One of the annoying things academic competition does is push us to develop elaborate ways of not quite saying what is staring us in the face. There is a tendency to produce theoretical solutions to problems that only exist because there is something we want to avoid saying, in this case, that some entities are objectively real, graspable and obdurate. Assemblage theory is one of these. We known that social constructionism is not satisfactory, because material reality makes a mockery of it. So we have to come up with a way of accepting the predominant fact of material reality without saying so, by arguing that things are actants in networks.
To roll back a bit. Social constructionism is seen as old hat and research concluding that ‘phenomena x is a social construct’ is not going to be seen as very interesting. Like, duh! You have to say it is rhizomatic or somesuch. Social constructionism itself has been flattened into something bland and common sensical. To say something is socially constructed means making a set of claims which are not the same. There is a spectrum of social construction from at the one end identifying constructs that are active, and somewhat conspiratorial , to the other those that are practiced and are about the way of life we have in common.
On the active end the best example is the invention of tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger 20212). The upshot of those studies was that states create public rituals to bind the communities they claim to represent. Perfect examples are those ‘ancient’ traditions securing the British monarchy, which turn out to be modern inventions which were deliberately put in place to support the legitimacy of the house of Hanover and by extension the new British state. Race science is another good one. All the stuff that goes on in the House of Commons did not emerge from a mystical past but were created for a purpose, usually to say: we are here, we mean to stay, and we are so powerful we can call someone Black Rod and you have to pretend that is not an extremely funny job title. In them have a direct connection to power’s shifting claims upon our minds.
At the other end we have ground level constructs which are diffused throughout society, are are about how we live and what we value. They draw on some of these more active constructs but are combined and reworked with others. They are less intentional. The reason that social constructionism is unsatisfactory here is that we have to understand not just that they exist, but what they are doing. For example, we can hypothesis that the heterosexual family that came into being in the form it did to service the demands of the capitalist labour market. In the early capitalist period, the family would be a group hire – factories employed whole families as labour groups. Later comes a stronger domestic/public division in some places, for some of the labour aristocracy and the middle class. Different family forms for different times, and more variation in practice than you would think from looking at common cultural representations. But the next step is to ask why a family exists at all as a social form, one that is recognisable between these very different periods. If your immediate answer is ‘it’s the best way to bring up children’, then that is a perfectly plausible but not a social constructionist explanation.
We have to pay attention to that last/first step because answers to other questions matter or make more sense in the light of it. Factory owners might have got more productivity from their employees if they just stuck them all in big dormitories. Some tried. They found that things generally did not work as they hoped. Intensive, industrial work is only bearable if people have a life away from it. Families exist because society cannot work without them. Society cannot work without them because there is no other reliable way to secure reproduction, and the human organism collapses or endures great damage without intensive personal contact. The human organism needs intensive personal contact because we need to cooperate in any resource constrained environment. We need to cooperate because we need to reproduce. Therefore the constructs we identify – the particular arrangements of people, things and habits – only make sense as answers to that deeper question, of how to live fruitfully.
Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. The invention of tradition. Cambridge University Press, 2012.