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Lost Down Social Constructionism's Epistemic Rabbit-Hole

Where they have raised both eyebrows and tempers among social constructionism’s growing number of critics.

· 11 min read
Lost Down Social Constructionism's Epistemic Rabbit-Hole

The popularisation of ‘social constructionism’ is widely agreed to be traceable to the publication of The Social Construction of Reality by the sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in 1966. In subsequent years, this concept attracted a large number of young, mostly left-leaning academics to the humanities departments of French universities, where social construction became an ideological tool useful to those engaged in the Parisian youth rebellion of 1968. From there, it spread rapidly though humanities departments in Europe and America, and into the social sciences.

The changes in intellectual thinking that this development catalysed reverberate across the West’s academic institutions to this day. What transpired in the late sixties was nothing short of a cultural revolution, riding a wave of academic trends referred to as ‘social constructionism,’ ‘postmodernism,’ and ‘poststructuralism,’ although it never became entirely clear if or how these concepts differ from one another. While foreign to some, social constructionist jargon is now routinely invoked by the young academics who successfully conquered the humanities over the ensuing 40 years.

These developments have not gone unnoticed in other parts of academia, where they have raised both eyebrows and tempers among social constructionism’s growing number of critics. Sceptics maintain that academic study of any kind demands intellectual rigour, consistency, and coherence if it is to produce meaningful intellectual reasoning and valuable conclusions. However, the major tenets of postmodernism/poststructuralism are that objectivity should be abandoned and academic endeavour should not be devoted to the pursuit of ‘truth,’ because objective truths simply do not exist.

The consequences of abandoning the search for truth and objectivity are grave everywhere. For instance, journalism from conflict zones that does not strive for neutrality and objectivity is of no use. The same is true for sociological or historical studies of social conflicts. It would even be true in the discovery of meaning in aesthetics – at its most extreme, the attack on objectivity leaves us unable to distinguish between the literary merit of a Proust passage and a Trump tweet. Postmodernist premises become especially debilitating in gender studies. Gender studies usually belong to the faculty of social sciences (at others, they belong to the humanities). Social constructionist thinking has been allowed to prevail in the social sciences and humanities, exempt from ideals of objectivity and truth seeking. The result has been that the theories and ‘findings’ of gender studies cannot be accepted by natural scientists.

It is especially unacceptable to natural scientists when social constructionists trespass on their territory. The decisive difference between lay explanations of the natural world and valid natural science is the adherence to a number of principles, such as: the omission of prejudices about the possible outcome of an ongoing investigation; a commitment to objectivity and neutrality; that results should be reproducible; that theories should be falsifiable; that one should test for statistical significance where applicable; and an openness to criticism and countervailing hypotheses.

Consider, for example, the study of the hormone Thyrotropin Releasing Factor (TRF), which regulates the release of thyrotropin from the brain’s hypothalamus in mammals and humans. In 1969, scientists succeeded in isolating sufficient amounts of this substance to be able to determine its chemical formula. This has been important to understanding the human metabolism and, subsequently, it has been used to cure some types of illness. The scientists responsible for this research were awarded a Nobel Prize. French postmodernist sociologist Bruno Latour, however, spent two years in the laboratory with the researchers who worked on TRF and, in 1979, he co-wrote an influential book about the experience entitled Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Latour and his co-author Steve Woolgar concluded that TRF does not really exist. Chemists produce two mass spectrograms and derive its formula, in part from the difference between the two. But Latour and Woolgar claimed that TRF is the difference between the two spectra, and that it is therefore merely a social construct. They do not acknowledge that chemists can synthesise the chemical in the laboratory, inject it into humans, and observe the expected effect.

Well, I have read Laboratory Life, and it is evident that either the authors are incapable of understanding biochemistry or they simply refuse to understand it. Nonetheless, many of Latour’s peers in the humanities declared themselves impressed by his ability to deconstruct the findings of these Nobel Prize winners and other famous scientists, such as Louis Pasteur. In 2007, Latour was ranked as one of the most cited thinkers within the humanities and social sciences. Furthermore, he has received prestigious prizes for challenging the fundamentals of scientific study. Having read several of his books, I am of the firm view that he can provide no evidence for any of his claims.

