Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge in sociology and communication theory that examines the development of jointly-constructed understandings of the world that form the basis for shared assumptions about reality. The theory centers on the notion that meanings are developed in coordination with others rather than separately within each individual.
Social constructionism questions what is defined by humans and society to be reality. Therefore, social constructs can be different based on the society and the events surrounding the time period in which they exist. An example of a social construct is money or the concept of currency, as people in society have agreed to give it importance/value. Another example of a social construction is the concept of self/self-identity. Charles Cooley stated based on his looking-glass self theory: "I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am." This demonstrates how people in society construct ideas or concepts that may not exist without the existence of people or language to validate those concepts.
There are weak and strong social constructs. Weak social constructs rely on brute facts (which are fundamental facts that are difficult to explain or understand, such as quarks) or institutional facts (which are formed from social conventions). Strong social constructs rely on the human perspective and knowledge that does not just exist, but is rather constructed by society.
A social construct or construction concerns the meaning, notion, or connotation placed on an object or event by a society, and adopted by the inhabitants of that society with respect to how they view or deal with the object or event. In that respect, a social construct as an idea would be widely accepted as natural by the society.
A major focus of social constructionism is to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the construction of their perceived social reality. It involves looking at the ways social phenomena are developed, institutionalized, known, and made into tradition by humans.
In terms of background, social constructionism is rooted in "symbolic interactionism" and "phenomenology." With Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality published in 1966, this concept found its hold. More than four decades later, much theory and research pledged itself to the basic tenet that people "make their social and cultural worlds at the same time these worlds make them." It is a viewpoint that uproots social processes "simultaneously playful and serious, by which reality is both revealed and concealed, created and destroyed by our activities." It provides a substitute to the "Western intellectual tradition" where the researcher "earnestly seeks certainty in a representation of reality by means of propositions."
In social constructionist terms, "taken-for-granted realities" are cultivated from "interactions between and among social agents;" furthermore, reality is not some objective truth "waiting to be uncovered through positivist scientific inquiry." Rather, there can be "multiple realities that compete for truth and legitimacy." Social constructionism understands the "fundamental role of language and communication" and this understanding has "contributed to the linguistic turn" and more recently the "turn to discourse theory." The majority of social constructionists abide by the belief that "language does not mirror reality; rather, it constitutes [creates] it."
A broad definition of social constructionism has its supporters and critics in the organizational sciences. A constructionist approach to various organizational and managerial phenomena appear to be more commonplace and on the rise.
Andy Lock and Tomj Strong trace some of the fundamental tenets of social constructionism back to the work of the 18th-century Italian political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist Giambattista Vico.
According to Lock and Strong, other influential thinkers whose work has affected the development of social constructionism are: Edmund Husserl, Alfred Schutz, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Jürgen Habermas, Emmanuel Levinas, Mikhail Bakhtin, Valentin Volosinov, Lev Vygotsky, George Herbert Mead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gregory Bateson, Harold Garfinkel, Erving Goffman, Anthony Giddens, Michel Foucault, Ken Gergen, Mary Gergen, Rom Harre, and John Shotter.
Personal construct psychology
Since its appearance in the 1950s, personal construct psychology (PCP) has mainly developed as a constructivist theory of personality and a system of transforming individual meaning-making processes, largely in therapeutic contexts. It was based around the notion of persons as scientists who form and test theories about their worlds. Therefore, it represented one of the first attempts to appreciate the constructive nature of experience and the meaning persons give to their experience. Social constructionism (SC), on the other hand, mainly developed as a form of a critique, aimed to transform the oppressing effects of the social meaning-making processes. Over the years, it has grown into a cluster of different approaches, with no single SC position. However, different approaches under the generic term of SC are loosely linked by some shared assumptions about language, knowledge, and reality.
A usual way of thinking about the relationship between PCP and SC is treating them as two separate entities that are similar in some aspects, but also very different in others. This way of conceptualizing this relationship is a logical result of the circumstantial differences of their emergence. In subsequent analyses these differences between PCP and SC were framed around several points of tension, formulated as binary oppositions: personal/social; individualist/relational; agency/structure; constructivist/constructionist. Although some of the most important issues in contemporary psychology are elaborated in these contributions, the polarized positioning also sustained the idea of a separation between PCP and SC, paving the way for only limited opportunities for dialogue between them.
Reframing the relationship between PCP and SC may be of use in both the PCP and the SC communities. On one hand, it extends and enriches SC theory and points to benefits of applying the PCP “toolkit” in constructionist therapy and research. On the other hand, the reframing contributes to PCP theory and points to new ways of addressing social construction in therapeutic conversations.
Like social constructionism, social constructivism states that people work together to construct artifacts. While social constructionism focuses on the artifacts that are created through the social interactions of a group, social constructivism focuses on an individual's learning that takes place because of his or her interactions in a group.
Social constructivism has been studied by many educational psychologists, who are concerned with its implications for teaching and learning. For more on the psychological dimensions of social constructivism, see the work of Ernst von Glasersfeld and A. Sullivan Palincsar.
