In "Ontology and Social Construction," Sally Haslanger resists the inclination to take the concept of social construction to its eventual dead end, which is cultural relativism. Instead, she makes a case for "independent realism" in association with social construction. What does she mean? How does she propose we address the idea of an "objective reality"?
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In her article titled "Ontology and Social Construction," scholar Sally Haslanger sets out to point out all of the problems with considering all of reality to be socially constructed and instead proposes that we construct an alternative ontology, meaning an alternative understanding of existence.
She points out that the greatest problem we can attribute to the theory of social construction is that it assumes everything in existence "is a human artifact," meaning a man-made object, created by our ability to simply categorize based on our social understandings. She points out that this is of course an absurd notion; "not everything is so responsive to our activities, much less simply our activities of naming" (p. 104). Hence, if not everything can be understood simply based on social construction, then that means there must be some things we can accept as having a reality independent of our social understanding.
In arguing that there are things in this world that have independent reality, she further rejects the conclusion of cultural relativism. Those who argue for social constructivism must also see all truth as relative because all truth and knowledge are only products of society. Instead of favoring cultural relativism, she proposes viewing some things as based on independent reality. The trick, however, is in identifying exactly what independent reality can justifiably mean.
There are those who argue that if independent reality does exist, it's not necessarily knowable since human beings will always have an imperfect knowledge of truth, because through social interaction, they will always change reality, and Haslanger acknowledges this problem. However, she moves past it by arguing that claiming there is an independent reality is not the same as claiming that a reality can exist that is knowable, that is "untouched by the actions of human beings" (p. 104). Instead, we can continue to acknowledge that elements of society will continue to construct reality. In fact, she asserts that reality is socially constructed with respect to the "distinction between real and unreal" and even with respect to all distinctions (p. 105). Though all of those distinctions are weak, their weaknesses do not exclude the understanding that "our distinctions are accurately capturing genuine--and independent--facts" (p. 105).
Hence, she is ultimately arguing that to say independent reality exists is not the same as saying that the independent reality can be known, nor is it the same as claiming that independent reality will not be changed by human actions; however, it does allow for the existence of independent facts even if those facts can't fully be known. To justify this claim, she points out that it is "possible to have true belief that is not knowledge" (p. 106). Furthermore, since independent reality cannot fully be known, we cannot claim there is objective reality, because we must fully know reality before we can see it as objective, fully independent of ourselves.
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