Is metaphor a social construct

And why social constructivism is very well suited to lobbying and clientele politics

The term “social construction” plays a key role in gender studies. The idea that socio-cultural gender is a social construction is taken for granted there.

It forms the foundation on which gender studies are built, although the concept of social construction is not specified there.

After an introductory explanation of the concept of social construction, I will show that in social constructivism the terms “construction” and “product” are often confused with one another. In a further step I would like to mark the limit that social construction comes up against. Finally, I will discuss the question indicated in the subtitle, to what extent social constructivism is particularly well suited to pursuing a particular policy.

Conceptual ambiguity

The term “construction” originally got its meaning in the field of technology: cars, airplanes, buildings, machines etc. are constructed. In a broader sense, construction is connoted with systematic creation or manufacture. According to Ian Hacking, the construction metaphor refers to “building” or “assembling from parts.” (1) Construction is building that is willful, deliberate, planned and at a specific point in time.

The concept of social construction plays a special role in gender studies. It forms the theoretical foundation on which gender studies are built as a research project or theory. In the standard work of gender constructivism Gender paradoxes Unfortunately, we do not find a precise definition of the concept of social construction from Judith Lorber, which even the editors of the German edition of the work noticed. (2)

According to Lorber, it's not just gender (gender), but also the biological sex (sex) socially constructed. “Gender signs” and “gender signals” are “omnipresent”. The gender construction begins at birth:

“From one sex-Category is further determined by naming, clothing and use genderMarkers gender-Status. Is this gender once obviously a child, others treat a child in the one gender different from a child in the other gender, and the children respond to this different treatment by feeling and acting differently. As soon as they can speak, they begin to think of themselves as belonging to theirs gender to talk. "sex"Only comes back into play at puberty, but at this point the sexual sensations, desires and practices are already through gendered ("gendered") Norms and expectations shaped."

“Parental behavior, too, with its different expectations of mothers and fathers, is gendered, and people of different people gender have different types of work. The work that adults do as mothers and fathers and as low-status workers and high-status bosses shapes the life experiences of women and men, and these experiences generate different feelings, different consciousnesses, different relationships, different skills - the modes of being, which we call female or male. The social construction of consists of all these processes gender.“(3)

Lorber describes nothing else here than that Socialization process of a person (see below), but only from the point of view of gender. She seems to see all reality, not just social, from this point of view. According to Lorber, all processes of socialization are understood as construction processes. The concept of construction is so broad that it does not give us any clarity.

Karin Knorr Cetina, one of the most prominent German-speaking social constructivists, provides a further definition of the term social construction: the individual is something “generating”, the world is something that is “produced” by humans. The individual achieves something, works and in this respect it constructs the world. (4) Construction is the conscious, willful and deliberate creation of social reality.

The anthology edited by Urte Helduser and others is considered the German-language standard work of gender constructivism under construction?. It is intended to represent the broad range of “feminist construction terms.” (5) Unfortunately, here, too, we cannot find a precise definition of “construction”, “social construction” and “constructed”. The idea that gender is a social construction is taken for granted in “feminist science” or gender studies. The concept, according to which gender is an anthropological constant, an entity or essence, acts as the opposite or enemy image to this idea, whereby one wonders here who still represents such essentialism today - especially in the social sciences.

For Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky, the concept of social construction is synonymous with the terms “cultural constitution” and “made.” (6) Katharina Liebsch defines, following Karl Mannheim, “construction” as “the establishment of a style of thinking”:

“A 'thinking style' of a specific character creates a certain type of speaking, acting and being. Focusing on selected thematic focal points - in the present example the topics ´Sexuality / Love` and ´Gender Relations` - the thinking style firstly transports habit-identifying patterns (being), secondly expresses communicative-symbolic actions (action) and thirdly, ideologically- Discursive traditions continued (speaking). Together, these justify the respective style of thinking, which is reflected in the community-building activities, the language used and in symbolic practices. "(7)

A style of thinking is the totality of assumptions with which we cognitively and affectively turn to the world or to a section of the world. Here a very broad, unclear and problematic term (construction) is explicated with the help of another very broad, unclear and problematic term (thinking style). It is significant that we do not find a precise definition of the concept of social construction in representative gender constructivist approaches. Rather, it is a general concept, i.e. a concept that relates to all or almost all phenomena in the social world.

