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The Social Misconstruction of Reality

The Social Misconstruction of Reality: Validity and Verification in the Scholarly Community

Richard F. Hamilton
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Social Misconstruction of Reality
    Book Description:

    From the time of the ancient Greeks, thinkers have known the earth is round. Yet popular legend has persisted that Columbus proved this fact for the first time, and scholarship abounds with similar perpetuated errors. Why do social misconstructions-widely shared, long-lasting acceptance of facts or interpretations that are mistaken-persist when ample evidence is readily available to counter them? How and why are corrections resisted or dismissed? In this provocative book Richard F. Hamilton examines the social determinants of knowledge, focusing on three well-accepted but erroneous social theories and looking closely at the ways social misconstructions originate and thrive.Hamilton finds that despite critiques by historians, some scholars continue to believe Max Weber's claim that a strong linkage between Protestantism and worldly success led to the rise of the capitalist West. Similarly, many academics still argue the discredited view that the German lower middle class voted overwhelmingly for the Nazis. Foucault's flawed interpretation of the "birth of prison" and other disciplinary concepts in modern society finds wide acceptance in many academic circles, despite a lack of serious empirical support. In each of these three cases, the author assesses the logic and empirical accuracy of the accepted theory and alternative theories, and he investigates the social processes giving rise to misconstructions. He finds a remarkable disparity between the presumed commitment of scholars to evidence and their easy acceptance of undocumented argument. His book sounds a clear alert to the academic community.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14602-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. 1 On Social Misconstructions
    (pp. 1-20)

    The expression “social misconstruction,” as used here, refers to a collective error, to a widespread agreement about facts or interpretation that is mistaken. A range of examples will be reviewed in this work, all of which have three distinct features: they involve errors, mistakes, or misreading of evidence; the errors have been widely accepted; and they have persisted over many years.

    The examples vary considerably in importance. Some might best be described as curiosities in that nothing remarkable follows from recognition of the error. The duke of Wellington, it is reported, assigned unusual importance to “the playing fields of Eton.”...

  6. 2 Mozart’s Poverty, Wellington’s Epigram
    (pp. 21-31)

    A persistent social misconstruction appears in most accounts of the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The well-known history involves a range of factual elements that are organized in terms of an underlying theory. The basic portrait has been summed up by a recent biographer, Volkmar Braunbehrens: “Mozart, the wunderkind celebrated throughout Europe, a child showered with gifts by the empress, the pope, kings, and princes, was a forgotten man when he died at thirty-five and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Thus, with many variations, has Wolfgang Mozart’s life always been presented to us: as a brilliant rise to...

  7. 3 Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic
    (pp. 32-106)

    This chapter will consider Max Weber’s most famous work,The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In the opening pages, Weber presents evidence to show the connection between Protestantism and various measures of economic achievement in the late nineteenth century. He also provides some judgments about the weight that should be assigned to this causal factor. His conclusions, in brief, are that a religious impact was present in the late nineteenth century, readily observable and easily documented, and that it was of primary importance in explaining individual outlooks and behavior. His subsequent larger argument reaches back to cover several...

  8. 4 Hitler’s Electoral Support
    (pp. 107-145)

    On 30 January 1933, Germany’s president, Paul von Hindenburg, named Adolf Hitler as the nation’s chancellor. The naming of Hitler was made possible by a remarkable series of electoral victories. Hitler’s party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (nsdap), had gained less than 3 percent of the vote in May 1928. In September 1930, they took 18 percent of the total. Two years later, in July 1932, they jumped to 37 percent and became the nation’s largest party. It was one of the most rapid electoral changes in the entire modern era.

    The leading explanation for the National Socialist electoral...

  9. 5 The Lower-Middle-Class Thesis
    (pp. 146-170)

    This chapter will review and discuss some of the larger issues posed by the lower-middle-class explanation for the rise of Nazism. It will consider, briefly, the origins of the argument and will review a range of subsequent presentations. Since the specific concern is with the social misconstruction problem, special attention will be given to the character of the support provided in the various formulations of the basic position. Most of the examples to be considered are based on the experience of Weimar Germany but, because the argument is a general one, some of the cases will involve applications of the...

  10. 6 Michel Foucault: The Disciplinary Society
    (pp. 171-196)

    In his bookDiscipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault offers a stunning revisionist account of the history of punishment. The traditional reading, found in standard textbooks, saw the reforms instituted over the last two centuries as progress. Liberals everywhere had condemned the entire array of old regime punishments, the torture and forced confessions, the stocks, the lash, branding, cutting off of ears, and so on. The sweeping use of the death penalty (Britain had 350 capital offences in 1780) was further proof of the moral bankruptcy of the old regimes, especially when grotesque tortures preceded the...

  11. 7 Some Problems of Intellectual Life
    (pp. 197-216)

    The previous chapters have reviewed and assessed three major theoretical statements. Each of the statements purports to be realistic, offering a documented, empirically supported account that describes and explains some complex events. On investigation, however, that support proved somewhat problematic.

    Max Weber constructed an argument linking a religious ethic with a subsequent capitalist spirit. The argument was based on an enormous range of sources, the “density” of his documentation being among the greatest in all of modern scholarship. On closer examination, that evidence proved to be surprisingly weak. The bold claims of the opening pages, signaling the difficulty, prove to...

  12. 8 Social Misconstruction, Validity, and Verification
    (pp. 217-224)

    As a counter to misconceived wisdom, one way of building the Cartesian principle, doubt or skepticism, into one’s thinking is to assume the opposite.¹ On first hearing a claim, one should, as a didactic exercise, negate it and then ask, Can I defend, justify, or support the negation? The result might not be a full-scale confrontation, but a small-detail emendation, a specification, is itself an addition to our knowledge and understanding.

    A second recommendation, a remedy for the groupthink problem, is to give more systematic attention to alternative theories. This is something that should be done by individual researchers themselves....

  13. Notes
    (pp. 225-286)
  14. Index
    (pp. 287-289)