Comparative sociology ·
Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge in sociology and communication theory. It holds that characteristics typically thought to be immutable are in fact "socially constructed," that is, produced within a social context and shaped by cultural and historical contexts. Sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann introduced the term social construction into the social sciences in their 1966 book about the sociology of knowledge, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Their central concept is that people and groups interacting in a social system create, over time, concepts or mental representations of each other's actions, and that these concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. When these roles are made available to other members of society to enter into and play out, the reciprocal interactions are said to be institutionalized. In the process, meaning is embedded in society. Knowledge and people's conceptions (and beliefs) of what reality is become embedded in the institutional fabric of society. Reality is therefore said to be socially constructed.
With the rise of Post-Modernism, social constructionism became popular as a theory of knowledge. Leading postmodern scholars argued that the discourses of knowledge and science were socially constructed, that human understanding is always set in a social context and that is based on social hierarchies and helps to perpetuate those inequalities. The theory has been adopted and applied by scholars of gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality, many of which are generally seen by science to be determined by biology. Social constructionism holds that our knowledge is a product of human definition and interpretation.
Social constuctionism is a theory of knowledge that examines the development of jointly-constructed understandings of the world that form the basis for shared assumptions about reality. The theory asserts that meanings are developed in coordination with others rather than separately within each individual. Social constructionism claims that "taken-for-granted realities" are cultivated from "interactions between and among social agents." 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 differs from a related approach known as social constructivism. 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.
In the sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne wrote that, "We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things." In 1886 or 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche put it similarly: "Facts do not exist, only interpretations." Nietzsche would be an important philosopher for the scholars of post-modernism. In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann said, "The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance" between people and their environment. Each person constructs a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone's pseudo-environment is a fiction. People "live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones." Lippman's "environment" might be called "reality", and his "pseudo-environment" seems equivalent to what today is called "constructed reality."
Social constructionism has more recently been rooted in "symbolic interactionism" and "phenomenology." With Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality published in 1966, this concept found its niche. 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 Tom Strong trace some of the fundamental tenets of social constructionism back to the work of the eighteenth-century Italian political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist Giambattista Vico.
Sociology of Knowledge
Within sociology itself, sociology of knowledge is one of the main precursors to social constructionism. Max Scheler coined the term. The term has been in widespread use since the 1920s, when a number of German-speaking sociologists, including Scheler and Karl Mannheim, wrote extensively on the topic.
Sociology of knowledge's roots go back to founding sociologist Émile Durkheim at the beginning of the twentieth century. His work deals directly with how conceptual thought, language, and logic can be influenced by the societal milieu from which they arise. In an early work co-written with Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification, Durkheim and Mauss study "primitive" group mythology, arguing that classification systems are collectively based and that the divisions within these systems derive from social categories. Later, Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life would elaborate his theory of knowledge, examining how language and the concepts and categories of the mind (such as space and time) [see the Critique of Pure Reason of Immanuel Kant] used in logical thought have a sociological origin. While neither Durkheim, nor Mauss, specifically coined nor used the term "sociology of knowledge," their work is an important first contribution to the field.
With the dominance of functionalism through the middle years of the twentieth century, the sociology of knowledge tended to remain on the periphery of mainstream sociological thought. It was largely reinvented and applied in the 1960s, particularly by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's book, The Social Construction of Reality, and is still central for methods dealing with qualitative understanding of human society.
The Social Construction of Reality
The Social Construction of Reality inaugurated a new way of understanding the creation and propagation of knowledge, not only scientific or theoretical knowledge, but knowledge in the larger social sense. Berger and Luckmann were themselves influenced by the phenomenological sociology of Alfred Schütz. Schütz attempted to apply the insights of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger to sociology. They 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. Ideas do not exist on their own but arise from social interaction. While ideas may appear objective and true they exist only in a community of knowers. Even in the realm of science, the truth of statements are thought to be limited to the confines of a specified discipline and not part of some larger truth.
“…theoretical knowledge is only a small and by no means the most important part of what passed for knowledge in a society… the primary knowledge about the institutional order is knowledge… is the sum total of ‘what everybody knows’ about a social world, an assemblage of maxims, morals, proverbial nuggets of wisdom, values and beliefs, myths, and so forth.
The basic tenants of the theory that developed during the last half of the twentieth century are that knowledge is not simply an objective set of facts. Socially constructed means that language plays a significant role and that the creation of knowledge is influenced by political and social concerns. These are not necessarily separate strands of thought that exist in separate parts of the theory but rather are connected in a kind of gestalt.
A sign [has the] explicit intention to serve as an index of subjective meanings … Language is capable of becoming the objective repository of vast accumulations of meaning and experience, which it can then preserve in time and transmit to following generations… Language also typifies experiences, allowing me to subsume them under broad categories in terms of which they have meaning not only to myself but also to my fellowmen
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. This is how knowledge in society is habituated, social roles created, and division of labor with specialized knowledge achieved. Social constructionism allows us to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the construction of their perceived social reality by looking at the ways social phenomena are developed, institutionalized, known, and made into tradition by humans.
Social constructs will necessarily differ 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. It appears to people as an objective fact and operates as if it has intrinsic value, but that value exists because people in society have agreed to give it that value.
Social constructionism represents the confluence of a number of different trains of thought that emerged in the 1960s. These come from diverse fields in the humanities, the sciences and social science. While it developed within sociology, it is not strictly a sociological theory. It owes much to the critique of ideology that comes from neo-Marxist and Nietzschean scholarship. It also relies on the critique of language found in modern linguistics and deconstructionism. Finally, there are also influences coming from philosophy of science and the impact of the work of Thomas Kuhn.
