- Ian Hacking, 1996
One of the most remarkable - and the least remarked upon - features
of the "radical" movement engaged in deconstructing natural science
is how it ends up denying the unity (i.e., universality) of truth,
reason, reality, and science precisely in the name of those who need
these unities most urgently - the "people resisting despotism and
its lies." This includes those of us from non-Western societies fighting
against the despotism of some of our own cultural traditions, and
the untested and untestable cosmologies that are used to justify these
traditions. A loose and varied assortment of theories that bear the
label of social constructivism have declared the very content of modern
natural science to be justified, in the final instance, by "Western"
cultural values and social interests. Once modern science is seen
not as a universally valid knowledge about the natural world, but
as a particular or "ethno"-construct of Western society, it becomes
easy to see science as a part of the imperialistic West's despotism,
which the west's "Others" must resist in the name of cultural survival
and anti-imperialism. Modern science thus becomes a despotism, an
object of resistance rather than an ally of those resisting despotism.
My goal in this paper is to cast a critical look at these anti-realist
and relativist views of "Western" science, which have gained wide
currency in the postmodern academy; and I want to look at them from
the perspective of the people's science movements in non-Western countries.
These theories - unlike the Marxian idea of social mediation of knowledge
with which they are often confused - have eroded the distinction between
scientifically justified beliefs and folk beliefs and/or ideology.
What has undermined these distinctions is the fundamental thesis of
social constructivism which states that all beliefs alike are justified
by the community consensus, which is itself based upon social power,
rhetoric and custom. There is no objective truth about the real world
which scientifically justified knowledge can aim toward, but rather
all "truth" about "reality" is literally constructed out of choices
between equally justifiable interpretations that a "thought collective"
makes. These choices, in turn, are driven by the conscious and unconscious
biases and interests of the members of any community of inquirers.
Though varied in emphases and details, constructivist theorists agree
that there simply is no truth, or even reality, that can transcend
the local social context of inquiry. The "unities" of truth and reason
that Ian Hacking speaks for (above), are treated in the constructivist
discourse as remnants of the imperialistic impulse of the Enlightenment
which sought to impose the West's own peculiar stories about truth
and reality on the rest of the world.
Such a view of knowledge justifies itself in the name of cultural
autonomy, tolerance, and respect for non-Western ways of knowing the
world and living in it. But I will argue that, in actual practice,
such "tolerance" has only ended up providing theoretical grounds
for, and a progressive gloss on, the fast growing anti-modernist,
nativist and cultural/religious revivalist movements in many parts
of what used to be called the Third World. These movements seek to
subordinate scientific rationality to local traditions, and thus are
incapable of critically interrogating these same traditions, many
of which are patently illiberal and oppressive to women and other
marginalized groups in non-Western societies.
Almost in direct proportion to the rise of nativist anti-modernist
social movements, which correspond with ascendance of social constructivist
theories in the academy globally, many pans of the Third World have
seen a decline and stigmatization of people's science movements. These
people's science movements seek to appropriate the contents and methods
of modern science in order to bring traditional knowledge under empirical
scrutiny and critique. In the part of the Third World that I am most
familiar with - my native India - people's science movements have
come to be eclipsed by the highly visible and vocal transnational
alliance that has emerged around the idea that modern science is Western,
and that the non-West needs its non-Western "ethno"-sciences. Affirmed
and emboldened by the most avant-garde intellectuals in the West and
at home, these nativist movements tend to label any critique of traditional
knowledge from the vantage point of modern science as a sign of Western
imperialism, or worse, a hangover from the old, "discredited" and
"Western" Enlightenment (although, interestingly, they continue to
applaud the critique of "Western" science from the perspective of
ethnosciences as anti-Eurocentric, and therefore progressive).(1)
Indeed, I believe that the recent electoral success of the religious
right (the BJP) in India has definitely benefited from the cultural
climate in which even the supposedly Left-inclined intellectuals and
activists tend to treat all liberal and modern ideas as "Western,"
inauthentic, and thus inappropriate for India. Thus I will try to
show that although the animus against the rationality of modern science
is purportedly justified in the name of anti-imperialism and egalitarianism,
its real beneficiaries are not the people but the nativists and nationalists
of all stripes, religious or "merely" cultural/civilizational.
