According to Karl Popper, a theory must be falsifiable to be a scientific theory.

How would a social scientist falsify the theory of social constructionism? I understand that there are many individual theories of social constructionism such as the social constructionist theory of religion and the social constructionist theory of sexuality, etc.

Example 1) A paper titled The Dilemma of Essentiality in Homosexual Theory argues that human sexual orientation is socially constructed. How would an evolutionary biologist falsify the social constructionist theory that human sexual orientation is socially constructed?

Example 2) How would a psychologist falsify the theory that religion is socially constructed?

3 Answers 3

  1. Of course, most theories aren't individually falsifiable, i.e. they have no independent empirical consequences. In social sciences they often refer to common-sense, extra-theoretical notions, such as "human", "society" etc. or, in this case, "human nature". That statement is known as the Duhem-Quine thesis, which states that (a) no single theoretical statement has empirical significance which it can call its own and (b) to make an observation that can count as evidence for or against a theory, a great number of auxilliary hypotheses must be assumed. This, of course, doesn't constitute a challenge for falsificationism or even for inductionism, but shows that we must assume a given background to answer the question.
  2. For these reasons, although social constructivism might seem to be too vague of a theory to call it a scientific theory in Popper's sense, considering the conjunction of social constructivism and some background assumptions will perhaps allow us to enumerate some of its empirical consequences and therefore to establish a method that will allow for falsification.
  3. For example, let's assume 'human nature' refers to a given set of traits related to how being a human or being an x (preferably x being strongly related to certain biological traits, i.e. being a biological woman, a biological man etc. - so that there's a strictly objective basis for our study) is perceived in a given culture. Then, if we can reliably establish a method for checking what traits in a certain culture prompt members of that culture to include or exclude an individual in the group x if the individual shows these traits (of course, nothing prevents us later from adjusting our theory in this place in light of new evidence). We can simply compare whether some traits which one culture understands as integral to human nature or x-ness are treated differently in another culture. We assume that there isn't much relevant strictly biological diversity among human populations. In regards to outfit, for example, it is clear, that although in many cultures there are standards according to which women and men ought to dress differently, but these standards are not at all uniform among cultures. And these entirely culturally-relative traits, immediately associated within many cultures, ex. with an individual's biological sex, can be said to be socially constructed.
  4. My construal is flawed in many ways, because I assume that the cultural roles we're interested in are to a great degree correlated with biological traits (so as to avoid total incommensurability among cultures), but I believe we can at least assume that assignment to social roles is based on intersubjectively available evidence - relation between sex and gender being only one example. In the case of religion, one might identify some general traits that a reliious faith must have, i.e. connection to rituals, and then establish that the form of these rituals differs greatly from culture to culture. If one's constructivism is so rampant that one doesn't make the assumption that there exists relevant intersubjectively available evidence, then, yes, their theory may not be sensitive to evidence. But that's probably not the case with most social constructivist theories and they might be, at most, difficult to falsify.

It depends on what you mean by a social construct. If you mean it is the product of a society- ie of interactions within a group of humans, rather than innate tendencies of individuals- then in principle you might look for evidence in relation to individual humans who had grown up in isolation having been abandoned at a very early age. In practice, however, I suspect there would be too few such individuals for that to be a promising approach.

  • 1
    Feral children (deprived of typical or normal social interaction during early life) do not develop and express typical or normal social abilities. Apparently in a few cases the best efforts to socialize the child after a critical developmental age do not improve social abilities. Religion as an individual experience might exist but their expression might not be properly interpreted by a person with typical social abilities. Sexuality would be an adaptation at best forming during the early life deprivation. Ethics should prohibit experiments on persons or emerging persons (children) as crimes. Jan 13 at 20:33

I take the following definition from social constructionism:

Social constructionism is a term used in sociology, social ontology, and communication theory. The term can serve somewhat different functions in each field, however, the foundation of this theoretical framework suggests various facets of social reality—such as concepts, beliefs, norms, and values—are formed through continuous interactions and negotiations among society's members, rather than empirical observation of physical reality. The theory of social constructionism posits that much of what individuals perceive as 'reality' is actually the outcome of a dynamic process of construction influenced by social conventions and structures.

  1. Concerning your first example I would also consider the question of sexual orientation among our nearest neighbours in biology, i.e. some species of socially living monkeys, and also among animals which do not live in social groups. Just to broaden the viewpoint.

    On this basis one can formulate a hypothesis concerning the relation between the genetic and the social causal factors of the sexual determination. Depending on the resulting hypothesis one has then to decide in a separate step how to test the hypothesis.

  2. IMO psychology cannot falsify the hypothesis of your second example, that religion is a social construction. Psychology like other sciences deals with immanent properties and causalities. Religious revelation and metaphysics is not a domain which can be investigated by scientific methods. The falsification had to be a convincing intervention from a transcendent domain.

    On the opposite, psychology and sociology can and do provide several arguments that religion is indeed a social construction. E.g., a supporting argument is the mechanism of religious socialization.

  • Why can't religious revelation and metaphysics be investigated empirically? Why can't a psychologist investigate the similarities and possible root causes of similar-sounding religious revelations across different religions? It sounds like you're saying that it's only possible to determine the psychological cause of a religious revelation if the revelation in question has some basis in empirical fact or can be scientifically verified to be true or false in some way. Do religious claims have to be factually true for social scientists to figure out why people make such claims? Jan 14 at 6:26
  • What you're saying about psychology's capacity to study religion makes as much sense as saying that psychologists cannot study psychiatric delusions (hallucinations and confabulations) because such delusions have no basis in fact. Jan 14 at 6:27
  • You say that psychology is only about immanent events, but evolutionary psychology deals with human events that happened millions of years ago and it makes claims about events that will happen in an indefinite time in the future based on what is hypothesized to have happened in the past. Jan 14 at 6:30
  • @JudeZambarakji Psychology deals with abc ( = affect, behaviour, cognition) of people. Psychology investigates what people think about religion, how they act in religious rituals, which importance religion has for humans. But psychology does not deal with the truthvalue of transcendent claims which like metaphysics transcend human experience by definition.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 14 at 7:45
  • Evidence is always symmetrical. If psychology can count as evidence for a theory, then it also can count as evidence against a theory. Concerning falsification, you might be right that no psychological evidence will falsify the claim that religion is a social construction but that's mostly because psychologists aren't supernaturalists. Unless by "religion not being a social construction" it is meant that there's a natural disposition for humans to believe.
    – user71009
    Jan 14 at 8:59

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