Confusing construction and product

The socialization process is understood in socialization theory as the adaptation of the individual to the environment. In the course of his or her social development (socialization), the individual takes on "content" that has already been given and not constructed by him, such as behavior, expectations, requirements and role models. Most of the time, this content is not willingly, deliberately, systematically and actively integrated into their own personality structure by the individual. Rather, the individual is shaped by the given social world. It's a product of socialization.

In the interactive socialization model, which goes back to George Herbert Mead, the individual is assigned a more active role - it interacts with the environment - but it must see itself through the eyes of other individuals in order to be able to develop its own identity. (8) According to this model, too, there is an adaptation to the given social environment. The given social environment in the form of behavior, expectations, role models, etc. is internalized by the individual. The individual does not create the environment.

Role models that are relevant to the “construction of gender” are also not constructs that the individual can create himself. They are predefined patterns of interpretation and action that have arisen over long historical periods and that have been conveyed to the individual in the course of his socialization. (9)

For example, the role model of the man as the sole breadwinner of the family has developed over the course of decades or even centuries and prevailed in the so-called bourgeois age at the latest. In other words: this role model has grown over a long historical period. It developed due to material circumstances (e.g. employment and property conditions). It therefore doesn't make much sense to speak of constructions in the case of role models like the one mentioned here.

We owe the sociologist Ulrich Beck an extremely individualistic concept of identity formation. Perhaps we will find a useful concept of social construction in his approach. According to Beck, “individualization” means “that the biography of people is detached from given fixations, open, dependent on decision and placed as a task in the actions of each individual.” “Socially given is transformed into self-produced and produced biography.” (10) How However, Beck does not elaborate on predetermined elements of socialization that can be transformed into self-produced ones. His idea of ​​transformability therefore remains illusory.

The individual acts as a “center of action” and “planning office” with regard to his or her own curriculum vitae. Beck speaks in this context of the “handicraft biography”: The individual tinkers his own identity. That means: It puts together its own combination of the offers for self-realization. This combination defines its individuality. Beck also speaks of “kits with biographical combination options.” (11) Can these kits be understood as constructions made by the respective individual?

The kits of the individual identities are, in my opinion, not constructed, but given. The kits of my identity include, for example, dealing with Russian literature, French impressionist music and classical German philosophy, to name just a few of the many others. These kits were not designed by me, but, like all other kits, are given to my identity. They were acquired by me in a long process of dealing with them and integrating them into my “craft biography”.

At most one could call the combination of kits a construction. However, on closer inspection, it only applies to a certain number of combinations. In many cases, combinations are not designed deliberately, deliberately and systematically. The individual bumps in the course of his identity formation on certain kits and appropriates them if necessary. In other words: the combination results from the confrontation with the given reality. That doesn't mean we are determined. We can only choose freely between given self-realization offers to a certain extent (e.g. between studying philosophy or physics).

The limit of social engineering

The following applies to gender constructivism:

“The constructivist-epistemological-critical attitude follows the fundamental insight that there is no direct - empirical and theoretical - socially undisguised, observer-independent access to (the) social 'reality'. Rather, knowledge is always 'constructed'. "(12)

Accordingly, Mona Singer emphasizes:

"What counts as a scientific fact is largely due to social conditions, conventions and controversies ..." (13)

Johanna Schaffer also emphasizes, following Donna Haraway - one of the best-known representatives of social constructivism - that knowledge and understanding of the world are always socially situated:

"For a feminist conception of science it is therefore not about the objective description of the world, but about how and in whose name, based on the authority of which processes, which reality constructs, justifies, in short: becomes effective or not." (14 )

For gender constructivism, knowledge of the world is socially situated, context-dependent, mediated through “discourses”, guided by interests and power. One could also say that all of the factors mentioned form the gender theoretical concept of social construction or function as conditions for construction.

