Literally what is anything, and also is anything real?

This week, we read the (extremely bizarre) piece, “Death and Furniture: the rhetoric, politics and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism” (Edwards, Ashmore, & Potter, 1995). In this article, the authors lay out a defense of relativism and in particular a rebuttal to two core arguments in favor of (at least weak) positivism: the existence of physical objects (i.e., furniture) and the existence of human suffering (i.e., death).

In a stunning coincidence, I have read defenses of post-modern approaches and variants of relativism in every class this week. Such is the academy, I suppose. In fact, I may have overdosed: I confess that I can no longer really make sense of anything.

I certainly don’t have to be talked into at least a weak form of relativism. Consider sex and gender. Queer scholars (and queer people in general) might argue that gender is a social construction. But some would draw the line at sex being a social construction; it is a biological “reality” that exists independently of what we name it. It appears that Edwards et al. (1995) would argue against this in a handful of ways.  Let me pause and summarize their point about tables.

Edwards et al. tell us a story about a person (more specifically, the hypothetical realist) hitting a table in an effort to illustrate the “thereness” of the table, its non-constructed character. Short of the fact that the table is only a table (rather than, for example, a series of particles) because of an agreed-upon construction, they ask, “How exactly is this demonstration, here and now, supposed to stand for the table’s continuing existence, then and later, and for all the other tables, walls, rocks, ad infinitum, universally and generally?” which is sort of fine.

In this sense then the biological sex is a “perceptual category” and the difference between the physical objects is only made meaningful in social work. This is just one of many partial rebuttals and is actually a “weak” relativism because it grants the existence of the genitals but argues that their meaning is what is constructed.

There is something significant, then, about referencing two objects, claiming that what is true of one is true of the other (for example, that all ovaries are somehow comparable or that the table you bang your hand on extrapolates to some other table somewhere else). In assuming that the argument for one object extends to another, you are necessarily arguing that the two things have some sort of similarity, and in my view that similarity is in turn necessarily a property of the human rather than the objects. Ontologically, how can two things be the same in some “objective” sense? They have to occupy two different physical spaces anyway which gives them some difference. We decide that that difference is irrelevant, which is precisely my point – we decide that. So perhaps a realist could argue about the reality of one thing but as Edwards et al. (1995) emphasize, his argument, if it’s good at all, is only good for exactly that one thing at that time.

Alright so maybe biological sex isn’t “really there” but a queer person might position it that way in order to rhetorically draw a distinction between it and the more obvious social construction of gender. In thinking through what a hypothetical queer person might do, I am channeling my inner ethnomethodologist. How does the realist/relativist argument show up in every day talk? Certainly the scientific/empirical IR example is one way. But this might be another common contrast.

Which circles us to the question of:     W  H  O      C  A  R  E  S. These debates go on and their implications are mostly methodological/theoretical, which is to say, academic. How do they affect lay people who go about their lives? Well this is where the ethnomethodological example of my hypothetical queer person is enacted. When people make rhetorical arguments for and against things they frequently draw upon the very “thereness” of certain things which  as an argument – as Edwards et al. point out – is hard to argue against. (Also, as a sidebar, they say that the point is academic but we are academics so that’s fine.) This means that realist positions can be used to justify inequities and exert power (there is no doubt in my mind that relativist positions can do that too – but discursively as objects of talk they function differently, which is to say, “gender is socially constructed” is not used as the end of an argument in the same way “gender is out there and pre-existing” is [although in truth it surely could be used this way – “everything is socially constructed so your point is invalid!” {although Edwards et al. point this out and say that “far from ruling out the possibility of justification of a particular view, relativism insists upon it” (1995, p. 39, emphasis original)}]). But here we move from realism as an ontology to realism as a rhetorical device.

This leaves a handful of questions going forward:

  • Do we need to distinguish between realism as an ontology and realism as a rhetorical device (i.e., a “discursive feature” drawn upon in the same way as the 3-part list)? On the one hand, yes, because the first is fundamentally a worldview/a theoretical position and the second is a thing that we would call attention to when doing analysis. But on the other hand, no, because Edwards et al.’s (1995) chief argument against realism is that the object a realist calls upon to defend realism is itself a rhetorical device, claiming that realism the ontology and realism the rhetorical device are more or less the same.
  • Leaving DA for a second, is all quantitative work necessarily realist/positivist? In other words, what does relativist/social constructionist quantitative work look like?
  • If we treat learning as a social construction, (how) can we (still) analyze if someone did learn? Again, yes and no. Yes because it is false that “rejecting realism is the same thing as rejecting everything that realists think is real” (p. 34) – we need not say that learning is “out there” for us to find in order to analyze a person’s interaction. Alternatively, learning is interaction and so is still a valid object of analysis in a postmodern world. But no because if learning trades upon this idea of objectively “more” knowledge, that is rejected by social constructionism (and this relies on a very narrow definition of learning that is not embraced by all learning researchers).
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One thought on “Literally what is anything, and also is anything real?

  1. Are you serious that you read articles on relativism across your courses?!? Bizarre! And, I love you ‘read’ of this piece. This is my favorite part of your posts: “WHO CARES?” And then this…”This means that realist positions can be used to justify inequities and exert power (there is no doubt in my mind that relativist positions can do that too – but discursively as objects of talk they function differently, which is to say, “gender is socially constructed” is not used as the end of an argument in the same way “gender is out there and pre-existing” is [although in truth it surely could be used this way – “everything is socially constructed so your point is invalid!””

    This is really insightful and I think this is something we don’t talk about enough. We like to stay in the abstract without noting that what we are negotiating here are ascribed identities, positions, etc. In my work around dis/ability, I often center much of my “so what-ness” around the ‘shrinking pool of normality’ and the consequences for assuming that something like a ‘disabled mind’ is inherent and not resting (or not) at the intersection of biology and culture. Anyway, your post is spot on. AND, one other thing…I need to ask around but I’ve always felt like this paper was written directly to someone who questioned the assumptions of Edwards and colleagues — and it was a defense back. And, as defenses often go, it reads as such…

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