Social Constructionism

views updated Jun 08 2018


Social constructionism (sometimes "constructivism") is a version of constructivism. The idea that human beings in some measure construct the reality they perceive can be found in many philosophical traditions. The pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophones, for instance, argued that humans construct gods in their own image (Fragment 16), a possibility that is also criticized in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious traditions (among others). But the idea that human beings epistemologically construct the reality they perceive is first given extended philosophical articulation in the work of Immanuel Kant (17241804). In the nineteenth century a constructivism of sorts emerged as political theory in the work of Karl Marx (18181883) and others. Then, in the twentieth century, constructivism took new forms in psychology, in sociology, and in science, technology, and society (STS) studies.

Constructivism in Psychology

A root form of social constructionism is found in psychological constructivism. Illuminating research by the British psychologist Frederick Bartlett (18861969) revealed how humans use prior knowledge to make sense of new phenomena. In his landmark study Remembering (1932), Bartlett presented an unfamiliar indigenous American folk tale to students at Cambridge University. Later each subject was asked to recall the story in as much detail as possible. Bartlett was able to show how each retelling was a unique reconstruction of the story rather than a reproduction of the original. Subjects tended to replace unfamiliar elements of the story with objects drawn from their own experience. Bartlett concluded that in coming to understand the story, his students tended to make use of pre-existing mental structures or schemata, which proved essential both for originally comprehending the story and for subsequent recall.

The notion of schemata is central as well to Jean Piaget's (18961980) theory of intelligence. The Swiss psychologist undertook pioneering work on childhood intellectual development. From years of careful observations of and conversations with children and watching them function in problem-solving activities, Piaget argued that cognitive development is an adaptive process of schema correction by means of assimilation and accommodation. We assimilate new information by fitting it within existing cognitive structures. Where preexisting schema cannot incorporate a new experience, we adjust our mental structures to accommodate them. For Piaget, learning is not a passive activity of replication and data storage but an active process of invention and creation. Piaget's resultant genetic epistemology describes how increasingly complex intellectual processes are built on top of more primitive structures in regularly occurring stages.

Lev Semyonovitch Vygotsky (18961934), a Piaget contemporary, also studied the cognitive development of children in Soviet Russia during the Stalin years and noted how children engaged in a problem-solving activity invariably speak about what they are doing. This led to his theory of speech as a means for making sense of the activity. Although children's use of tools during their preverbal period is comparable to that of apes, as soon as speech and signs are incorporated into any action, the action becomes transformed and organized along entirely new lines.

Language is thus central to complex reasoning and higher order thinking. Intelligence is the readiness to use culturally transmitted knowledge and practice as prostheses of the mind, and learning is inherently social; learned social speech becomes inner speech through development. Vygotsky came to believe that speech precedes thought and that human thought is a social phenomenon that develops from society to the individual. The idea that cognition emerges out of social activity is central to Vygotsky's work. This is also a view that has become at once widely adoptedbeing applied especially in educational theoryand controversial, especially various forms of cognitive psychology.

Social Constructionism in Social Theory

The American social philosopher George Herbert Mead (18631931) took constructivism into sociology with a theory of self consciousness as originating from social interaction. In his posthumously published Mind, Self, and Society (1934), Mead argued that personal identity is constructed through social relationships. In the context of play, for instance, children take on the roles of others, eventually learning to view themselves from the standpoint of a "generalized other." Children's games thus function as instruments for personal and social development, especially when children adopt attitudes of those who in some sense control them or on whom they depend. For Mead the self is a dialectical conversation between the "me" and the "I""me" being the social self and "I" the creative self that responds to the "me" in multiple contexts to form, over time, the ontogenic, historical image of one's self.

The theorists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann cite Mead as a major source for their seminal sociological text The Social Construction of Reality (1966). In this treatise, Berger and Luckmann extend Mead's ontogenetic observations on the self to include all phenomena that we encounter in a social world. They describe the dialectic relationship between the subjective reality of the individual and the objective reality of society that emerges in a universe of discourse that is continuously under construction. Through interaction and conversation with others, knowledge is internalized, then externalized, becoming at once a subjective perception and an objective reality. From such a process of socialization we construct our daily lives.

Much social constructionism implies some degree of subjectivism. From an analysis of intentionality and how it plays out in a social context, however, the philosopher John Searle (1995) has argued that socially constructed reality exhibits its own distinctive type of objectivity. Searle's realism distinguishes between "brute facts" that exist independently of what any humans think and "social facts" that depend on human thinking while being independent of what any one human thinks. Human beings construct a social reality through common intentions that assign functions to physical objects, as when a certain type of paper comes to be treated as money.

