Social Construction Framework and the Working Poor

Social Construction Framework & The Working Poor

A framework for understanding public policy that I learned about during my graduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno is the Social Construction Framework (SCF). The SCF argues that we project social constructions onto groups and that the targets of a policy and the social constructions attached to the targets greatly influence the form of the policy. Some groups, like military veterans, are advantaged in this system while others are seen as deviants, like drug addicts. Policy directed toward an advantaged group tends to be more generous while policy directed toward a deviant group tends to be more punitive in nature.
In exploring the history of welfare in the United States, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day share several quotes from Bill Clinton, whose presidential administration reshaped the welfare system of the 1990s. What the authors present is an administration that is designing policy to aid the poor as we would expect based on the SCF. The category of poor people was split into two distinct sub-categories, the deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor were those who worked hard, didn’t take advantage of the system, but had some bad luck and needed help getting by. The underserving poor did not have jobs and didn’t seek out jobs. They may have been drug addicts and may have had other problems that were attributable to poor decision-making or poor character.
In the book they write, “as Clinton was announcing plans to bolster the efforts of the working poor – whom many saw as deserving, but for whom there was little to no aid – he once again borrowed from [Harvard professor David] Ellwood, making the case that the working poor play by the rules but get the shaft. It was time to make work pay.”
Clinton’s policy was designed to help those who were seen as the deserving poor, who would fit a category in the SCF usually named dependents. The working poor are economically and politically weak, and policy which targets them usually provides more positive rhetoric than substantive aid. The underserving poor, the deviants in the SCF, were targeted with policies which took away benefits. Failing to work, testing positive for drug use, or being unable to submit a form, would result in the underserving poor losing their benefits. When we think about social assistance programs we see a lot of policies that can be understood through this SCF lens. We craft policies and narratives based on the social constructions of our target populations, bringing real world outcomes from the fictional narratives and social constructions of our collective minds.
George Herriman and the Complexities of Racial Identity

George Herriman and the Complexities of Racial Identity

Race is a social construct. Genetic studies reveal how misplaced ideas of racial differences truly are. Individuals on the African continent sometimes have more genetic differences than individuals across continents, yet race throughout human history has been used, at a genetic level, to explain the differences between people, and in the worst of  times, to justify discrimination and biases. However, even though race is more of a social construct than a biological fact, humans still identify differences in appearance, customs, behaviors, and psychologies and treat individuals differently based on how they are perceived.
The book Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White demonstrates the power of this discriminatory way of identifying people, and how complex racial identities can be when we insist race is more than a social construct and use it to define people. Michael Tisserand, the book’s author, explains that Herriman existed at an intersection of white and black, and that he was able to pass as white to enter a professional world that excluded blacks. Doing so, however, meant that he had to abandon other identities, including those of his mixed Creole and black family from New Orleans.
In a sentence that demonstrates just how complex racial identification can be, Tisserand writes the following, “when questioned as part of court proceedings if he was colored, George Herriman Sr.’s {Herriman’s grandfather] brother in law, Charles Sauvinet, replied, when I go among strangers I am received as a gentleman. He added I never inquire whether I was received as a white or colored man.” Herriman’s family displayed ambiguous racial characteristics for several generations, and much of their racial identity was dependent more on how other people treated them than on how they chose to identify. Race was not within their own control and varied from place to place and situation to situation.
The implication in Charles Sauvinet’s response is that he was received as a white man, that people identified him and treated him as a white gentleman. His non-answer was effectively a way of saying he was white while simultaneously acknowledging that white did not capture the full complexity of his racial background. His identity, the race assigned to him, and whether he was considered a valuable and worthy gentleman or something less than was not dependent on his own personal qualities, but on how other people perceived his race. These ambiguous edge cases are helpful in exploring the role and power of race in the United States. The racial state of America today is improved over the days of Charles Sauvinet and George Herriman, but discrimination and racial bias still exists, and still fails to address the realities of people’s lived experiences and racial backgrounds, even if race is nothing more than a social construct.
Understanding the Past

Understanding the Past

I am always fascinated by the idea, that continually demonstrates validity in my own life, that the more we learn about something, the more realize how little we actually know about it. I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and I am continually struck by how often Harari brings in events from mankind’s history that I had never heard about. The more I learn about the past, or about any given subject, the more I realize how little knowledge I have ever had, and how limited, narrow, and sometimes just flat out inaccurate my understandings have been.

 

This is particularly important when it comes to how we think about the past. I believe very strongly that our reality and the worlds in which we live and inhabit are mostly social constructions. The trees, houses, and roads are all real, but how we understand the physical objects, the spaces we operate, and how we use the real material things in our worlds is shaped to an incredible degree by social constructions and the relationships we build between ourselves and the world we inhabit. In order to understand these constructions and in order to shape them for a future that we want to live in (and are physiologically capable of living in) we need to understand the past and make predictions about the future with new social constructs that enable continued human flourishing.