Systemic therapy is a form of psychotherapy which seeks to address people as people in relationship, dealing with the interactions of groups and their interactional patterns and dynamics.
History and development
Berger and Luckmann
Constructionism became prominent in the U.S. with Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's 1966 book, The Social Construction of Reality. Berger and Luckmann argue that all knowledge, including the most basic, taken-for-granted common sense knowledge of everyday reality, is derived from and maintained by social interactions. When people interact, they do so with the understanding that their respective perceptions of reality are related, and as they act upon this understanding their common knowledge of reality becomes reinforced. Since this common sense knowledge is negotiated by people, human typifications, significations and institutions come to be presented as part of an objective reality, particularly for future generations who were not involved in the original process of negotiation. For example, as parents negotiate rules for their children to follow, those rules confront the children as externally produced "givens" that they cannot change. Berger and Luckmann's social constructionism has its roots in phenomenology. It links to Heidegger and Edmund Husserl through the teaching of Alfred Schutz, who was also Berger's PhD adviser.
During the 1970s and 1980s, social constructionist theory underwent a transformation as constructionist sociologists engaged with the work of Michel Foucault and others as a narrative turn in the social sciences was worked out in practice. This particularly affected the emergent sociology of science and the growing field of science and technology studies. In particular, Karin Knorr-Cetina, Bruno Latour, Barry Barnes, Steve Woolgar, and others used social constructionism to relate what science has typically characterized as objective facts to the processes of social construction, with the goal of showing that human subjectivity imposes itself on those facts we take to be objective, not solely the other way around. A particularly provocative title in this line of thought is Andrew Pickering's Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics. At the same time, Social Constructionism shaped studies of technology – the Sofield, especially on the Social construction of technology, or SCOT, and authors as Wiebe Bijker, Trevor Pinch, Maarten van Wesel, etc. Despite its common perception as objective, mathematics is not immune to social constructionist accounts. Sociologists such as Sal Restivo and Randall Collins, mathematicians including Reuben Hersh and Philip J. Davis, and philosophers including Paul Ernest have published social constructionist treatments of mathematics.
Social constructionism can be seen as a source of the postmodern movement, and has been influential in the field of cultural studies. Some have gone so far as to attribute the rise of cultural studies (the cultural turn) to social constructionism. Within the social constructionist strand of postmodernism, the concept of socially constructed reality stresses the ongoing mass-building of worldviews by individuals in dialectical interaction with society at a time. The numerous realities so formed comprise, according to this view, the imagined worlds of human social existence and activity, gradually crystallized by habit into institutions propped up by language conventions, given ongoing legitimacy by mythology, religion and philosophy, maintained by therapies and socialization, and subjectively internalized by upbringing and education to become part of the identity of social citizens.
In the book The Reality of Social Construction, the British sociologist Dave Elder-Vass places the development of social constructionism as one outcome of the legacy of postmodernism. He writes "Perhaps the most widespread and influential product of this process [coming to terms with the legacy of postmodernism] is social constructionism, which has been booming [within the domain of social theory] since the 1980s."
Social constructionism falls toward the nurture end of the spectrum of the larger nature and nurture debate. Consequently, critics have argued that it generally ignores the contribution made by physical and biological sciences. It particularly denies the influences of biology on behaviour and culture, or suggests that they are unimportant to achieve an understanding of human behaviour. The view of most psychologists and social scientists is that behaviour is a complex outcome of both biological and cultural influences.
In 1996, to illustrate what he believed to be the intellectual weaknesses of social constructionism and postmodernism, physics professor Alan Sokal submitted an article to the academic journal Social Text deliberately written to be incomprehensible but including phrases and jargon typical of the articles published by the journal. The submission, which was published, was an experiment to see if the journal would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions." In 1999, Sokal, with coauthor Jean Bricmont published the book Fashionable Nonsense, which criticized postmodernism and social constructionism.
Philosopher Paul Boghossian has also written against social constructionism. He follows Ian Hacking's argument that many adopt social constructionism because of its potentially liberating stance: if things are the way that they are only because of our social conventions, as opposed to being so naturally, then it should be possible to change them into how we would rather have them be. He then states that social constructionists argue that we should refrain from making absolute judgements about what is true and instead state that something is true in the light of this or that theory. Countering this, he states:
But it is hard to see how we might coherently follow this advice. Given that the propositions which make up epistemic systems are just very general propositions about what absolutely justifies what, it makes no sense to insist that we abandon making absolute particular judgements about what justifies what while allowing us to accept absolute general judgements about what justifies what. But in effect this is what the epistemic relativist is recommending.
Woolgar and Pawluch argue that constructionists tend to 'ontologically gerrymander' social conditions in and out of their analysis.
Social constructionism has been criticized for having an overly narrow focus on society and culture as a causal factor in human behavior, excluding the influence of innate biological tendencies, by psychologists such as Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate as well as by Asian Studies scholar Edward Slingerland in What Science Offers the Humanities. John Tooby and Leda Cosmides used the term "standard social science model" to refer to social-science philosophies that they argue fail to take into account the evolved properties of the brain.
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