Reconstructing Nature: Alienation, Emancipation, and the Division of Labour

By Peter Dickens | Go to book overview

3

REALISM, CONSTRUCTIONISM AND THE PROBLEM OF ‘NATURE’

Recent years have seen a growing debate over what is the most appropriate form of conceptual framework for understanding human society’s relations with nature. One argument, stemming from the postmodern insistence that there can be no absolute truths or discourses, asserts that the environment (and our relations with it) is a purely social construction. It is simply a product of language, discourse and power-plays. Our description of the environment, according to this view, has no reference to real and material processes ‘out there’. The environment or nature is only what society (and some groups more than others) care to make of it. Furthermore this type of construction gets used to inform our understanding of human societies. A second argument is that there are indeed real causal mechanisms, processes and relationships ‘out there’. They exist independent of our own understandings, language and theoretical constructs even though the observable forms they take are dependent on contingent social and natural conditions.

The purpose of this chapter is to extend and critically assess these arguments. It will first suggest that the dichotomy ‘constructionism versus realism’ is in some respects misleading. All concepts have evolved from human societies. Therefore all knowledge must in some sense be a social construction. No knowledge has fallen out of the sky with a label attached pronouncing ‘absolute truth’. Similarly this chapter will also argue, with reference to recent work from critical archaeology and feminism, that the two apparently opposing forms of understanding can actually live side by side with each other quite happily. The arguments of both realism and social constructionism are now quite sophisticated and well known.

But the two positions have become rigidified, not to say fossilised. There is, in Soper’s words ‘a kind of communicational impasse between the two perspectives’ (1995:7). This is largely, it must be said, because of divisions of intellectual labour between, on the one hand, scientists such as biologists and physicists and, on the other hand, certain social scientists. Unwittingly or otherwise, the latter in particular have been responsible for attempting empire-building. The implicit claim from what we will later be calling ‘strong’ social constructionism is that since all knowledge is socially

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