A sociologist may find it useful to maintain that scientists’ results depend on their social situation, such as their own financial conditions, institutional hierarchies, and prevailing ways of thinking in society at large. But the formula of the substance called TRF would not have been different under alternative social conditions. Nevertheless, in order to demonstrate that scientific truths are social constructs, humanities scholars routinely defer to writers in the field of the sociology of knowledge, who they say offer support for their claims.

Sometimes, they will refer to a 1935 book by Ludwik Fleck entitled Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Well, I have read that work and it contains no evidence that scientific truths are social constructs. They may refer to a 1929 book by Karl Mannheim entitled Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, but this, too, contains no such evidence. They will refer to Berger and Luckmann’s aforementioned Social Construction of Reality, which I have also read, and which contains no evidence that reality is a social construct.

In the years after Berger and Luckmann’s book appeared, scores more books were published advancing the same claim that scientific truths are merely social constructs. They purport to verify this claim by citing Berger & Luckmann, who have no robust evidence, except for their references to Mannheim, who also has no robust evidence for this. This is the general trend found in postmodern texts that claim something or other is ‘just a social construct.’ They bring no independent evidence, and instead appeal to some previous authority, who also offers no evidence other than a further referral to an authority before them, who also fails to produce actual evidence . . . and so on, ad infinitum. The actual evidence in support of the foundational claim is nowhere to be found.

I had this experience a few years ago, when I made the mistake of becoming entangled in an online discussion about whether or not differences in male and female behaviour can, to some extent, be explained by biological factors like hormones. My opponents vehemently denied that biology plays any role in sex differences. One opponent declared that, “There exists so much literature about sex-typed behaviour being a construct that your insistence on biological determinism is beginning to be amusing.” I had already provided a long list of scientific references documenting the effect of biological mechanisms but my opponents refused to acknowledge it. And when I demanded a similar list of references demonstrating that sex-typed differences are social constructs, it was not forthcoming.

Finally, after a further 80 comments had passed back-and-forth, I was provided with three references. I was immediately able to reject two of these. The first of these was an article by the Marxist biologist R. Lewontin. He presents a gross caricature of sociobiology and more or less denies the importance of heritable traits. For instance, he writes: “There is not the slightest evidence that different degrees of homo- and heterosexuality are in any way genetically based.” This is completely false.1, 2 The second was a study by British educationalist Becky Francis. She demonstrated that toy preferences of boys and girls were highly gendered, but did not provide evidence of why this is so. She speculated that boys’ toy preferences would stimulate their technological understanding, but did nothing to substantiate this assertion.

The third was The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Education, a 2006 collection of essays edited by Christine Skelton, Becky Francis, and Lisa Smulyan, which runs to 511 pages of text. It contains 35 chapters, written by a total of 46 researchers in the fields of sociology and pedagogy. I did not read it at once, of course, but I did read it later. All of it. Of its 511 pages, only one page deals with possible biological explanations for sex differences, and here, the importance of biology is downplayed as much as possible. All of the remaining 510 pages presuppose that sex-typed behaviour is a social construct. Circumstantial and indirect evidence for this claim is presented in a single chapter. None of the remaining chapters present any direct evidence. However, references that purport to contain such evidence are cited throughout the book. I obtained the texts that looked most promising in this respect and I read those too. To my disappointment, the evidence remained elusive. But all those references cited other references that allegedly contained the evidence I sought. Once again, I obtained the most promising of these secondary references, and once again I did so in vain.

One of the chapters in the SAGE Handbook was written by a sociologist at the University of Sydney, R. W. Connell (who is a transsexual and whose own gender identity therefore, admittedly, is a social construct). Connell refers to Shards of Glass: Children Reading and Writing Beyond Gendered Identities, a 1993 text by Bronwyn Davies, an ‘independent scholar’ in Sydney, Australia. Davies describes innovative educational work that allegedly succeeds in teaching children that they can alter their position in gender discourses. But I have read Davies’s book and it provides no evidence in support of Connell’s claims. Connell also refers to a sophisticated analysis by Ø. G. Holter entitled “Gender, Patriarchy and Capitalism: A Social Forms Analysis” (available in two parts in PDF here and here). Holter purports to demonstrate that gender, masculinity, and femininity are historically specific features in social life. Okay, so I read all 600 pages of that reference. The only evidence provided in support of that claim was a reference to Connell, whose only evidence, in turn, as we have seen, refers back to Holter!