 

To some extent, this feels easy and natural to us. We all have a story and we learn and adopt family stories, national stories, and global stories about the grand arc of humanity. But while our stories seem to be shared, and while we seem to know where we are heading, we all operate based on individual understandings of the past, and where that means we are (or should be) heading. As Daniel Kahneman writes in his  book Thinking Fast and Slow, “we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less that we believe we do.”

 

As I laid out to begin this post, there is always so much more complexity and nuance to anything that we might study and be familiar with than we often realize. We can feel that we know something well when we are ignorant of the nuance and complexity. When we start to really untangle something, whether it be nuclear physics, the history of the American Confederacy, or how our fruits and veggies get to the supermarket, we realize that we really don’t know and understand anything as well as we might intuitively believe.

 

When we lack a deep and complex understanding of the past, because we just don’t know about something or because we didn’t have an accurate and detailed presentation of the thing from the past, then we are likely to misinterpret and misunderstand how we got to our current point. By having a limited historical perspective and understanding, we will incorrectly assess where our best future lies. It is important that we recognize how limited our knowledge is, and remember that these limits will shape the extent to which we can make valid predictions for the future.
The Emotional Replica of Reality in our Brains

The Emotional Replica of Reality Within Our Brains

It feels weird to acknowledge that the model for reality within our brains is nothing more than a model. It is a construction of what constitutes reality based on our experiences and based on the electrical stimuli that reach our brain from various sensory organs, tissues, and nerve endings. The brain doesn’t have a model for things that it doesn’t have a way of experiencing or imagining. Like the experience of falling into a black hole, representations of what the experience is like will never fully substitute for the real thing, and will forever be unknowable to our brains. Consequently, the model of reality that our brain uses for every day operations can only include the limited slice of reality that is available to our experiences.

 

What results is a distorted picture of the world. This was not too much of a problem for our ancestors living as hunter-gatherers in small tribes. It didn’t matter if they fully understood the precise risk of tiger attacks or poisonous fungi, as long as they had heuristics to keep them away from dangerous situations and questionable foods. They didn’t need to hear at the frequency of a bat’s echolocation pulses, they didn’t need to see ultraviolet, and they didn’t need to sense the earth’s magnetic field. Precision and completeness wasn’t as important as a general sense of the world for pattern recognition and enough fear and memory to stay safe and find reliable food.

 

Today, however, we operate in complex social structures and the narratives we tell about ourselves, our societies, and how we should interact can have lasting influences on our own lives and the lives of generations to come.  How we understand the world is often shaped by our emotional reaction to the world, rather than being shaped by a complete set of scientific and reality based details and information. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.”

 

Kahneman writes about news reporting of strange and extreme phenomenon, and how that leads us to believe that very rare events like tornado deaths are more likely than mundane and common causes of death such as those resulting from asthma complications. Things that are dramatic and unique feel more noteworthy, and are likely to be easier for us to remember and recall. When that happens, the events feel less like strange outliers, and more like normal events. The picture of reality operating in our mind is altered and distorted based on our experiences, the information we absorb, and our emotional valence to both.

 

For a social species, this can have dramatic consequences. If we generalize a character trait of one person to an entire group, we can develop dangerous stereotypes that influence our interactions with hundreds or thousands of people. A single salient event can shape how we think about problems or opportunities in our communities and societies. Rather than fully understanding our reaction and the event itself, we are going to struggle through narratives that seek to combine thousands of individual perceptions of reality, each influenced in unique ways by conflicting emotions and opinions of what has happened. Systems and structures matter, especially when our brains operate on inadequate versions of reality rather than concrete versions of reality and can be shaped by our emotional reactions to such systems and structures.

How We Define Our World

Our thoughts are generally not just our own thoughts. What we think, what we say, and ultimately what we do is influenced by other people. We are social animals and come to understand ourselves and define ourselves socially. However, we often are not aware of just how much this social conditioning shapes our thinking and understanding. Fernando Pessoa writes about this in his book The Book of Disquiet which was assembled from his notes and published after his death.

 

In a translation from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Pessoa writes, “Their inability to say what they see or think is a cause of suffering to most people. …they imagine that to define something one should say what other people want, and not what one needs to say in order to produce a definition.”

 

When we think about something, it is often in the context of social situations. We don’t exist in a vacuum where we can give everything around us a name and definition, so we must rely on the knowledge and understanding of others in creating a shred definition and shared meaning in what we communicate. At a basic level, we must share some type of understanding to communicate how we are feeling, what something is, what happened, and what it all means. However, we go a step further than just this.