Perched rather comfortably in academia, the critics of science in
the West tend to applaud the efforts of indigenous science movements
in the ex-colonial world to produce, in Donna Haraway's phrase, "situated
knowledges" - e.g., "Islamic" science, "Vedic" mathematics, "Indian"
science, "Third World women's" science etc. They tend to see these
movements as a justifiable reassertion of long-silenced traditions
and as heroic attempts by the once-colonized civilizations to accommodate
the forces of modernity on their own terms. There is undoubtedly some
truth in this perception: the memory of colonialism and the fear of
the fast encroaching "McWorld" have indeed lent a sense of urgency
to the Third World's search for alternatives.
But if one examines the actual track record of the social movements
that seek to encourage and implement culturally "authentic" science
and technology, a very different and much more worrisome picture emerges.
At their best, the indigenous science movements have spawned neo-populist,
anti-modernization and anti-state agitations targeted indiscriminately
against modern institutions and ideologies of Third World states (as
in India). At their worst, they have actively joined forces with religious
fundamentalists, as in most Islamic countries (and to some extent,
at least indirectly, in India as well). Indeed, it is becoming harder
by the day to discern much difference between the positions of the
religious (generally on the right) and the secular (generally on the
left) critics of science, technology and modernity in India and elsewhere
in the Third World.
This paper is written in the strong belief that a cultural nationalism
that turns against the internationalism of science is completely devoid
of any progressive impulse, and for all its populist rhetoric, can
only keep the people it claims to speak for in the bondage of age-
old oppressions justified by ancient superstitions. As a Third World
woman trained in "Western" science, I wish to reaffirm the words of
the late Abdus Salaam, the Pakistani Nobel Laureate in physics:
there is only one universal science, its problems and modalities are
international and there is no such thing as Islamic science, just
as there is no Hindu science, no Jewish science, no Confucian science,
nor Christian science.
It may be appropriate here to disclose my personal investment in the
defense of the universality of scientific knowledge and a scientific
way of thinking. I learnt to do science as a young woman in India,
received a doctorate in molecular biology, and later worked as a
science writer in close collaboration with people's science movements
in India and also in the United States. I sense a deep epistemological
connection between modern science and a principled dissent from, and
opposition to, all arbitrary authority; be it the authority of traditions,
family, community or the state. It was this connection between a
scientific skepticism and social dissent that I intuited when I left
the lab for the newspaper office and for science activism. And it
is this connection that I now want to defend - more self-consciously
this time, now that I have the advantage of hind sight - against the
radical science critics who would deny it.
The idea that science, like all human knowledge, is socially and culturally
mediated has a history that long predates postmodernism, but there
are critical differences between today's social constructivism and
earlier theories. The thesis of social construction of scientific
knowledge traces its ancestry to the tradition of sociology of knowledge
that includes such seminal figures as Karl Marx, Karl Mannheim, and
more recently, Robert Merton. There are undoubtedly connections between
these scholars and their latter-day, "post"-marked progeny - but with
two crucial differences. None of the classical sociologists of science
was an anti-realist. None of them ever denied that science, though
always situated in specific social contexts, nevertheless helps us
understand a reality that exists independently of our practices. And
none treated the truth of scientific ideas as relative to the "prevailing
regime of truth," as the current Foucaultian social theory would have
it. While all classical sociologists of knowledge believed, with different
theoretical emphases, that the logic of science works through context-
bound social practices and institutions, they equally firmly held
that the logic of science was, in the final instance, justified by
empirical evidence from the real world, which could be obtained independently
of the antecedent theoretical and social assumptions. Thus, while
they made room for the undeniable fact that competing social interests
could generate competing theories, they also believed the conflict
would sooner or later be settled by further rational investigation
of the entities and generative mechanisms that actually exist in nature.
Post-al sociologists sometimes like to drape themselves in the mantle
of Marx, even as they declare Marxism to be essentialist, determinist,
and hopelessly passe. Marx certainly holds the view that knowledge
is socially mediated and that science is a social practice. But scientific
knowledge for him always implies the objectivity of the material world,
i.e. the independent reality of natural, and the (relatively independent)
reality of social forms. Scientific knowledge emerges from an interplay
between the social practice of science - the socially and historically
located labor or cognitive work that goes into producing knowledge
- and the material world that exists independently of human cognition.
