach the world as blank slates, and we never get unmediated access to “reality.” As such, if we or other meaning-making creatures were to apprehend things differently, there would be no solar system, since ‘solar system’ only has meaning within a whole set of meaningful social practices.

Now, a claim about social construction need not adopt all three of these dimensions. I have stacked them in the order of their increasing radicality, so to speak, or in the order of their increasing tension with what might be called “external realism” — the notion that there’s a world out there, existing independently of us and essentially doing its own thing. [Although all three are in certain ways compatible with external realism; it just gets trickier as you move down the list.] Particular claims about the social construction of something need to be scrutinized very carefully in order to ascertain precisely what’s being asserted.

Personally, I’m a fan of all three of the social constructionist claims. As far as I’m concerned, the social construction of the solar system (an irreducibly power-laden process) primarily tells us a lot about ourselves and our cultural values (and not terribly much about some thing-in-itself we designate as “the solar system,” since I’m not sure that such a notion has much operational meaning), and it’s in that light that I find the debate so fascinating. Through this debate we are remaking the solar system — although not in an idealist way.

[Why did I write a whole post on this for an IR blog? Well, as ‘the solar system,’ so ‘terrorism’ or ‘the West’ — which is the subject of the conference I’m attending at the moment — or ‘America’. I’ll leave the details for another time, or as an exercise for the reader.]
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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.