Social Constructivist and Marxian Approaches to Place

To some extent, Marxian approaches to place could be seen as anti-place, and certainly at times they seem dismissive of the other approaches, especially the phenomenological. Marx had no time for "mystification", which meant the creating of ideal categories to "explain" the world that weren't rooted in the material and physical interaction of forces of production. "God", for example, became a mystification.

And "place" could be seen that way as well. People talk about some mysterious "sense of place", some tie that makes them "feel better" in some places than others.

Marx himself never talked much about space or place - at the time, if the topic came up at all, it was regarded as an issue for physics. But 20th century thinkers have paid much more attention to the concept.

What is social construction?

Most of cultural studies assumes that the world is constructed, and that construction is not just the result of individual will, but of collective action and reflection. Social construction assumes:

1. There is no "reality" apart from the social world. That doesn't mean that everything is relative (which would imply that our subjectivity is outside of social construction, and in effect, the true reality), nor that everything is ideal (just made up of ideas, which then become true reality). Rather, it assumes that there is nothing we can know about the world apart from that which is
made available to us by our language and/or our actions.

2. We do not simply create a world from already held ideas, nor are our minds slavishly caused by the external world. The influence goes both directions. We represent the world, often not consciously, by acting in it and speaking/writing about it. We act in the way we think is appropriate, and that action serves to reinforce certain distinctions in the world.

Representation is a key concept in social construction. Everything we say or do is like "saying it in our own words" - communicating something that is already there, but through our sense of what is appropriate, right, advantageous in the world.

4. Marx was a social constructivist, in the sense that he believed that our seemingly "natural" or "real" world was actually the way it was because of our set of implicit agreements or ordering of the world. So, for example, under capitalism people might think that human nature is "naturally" acquisitive and competitive. Marx thought that these "natural" capacities were not natural at all, but the result of the conditions of production and consumption in which we find ourselves.

5. But Marx is not the only social constructivist, and one need not necessarily believe in Marx to believe that the world is socially constructed. Marx's account of the world was progressivist; he believed that there would be a time when we would all see the world for what it is. Marx was also resolutely materialist, believing that all the world could be explained by considering the interaction of material objects and the humans who use them and rely on them. Most contemporary social constructivists use aspects of Marx's thought, but reject other aspects.

6. What are the implications of social constructivism? One is that we need to consider just
how, why, and in whose interests the world as we know it exists. If there is nothing natural about the world, then we need to consider that someone, or some group, stands to gain from reality the way it is. The issue is one of power - who has it, who assumes entitlement to it, who has been marginalized from it.

Marx points out that there is nothing inherent in capital that says that a particular group of people are entitled to it. They didn't work harder, they don't deserve it because they are better people. Rather, we exist in a social structure that perpetuates existing social arrangements, for the benefit of a few.

Another example: Many feminists have argued that there is nothing natural about the way we regard the role(s) of the sexes. Women are not inherently the "weaker sex", and even biology does not necessitate specific roles in society for women. Gender roles are, rather socially constructed, and usually not to the benefit of women.

7. Pushing it further: So is everything socially constructed? Is there nothing that falls outside of this account?

How about science? Doesn't science give us an objective picture of the real world? This has been a battlefield for years, with scientists claiming they are outside of this account, and others claiming that science too relies on language and social practice.

How about faith? Does belief in God count as something outside of the social construction of our world? For many, this would transcend our socially mediated knowledge. There are plenty of scholars, though, who have shown the ways in which faith (even very private faith) partakes in the social world.