The historicity of knowledge for Marx is always in an ever-changing
dialectical relation with the objectivity of the material world. A
constant give-and-take between our historically located categories
of thought and the world that exists independently of these categories
continually transforms our categories of thought, putting them to
the test of scientific experiment, and anchoring them with an increasing
accuracy in the objects of the material world. As the physicist and
Marxist historian of science, J.D. Bernal clearly saw, science is
a "human activity, linked to all other human activities and continuously
interacting with them." Yet, science also "transcends the means or
the motives that helped step by step to build it up...[because] it
is securely anchored in the material world, in the properties of animate
and inanimate things."
The social constructivists ostensibly retain Marx's emphasis on the
historicity of knowledge, without his emphasis on either the objectivity
of the material reality, or our ability to arrive at increasingly
truthful accounts of that reality through a constant revision of our
scientific assumptions and practices. We begin to encounter a full-
blown constructivist view of science in the early 1970s when, citing
the ideas of Thomas Kuhn and Ludwig Wittgenstein, social theorists
associated with Edinburgh University, especially David Bloor and Barry
Barnes, began to propound what they called the "Strong Programme"
(SP) of sociology of scientific knowledge. The SP and the various
schools of science critique it helped to bring about (including the
feminist and cultural studies of science) are strong on the historicity
but weak on the objectivity of scientific knowledge, to the point
that it has become impossible to discern any traces of the latter
in their accounts of science. In fact, the paradoxical effect of postmodernist
constructivist conceptions of knowledge is to make history itself
unintelligible, so that we now have a conception of "historicity"
without a conception of history. Postmodernism gives us neither the
epistemological standards to judge, say, Newtonian physics as better
than pre-Copernican science, nor the means to situate the development
of science in an intelligible historical process.
The net result is that constructivists end up admonishing us to give
up such outmoded notions as truth as a correspondence with a mind-
independent reality. All knowledge claims should be explained "symmetrically"
regardless of their truth or falsity. The demand for symmetry means
that a person's reason for holding a belief is to be explained in
terms of locally operating (sociological) causes and not in terms
of the character of the belief itself (e.g., whether true or false
in terms of correspondence with some aspect of reality). The latter
would amount to an a priori assumption that it is the reality that
fixes beliefs and would rule out an impartial examination of how social
relations allowed a statement to be "stabilized" as true. Such "stabilization,
" furthermore, is seen as a highly flexible process in which the social
identities of knowers play a crucial role. The outcome of any scientific
inquiry is not compelled by the evidence of our senses and experiments
(which are theory-laden and can justify more than one conclusion)
but by the socially driven choices, interpretations and negotiations
of the inquirers.(2) Science is thus seen as social "all the way down."
The relativistic and pseudo-radical logic of social construction was
revealed for all to see by the tongue-in-cheek postmodern rendition
of a "liberatory" quantum gravity by the physicist Alan Sokal that
appeared recently in Social Text. So taken-for-granted is the postmodernist
incredulity toward reason's capacity to understand the causal mechanisms
of the physical world, that the following (intentionally) outrageous
claim by Sokal failed to raise any warning flags for the editors of
It has become increasingly apparent that physical "reality," no less
than social "reality" is at bottom a social and linguistic construct;
that scientific "knowledge," far from being objective, reflects and
encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture
that produced it, that truth claims of science are inherently theory-
laden, and that the discourse of the scientific community, for all
its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status
with respect to the counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident
or marginalized communities.
The ideas Sokal satirizes are exactly the ideas that the cultural
nationalists from the Third World uncritically and respectfully borrow
from the social constructivists and other radical historicists of
science. And once all reality is seen as a social construct and all
knowledge as encoding dominant ideologies, it follows that modern
science can make no valid claims to be universally true. Only when
this proposition is accepted does it become possible to talk of "Hindu
science," "non-Western science," "feminist science," all claiming
objectivity from their own internal standards.
Thus it has come to pass that amid self-righteous chants of anti-imperialist
solidarity with the West's silenced and exploited "Other," the social
constructivist, postmodern and self-professed "post-colonial" academics
and activists in the West and in Third World are united in the idea
that modern science is not a unity. Rather they see it as merely an
"ethno-science" of the West, constituted out of the contextual values
of the West, and thus without any justifiable claim to truth beyond
the supposed boundaries of its birthplace, "the West." As a Western
discourse, modern science is seen as "inherently" inimical to the
development and flourishing of other local knowledge systems, which
are assumed to be grounded in the supposedly more benign assumptions
of non-Western social orders.
