How does one critically discuss and compare the deficit, dominance, and difference in using the social constructionist approach to language and gender research?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Social constructionism views society as having been "actively and creatively produced by human beings" rather than something that simply occurs naturally (Oxford Reference, "Overview: Social Constructionism"). It particularly focuses on the idea that we use language to "construct [social] reality" ("Social Constructionism"). In particular, social constructionism argues that neither language nor social constructs have any meaning for the individual; instead, meaning is only developed through others in society and our relationship to others.

Social constructionism has certainly received its fair share of criticism, especially with respect to the meaning of language. In order to prove that social constructionism poses dangers for the integrity of language, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics, presented an article for publication to the academic journal Social Text, a journal specializing in such things as postmodernism and constructionism. Sokal wrote his article to be deliberately incomprehensible but also included "phrases and jargon typical of the articles published by the journal" ("Social Constructionism: Criticisms"). Sokal's theory was that the article would be published if "it sounded good," even if it was nonsensical, and if "it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions" ("Social Constructionism: Criticisms"). Sokal's article was indeed published, proving that we can take the idea of applying one's own meaning to language based on social context a bit too far. Sokal's article had no meaning, yet the editors who applauded theories like social constructionism saw meaning in it simply because it fit their own theoretical beliefs--or at least they thought they saw meaning in the article. Through his experiment, Sokal proved that language isn't simply an arbitrary system of symbols, and, as explained in his book Fashionable Nonsense, if something seems incomprehensible, then it truly is incomprehensible ("Fashionable Nonsense"). Philosophers such as Paul Boghossian and Ian Hacking have also opposed social constructionism, arguing that the only reason why some are in favor of it is because they feel it allows them the possibility of changing things. He is paraphrased as asserting that "if things are the way that they are only because of social convention, then it should be possible to change them into how we would rather have them be" ("Social Constructionism: Criticisms").

Other criticisms of the social constructionism theory arise when we use the theory in gender studies. Under this theory, true genders and gender roles do not exist; instead, gender distinctions are something that society imposes on individuals. Such a theory particularly underscores the great nature vs. nurture debate. Based on social constructionism, the understanding of gender is something that is nurtured by society--not something that occurs within nature. Critics of social constructionism argue that the theory "ignores biological influences on behavior and culture, or suggests that they are unimportant to achieve an understanding of human behavior" ("Social Constructionism: Criticisms"). Many have agreed that there is no connection between biology and gender. Fairly recent studies on the Yoruba people of Nigeria and West Africa have even shown that the Yoruba people had "no concept of gender and no gender system whatsoever," prior to colonialism ("Gender Role: Anthropology and Evolution"). However, others still disagree with the concept that there is no connection between biology and gender. Simon Baron-Cohen, current Cambridge professor of psychology and psychiatry, has argued, "The female brain is predominantly 'hard-wired' for empathy, while the male brain is predominantly 'hard-wired' for understanding and building systems" ("Gender Role: Anthropology and Evolution"). Hence, as can be seen, the social constructionism theory can both be liberating and pose problems.