Social Construction Done Right: Hacking on MPD and Autism

Ian Hacking is amazing. A difficult to classify philosopher of science, historian and social theorist, Hacking has studied the classification of people for a few decades. Before that, he wrote two influential books on the history of probability and statistics, along with an excellent introductory philosophy of natural science text (“Representing and Intervening“) and a textbook on logic and probability. In the 1980s, Hacking coined the phrase “making up people” to describe how the human sciences (a broad category going from sociology to medicine and psychiatry) makes up kinds of people. These categories exhibit “looping effects” – the people categorized are affected by the categorization, change their behaviors, and in turn produce changes in the category. In other words, by naming a group of people “multiple personality”, “autistic”, “child abuser” and so on, the people in that category change, and in turn the rules for the category change. But not just naming – for Hacking, inspired by Goffman on one hand and Foucault on the other, these looping effects involve concrete institutions, knowledge-producing experts, governments, families, the individuals classified, and so on.

In a relatively recent piece, “Kinds of People” (pdf link), Hacking summarizes and updates his 2+ decades of thinking on looping effects and human kinds (a phrase he now disfavors). I recommend the whole article as it’s an excellent introduction to Hacking’s insight, and his lucid writing. I hope to borrow some of that when I write my own work on the making up of certain kinds, and looping effects (but kinds of economies, not individuals). Hacking argues that although every case of the making up of a kind of people will be different, they will generally involve five interactive elements: classification, people, institutions, knowledge, and experts. Any or all of these elements may shift in the history of a particularly kind of people – who the experts are, what kind of knowledge they produce, which institutions are in charge of producing knowledge or managing the classified, how the people themselves react to a classification, and the definition of the classification itself. Hacking calls this (here and in other places) a form of “dynamic nominalism” but one that does not overly emphasize the power of words themselves, but rather looks at the interactions between knowledge-produced, knowledge-producers, sites of knowledge production, the one we know about, etc. To explain more clearly what he means by the making up of a new kind of people, Hacking offers two possible translations of his assertion that multiple personality was made up as a new kind of person in the 1980s:

(A) There were no multiple personalities in 1955; there were many in 1985.

(B) In 1955 this was not a way to be a person, people did not experience themselves in this way, they did not interact with their friends, their families, their employers, their counsellors, in this way; but in 1985 this was a way to be a person, to experience oneself, to live in society. (Hacking 2007: 299)

Hacking goes on to say that A and B are both accurate, in his view of this example, but B is much more precise and useful, and opens up more productive lines of debate:

To see that A and B are different, an enthusiast for what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder will say that A is false, because people with several ‘alter personalities’ undoubtedly existed in 1955, but were not diagnosed. A sceptic will also say that A is false, but for exactly the opposite reason: multiple personality has always been a specious diagnosis, and there were no real multiples in 1985 either. The first statement, A, leads immediately to heated but pointless debates about the reality of multiple personality, on which I have spilt too much ink and to which I shall never again return. But open-minded opponents could peacefully agree to B. When I speak of making up people, it is B that I have in mind, and it is through B that the looping effect occurs. (Hacking 2007: 299)

Now that, I would argue, is what social construction arguments should look and sound like!* Interestingly, Hacking argues that the similar statement A for high-functioning autists would in fact be false, that there were high-functioning autists before the kind of people was made up, but that B would still be true. Before the diagnosis of autism, individuals we would now classify that way would have been categorized as some form of retard, or something similar, but given their symptoms, we would now unambiguously agree that they were autistic (I think). So, B would not hold, but A would.

In order to combat a potentially thin “diet of examples” (cf. Wittgenstein), Hacking goes on to discuss autism and obesity at length, along with the poverty line, genius and suicide. Hacking explores 10 “engines of discovery” that roughly characterize the modern construction of kinds of people, from counting to finding correlations to geneticization to bureaucratization and finally attempts to reclaim an identity by those classified. I won’t rehash that argument here; just check out the paper, it’s short and clear. Near the end of the essay, Hacking (drawing on Mills) points to a deeper logic in terms of why some stories of the making up of a kind of people are different from others. Hacking argues that the overweight share relatively little in common other than a BMI of 25-29 – they do not seem to have much in common “other than that they are rather plump” (314). In contrast, “Obese people may, however, have more in common than that they are fat – they tend to have shorter lives, to have diabetes, and the like. There may be subclasses of obese people who have a distinct biological cause for their having a Body Mass Index in the very high range.” (314) In other words, knowing that someone is classified as overweight tells you very little about any other relevant traits, and thus it is a somewhat shallow kind. Obesity, on the other hand, might be deeper (my terms, not Hacking’s), and may be more tightly connected to certain causal stories and important consequences. Hacking thus pushes us away from “natural kind” vs. “not”, to a spectrum of kinds of people that are always dynamically connected to the five elements listed above, and that may be more or less consequential for the categorized.

Finally, I wonder if the heated debate over the performativity of economics has some of the same features of the debate over the reality of multiple personality that Hacking here attempts to transcend. In any event, I think Hacking’s formulation is incredibly useful for doing the work of tracing the history of kinds of people and the looping effects of those kinds.

* Hacking himself has written a very famous critique/summary of social constructionist thinking, The Social Construction of What? The first chapter, “Why Ask What?” summarizes social construction arguments very simply, and suggests times when such arguments may be more or less useful.

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