Seen in this light, it makes sense that Third World people should
fashion a science that is appropriate to their own civilizational
imperatives, cultural meanings, and ways of knowing. One demand that
recurs time and again with desperate urgency in the fast growing genre
of postcolonial science critique is to give up the modernist attempts
to assimilate modern science into local cultures, and to create entirely
new sciences in which the very facts of nature will be different,
for they will derive their legitimation as facts from a world view
that is organically and authentically related to the "way of life"
of people living in these societies. The new non-Western sciences
will operate with different criteria of rationality, objectivity,
and truth, criteria furnished by their own aims, values, and conceptual
categories. Thus it is not the case that these sciences are any less
objective or factual, but only that the validity of their truth must
be judged not in comparison with the western sciences but "in their
As we shall see in the next section, the political implications of
this "radical" equation of modern science with the West are not lost
on the resurgent neo-traditionalist and religious fundamentalist movements.
These movements seek salvation not in a rational world view locally
and a democratic internationalism globally, but in assertions of civilizational
autonomy through a reconstruction of their own respective ethno-knowledges.
When modern science is understood as local knowledge, at all times
perfectly porous to the social assumptions of the imperializing West,
it is not surprising at all that the opposition to imperialism should
be turned into an opposition to modern science and technology, as
has increasingly happened in the alternative science movements in
the Third World. I will argue, next, that whatever else it may be,
this project of the social deconstruction of science is no friend
of the people of the Third World, who need to appropriate modern science
in order to question and get rid of all oppressive ideas and structures,
be they Western imports or authentic domestic products made up of
"their own" assumptions and value.
In defending both scientific rationality and its crucial importance
for social change, I am in a way defending a personal and deeply transformative
experience I have had of doing science and working as a science popularizer.
I count doing science as one of the most formative experiences of
my life. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that training
in modern science marked the beginning of humanism and feminism for
me. My training in biology demolished once and for all ideas of social
hierarchies and differences that were deeply entrenched in my middle
class Hindu milieu.
My double consciousness of tradition and modern science is in fact
quite commonplace in the rapidly changing societies in the Third World.
Like many of my fellow first-generation, post-independence citizens
of once-colonized countries, I came of age in India in a thoroughly
hybrid cosmopolis: the education in modern "Western" sciences that
I was fortunate enough to receive shaped my ideas of the natural order,
the cosmos; while the social order, the polis, of my birth and my
place in it as a woman of my caste and class background was grounded
in the local, largely Hindu, customs and knowledge systems.
This hybrid cosmopolis, far from being an impossibility (as the holists
among sociologists suggest), or a prison-house of Western-masculinist
imperialism (as the cultural nationalists among Third World intellectuals
claim) was experienced by some of us as truly emancipatory. Our scientific
understanding of the cosmos gave us the resources to question the
grounds of some of the cultural practices of our polis, and win a
modicum of autonomy for ourselves. Contrary to those who see science
as "inherently Western," science made perfect sense to me growing
up in my small and rather provincial city in Punjab. I did not find
scientific explanations of the natural world as alien or oppressive.
Sure, they did not sit well with the traditional rationalizations
of Karma, caste, and the inferiority of women as "facts of nature."
But if this is what "violence" and cultural dissonance caused by
"Westernization" is all about, I suggest that we have more of it!
More seriously, I am perfectly aware of the risk I am running of being
misunderstood as lumping those who attack modern science with a better
future society in mind, together with those who defend the status
quo with all its injustices. I fully recognize that the secular social
critics of science and modernity in the West and in the Third World
are no apologists for the traditional naturalizations of inequities.
They are as much - if not more - actively engaged in a variety of
new social movements against social injustices based on identifies
(gender, caste and ethnicity) that the traditional, more class-based
progressive movements had failed to address directly. Indeed, both
through personal associations and through their written works, I know
these critics of science to be motivated by deeply egalitarian, democratic,
and anti-racist sentiments. As far as I know, major alternative science
movements (in India, at least) have no overt sympathy and/or working
relations with the religious conservatives and their divisive agendas,
and most of them (again, speaking only of India), have been at the
forefront of feminist, civil-rights, and anti-communal movements.