The gender constructivist view of knowledge, knowledge and science meets the so-called "postmodern approaches", the key points of which can be summarized as follows:

“- Every aspect of the 'science' enterprise can only be understood through its local and cultural context;
- Laws of nature are also social constructions;
- Scientific theories are equal ´texts´ or ´stories` alongside others;
- since supposed facts do not allow unambiguous statements about scientific results, the truth of sentences cannot be decided within 'science';
- since there can be no objective science, it is all the more important to include explicit goals of 'emancipatory science' in the process of scientific research. "(15)

According to Rainer Schnell et al., Such statements have no empirical content and are therefore not verifiable. Postmodern approaches contain no empirically verifiable theories. In her case, it is either “self-ironic texts” without any empirical content or expressly “politically motivated texts”. (16)

According to Schnell, “feminist approaches” “partially” refer to empirical facts, but mix “empirical descriptions” with “value judgments” and “political strategies”. There is no separation in these approaches between descriptions, value judgments, declarations, wishes, hopes, political objectives, etc. Therefore, such approaches elude a systematic theoretical and ultimately also a systematic empirical analysis, even if they occasionally refer to empirical facts.

In addition, the designation of postmodern and feminist approaches as "paradigms", which is often used in connection with Thomas Kuhn, is incorrect, because "paradigms always contain empirically proven theories that are missing here". (17)

The decisive question for my line of argument is what the consequences of the above explanations for the concept of construction are. The empirical verifiability of sentences and the empirical validation of theories seem to be the decisive criteria for showing the limits of social construction.

Serious theorists of science also speak of factors that influence our understanding of the world. They include: assumptions, expectations, background knowledge, theoretic guidance of observation, mediation through language, context dependency, etc. But that is what is decisive for them Relation to reality, more precisely: the reference to empirical reality. Scientific statements must be empirically verifiable.

The central role here is played by the so-called. Hypothesis test: In the formulation of a hypothesis, the researcher reveals his assumptions and subjects them to a controlled test against reality. The hypothesis is confirmed or refuted in the confrontation with reality. (18) This procedure applies to both the natural and social sciences.

It is true that the formation of hypotheses could be described as a constructive activity. However, it takes place on the basis of the already existing knowledge or the already existing hypotheses about a subject area (theories are also formed on the basis of already existing theories). Be that as it may: The limit of any constitution is empirical reality, in two respects: We cannot - insofar as we do science - construct into infinity, but must sooner or later encounter empirical reality. In addition, every construction - insofar as we accept a construction concept at all - must be identified by empirical reality.

Social constructivism as an instrument of politics

According to Mona Singer

“For feminist epistemologists with a social constructivist orientation, a central question is which subjects and problems, based on which social structures and power relations, are scientifically involved or not. With their interest in questions of social inequality and the elimination of epistemic injustices, they differ significantly from many approaches of a sociological-empirical epistemology that practice normative abstinence from a socio-critical perspective. "(19)

Thus central claims of science such as ideological neutrality and impartiality are rejected. Partiality becomes an important principle of scientific work. This clears the way for an extensive instrumentalization of science for political purposes.

Ian Hacking pointed out that social constructivism aims to undo the status quo. The line of argument of the social constructivists in relation to X is as follows:

“(1) X shouldn't have existed or shouldn't have to be as it is. X - or X as it is presently - is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable. "

If social phenomena are social constructions, i.e. made by people, then they don't have to exist if we want them to. In many cases the social constructivists still claim:

"(2) X is, as it is, something terrible,
(3) We would be much better off if X were abolished or at least redesigned from the ground up. "(20)

In terms of the construction of gender, it means:

(1) Gender-specific attributions and relationships are largely contingent; they could have been different;
(2) they are something terrible;
(3) It would be better if the current gender-specific attributions and relationships were abolished or fundamentally changed. (21)

Above, the idea, which goes back to postmodern approaches, was addressed, according to which scientific theories exist side by side as equal or equal “texts” or “stories”, which is nonsense, because, for example, there is the theory that the earth is flat - a theory that lasts for a long time Time was valid - not on an equal footing with the theory that the earth is a sphere. The former theory has been proven wrong, wrong in the sense of has been empirically refuted.

In social constructivism, of course, scientific theories are also constructions. But not only theories, but also science is viewed by many proponents of postmodern social constructivism as just one of “many equal ways ... to understand the world”. (22)

Paul Boghossian describes this position as the “doctrine of equivalence”. It says:

"There are many fundamentally different ways of understanding the world, but they are of 'equal value' and of which science is only one." (23)

The doctrine of equivalence can easily be misused for political purposes and serve as a legitimation for the establishment of institutions. If theories as social constructions coexist with equal value and equal rights, then departments can be set up at universities and colleges for the corresponding theories or subject areas. If gender theory exists on an equal footing with other theories, departments, institutes, centers, etc. for gender studies can be set up at universities and colleges.

