In 1869 Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published the first version of the modern periodic table of elements in which he classified chemical elements according to the number of protons in their atoms. It is a fascinating tool to categorize and organize chemical elements. Elements which share similar physical characteristics and chemical behavior are put together in groups, periods, and blocks to make it easier for students of chemistry and scientists to work with them. As a student of social sciences, I would like in this post to give some reflections about the implications of organizing elements in this particular way.
Obviously there isn’t a single way of organizing chemical elements into a table. Before Mendeleev designed his table, there had already been other periodic tables. Mendeleev’s way of organizing the elements in a nice-looking table might be the best and the most convenient; but after all it is a matter of convention and it happened that his version was the one that gained wide recognition in the scientific community. My question is: Had Mendeleev’s organized the elements in his namesake table in a different way, would their chemical behavior and physical characteristics have changed?
I mean, has each element accepted its “apartment” happily without any problems? Have there been any complaints from hydrogen, for example, that he is alone in his floor without any neighbors? Or didn’t oxygen feel annoyed with his nasty neighbors, such as chlorine, sulfur, and fluorine? Haven’t there been any attempts by some elements to change their slot by stealing protons from other elements or giving away some of their protons to those who need it?
Maybe some members of the alkali metal group (such as sodium and lithium) felt that the label “metal” is causing some pressure on them to act “tough” and “hard” while in actual fact they are soft substances that can be melted on a house cooker or cut with a knife? Maybe some of them are comfortable with the way they are, but others are trying hard to conform to the sturdy image the word “metal” implies by not giving it up quickly and holding their atoms together when subjected to heat, so that they don’t melt so easily? Maybe some elements believe that they have aristocratic roots and hence have the right to join the poshy group of the noble gases? Or alternatively maybe one of the “noble” gases hates this label, because of its association with being chemically inactive and lazy? Maybe, maybe, maybe… it can go forever!
By now you must be thinking I’m either stupid or joking. Well, I’m neither. I’m actually trying to make a serious argument here about how classification and categorization work differently in “hard” sciences (e.g. chemistry, physics, geology, etc.) and “soft” sciences (i.e. social science in general including psychology, history, and economics as well as sociology).
Of course, no sane person would claim that the classification of elements into a periodic table in a certain way can have any influence whatsoever on their characteristics. So there isn’t any problem here. There is a problem, however, which is that many people, including many of those who do social science, think that the same logic applies to systems of classification about the social world.
Most people think that by collecting and analyzing data about individuals and their behavior one can create something like a table consisting of groups and blocks (just like the periodic table of Mendeleev) and fit individuals, groups, institutions, or patterns of behavior within it. So far, so good. There is nothing wrong about that, but it becomes wrong when you think that it ends here; that this system of classification does not have an impact on the things it classifies. This is the point that many people miss. Even some of the greatest names in social sciences that have ever lived didn’t appreciate that what they were doing was not just studying society, but changing it, whether they intended that or not. It is only recently—in the past 3 decades or so—that social science has started to realize its reflexive nature thanks to the writings of such leading figures in contemporary sociology as Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash, and Ulrich Beck among others.
British sociologist Anthony Giddens considers reflexivity to be one of the defining features of modernity. He believes that it is in the very nature of modernity to continuously reflect on social life and generate knowledge about it, which in turn re-enters society and alters it. In modern societies, social relations are constantly being ordered and reordered in view of continual inputs of knowledge about them.
Previously, Social sciences were primarily understood as instruments of measurement applied to a passive subject matter (just like the periodic table is applied to chemical elements). Giddens singles out Karl Marx among classical social scientists for having the insight that “the findings of social science cannot just be applied to an inert subject matter, but have to be filtered through the self-understandings of social agents.” (The Consequences of Modernity, p. 15), but still finds this insight to be short of appreciating the true reflexive role played by social sciences in modernity. Giddens considers social sciences to be no less than the lenses through which modern societies look at themselves: “Modernity is itself deeply and intrinsically sociological” (ibid, p. 43).