Social Constructionism in Science and Technology

Epistemological constructivism has taken special forms in the development of cybernetics, evolutionary epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics. But insofar as cybernetics moved from analyses of interactions between organisms and their physical environments to consideration of communication in a social environment, social cybernetics offered as well a science and a technology of social interactive constructions. Yet the cybernetic approach has been only marginally influential on social constructionism in general.

One of the most contested areas of social constructionism is not in science and technology but in studies about science and technology. Ludwik Fleck (1979) first proposed, in a controversial interpretation of the medical conceptualization of disease, that even some supposedly brute facts of science were socially constructed. This idea was picked up and developed by Thomas Kuhn (1962), which subsequently led to the development of a research program in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). The sociology of scientific institutions, as initiated by Robert K. Merton (19102003) in the 1930s, came under increasing criticism in the 1970s for its idealization of science and its failures to treat the production of scientific truth and falsity in a symmetrical manner. Drawing on the ideas from the later Ludwig Wittgenstein about the influence of language games and forms of life on human understanding, David Bloor (1983) and others proposed that social factors influenced not only the production of falsehood (a weak SSK program) but also any consensus about truth (the strong SSK program).

The SSK program in conceptual and analytic criticism was quickly complemented by empirical studies of laboratory practices and how such practices themselves contribute to the production of scientific knowledge. Employing ethnographic approaches, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979) and Karin Knorr Cetina (1981) argued that knowledge production is seldom the rational, linear process of hypothesis testing leading to article publication found in the standard image of science. Behind the scenes science is a mangle of practical skills, instrumental jiggering, personal relationships, interpretative debates, and consensus building that deploys a variety of rhetorical strategies to frame both problems and experimental results.

The full extent to which scientific knowledge is a social construction or laboratory productionand what this might imply for science, scientists, as science as a social institutionhas been subject to extensive debate in the so-called "science wars" between scientists and their social scientific critics. Among the most philosophically astute assessments of this research program and ensuing debate has been Ian Hacking's Social Construction of What? (1995).

The program for a parallel analysis of the social construction of technology (SCOT) has been almost as controversial as social constructivism applied to science, but for different reasons. As Louis Bucciarelli (1994) has shown with his ethnographic examination of the engineering design process, social and personal factors of all sorts readily influence engineering products, processes, and systems. The question is whether this means that those such as Jacques Ellul (1954) or Hans Jonas (1984) who have raised ethical and political questions about the dominance of modern technology in human affairs are simply mistaken in their worries. For proponents of SCOT or one of its related programs such as actor-network theory, critics have too often criticized technology as a kind of "black box" that they failed to examine in sufficient detail. But critics such as Langdon Winner (1994) have responded that "opening the black box" can also be an exercise in avoidance of more fundamental questions.

Relations between social constructivism in psychology, sociology, and STS deserve further examination. Moreover, arguments concerning the social construction of science and technology exhibit unexplored affinities with the pragmatic epistemologies of the "fixation of belief" (C. S. Peirce), the merger of science and technology in the general category of tools (John Dewey), and criticisms of strict empiricism (Willard van Orman Quine). Indeed, social constructivism presents a broad philosophical interpretation of personal and public life, from the epistemological to the ethical, in ways that will likely continue to exercise considerable influence in twenty-first century thought.

See also Constructivism and Conventionalism; Critical Theory; Dewey, John; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Kant, Immanuel; Kuhn, Thomas; Marx, Karl; Mead, George Herbert; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Personal Identity; Piaget, Jean; Psychology; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Searle, John; Social and Political Philosophy; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann; Xenophanes of Colophon.


Bartlett, Frederick. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1932.

Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Bloor, David. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Social Theory of Knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Bucciarelli, Louis L. Designing Engineers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Ellul, Jacques. La technique, ou l'enjeu du siècle. Paris: A. Colin, 1954. English translation: The Technological Society. Translated by J. Wilkerson. New York: Knopf, 1964.

Fleck, Ludwik. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, edited T. J. Trenn and R. K. Merton, 1935. Translated by F. Bradley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Jonas, Hans. Das Prinzip Verantwortung: Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation. Frankfurt: Insel Verlag, 1979. English translation: The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Translated by H. Jonas and D. Herr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Knorr Cetina, Karin. The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay on the Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1981.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1979.

Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self, and Society, edited by C. W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.

Piaget, Jean. Genetic Epistomology. Translated by E. Duckworth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

Piaget, Jean. The Construction of Reality in the Child. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955.

Searle, John. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Vygotsky, Lev S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, edited by M. Cole. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Winner, Langdon. "Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology." Science, Technology, and Human Values, 18, 362378.

Carl Mitcham (2005)

Martin Ryder (2005)

Social Constructs

views updated May 23 2018

Social Constructs


Social constructs or social constructions define meanings, notions, or connotations that are assigned to objects and events in the environment and to peoples notions of their relationships to and interactions with these objects. In the domain of social constructionist thought, a social construct is an idea or notion that appears to be natural and obvious to people who accept it but may or may not represent reality, so it remains largely an invention or artifice of a given society.

Games are an example of socially constructed entities and often exist because of certain sets of conventional rules. These sets of social conventions and agreement to abide by them give games their meaning in any given social context. The game of football could be played in any way, but there have developed over the years known conventional rules governing the players, spectators, and the games organization. The meaning given to games is therefore socially constructed.

Gender, which represents ways of talking, describing, or perceiving men and women, is also a socially constructed entity. Generally distinguished from sex (which is biological), notions of gender represent attempts by society, through the socialization process, to construct masculine or feminine identities and corresponding masculine or feminine gender roles for a child based on physical appearance and genitalia.

Social class is yet another socially constructed entity. While most scholars agree that class appears to represent a universal phenomenon, its meaning is often contextually located because what determines class varies from one society to another, and even within a culture different people may likely have different notions of class determinants.

Depending on the constructionist perspective, social construction may be the outcome of human choices rather than of immutable laws of nature. Here, then, lies the core issue over which social scientists diverge. Are human ideas and conceptions generated more on subjective criteria than on objective realities? Debates have raged in the social sciences along the divide of science versus objective truth. In the social construction of reality, the question has often been asked: To what extent is our claim to knowledge supported by reality? In other words, to what extent is this claim a social construct? Some writers believe that to the extent that knowledge is aligned with reality, it approximates objective truth; anything less represents a social construct. According to this thinking, even morality is a social construct. However, others believe that all knowledge is social construction.

The basis of this debatein fact the point of departure among scholarsis the claim that social constructions are based on social facts and surrounding social conventions. Thus constructions based on factsfacts that are not ontologically dependent on the social structures and conventions of societyare not. However, Ian Hacking (1999) believes that there are few if any universal constructionists, in which case few people would argue that the sun or DNA are socially constructed, existing entirely independently of that construction. On the contrary, the social arena is quite different, as vital social realities are socially constructed, existing by virtue of that social construction by people over time and space. This seeming narrow threshold between scientific construction and social constructs presents problems in social analysisindeed hard nuts that need to be cracked and cracked satisfactorily.

In the resulting ongoing science wars, one side argues that scientific results, including even those of basic physics, are socially constructed. Others protest, arguing that these results are usually discoveries about our world; they are not the production of society but exist independently of consciousness. However, some sociologists, such as Barry Barnes and David Bloor (1982), have taken a relativist view of social construction, claiming that any notion is as good as the other. Thus, for instance, if a new social construction of the Holocaust emerges, arguing that claims about Nazi extermination camps are exaggerated and that the gas chambers are a fiction, that view may well then be at par with other beliefs about the same phenomena, though this may represent historical revisionism. Nevertheless, the fact remains that constructionists attempt to sort out their notions and beliefs using standards of their own convictions and culture.

Peter Cohen (1990), in his discussion of drug use as a social construct, argues that concepts used to describe and explain the phenomenon of drug use are surrounded by bias, a bias produced by a cultural dependency rather than drug use itself. The so-called scientific analysis of drug use, he argues, has often been used as an instrument for survival of the most powerful; power is not only relevant to decision making and resource allocation but also to the social construction of ideology and morality. Scientific constructions and concepts are thus developed according to the interests and tastes of people in power (a trend that is inescapable though may not be justified), and so these constructions often fit into conventional standpoints on topics of research.

The implications of these varying constructionist positions is that, once again, it is not often clear what is, or what should be, socially constructed. Radical constructionism best underscores this basic problem in social construction. Radical constructionists are concerned, for instance, with the domain of technology, with showing how social processes affect the content of technology and what it means for technology to be seen as working. They claim that the meaning of technology, including facts about its workings, are themselves social constructs. Similarly, on the social construction of reality, radical constructionists believe that the process of constructing knowledge regulates itself and that knowledge is a self-organized cognitive process of the human brain, a construct rather than a compilation of empirical data. If this is so, it is impossible to determine the extent to which knowledge reflects an ontological reality.

