Even more importantly, underscoring the point about social construction, many of us have lately agreed on different “truths” (social facts). Ask a Donald Trump supporter near you all about that, if not a true QAnon believer. ( The rise of conspiracy theories, information wars, “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and so forth are challenges to previously accepted socially constructed truths and narratives. Hence not only frequent shifts in what is and isn’t considered appropriate or polite, as well as the vehement debates about the truth of our nation’s history and the character of its leaders, health-care reform, illegal immigration, and gun control—but even further, the undermining of what we’ve usually considered established facts, policies, laws, principles, and core truths. Even medical science has been called into question amid the scientific—not to mention the less-than-scientific—debates of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Masks don’t work! Masks DO work! Etc., etc.!) We are frequently fighting each other over social constructions! Including some extremely crucial ones in terms of our collective definition of social and intellectual stability as well as public health! This is yet another reason that “proof” is such an elusive concept! Especially if it turns out we’re dealing with mere social construction—which is intersubjective anyway—rather than Objective Truth!
One other point is important—that of cultural context. Revisiting our belching example, remember that it is actually considered complimentary, and even the polite thing to do, in some cultures such as that of some Pacific Islanders, at least in terms of historical tradition. As we pointed out above, some families may also belch behind closed doors just for the fun of it. But also consider that this social construct, like all others, is established by social agreement. Now as most of you know, this same social agreement does NOT necessarily extend to your family’s Thanksgiving table. So if your family doesn’t already welcome the custom, please do NOT belch after your meal and then tell your family that Dr. Weight in your ASU Sociology of Religion class taught you it was a way to say Thanks. Live in the culture you’re in, my friends. ( You disrupt social norms very much at your own risk, and I did tell you not to, so sorry to tell all y’all—you’re all out on your own on that one! ( Common courtesy and “manners” require more or less that you act according to the set of social constructs and social facts of the social group and culture in which you’re living at the moment.
But also consider this: Human mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding all require that we take a look at those social constructs, understand them at face value, and learn to see that most often, we might accept the “truth” the other person accepts if we were in their proverbial shoes. Otherwise known as the “walk a mile in another person’s shoes” viewpoint, it’s the way we live in civilized society, or at least it certainly should be. We try to understand where each other are coming from, including the perspectives and social constructs on which we tend to act. As much as we’ve seen our socio-political discourse change lately, and not for the better, it doesn’t change the key fact that dialogue and an attempt at mutual understanding helps preserve us and our society. So let’s not leave that behind.
Sadly, some social constructions also have a lot riding on them. In a post-truth society, some question basic factuality and practice, even with evidence involved, as in the masking debates out there. No, wearing a mask alone isn’t necessarily going to keep you from getting COVID-19. But wearing masks does help people from inadvertently spreading the disease to others, and effectively limits the spread of disease when combined with social distancing, limiting large gatherings, hygienic practices such as handwashing, and so forth. The bulk of the epidemiological evidence does suggest that combining ALL those practices does help limit the spread of this and many other forms of disease. So social construction isn’t all just theoretical.
In another example of this, speaking of vehement political debates, also consider gun control. Understand that ardent Second Amendment defenders have a set of assumptions and social constructs about guns and responsible gun ownership. Those concerned about violence committed by people with guns also have their own set of assumptions and social constructs from which they approach the issue. So a wide variety of opinions results. I was born into a family of hunters, though I personally don’t go hunting for anything but good books. ( However, several of my cousins live for deer and elk hunting season, ( and I more or less see the point. They’re good and decent people overall and only use their guns for occasional hunting trips. Nobody else sees or handles those weapons without their say-so, believe me, and they carefully teach their children to be responsible with guns. If anybody has the right to bear arms, they and other responsible gun owners certainly do.
Yet if I were, say, Gabby Giffords and had gone through all that she had, thanks to only one mentally ill man who had gained access to a gun, I’d probably advocate gun control, too! And given the increasing number of school and public shootings, the need to work out a solution does seem to be growing! Ideally, the two sides would work out a compromise—including a new set of assumptions and social constructs—in an attempt to resolve the problem. That is usually how public discourse and new social construction works. However, the two sides seem rather far apart on this, since both camps have not only engaged in their own dialogues of social construction but have gradually defined each other as enemies.
All that aside, however, here’s the key point in terms of epistemology—let’s consider the “either/or” relationship of the Objective and subjective a false dichotomy. In other words, all knowledge is NOT either Objective or subjective! In our Western mode of thinking, we tend to view the relationship between Objective and subjective as an either/or sort of relationship—that is, either our truths (and Truths) ( are Objective OR they’re subjective. Correct? No, sorry. Let’s dig deeper. In thinking in this “either/or” way, which we often do in Western culture, we limit ourselves—since the REAL relationship is “either/AND.” Put simply, as illustrated on the next page, there’s a whole range of intervening experience between Objective Truth and subjective truth— the intersubjective . We’ve just spent several paragraphs addressing those social constructions—and that range of intervening experience, by the way, is precisely what makes this comparison a false dichotomy!
That spectrum-like relationship of Objective, intersubjective, and subjective is illustrated in the box on the next page. Hence, as we see, in addition to Objective Truth—what is always True, Absolute, and Verifiable—there are a vast range of intersubjective truths as well. These are true according to our social agreement, though they’re impermanent or subject to change, and sometimes verifiable (and of course sometimes not.) ( Notably, the intersubjective truths are sometimes confused for subjective, but those darn intersubjective truths really cause trouble when some of us decide that they’re really Objective—and then hold it against other people when they don’t agree! We’ll be discussing religious conflict in Lesson 3, so feel free to hold onto that thought all you wish. (
Then at the other end of this continuum, we have our subjective truths, which are usually highly dependent on our own perceptions. So we perceive our little-t truths, whether subjective or intersubjective, as true, and they’re frequently subject to change and not often verifiable. We discover these intersubjective (i.e., socially constructed) and subjective (personally perceived and interpreted) truths through our own learning and a process of building social consensus on culture, behavior, norms, values, and so on. Social consensus has a particular scope and context that gives our “little-t” truths MUCH more proverbial staying power than a trite “that’s just the way I see it” stance. Of course, no degree of social consensus will produce Objective and Ultimate Truth. What’s Absolutely Real is Real, whether or not any individual or group agrees, understands, or even knows about it. And don’t make me bring up brick walls or elephants again. 😊 But in brief, religion can be understood as our intersubjective (or group) and subjective (or individual) attempts to grasp the Objective.
Wrapping It Up