Those among the new social movements that take the anti-essentialism
of postmodernist ideas seriously, moreover, have no truck with the
false unified civilizational imperatives that the religious fundamentalists
are projecting on to the diverse and plural polities of places like
Thus, I have no intention whatsoever of playing a game of more-progressive-
than-thou with those whose views on science I disagree with. What
I do intend is to ask if the means they have chosen can actually realize
the political ends they favor: that is, if the idealistic, anti-rationalist,
and anti-realist theories of knowledge they have come to embrace
can advance their political goals, which presumably include full autonomy
of the individual and a society without prejudice and injustice. Is
it not more likely that by relativizing all knowledge to the existing
cultural discourses and social arrangements, they deprive themselves
of the very ground needed to critically appraise the existing cultural
traditions that are not hospitable to these political ideals?
I wholly agree with the critics of science that modern science will
never give us the ultimate and final answers to the mysteries of the
world, and that human relations should not be patterned after the
mechanisms of nature revealed by science. I also see, of course, the
many ways in which modern science can be and has been used destructively.
Yet the fact remains that modern science has developed a method of
constant self-critique in the light of systematic observation and
experimentation on nature that gives us good reasons to reject some
views as false reports of the world. I believe that progressive politics
is impossible without a sifting of truth from falsehood. A discursive
egalitarianism that refrains from criticizing objectively false beliefs
because they happen to be held by the more traditional "masses" actually
impedes the struggle for real and substantive equality. Egalitarianism
and truth need each other, and if truth is left to be decided by the
often deeply inegalitarian standards of the community that holds it,
it is not clear how these standards themselves can ever be questioned.
To return to my own experience with science as a source of personal
values and social philosophy: my experience of finding personal courage
and intellectual strength in science and my disillusionment with the
elitist agenda of the scientific establishment in India inclined me
to take an active interest in people's science movements. The early
1980s (when I was completing my Ph.D.) was a time of soul-searching
in the scientific community in India, with many active "science for
people" groups springing up on university campuses and scientific
research institutions. These groups provided working scientists an
opportunity to participate in the life of the community through active
alliances with consciousness-raising and educational initiatives in
villages and urban slums.
This was also the time, it must be mentioned, when the first audible
rumblings of the organized nationalist/culturalist opposition to science
and modernity began to be heard in the form of an active opposition
to the idea of the "scientific temper" from well-known neo-Gandhian
intellectuals in Delhi and Madras. In the intervening decade-and-a-
half, political upheavals (above all the disappearance of the Soviet
Union), problems thrown up by rapid and uneven modernization, and
the "post"-marked intellectual trends that emphasize cultural autonomy
over cosmopolitanism have all contributed to the ascendancy of the
cultural nationalist, "patriotic science" tendency which is critical
of modern "Western" science and technology as "inherently" anti-people.
The people's science movements are berated as remnants of die-hard
rationalists and "communists" who do not understand and respect the
cultural traditions and religiosity of the people, with even sympathetic
critics urging an accommodation with the "patriotic" tendencies.
Such dismissals of people's science movements ignore the countless
young and idealistic men and women in India from all walks in life,
including my colleagues in research institutions, who may not be
card-carrying members of any political party but who are drawn to
these movements in the hope of using the findings of modern "Western"
science rationally to criticize some of the most illiberal elements
of their local traditional values and social arrangements.
"Science for social revolution" is the motto of one of the most prominent
people's science movements in India, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad
(KSSP) with 40,000 active members and nearly 1500 science clubs in
small towns and villages in the state of Kerala. There are many other
science-based, consciousness raising groups, some of them recognized
nationally for their innovative educational methods in science, especially
the central-India based Eklavya and the now closed Kishore Bharati,
which in 1972 formed the nucleus of the Hoshangabad Science Teaching
Program (HSTP), a program that has now spread to more than 500 schools.
For each such nationally recognized program, there are numerous others
working in relative anonymity.