The problem of social construction has become more pronounced in different constructions of race based on diverging claims on racial distinctions. For instance, while William A. Darity Jr. (2003) has argued that race does not exist because there is no biogenetic basis for racial classifications, studies from Stanford University tend to contradict this claim by suggesting that the way people classify themselves by race reflects real and clear genetic differences among them. They argue that people of different races, even within the same population, have different ancestries, meaning that different genes are inherited from ancestors. However, Hacking (1999) insists that research studies have tended to challenge the idea of race by presenting evidence that the scientific basis for racial distinctions is based on shaky grounds.

Attempts to confine race to social construction appear to be based on the potential dangers of emotions that may be triggered by suggestions that racial differences reflect meaningful biogenetic differences. This has meant that some experts are inclined to publicize the idea that race does not exist. For instance, the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious medical journal, editorialized on May 3, 2001, In medicine there is only one race, the human race.

But as a social construct, connotations of race change as social, political, historical, and economic structures of society change. Rodney D. Coates (2004) argues that notions of race are created for people to fit into, to raise consciousness in line with conceptual boxes so created, and often to generate racial outcomes, for instance, notions of racial inequality to produce racial superiority. He observes that the construct black has in fact changed over time and space, and he questions whether our conceptions of blacks have correspondingly changed with the lived experiences and reality of blacks. This invariably reveals the dynamic nature of social reality. If constructions of this lived reality fail to reflect that dynamism, it may become an invalid analytic or discursive unit, that is, a unit or object of analysis or discussion and debate.

Stephen Spencer (2000) has further asked: If race is a social construct, of what is it precisely constructed if not the scientifically invalid false consciousness of biological race? He argues that it is as necessary to problematize the social construction of race as it is to question its scientific construction. He concludes that for those who believe in biological construction of race but not in its social construction, the basis of their construction has an underlying biological conception, whether or not they admit that. Such constructions often create false consciousness, producing uncertainty as to what are or are not social differences and ultimately creating a new consciousness, a new social reality.

These questions highlight the problem of what is and what is not a social construct. The answer may well lie in the fact that it all depends on the researchers politics, theoretical orientation, discipline, position in the class structure, or cultural context. It remains that people may often attempt to justify self-serving definitions, but this raises yet another fundamental question: Can this alter consensus on the validity of concepts? It is apt at this point to note that the use of invalid concepts in social research, public discourse, or policy debates may in fact lead to reification. However, in scientific construction, researchers must move outside the boxes of existing notions of matters of investigation to evaluate and analyze issues on such matters from radically different assumptions, even the assumptions of their disciplines (Coates 2004).

SEE ALSO Communication; Critical Theory; Femininity; Gender; Linguistic Turn; Masculinity; Meaning; Race; Social Theory


Barnes, Barry. 1974. Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Barnes, Barry, and David Bloor. 1982. Relativism, Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge. In Rationality and Relativism, eds. Martin Hollis and Stephen Lukes, 21-47. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Coates, Rodney D., ed. 2004. Race and Ethnicity: Across Time, Space, and Discipline. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Cohen, Peter. 1990. Drugs as a Social Construct. PhD diss., Universiteit van Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Darity, William A., Jr. 2003. Racial/Ethnic Employment Discrimination, Segregation, and Health. American Journal of Public Health 93 (2): 226-231.

Darity, William A., Jr., and P. L. Mason. 1988. Evidence on Discrimination in Employment: Codes of Color, Codes of Gender. Journal of Economic Perspectives 12 (2): 63-90.

Hacking, Ian. 1999. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kalekin-Fishman, Devorah, Hanan Bruen, and Miriam Ben-Peretz. 1986. Perception and Interpretation of Vocal Music: Constructs of Social Groups. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 17 (1): 53-72.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Spencer, Stephen. 2000. Popular Culture and the Rural Dream: Cultural Contexts and the Literary History of the Good Earth. Atenea (June): 125-138.

Spencer, Stephen. 2000. Racing Whiteness: American Culture and Construction of Race. Paper presented at the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference, April 8.

Frederick Ugwu Ozor

Social Constructionism

views updated Jun 08 2018

Social Constructionism


The process of creating social reality by individuals, groups, or organizations in interaction with social structure is often termed social construction. Sociologist W. I. Thomas defined the concept of the situation as, If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences (Thomas and Thomas 1928, p. 572). And this theorem demonstrates that human perceptions in large and small ways create the social world.

