Sociological Theory: Social Constructionism
The following article is a summary of the theoretical orientation known as social constructionism. According to social constructionists, knowledge is created through social interaction. In other words, there is no objective reality that exists independently of people, and truth can never be universal or absolute. Although the term “social constructionism” wasn't introduced until the mid-twentieth century, the ideas that inform it have a long history. The historical foundations of social constructionism will be introduced, with an emphasis on Berger and Luckmann's 1966 publication of “The Social Construction of Reality”. Although there is no single definition of social constructionism in academia today, there are several core principles common to this theoretical orientation. The core principles will be reviewed, along with examples of research applications, and a brief discussion of the major critiques of the theory.
Keywords Ethnography; Externalization; Habituation; Historicity; Institutionalization; Internalization; Positivism; Relativism; Social interaction
Social constructionism is a cross-disciplinary theoretical orientation, and has been adopted in one form or another by linguists, psychologists, sociologists, historians, literary theorists, and anthropologists alike (Brickell, 2006). And yet, the questions that social constructionists attempt to answer, even across disciplines, are largely the same. What is knowledge? Does knowledge change over time? Across cultures? Is there a reality or truth that exists independently of human beings and their interactions with one another? The social constructionists' answers to these questions place them front and center in a larger theoretical debate between positivists on the one hand, and postmodernists on the other. In some sense, social constructionism can best be defined by first explaining what it is not.
Positivism, or essentialism, has a long history, having originated during the Age of Enlightenment—also known as the Age of Reason—in eighteenth century Europe (Burr, 1995). Enlightenment thinkers reacted against the power vested in the church and state, an authority based largely on tradition, superstition, and irrationality. They believed that reason was the only way to guard the common man against tyrannical rule and thus, it was during this period that the scientific method was born. Along with this method came a set of fundamental assumptions about the nature of knowledge and truth—mainly, that an objective reality exists in the world independently of human beings, we can perceive this reality directly through our senses, and truth is something that can be attained, in an absolute and universal sense (Burr, 1995; Hibberd, 2005; Cisneros-Puebla & Faux, 2008). For positivists, knowledge is ahistorical and acultural.
Although positivism is arguably the predominant theoretical orientation embraced by natural and social scientists today, the collective dissenting voices of postmodernists and constructionists have grown exponentially in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (Cisneros-Puebla & Faux, 2008). Their multifaceted response to positivism can best be distilled into this singular critique—that positivists are ultimately guilty of the very thing they hoped to eradicate. Gergen (as cited in Cisneros-Puebla & Faux, 2008) explains, "to me, it is ironic that the Enlightenment, with its great promise of replacing dogma with freedom, has slowly established yet another dogma. When science begins to claim that everyone should think in its terms, it becomes the new dogma, and the process of suppression begins once again" (¶ 26). For constructionists, the notion of an objective, absolute truth existing independently of culture, history, or power is as limiting as superstition. Constructionists believe, rather, that "meaning [or truth] is ours to make [through our interaction with one another and the world]; it is not 'out there' to be discovered" (Cisneros-Puebla & Faux, 2008, ¶ 5).
Although social constructionism has gained momentum in recent years, the ideas it proposes can be traced back to a variety of scholars over the past few hundred years. As Berger explains, "many of the fundamental assumptions [of social constructionism] have been alive and well and living in sociology for quite some time" (p. 9). In sociology in particular, the 1966 publication of Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality is marked as a watershed moment, for it was in this publication that the term social construction was first coined (Hibberd, 2005). But even Berger and Luckmann (1966) concede that their ideas precede them. "Neither the general problem [of our publication] nor its narrower focus is new. An awareness of the social foundations of values and world views can be found in antiquity" (p. 5).
For Berger and Luckmann (1966), theorists such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Mead, and theoretical perspectives such as historicism were the immediate precursors to social constructionism. It was from Marx, for example, that "the sociology of knowledge derived its root proposition—that man's consciousness is determined by his social being" (p. 6). Nietzsche suggested ways in which human thought might be influenced by power and conflict. In the mid-twentieth century, George Herbert Mead proposed the theory of symbolic interactionism, arguing that people construct their sense of self through interactions with others (Burr, 1995). Historicism, which acknowledged the relativity of human thought and its situational context, contributed to the development of social constructionism too, as did ethnomethodology, a research technique developed in the 1950s that allowed scholars to understand how ordinary people construct and interpret their lives (Burr, 1995). The ideas of other theorists—Mannheim, Scheler, Merton, and Foucault, to name just a few—were adopted in part by social constructionists as well.
Although the precursors to social constructionism were many and varied, Berger and Luckmann (1966) were the first to distill these ideas into "a sociology of knowledge. " About their work they wrote, "the basic contentions of the argument of the book are implicit in its title and subtitle, namely, that reality is socially constructed and that the sociology of knowledge must analyze the processes in which this occurs" (p. 1). More specifically, Berger and Luckmann were interested in the ways in which knowledge came to be established or agreed upon as "reality. " They were the first to show, Burr (1995) argues, how "the world can be socially constructed by the social practices of people, but at the same time be experienced by them as if the nature of their world is pre-given and fixed" (p. 10). All of which implies their interest in everyday, common knowledge—not just theory or scholarship—and the ways in which people make meaning in their ordinary, day-to-day lives.
For Berger and Luckmann (1966) the process by which knowledge becomes reality, or taken-for-granted everyday knowledge, is threefold—it involves externalization, legitimization, and internalization, all of which are part of a dialectical relationship between an individual and the social world. More specifically, when man acts, or externalizes, in the social world, all such acts have the potential to become habituated. Habituation can occur in isolation from others, but when habituated action is reciprocated, institutions develop. Therefore institutions exist only in relation to other people, and yet they are "experienced as an objective reality." As Berger and Luckmann (1966) argue, "despite the objectivity that marks the social world in human experience, it does not thereby acquire an ontological status apart from the human activity that produced it" (p. 61). The final stage of the process occurs when an individual internalizes the social world and shared meanings; primary socialization occurs first, in childhood, but secondary socialization or internalization is an ongoing process.
Although Berger and Luckmann (1966) were the first to coin the term social construction, the theory has grown exponentially since then. Along with this growth, however, has come some confusion. As Burr (1995) argues, "there is no single description [of social constructionism] which would be adequate." Brickell (2006) concurs when he writes "First, we ought to recognize the multiplicity of social constructionism or, more accurately, social constructionisms" (p. 87). And yet, there are some core principles—or what Burr (1995) refers to as "family resemblances"—that...
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