Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge in sociology that examines how individuals develop their knowledge and understanding of the world.
There is no one precise definition of social constructionism nor of the theories of the sociologists in the field.
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However, social constructionists share four beliefs and practices in common (Burr, 2015):
A critical stance toward knowledge that is normally taken-for-granted
Social constructionists believe that conventional knowledge is not necessarily based on objective, unbiased observations of the world.
Humans, according to Social Constructionism, put more emphasis on certain categories than others, even if these categories do not necessarily reflect real divisions.
Thus, it is the obligation of sociologists and psychologists to be aware of the assumptions implicit in knowledge. What exists is what we perceive to exist (Burr, 2015).
Knowledge exists in a historical and cultural context
All ways of understanding are historically and culturally relative. What is thought of as natural, and the categories and concepts we use, are an effect of history and culture.
For example, historically, children took on many “adult” tasks (Aries, 1962), but the mid-20th century brought a renewed emphasis on child development and childhood, and thus the role of children changed.
It should not be assumed that the ways of understanding that belong to one time and cultural context are necessarily better than another (Burr 2015).
Knowledge is sustained by social processes
Knowledge is constructed through interactions between people and the world. Thus, an individual’s perception of “truth” is a product of social processes and the interactions that an individual is engaging in rather than objective observation (Burr 2015).
Knowledge and social action go together
Each understanding of the world has a variety of “social constructions” that come with it.
As stated by (Burr 2015), before the temperance movement, alcoholics were seen as entirely responsible for their behavior — meaning that an appropriate response would be imprisonment.
However, after Temperance, alcoholism shifted into a sickness, flaying responsibility away from its victims. The solution became medical and psychological treatment rather than imprisonment (Burr, 2015).
The first sociologist writing in the tradition of social constructionism was Mead (1930), in her book, Mind, Self, and Society.
Mead created the concept of “symbolic interactionism,” which argues that humans construct their own and each other’s identities through their everyday encounters with each other. In other words, the self is created through social interaction.
Although there were intermediating theories such as ethnomethodology in the 1950s and 60s, Berger and Luckmann (1966) became the next pivotal writers of Social Constructionism in The Social Construction of Reality.
The Social Construction of Reality is widely considered to be one of sociology’s most seminal works.
Berger and Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality
Although first published as a rather esoteric book on the sociology of knowledge. The Social Construction of Reality soon came to define a field of “new sociologies” (Vera, 2016). Best societa mutamento politica).
In short, The Social Construction of Reality argues that humans create and sustain all social phenomena through their social practices. People “externalize” their thoughts on the world, such as writing down or creating a story about an idea they have.
As other people tell this story or read the book, this idea becomes an “object” of consciousness for the people the idea spreads to.
The idea, to these people, becomes an objective truth. And finally, in the last stage, the idea becomes “internalized” in the consciousness of the society, and future generations more or less take the idea for granted as an objective truth, as the idea already exists in the world they were born into (Burr 2015).
Berger and Luckmann’s work is essentially anti-essentialist.
Essentialism is the belief that objects have a certain set of characteristics that make them what they are.
However, Berger and Luckmann argue that there is no “essence” to “objective” truths that make them fact.
Facts are not given to a cultural surrounding or a social environment, or even biological factors; rather, the world, according to Berger and Luckmann, is constructed through the social practices of people, and yet, people can still behave as though the world is pre-defined and fixed (Burr, 2015).
Gergen’s Social Psychology as History
In the 1960s and 70s, social psychologists became increasingly concerned with how the field of social psychology promoted the views of dominant groups (Burr 2015).
There was a shift from focusing on objectivity and laboratory behavior to accounts of the lives of ordinary people (Harre & Secord, 1972).
In “Social Psychology as History” (1973), Gergen argues that while the methods used in psychology itself are scientific, the theories of social behavior that originate from psychologists are actually reflections of contemporary history.
Unlike the natural sciences, Gergen argues, which are based on a set of relatively unchanging principles, human interaction happens on the basis of a number of factors that shift rapidly with time (Gergen, 1973). Social theories describe what is perceived to be and prescribe what is seen as desirable.
For example, as social psychology arose in the Second World War, with the goal of creating propaganda, questions of keeping up morale and encouraging uncommon behavior (such as eating an unpopular food) — “desirable” behaviors — shaped the field’s basis (Burr, 2015).