The objective of groups like KSSP, HSTP, and other such groups is
to develop a critical scientific attitude that puts inherited knowledge
to the test of empirical evidence. Toward that end, these groups promote
education in modern scientific ideas, especially those derived from
modern "Western" biology (spontaneous generation vs. germ theory,
the genetic basis of the sex of the fetus, the similarity of the genetic
material in all life etc.), the theory of evolution and the Newtonian
laws of physics and relate them to the everyday life of people through
all available cultural means, from class rooms, to art fairs, songs,
street corner theater, and "science processions." Examples include
thousands of astronomy classes offered by KSSP in rural areas when
Halley's comet came close to the earth in 1986, or the Hoshangabad
groups encouraging local students to trace the parasite that had caused
a nationwide panic over a "curse" on green vegetables. Although they
make no secret of their support for a scientific temperament, these
groups are careful not to present science as a complete polar opposite
of religion, but to suggest that deeply religious people like Isaac
Newton, C.V. Raman, and Ramanujan could be great scientists as well.
Neither can these groups be seen as uncritical science enthusiasts.
Instead, their emphasis is on wise and egalitarian uses of science,
which sometimes leads them actively to oppose some ecologically disastrous
development projects. The overall project of "science for social revolution"
is similar in spirit to feminist consciousness raising, only in this
case it takes place mostly in non-metropolitan areas, in villages,
in small make shift schools in rural and urban areas, among women
in the slums, among the farm workers and among bonded laborers. It
is no different in spirit than the coffee-houses, learned academies,
salons, and lending libraries that sprung up all across Europe, not
just among the urban elite but also in the rural areas and small towns
during the Enlightenment.
It is both the desirability and the very possibility of just such
a critical empiricism - a scientific temper - that has been severely
questioned by the rise of the social constructivist theories of science
among academics and activists alike. In tune with, and often borrowing
from, the Western critics of the Enlightenment - from (the all too
well understood) Heidegger, Nietzsche, Foucault to (the much misunderstood)
Kuhn and the post-Kuhnian feminist and ecological critics which abound
in the academy - Indian, Islamic, and other non-Western critics have
declared that faith in the power of reason to know the truth about
the world is the cause and not the solution of the "pathology" of
modern western scientific thinking. They see the people's science
movements' emphasis on critical rationality as a sign of the "contempt"
felt by alienated modern intellectuals for the traditions of the
masses, and science as simply a Western superstition which the modernizers
wish to substitute for the popular superstitions that give meaning
to people. The solution, both for the West and the rest, is to turn
to the "older civilizations" where rationality is subordinated to
other cultural imperatives and values, including, of course, the values
prescribed by religion, mysticism, and the lost Gnostic traditions.
While intellectual discourse has taken such a turn toward a "re-enchantment"
and the subordination of scientific reason to the authority of traditions,
it should come as no surprise that the religious revivalists have
begun to dominate politics in many parts of the non-Western world.
While the Indian left has been busy theorizing the "de-colonization
of knowledge," the revivalist Hindu forces have succeeded in actually
carrying out the decolonization of mathematics and the history of
science. In the states where they came to power, the Hindu revivalist
parties decreed the replacement of modern mathematics with an apparently
fraudulent version of "Vedic mathematics." Likewise, the revivalists
have succeeded in revising the history of science and technology in
order to incorporate more nationalistic elements. But this is only
a mild case of re-enchantment as compared to the situation in Pakistan
where the clergy has a lot more say in what will be taught, including,
according to the physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, strictures on weather
and astronomical predictions. In this situation, the intellectual
climate, as Hoodbhoy puts it in an understatement, is "not particularly
propitious for free thinking and science."
I reject the idea that scientific knowledge is merely a social and
cultural construct of the West for one very simple reason: it completely
misdescribes the science I did in the lab and the science I did on
the streets as an activist and a writer in New Delhi in the mid 1980s.
