If sociology had a punch line, it may well be “X is a social construction.” This is particularly true since the rise of postmodernist theory’s influence on the discipline in the 1980s and 1990s. I think postmodernism is a great addition to the cornucopia of theories and perspectives that make up contemporary sociology. Nevertheless, I have a gnawing sense that we, as sociologists, could benefit from a little reflection on why and how we use – and live – postmodernism. It seems that we are more likely to use it as a sort of tactical weapon than as a truly totalizing ethos. There’s nothing wrong with this practice, but it deserves acknowledgement and discussion.
To put it in casual language, it seems as though it’s always the other guy – the capitalist, the imperialist, insert whichever stock sociological villain you prefer – whose sacred cow the sociologist dramatically reveals to be a social construction. All the while, I would suggest that most if not all sociologists – just like most if not all human beings – hold people or things dear to them in ways that strike them as so meaningful and so real that to speak of them in postmodernist language would seem insulting. Suppose I were to approach a person – even a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist – who recently experienced the death of a loved one. I say to them “I’m so sorry. What a lovely text your husband’s life was” or “Not to worry, your mother’s death is merely a social construction.” In the best case I would cause a few awkward moments, and in the worst case I’d get punched in the face.
I suggest that to have the language of postmodernism turned against us – to have something or someone that we love or are invested in described as a text or a social construction – would strike most of us as, if not offensive, at least insufficient to describe just how much that person/thing/idea means to us or why it means so much. After all, a knowledge claim, ultimately, is just one knowledge claim among many. It’s as though I turned to a married person and said “The text that is your marriage to John Doe is one knowledge claim. You say that John Doe means everything to you. Allow me to propose an alternative knowledge claim whereby an Arizona electrician whom you’ve never met is actually your, as you say, soulmate.” The person I challenged would likely speak to what makes their knowledge claim/marriage special to them in a way that my alternative does not. Their relationship is not a knowledge claim that could be swapped out for any other; they see something in this particular knowledge claim that, first, matters deeply to them, and second, cannot be replicated in alternative knowledge claims.
I don’t mean to just propose a bunch of wacky hypotheticals about electricians. What I’m referring to has actually been hashed out by postmodernists and their critics in the past. To say simply that there is no reality, only competing knowledge claims, leaves an opening for, say, a racist to argue that his knowledge claim is as valid as anyone else’s. To combat this, we speak to things like justice, morality, and what is true and right. We acknowledge that things matters to us, and that we value some of them more than others. So why should we be embarrassed to admit it?