Thus, social theories are symptoms of the social, political, and economic realms of the times in which they were devised; thus, sociologists can read social theories of behavior as a history.
Social Constructionism and Postmodernism
Historically, sociology has searched for underlying structures that lead to human behavior. Social constructionism evolved in the cultural and intellectual context of the mid-20th century, which was dominated by the Postmodernist movement.
Postmodernism is the rejection that there can be the ultimate truth. To postmodernists, the world, as it is perceived by individuals, is a consequence of hidden structures.
The world cannot be understood in terms of grand theories; rather, postmodernism emphasizes how ways of life can differ between the groups and situations of the people who live them (Burr 2015). Postmodernism has both informed and been informed by social constructionism; however, these theories diverge.
Social constructionism provides a framework for understanding the constructed worlds that people inhabit — useful for understanding social behavior, while postmodernism does not provide such a framework (Flaskas, 1995).
Malcolm Spector and John I. Kitsuse’s Social Constructionism
Traditionally, sociologists have thought of social problems as conditions that cause some harm to society. However, four years after Gergen’s Social Psychology as History, the sociologists Kituse and Malcolm extended the concept of social problems using Constructionism in a way considered radical by sociologists.
Spector (1977) argued in Constructing Social Problems that sociologists had altogether failed to create a conception of social problems specific to sociology.
That is to say, up to the publication of Constructing Social Problems, sociologists had difficulties describing what a social problem was. What seemingly created harm in one society could be considered normal or even taken for granted in other circumstances.
Spector defined social problems as “the activities of individuals or groups making assertions of grievances and claims with respect to some putative conditions” (Best, 2018).
In this definition, social conditions were not the stuff of social problems — rather, it was whether or not people considered conditions to be a problem that made them problems. “what people are.”; but beyond this, Spector used this concept as a guide to sociological research and writing (Schneider 2018).
Traditional psychology views personality in relation to behavior. Psychologists such as Cattell (1946) have attempted to quantify personality in terms of 16 factors. Someone can be, for example, a neurotic introvert or a stable extrovert (Burr, 2015).
This view of personality is essentialist – it assumes there is a fundamental, objective set of truths that determine personality.
For example, a “shy” person, by nature, would be unsuited to a social gathering (Burr, 2015), and this nature of a shy person is related to a number of factors, such as one’s biology or the environment they were raised in.
However, social constructionism contends that the concept of personality itself is constructed. A personality is not a physical thing — it cannot be removed from someone’s body.
Rather, the concept of personality, according to social constructionism, is a theory of human behavior used to justify the beliefs and actions of humans for which there is no other explanation.
Lutz (1982) supports the constructionist view of personality in his linguistic studies of the Samoan and Pintupi Aborigine peoples. In the languages of these peoples, emotional words do not describe internal states but a relationship to events and other people.
For example, the Ifaluk word song describes “justifiable anger,” which is not a feeling an individual has toward behavior but a public feeling toward someone breaching what is socially acceptable.
Similarly, according to social constructionists, the very concept of personality exists not as a series of feelings and traits inherent to a person but as an expression of feelings and traits between people.
A person who has been decontextualized from the social environment — say, if someone lived on a deserted island — cannot be “shy,” “friendly,” or “caring,” as these terms all refer to the behaviors that individuals have toward others.
Shotter (1993) proposes that human behavior, rather than originating in personality, comes from joint action. Humans interact with each other in a way unique to those individuals who are interacting, regardless of those individuals’ internal intents.
Every version of a person — every set of abstract traits that can be used to describe them according to another — may be different, describing that individual in the context of that relationship.
According to social constructionism, people create rather than discover themselves and other people through their interactions with them. Theories of personality, then, are an attempt to describe the many variations of self that result from individuals having interactions with other individuals (Burr, 2015).
Constructionist views of language believe that languages exist to facilitate communication between people rather than creating representations of the nature of a concept and that meaning exists in the interactions between people and the world and between people and people (Bo, 2015).
Traditionally, language is seen as an expression of a person’s internal state. The internal “personality” and nature of a person pre-dates and exists independently of the words used to describe it (Burr, 2015).
However, social constructionists argue that language, in large part, roots individuals’ constructions of themselves,
Humans use language as a way of structuring their experiences of themselves and the world.