The various "post"-marked theories of social construction of science,
and their more popular versions circulating among the alternative
science movements in the Third World simply have no theoretical and
normative categories to explain the project of "science for social
revolution." The sociology of scientific knowledge lacks the vocabulary
to describe the hybrid vigor of the cosmopolis I and others in science
for people's movements experienced. The most avant-garde constructivist
theorists of science, who claim to speak in the name of deeper democracy
and fuller human emancipation, completely invalidate a very real and
a very liberatory experience of those of us in progressive science
It is one thing to embrace a "cultural relativism" that respects the
variety of human culture. It is quite another to make these varied
cultural values the sole or principal standard of truth, so that truth
is simply what coheres with a particular system of beliefs, instead
of some correspondence between beliefs and a world that exists independently
of them. Postmodernist critics of science have tended to adopt the
latter kind of cultural relativism. According to their type of relativism,
a correspondence theory of truth, which inevitably makes universalistic
claims, does "violence" and is the source of intolerance, colonialism
and even totalitarianism. The only Solution they favor is to recognize
the situatedness and partiality of all knowledge, including that of
modern science - and then let a thousand sciences bloom. For obvious
reasons, the epistemic charity the social constructivists extend to
other knowledge systems has a great attraction for those who wish
to replace "Western" science with their own sciences. But this charity
is of the most dubious variety, and I will argue that the Third World
must stoutly refuse any part of it.
This kind of relativism is precisely the reason why social constructionism
fails to empower those - e.g., non-Western peoples - whose beliefs
it wishes to affirm. Such "affirmation" may affirm the cultural chauvinists,
but it is far from liberatory: people fighting for their right to
a decent life do not need condescending affirmations of their ways
of knowing, as much as they need new cultural discourses that will
open up new possibilities for new kinds of social relations. A struggling
humanity needs a richer kind of empathy that includes respect but
also critique; love but also anger. Because postmodernist relativism
is generous with the first but stingy with the second, it ends up
subverting its own progressive impulses. It ends up providing aid
and comfort to any particularistic cosmology which may demand that
it be judged on its "own terms" of what constitutes justified belief.
Understood purely from within a given framework, and with no external
standard of truth, it is hard to see how any view could be wrong and
any practice unjust. Indeed, as Norman Geras points out, if truth
is wholly internalized to particular discourses or social practices,
we cannot recognize victims' reports of their suffering as injustice,
but only as so many stories of injustice.
Most social constructivists do not deny that external reality exists,
that scientists interact with it in their experiments and discourse
about it through their publications and conferences etc. These critics
only deny that the external reality determines, in the last instance,
the truth or falsity of scientific knowledge. Of course they admit
that the "real" world exists and that the real physical world is independent
of what we think about it. But the acknowledgment of the real world
is only an idle addition - a "fig leaf," as the philosopher Michael
Devitt has called it - to the constructivist view of knowledge, for
constructivism gives the real world a diminutive role in fining scientists'
But social constructivists, like all of us, would not want to defy
the law of gravity by jumping out of the 21st floor of a building,
as Alan Sokal keeps reminding them: they are perfectly aware of the
bounds set by the real world on most of our activities, interpretations,
and choices. How, then, do they justify reducing the real world to
a fig leaf when it comes to scientific knowledge? The answer lies
in what the British realist philosopher Roy Bhaskar calls the "epistemic
fallacy": the failure to distinguish between an objective reality
and the ways in which we represent or describe it. Here, the "real"
world does not act as a check on our knowledge. On the contrary,
our (historically and culturally variable) knowledge constitutes reality
- or, as Steven Woolgar proclaims, "how we know determines what exists."
In that sense, social constructivists allow no difference between
the laws of physics and socially created objects (say a dollar bill
or the rules of baseball): both are what they are because we agree
to think of them as such. It is as if not only the science of physics
were historically located and changeable but the natural objects to
which it refers were historically variable too.
The epistemic fallacy connects theories of social construction with
postmodern theories of knowledge more generally. Both share one fundamental
assumption, the assumption Philip Kitcher has called the IRA, the
"Inaccessibility of Reality Argument." According to this argument,
we cannot step out of language (or more broadly, our conceptual framework)
to see reality in itself. "There is no God's eye view," as one often
hears in postmodern discourse. IRA directly leads to the epistemic
fallacy; the real, knowable world coincides with, and is confined
within, the boundaries of our socially determined and limited frameworks.
Anything that falls outside our discourses cannot be known by human
reason. This makes the ordinary work of science seem god-like - impossible,
transcendent, and full of hubris.
Given the fallacious assumption that the real is only what we can
know and say about it, social constructionism presents itself as the
only humanly possible, socially situated and non-transcendental, naturalistic
account of science. (That is why, as became obvious in the recent
flap over Sokal's hoax, science studies scholars bristled at the notion
that they were against science). But my problem with this account
of science is that it removes from science all that makes it worth
doing and all that makes it empowering for those who question the
despotism of superstitions all around the world.