One of the stars of postmodernism is the feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Every person familiar with gender studies anywhere in the world is likely to know of her work. I have read her most important books, Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, in the hope that I could find her evidence for her preposterous claim that gender and sex differences are social constructs. This process was made even more difficult by Butler’s inscrutable prose style, which she learned from the French postmodernists. Some critics have argued that her tortuous, highbrow academic style helps to make her unassailable, but that it is actually nothing more than a cover for a dearth of supporting evidence. After consulting her books, I have concluded that they contain no evidence whatsoever for her claim that gender and sex are social constructs.

Culture War Churn and the YouTube Rabbit-Hole
Sydney. London. Toronto.

From this laborious work, and from all my other efforts in this field, I have drawn the conclusion that the evidence for social constructionism is a mirage in the desert. It does not exist. Most people in the humanities – including those who are able to express their opinions freely without fear of being fired – presuppose that gender roles are social constructs, and that the results obtained by natural scientists are determined by their social and political environment. Thousands of pages of academic ‘research’ express such notions, and thousands of university students are taught that this is how things are. But it is all hot air. The whole scenario is reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes – nobody listens to the little boy who alone has the courage to point out that the Emperor is naked.

Much of this material – and Judith Butler’s obscurantism, in particular – functions like a Latin liturgy. It is not meant to be understood. About 600 years ago, the clergy in England supposedly existed to combat evil and make the world a better place. The sermons were in Latin, and the Bible was only available in Latin, so laypeople had no means of verifying what the clergy told them about religious doctrine. When a number of idealists translated the Bible into English so that common people could read and understand it, the idea – in principle, anyway – was that this would give more people direct access to God’s word. But instead of embracing this opportunity, the clergy fought all attempts at translation. And when the Bible became available in a language that people understood, the clergy burned the English translations, and those who distributed them were caught and executed. Given the choice of either supporting the wider dissemination of God’s word or preserving their own power and authority, they chose the latter.

A similar pattern of motivated self-interest is in evidence today (although opponents are no longer executed). Social constructionism has transformed the humanities departments of many universities into a kind of postmodern clerisy. In its own understanding, this clerical class strives to improve the world by insisting that all differences between groups of people are social constructs that testify to the unfairness of society. Society, therefore, can and must be reconstructed to dismantle these iniquities. But if wide-ranging social change is being demanded, then the basis for those demands needs to be firmly established first. Scholars ought to be labouring to prove the extent to which such differences are indeed social constructs and the extent to which disparities can be mitigated or dispelled by the radical reorganisation of social policy and even society itself. But this step in the process is simply absent. Instead, theorists make claims without bothering to substantiate them. Confronted with a choice between the disinterested pursuit of truth and understanding, or preserving their ideologies and positions of influence, they consistently opt for the latter.

In academic study, the only thing that ought to matter is the strength of the evidence used to support arguments and theories. But when it comes to postmodernist theories, the arguments are weak and the supporting evidence non-existent. I have seen nothing in postmodernist theory that is based on reliable evidence. All academic writing should be open to criticism, but if postmodernist writing were held to this standard, it would simply fall to pieces. Postmodernist theories still prevail and flourish, sustained by a closed and self-serving system of thought which insists that rigour must be discarded as an instrument of privilege and critics must be denounced and shunned as reactionaries.

And so, large swathes of the humanities and social sciences have been corrupted by ideology. Pockets of integrity remain but they are the minority, and they are only tolerated so long as they do not contradict the central planks of the accepted narrative. The unhappy result is that our universities are corroding, and our students will graduate with nothing more than the ability to further corrode the rest of society.


1 J. Michael Bailey & Richard C. Pillard (1991): A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Archives of general psychiatry 48 (12): 1089-1096.
2 A. R. Sanders et al. (2015): Genome-wide scan demonstrates significant linkage for male sexual orientation. Psychological medicine 45 (7): 1379-1388. 

Kåre Fog

Kåre Fog graduated as a biologist at Copenhagen University and completed a Ph.D. degree at Aarhus University in 1980.

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