In the 1980s social constructionism became popular outside of sociology. Within the humanities, the linguistic turn changed the understanding of the role of language. The older notion of language is that it was a neutral tool used for the expression of ideas and ultimately of truth. Language represented reality. This notion was challenged in the early twentieth century by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and those who would come after him. Saussure questions that there is a natural or immediate connection between concept and reality, and instead focuses on the relationship between knowers, positing that meaning is the consensus that develops between and among knowers. Language constitutes or creates reality. What we take for objective reality will bear the marks of the linguistic forms (including, for example, grammatical rules, narrative conventions, and binary distinctions) necessary for communication. In this sense the forms of language are not driven by reality so much as they provide the forestructure for what we take to be its nature.
With developments in semiotic theory in general and literary theory deconstruction in particular, attention was drawn to the ways in which linguistic convention governs all claims to knowledge. Derrida "plays" with Saussure's structural linguistics and pushes the understanding of meaning. His neologism différance (spelled with an "a") suggests that meaning always differs from itself and that it is also always deferred. (The French word carries both meanings.) This suggests that meaning always differs from itself (is never stable or fixed) while also suggesting that meaning is always deferred, suspended, open to future revision, not fixed. Meaning is not only socially constructed; it is always being constructed and reconstructed.
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.
Social constructionism focuses on meaning and power. Meaning is not a property of the objects and events themselves, but a construct. Meaning is the product of the prevailing cultural frame of social, linguistic, discursive and symbolic practices. Persons and groups interacting together in a social system form, over time, concepts or mental representations of each other’s actions. These concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. The roles are made available to other member of society to enter into and play out, the reciprocal interactions are said to be institutionalized (Cojocaru, 2010). In this process of this institutionalization meaning is embedded in society. Knowledge and people’s conception (and belief) of what reality is become embedded in the institutional fabric of society..
During the 1970s and 1980s, social constructionist theory underwent a post-modern transformation as well. The narrative turn in the social sciences in addition to a greater emphasis on the linguistic element of meaning led to a growing interest in the inherently political nature of knowledge. Post-modernists came to see meaning as grounded in the political commitments of the community in which it arises, and the power relations within the community. In this view truths emerge from within a certain sociopolitical and cultural milieu. These truths are accepted and codified into the accepted wisdom and become the basis for rules, policy and other instruments of power. This looks to the individual community member as an objective fact or reality, not the result of a socially negotiated process.
A key development was the engagement of constructionist sociologists with the "genealogical" and "archaeological" studies of Michel Foucault. In works like Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Foucault concentrates on the correlation between knowledge and power. He argues that knowledge forms discourses which become that dominant way of thought which govern our lives. The dominant ideology creates the institutions that regulate our lives. Institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals operate to reinforce the dominant ideological forms of thinking. Knowledge is never the neutral objective fact that it appears to be. For Foucault, the discourses become the dominant ideology that serves the interests of the ruling class. Since there is no way out of this kinds of discursive practice, which are always implicated in power relations, counter discourses will emerge as those who are not in power seek to resist.
In the 2000s and 2010s scholars applied the ideas of post-modern social constructionism to emerging fields such as Gender Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Fourth Wave Feminism, among others. Their focus was not just to understand the social relations that have been constructed but to address the oppression that results from the imbalances of power relations. They used the discourse theories of Michel Foucault in an attempt to critique socially constructed power/knowledge relationship and to erase the boundaries created by the society's discursive practices.
The post-modern approach to race and gender is that they are socially constructed.
[r]ace is a social construct: it’s a human-invented classification system. It was invented as a way to define physical differences between people, but has more often been used as a tool for oppression and violence.
Gender theory also developed around the idea that while sex is biological, gender is not. Rather, it is a social construction and so our notions of masculinity and femininity are also socially constructed.
Social construction in the sciences
The impact of post-structuralist and post-modernist social constructionism on the sciences is expressed by the National Research Council in its assertion that "social science research can never generate objective or trustworthy knowledge."
Within the postmodernist version of social constructionism, the concept of socially constructed reality stresses the ongoing mass-building of worldviews by individuals in dialectical interaction with social structures. 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.
British sociologist Dave Elder-Vass places the development of social constructionism as one outcome of the legacy of postmodernism. "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 has impacted numerous fields, particularly 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, among others used social constructionism to relate what science has typically characterized as objective facts to the processes of social construction. An example of this approach is Andrew Pickering's Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics. Social Constructionism has also shaped studies of technology, especially the Social construction of technology, or SCOT. Even 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.
Critics have argued that social constructionism generally ignores the contribution made by physical and biological sciences. It equally denies or downplays to a significant extent the role that meaning and language have for each individual, seeking to configure language as an overall structure rather than an historical instrument used by individuals to communicate their personal experiences of the world. This is particularly the case with cultural studies, where personal and pre-linguistic experiences are disregarded as irrelevant or seen as completely situated and constructed by the socio-economical superstructure. As a theory, social constructionism particularly denies the influences of biology on behavior and culture, or suggests that they are unimportant to achieve an understanding of human behavior. The scientific consensus is that behavior 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 judgments 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. Pinker's book catalogues the large number of anthropologists, social scientists and political philosophers who adopt social constructionism to promote their own vision of social change. 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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- Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences" in Richard A. Macksey and Eugenio Donato, The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 2007, ISBN 9780801883958), 278.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York, NY: Random House, 1967).
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- Gergen, 108-116.
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- Foucault, 138.
- Foucault, 187.
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