What, then, can be done? What is the way out of the quandary?
Social constructivists have led us into a blind alley, but the philosophical
problems they invoke to make their case are by no means trivial. It
is a fact, long recognized by the critics of empiricism (notably Karl
Popper) much before postmodernism appeared on the scene, that there
are no theory-free observations. Observations do not just jump out
of the real world and compel our inferences. It is a fact that sensory
perception by itself is not sufficient to give us access to the unobservable
world of atoms and DNA and tectonic plates which science claims to
have discovered. We do see the world through the conceptual categories
available to us in any given place, culture, and time. We cannot indeed
strip ourselves of all assumptions and rise above it all to see the
world in its own terms and compare it with what we think about it
and then decide if we are fight or wrong, whether our facts match
with the world or not.
A return to a naive empiricism that takes observation to be innocent
of theory and social assumptions is neither possible nor necessary.
I believe that it is possible to accept all these assumptions and
yet deny that science cannot give us an explanation of the causal
mechanisms of the real word which exists apart from our views about
it, or that scientific knowledge is made up of contextual values and
choices of culture-bound scientists. A relativist social constructionism
is not the only alternative left after the realization that all thought
is socially mediated, and all observations derive their evidentiary
force from the theoretical assumptions of the inquirer. A third alternative
to both empiricism and social constructionism exists, namely, contextual
I have offered a detailed philosophical defense of contextual realism
elsewhere,(3) and I can say only this much about it here. I believe
that it is perfectly possible to defend a realism that can distinguish
truth from superstition, and justify preferring the former not simply
in terms of coherence (or "solidarity" as Rorty calls it) with a particular
community of knowers (i.e. western scientists), but in terms of how
accurately it maps onto, and - yes - corresponds to some part of what
there is in the world. The contextual realism I defend argues that,
contrary to postmodernist assumptions, such a mapping between our
theories and the world does not require us to secure an Archimedean
point, or a God's eye view, which is outside of all social practices,
language and cultural categories. Indeed, postmodernists have sent
us on a fool's errand by making such impossible demands of scientific
Scientific objectivity need not satisfy an impossible ideal of neutrality.
History- and context-bound inquirers, with all their biases, interests,
and other flaws can still get to know the world through a process
of constant revision of our conceptual schemes and our observations
of the world in the light of each other. Through a relentless critique
and revision of our conceptual categories in the light of new evidence
(which is justified in the light of some other theories in the web
of theories that make up a science), it is perfectly possible to transcend
the limits of our inherited frameworks and to obtain a more complete
picture of the natural and social world whose validity transcends
the context of its production.
We all - in the East or in the West - share the same natural world.
Any advance in deciphering the common book of nature anywhere is an
advance for all of us.
1. The near universal eagerness with which non-Western societies have
in fact tried to cultivate modern science is explained away solely
as a result of colonial and neo-colonial influences. For a recent
statement of science as colonial, see Sandra Harding, "Is Science
Multicultural? Challenges, Resources, Opportunities, Uncertainties,
" Configurations, 1994, 2:301-330. Among the numerous Third World
champions of this view, see Ziauddin Sardar (Ed.) The Revenge of Athena:
Science, Exploitation and The Third World (Mansell Publishing Ltd.,
London, 1988), Ashis Nandy (ed.) Science, Hegemony and Violence:
A Requiem for Modernity (Delhi: Oxford, 1990) and Vandana Shiva, Staying
Alive (London: Zed Press, 1988).
2. Both theory-dependence of facts and under-determination are true,
but in actual lab work, they by no means make the enterprise of science
as circular and question-begging as social constructivists assume.
3. Meera Nanda, "Restoring the Real: Rethinking Social Constructivist
Theories of Science." Forthcoming in Socialist Register.
For a complete set of Notes including the sources of all quotations,
etc., see the longer version of this article in In Defense of History,
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997).
Meera Nanda, a science writer for the mainstream and progressive media
in India and the United States, is associated with the department
of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
Troy, NY, A longer version of this article is forthcoming in In Defense
of History, Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster, ed., (New
York: Monthly Review Press, March 1997).
Nanda, Meera, Against social de(con)struction of science: cautionary tales from thethird world.. Vol. 48, Monthly Review, 03-01-1997, pp 1(20).