It must be noted that “doing” social science is not limited to social scientists. Under the conditions of modernity, Giddens affirms, all people have learned to appropriate the terminology and categories of social science and “think sociologically.” Reflexivity is not something that only policy makers and social scientists do; it is almost an everyday activity that virtually all people in modern societies do. It is, as Giddens puts it, “wholesale reflexivity.”
The notion of the reflexivity of social sciences, of course, has some serious epistemological consequences for social sciences. Owen Flanagan has explained how the three main tasks of a social scientist (explanation, prediction and control) become complicated with reflexivity. For example, predictions about economic indicators affect what people want to do with their savings and investments, which can lead to changes in the economy itself, new predictions, and so forth. This makes the world seem fuzzy, unstable, and hard to understand. “The point is not that there is no stable social world to know,” writes Giddens, “but that knowledge of that world contributes to its unstable or mutable character” (ibid, p. 45).
To illustrate my point about how social knowledge changes its subject matter and vice versa I will use Facebook’s recent decision to allow its users in some counties to choose from 50 options to identify their gender. Just a quick note before I talk about this issue: I don’t want here to talk about Facebook’s intentions, and I’m not trying to say anything about that. This is irrelevant for the purposes of my argument here. In social science actions are judged by their effects, not intentions. I’m also not trying to judge whether this step is good or bad. This is too irrelevant for my argument. You can view what Facebook has done as a wonderful act that leads to a greater understanding of diversity and difference or you may decry it as an immoral act that damages that fabric of society. It is not my intention at all to say anything normative. My intention is only to comment on the sociological implications of this act.
Obviously many people were surprised to hear that there could be as much as 50 categories for gender. Most people have never heard of most of these categories. For example, how many of you have heard of the term “cisgender” before or know its meaning? Maybe there were already people who have used it as a gender identity before Facebook adopted it, but I am fairly certain that it is for the vast majority of people it is a totally new term of which they hear for the first time. Of course, the fact that people have never heard of them or don’t know their meanings does not mean that they don’t “exist.” But how they had “existed” before Facebook brought them to the attention of the wide public is not going to be the same after that.
Let us assume that the category “cisgender,” for example, is the outcome of rigorous psychological and gender studies and that it has a very clear and specific definition on which all practitioners in related fields agree (social scientists never agree or anything, but let’s assume they do in this case). The question is: How Facebook users are going to use this category? When a user decides that their gender is cisgender male/man/female/woman, on what basis are they making their decision? Do they have a manual to explain it to them? Or are they going to submit a certificate from an accredited psychological clinic confirming the accuracy of their choice?
It’s in actual fact entirely up to them to decide whether it applies to them or not, which basically means that we can’t assume that all people who are going to choose it are going to do so using the same criteria. Maybe some of them will misunderstand it; maybe they will choose it just because it is “cool;” or maybe they will adopt it in defiance of their families or social environment.
What is more, thanks to Facebook, this term, which was obscure for the public, has entered public discourse now, so people started talking about it, discussing it, and making definitions of it. They might have disagreements and enter into arguments. The term is no longer the property of psychologists and gender specialists; it is now literary in the public domain floating over the social media, cafes, streets, etc. moving from one tongue to the other. No one now can see how the term “cisgender” or any other term in Facebook’s genders list is going to mean 10, 20, or 50 years from now.
By comparison, no matter how much people talk about magnesium, its properties are not going to change and its place in the periodic table is going to stay the same. The general public don’t have any authority over how to place elements in the periodic table. There are universities, research centers, and scientific academies which decide such matters. But for gender identities, there isn’t anything as such. People are free in Facebook to choose what they like, re-define it, and appropriate in the way they find suitable to them (Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that only scientists may decide which term applies to the gender identity of a person; I’m just trying to point out that when these terms enter public discussions, they become ultimately subject to change).
This doesn’t only lead to a change in meanings of terms, but to changes in gender identity itself. Changing the vocabulary of talking about gender changes gender identity and behavior, and vice versa. It is a reflexive process in which the term changes the subject and the subject changes the term. This is modernity. In fact, we are living now in late modernity; when modernity and its reflexivity are taken to the extreme (as Giddens contends).