Heike Diefenbach has shown how, due to the vague idea that gender is a social construction, a comprehensive network of institutes, centers, professorships and “state-funded multiplier institutions” was created at universities as a social construction is relevant at all or more relevant than other constructions answered positively from the start by the owners of the corresponding university positions.

According to Diefenbach, gender studies are therefore not about science, but about political interests, namely the "implementation of the political program of gender mainstreaming", which specifically means the establishment of positions, professorships, institutes, centers, etc. for a certain group of women, i.e. lobbying and clientele politics.

Gender studies have largely isolated themselves from the rest of the sciences, both from the natural sciences, e.g. from biology, which also has a lot to say on the subject of “gender”, and from the empirically working social sciences. They lead a niche existence at universities and colleges and carry out “research” that has moved away from the usual scientific standards. (25) This, too, in my opinion is a consequence of the social constructivist approach that dominates gender studies, which - like was shown above - closed to empirical research.

The phrase “same qualifications” in the statutes “If women have the same qualifications, preference is given to hiring”, in my opinion, goes back to social constructivist ideas. It is another example of the instrumentalization of social constructivism for political purposes. One can only speak of "equal qualifications" if one assumes that applicants for e.g. professorships as research subjects are all very good and ultimately somehow equally qualified. If they are somehow equally qualified, then a group of people - e.g. women - can be given preferential treatment without any problems.

What is overlooked is the fact that “equal qualifications” in science, but also in most areas of work, is a chimera, something that cannot exist there. The same qualification would exist if two or more scientists had written the same books, essays and reviews and had given the same lectures. Scientists are never equally qualified. (26)

The statute "If the qualifications are the same, X will be given preference" represents an important means of giving preference to certain groups and thus an important means of lobbying and clientele policy.


(1) Ian Hacking, "Social construction taken literally", in: Matthias Vogel / Lutz Wingert (eds.), Knowledge between discovery and construction. Epistemological controversies, Frankfurt am Main 2003, p. 23.
(2) Judith Lorber, Gender paradoxes, Opladen 1999, p. 11.
(3) Ibid., P. 56f.
(4) Karin Knorr Cetina, "Constructivism in Sociology", in: Albert Müller et al. (Ed.), Constructivism and Cognitive Science. Cultural roots and results, Vienna 2001, p. 136ff.
(5) Urte Helduser et al. (Ed.), under construction? Constructivist Perspectives in Feminist Theory and Research Practice, Frankfurt / New York 2004.
(6) Ibid., P. 69.
(7) Ibid., P. 154.
(8) George Herbert Mead, Spirit, identity and society from the perspective of social behaviorism, Frankfurt am Main 2008.
(9) Talcott Parsons, Social structure and personality, Eschborn 20027.
(10) Ulrich Beck, Risk society. Towards a New Modernity, Frankfurt am Main 1986, p. 216.
(11) Ibid., P. 217.
(12) Urte Helduser et al. (Ed.), Op.cit. 2004, p. 20.
(13) Ibid., P. 85.
(14) Ibid., P. 211.
(15) Rainer Schnell et al. (Ed.), Methods of empirical social research, Munich 20119, P. 108.
(16) Ibid., P. 109.
(17) Ibid., P. 109.
(18) Karl R. Popper, Logic of research, Tübingen 200511.
(19) Urte Helduser et al. (Ed.), Op.cit. 2004, p. 86.
(20) Ian Hacking, What does “social construction” mean? On the boom of a battle vocabulary in the sciences, Frankfurt am Main 1999, p. 19.
(21) Ibid., P. 21.
(22) Paul Boghossian, Fear of the truth. A plea against relativism and constructivism, Frankfurt am Main 2013, p. 10.
(23) Ibid., P. 10.
(24) Heike Diefenbach, "Do we need professorships for gender research at universities and colleges?", In: Critical Science 9.8.2013.
(25) Günter Buchholz, "Gender Studies - The Lower Saxony Research Evaluation and Its Open Questions", SerWisS 7.2.2014.
(26) Alexander Ulfig, “Qualification instead of equality. Steps towards a fairer recruitment practice ",

I would like to thank Artur Zenon Zielinski for constructive discussions (“constructive” not in the sense of social constructivism, but in the sense of “fruitful”, “instructive” and “productive”), especially on the analytical theory of science.