Constructing Social Reality
Although an understanding of the AIDS controversies demands broad attention to science, medicine, the professions, social movements, and the media, my employment of the various theories and concepts from these literatures does reflect an underlying commonality. In each case, I am concerned with theoretical perspectives that emphasize the active, collective, and competitive construction of the social world: how do individuals and groups diagnose social problems and propose solutions?
The notion of "framing" is used commonly as a metaphor to describe the constructive dimension in different arenas of social practice—a metaphor that resonates clearly with conceptions of claims-making and translation in science studies. Frames are "principles of selection, emphasis, and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters." Frames impose order upon experience—but never arbitrarily or neutrally. Todd Gitlin provides the telling example of reporters' use of the crime story as a frame for understanding political protest. Charles Rosenberg has analyzed how diseases come to be framed, in particular through attributions of causality and blame, and he describes how diseases, once framed, can then serve as frames for the organization of other social phenomena (as when for example we speak of "social lepers" or "computer viruses"). And somewhat similarly, analysts of "social problems" describe the role of claims-making in the genesis of "typifications"—the identification by an actor of the true "nature" of some problem and its "typical" manifestations—and in the assertion of group "ownership" over various social issues and how these issues are defined and conceived.
Analogously, as the promoters of a "dramaturgical" model of social movement activism have usefully contended, social movements are not simply "carriers" or "transmitters" of ideology but are fundamentally and necessarily engaged in the framing of reality. Social movements seek to "frame, or assign meaning to and interpret, relevant events
and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, to garner bystander support, and to demobilize antagonists." Frames serve as "accenting devices" that underscore the seriousness of movement claims, they promote the attribution of blame and causality, and they help activists to "align" events and experiences into digestible "packages."
Each of these perspectives is useful in understanding the varied contributions of the key players in the construction of credible knowledge about AIDS. To engage in the politics of knowledge, individuals and groups must be able to present themselves as credible representatives of social interests and engage in the framing of reality through techniques of representation. They must be able to mobilize a constituency by framing or translating issues and interests in ways that attract adherents. And they must succeed in constructing enabling identities with relatively well-defined boundaries. Different actors will seek to frame AIDS, or construct knowledge, or assert their claims to expertise in quite different ways depending in part on their interests, their social locations, and the organizations to which they belong. By means of these framings, credible knowledge is both assembled and taken apart.
This review of the claims-making practices of scientists, professionals, activists, and the mainstream and alternative media confirms that, indeed, "there is no limit to the considerations that might be relevant to securing credibility…." Credibility, as I use the term, rests on the dual supports of power and trust. On one hand, credibility is both a stake and a weapon in the skirmishes between all those who are in competition to say what the world is like. On the other hand, credibility is the mechanism for forging durable relationships within which knowledge can reliably be exchanged. The construction of credibility is thus simultaneously an outcome of the competing forces brought to bear in struggles and a marker of the thickening of social ties.
The achievement of credibility can be demonstrated by its real-world consequences: Are claims accepted or rejected in different fields? What language is used to qualify or characterize scientific claims (there is a huge difference between "Many scientists believe that AIDS is caused by a virus called HIV" and "HIV, the AIDS virus, …")? Are the evaluative capacities of different actors acknowledged or disputed? Who is successful in bringing controversies to closure, and who has the capacity to reopen them? Do the rules of credibility assessment remain fixed, or do they shift in response to struggle?
And crucially, what actions are taken or policies implemented on the basis of credibility granted to claims or to claims-makers?