While individuals actively participate in creating social reality, simultaneously, they are influenced by social reality. Human behaviors, everyday interactions, and social life do not occur in random fashion; rather daily experiences in the social world are patterned based on the organizing of individuals, groups, and organizations. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman presented, Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product (Berger and Luckman 1966, p. 61).

Different perspectives and research approaches are used to investigate social construction and its results. Social scientists have used the term social construction to emphasize how identity, roles, statuses, knowledge, and institutions are created and maintained relating with other members of society in socio-historical context. Postmodern theorists demonstrate how social reality is constructed by deconstructing in various ways what is taken as reality. For instance, some postmodern researchers deconstruct knowledge to demonstrate a totalizing general theory or an ultimate truth is misguided.

The creation of identity, the sense of self, demonstrates how the social construction works at the individual level, how significant it is to an individual in various contexts, and how individual identity creation is a reflection of social structure. Individual identity is formed by social processes in different socio-historical contexts. So identity can be fluid, situated, multidimensional, and interactive between individual consciousness and social structure. Identity is created, re-created, and maintained by reacting upon the given social structure and personal characteristics.

Social psychological studies have focused on how social structure intersects with individuals construction of identity. Many studies focus on people experiencing identity struggles, especially managing lower status in the hierarchical order of social life. For example, creation of sexual identity in relation to majority culture is complicated and is a particular struggle for those belonging to marginalized or stigmatized groups, such as homosexuals. It is through interacting with others and by learning cultural norms and values that individuals become aware of which sexual identity is desirable and appropriate in society. Thus, for homosexuals, construction and maintaining of their sexual identity is the socio-political process of obtaining legitimacy.

Social scientists have incorporated various types of research methods to explore the process and consequence of social construction. These include in-depth interviews, participant observation, ethnomethodology, documentary-historical studies, discourse analysis, experiments, and surveys.

SEE ALSO Interactionism, Symbolic; Sociology, Micro-


Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckman. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday.

Calhoun, Craig, et al. 2002. Contemporary Sociological Theory. Maiden, MA: Blackwell.

Howard, Judith. 2000. Social Psychology of Identities. Annual Review of Sociology 26: 367-393.

Seidman, Steven. 1994. The End of Sociological Theory. In The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives in Social Theory, ed. Steven Seidman. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas, William I., and Dorothy Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf.

Hyejin Iris Chu

social constructionism

views updated May 11 2018

social constructionism Social constructionism is a general term sometimes applied to theories that emphasize the socially created nature of social life. Of course, in one sense all sociologists would argue this, so the term can easily become devoid of meaning. More specifically, however, the emphasis on social constructionism is usually traced back at least to the work of William Isaac Thomas and the Chicago sociologists, as well as the phenomenological sociologists and philosophers such as Alfred Schutz. Such approaches emphasize the idea that society is actively and creatively produced by human beings. They portray the world as made or invented–rather than merely given or taken for granted. Social worlds are interpretive nets woven by individuals and groups.

The term formally entered the sociological vocabulary through Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966), a treatise on the sociology of knowledge, which attempts an innovative synthesis of the ideas of Émile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead. For Berger and Luckmann, the basic features of social order are captured in the principle that ‘Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product’. Their major case-study of social constructionism was religion (see Berger 's The Social Reality of Religion, 1969
), but at the same time the labelling theory of deviance was being developed and popularized, suggesting in parallel fashion that deviance is socially constructed. Similarly, within the sociology of education, researchers were deploying arguments derived from the work of Mary Douglas and Basil Bernstein to the effect that educational knowledge was also socially constructed. From a number of somewhat different sources, therefore, the more general phraseology of constructionism emerged–and sometimes, as a result, the phrase carries little of the phenomenological baggage that came with its foundations (as, for example, in G. Suttles , The Social Construction of Community, 1972

In psychology, a linked term–constructivism–is often associated with the work of Jean Piaget, and refers to the process by which the cognitive structures that shape our knowledge of the world evolve through the interaction of environment and subject. In social psychology the term is often used (for example in the work of Rom Harré) to capture a similar set of ideas to those outlined above.

Social constructionism is often contrasted with so-called essentialism because it moves away from the ideas of the naturally given or taken for granted and questions the social and historical roots of phenomena. See also EMOTION, SOCIOLOGY OF.

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Social constructionism