Against social de(con)struction of science: cautionary tales from thethird world.

People resisting despotism and its lies need ideals of one truth, one reason, one reality and on occasion, one science. To be able to be critical of the unities is a luxury and let us never forget it.

- 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 Social Text:

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 own terms."

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 India.

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 movements.

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' beliefs.

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 realism.

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 knowledge.

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).

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