Reality and Social Construction

The future is socially and culturally constructed, but nonetheless real. This view sits uncomfortably with many scholars who have come to think that things are only real if they are physical events and caused by physical events.

There is certainly some appeal in thinking that reality consists solely of hard, physical facts. Physical events can be objectively verified. There is not much that clever reinterpretation can do to alter physical facts, such as that the ice has melted, the window is broken, the dog is alive, and the fire is burning. In contrast, whether a particular ruling is fair or not, whether someone is behaving inappropriately, whether immigration and gay marriage should be encouraged, and whether the President is doing a good job are things that people can legitimately disagree about. There is no objective fact that can settle the matter for all concerned, unlike the question of the dog's life or the broken window.

Half a century ago, a classic book by Berger and Luckmann (1966) argued that much of reality is socially constructed. People do not figure out what is real in their world as isolated minds apprehending physical facts. Rather, they share understandings and work together to create a model of how the world works. Along the way, they create social systems that include some arbitrary designations. Who is eligible for citizenship? Trying to define that in purely physical terms is impossible. Some other social constructions, such as national borders and life histories, are needed to define citizenship.

To construct a theory about the future, it is necessary to understand the difference. In a literal, physical sense, only the present moment is real. Moreover, physical causality moves only forward in time, and only in very small steps (i.e., from one moment to the next). It is thus impossible for the future to exert any causal influence on the present. But the theme of this book is that much behavior is based on the future. People can construct a shared understanding of the future and base their current actions on it, showing that a social construction (of tomorrow) can change physical reality (what one does today).

The view of social reality as second-class reality, or even as a sneaky attempt to treat fiction as truth, has gained ground in recent decades (Mallon, 2013). Leading the charge were radical feminists, who angrily rejected the view that differences between men and women reflected any sort of biological facts. Instead, feminist theory proposed that men and women are basically the same, but gender stereotypes were invented by men in their conspiracy to oppress women and reduce them to inferior status. In many social sciences, it is still unacceptable to propose that there are any innate differences between the genders other than the few obvious physical ones. Radical feminist theory is motivated by the political goal of advancing the status of women, especially at the expense of men. It confronts the issue of women holding social status inferior to men in all known cultures, and it argues that this is essentially arbitrary and unfair—hence based on false ideas about gender that societies have invented without any compelling reality or factual basis.

Abraham Lincoln, often ranked as America's greatest president, liked this joke: "How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?" One was inclined to answer five, but the punch line was, "No, four! Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg!" His joke exemplifies the distinction between social construction and physical reality. There are really four legs, and no amount of interpersonal discussion can change that fact.

Against that view, there are realities that are purely social. Searle (1995) pointed out that a cocktail party—or a war—is not a description of purely physical events but rather depends on how the people taking part in it understand it. A person may fire a gun, but whether this is an isolated crime, a recreational entertainment, or an act of war depends on how it is interpreted. The rotation of the earth and the resulting alternation of day and night do not. Nonetheless, war and cocktail parties really do happen. They are not fictions nor illusions, as the people whose lives are altered by them can attest.

Let us explore the idea that the future is socially constructed, but nonetheless real. Yes, next year's election is not a physical fact that one can point to today. But it is really going to happen, and plenty of what is happening today is shaped by the collectively shared understanding that there will be an election next year.

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