This constructivist view of language originates in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Hoijer, 1954), which states that language determines thought and when a concept does not exist in a language, it cannot be expressed by the people who use that language.
The concepts of personality, drive, desires, and emotions toward others — such as love and hate — become available because of language, and the construction that a person has of themselves and of the world could have differed, given that they understood the world through a different language.
The first notable structural linguist was Saussure, who argued that language is made of “signs,” for example, “intelligence,” “dog,” and “art” (Saussure 2011; Burr 2015).
These signs refer to concepts — what these words embody. However, Saussure asserts that the link between the sign and the concept is arbitrary and that the very differentiation between concepts is arbitrary.
To Saussure, there is no inherent trait of a “dog” that makes it so meaningfully different from a “pig” that it requires a different term.
Although these distinctions are arbitrary when assigned, they acquire a fixed meaning, which explains why everyone who speaks the same language is able to understand each other (Burr, 2015).
However, Saussure’s theory of structural linguistics fails to address several concerns, such as why the meanings of words can change over time.
The “post-structuralist” social constructionist view of language contends that language is a “site of struggle, conflict, and potential personal and social change” (Burr, 2015). For example, the question, “does he take sugar?” carried a different meaning when addressed to the parent of a young child than to the caregiver of a person with a disability.
In both contexts, however, the sentence implies that the caregiver or parent knows more reliably about the tastes of the person who’s taking the sugar than the person themself.
This is offensive when asked to, for example, the wife of a blind man but not when asked to the parent of a young child, as it implies that the person to whom the question is addressed has power over the subject of the sentence (Burr, 2015).
Knowledge and Power
The social constructionist view of power has been heavily shaped by the ideas of Foucault (Burr, 2015). In essence, Foucault argues that the power structures of a society determine what can and cannot be known at a specific point in history.
From the standpoint of Foucault, this means that certain ways of knowing will seem to be more “truthful” than others.
For example, in modern western societies, people generally see the explanations of events given by natural sciences such as medicine or physics as more reliable ways of knowing than, say, religion or magic (Burr, 2015).
What people at a specific time and in a specific context call knowledge is one of many possible recounts of events that have been approved of by those in power at that time (Foucault, 1976).
This thinking around knowledge and power has influenced, for example, feminist social constructionist notions of “romantic love.”
People “fall in love” as a precursor to a sexual relationship where people take responsibility for each other’s well-being and their family (Averill 1985).
Notions of “romantic love,” “marriage,” and “family” are ways of talking about the lives of individuals — ways of constructing, living out, and representing identity in relation to others.
However, certain social constructivist feminists and Marxists argue that the notion of “romantic love” is actually a reflection of the power of the capitalist economy.
According to these feminists, the idea that men and women marry because they love each other and that women care for their husbands and families because they love them is a cover-up to a reality existing within the power structures of capitalism, where women provide free reproduction, household services, and care so that employees do not need to do so for their workers (Burr, 2015).
The “discourse” — the set of terms, metaphors, and so on that people use to describe and construct their experiences, as well as the interactions people have with each other — serves to obscure the power structures of society.
Realism and Relativism
Social constructionism is essentially anti-realist and pro-relativist (Hammersley 1992). Knowledge is not a direct perception of reality.
Because all knowledge excerpts are in a historically and culturally relativistic context, the notion of a singular “truth,” according to social constructionists, does not exist.
Because sociology and social psychology has historically sought the “truth” behind human behavior, social constructionism offers markedly different implications for how sociologists should conduct sociology.
This has manifested in a shift toward an emphasis on recounting the experiences of individuals rather than on creating “grand theories” ” of human behavior beginning in the 1960s and 1970s.
The validity of social constructionism’s anti-realist pro-relativist stance is still heavily debated, notably in the form of the “Death and Furniture” argument of Edwards and Potter (1995).
Strong vs. Weak Social Constructionism
Some sociologists apply weak social constructionism to their research, while others apply strong social constructionism.
Weak social constructionism has the assumption that individuals construct individual understandings over a set of objective facts, while strong social constructionism holds that all knowledge is constructed by human society through social interactions (Amineh & Asl, 2015).
Weak Social constructionism relies on “brute facts” (which are facts that are so fundamental that they are difficult to explain, such as elementary particles) in addition to “institutional facts” — facts that have been constructed through social interaction (Smith, 2010).
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