 

We anticipate what other people want to hear and expect to hear, and we adjust our communication accordingly. Pessoa seems to suggest that we don’t just adapt our speaking and communication when we do this, but we adjust our entire way of thinking to align with what we think other people believe, feel, and understand. We don’t think and develop concepts independently, but we do so socially, depending on others and making assumptions about what is happening in their head as we formulate ideas within our own heads. Because our thoughts are not independent, when we are asked to define something abstract we falter. Rather than simply describing the thing, we become paralyzed as we try to think about what is already in another person’s head, what they are expecting to hear, and what they will think if we provide a definition they did not expect. Rather than being free and brave enough to offer our own definition, or to have our own thoughts, we simply adopt the social beliefs around us, conforming to the shared thoughts of others.

 

In one sense I find it troubling that we don’t have our own independent thoughts and ideas. But at the same time, I don’t know what it would mean for everyone to have independent thoughts and understandings of the world. I don’t know how we could cooperate and build a society if we all had truly distinct thoughts and opinions about how the world should operate and about how to define the world as it is. I find that when I consider the reality of our social minds, I fall back on the same conclusion as always, it is important to be aware of what is really happening and understand that we don’t think independently of others, but I don’t know how that should change our ways of thinking or our manifesting behaviors on individual or societal levels. Perhaps our honesty with ourselves will make us less cocky and less arrogant, but perhaps it will open us up to be taken advantage of by people who are. Ultimately, having more knowledge of what our minds are really doing will hopefully make us better people.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of my Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform and shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and at best develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks as physicists try to understand quantum mechanics within the framework of physics laid out by Einstein and relativity. Throughout her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts within their own physics studies. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring this idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea is exactly the idea of social construction that I touched on in the opening note, but Gefter quotes a note in one of wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics,” which sounds a bit like social construction to me as someone who studies public policy.

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions in physics described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions such as how gravity works.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs the way we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspectives matter, when it comes to politics, science, and even physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to model, study, and experiment with our lives and the universe.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of a Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform ad shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks preventing us from linking Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Throughout her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts on their own. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring an idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea exactly the idea of social construction in politics and governance that I touched on in the opening note. Gefter quotes a note in one of Wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics.”

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from  the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our problem solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions about the workings of the universe.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs how we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspective matters, when it comes to science and physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to study and experiment with the universe. Keeping social constructionism in mind also helps us understand why we choose to study certain aspects of science and why we present our findings in the ways that we do. We may never be able to get to a purely rational place in either science or politics (though science is certainly much closer), but understanding and knowing where social construction plays a part will help us be more observant and honest about what we say, study, believe, and discover.

Views on Criminality in the United States

In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander explains the ways that we have turned the prison system and our treatment of criminals into a modern caste system. She looks at the way we approach criminality and is critical of the open prejudice shown toward those who have been arrested or convicted of crimes. Her book was eye opening to me because of the way she looked at crime, who commits crime, who is punished for crime, and who seems to be able to commit crime without worrying about punishment. She is able to demonstrate with study after study that our system unreasonably targets minority populations and has different outcomes that limit individual’s futures and shapes the lives and communities in which people live.

 

I was particularly struck by the similarity that exists between those who commit crimes and are punished and pushed out from society and those who never commit crimes and manage to move through life with success. Alexander challenges this idea writing, “The notion that a vast gulf exists between ‘criminals’ and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about ‘them’.” White, brown, and black criminals are somehow viewed as the other and as a problem that we, the morally sound part of society, must deal with. We cast these individuals out because they are somehow flawed and unable to participate in society at a fundamentally humane level. But this idea is not backed by real evidence of behavior, especially as we have been increasing our sentencing for low level drug crimes and over policing minority neighborhoods.

 

Alexander continues, “Most Americans violate drug laws in their life-time. Indeed most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives. Yet only some of us will be arrested, charged, convicted of a crime, branded a criminal or felon, and ushered into a permanent under-caste.” We don’t seem to recognize how frequently the law is broken, particularly with drug laws, and how arbitrary our punishment and legal system can be. When we limit housing and limit employment opportunities to those who have been arrested, we limit the ability of people who were arrested to return to society and become a contributing member of society. We make up stories about those who were arrested so that we don’t have to confront the brutal fact that we arrest minority populations at far greater rates than we should, and our stories help us feel justified in our actions and morally superior to other people. Ensuring that everyone in society can advance and ensuring that we can have robust and supportive communities means that we must re-think our criminal justice system and re-think what it means to be a criminal.