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Social constructionism

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Social constructionism is a term used in sociology, social ontology, and communication theory. The term can serve somewhat different functions in each field; however, the foundation of this theoretical framework suggests various facets of social reality—such as concepts, beliefs, norms, and values—are formed through continuous interactions and negotiations among society's members, rather than empirical observation of physical reality.[1] The theory of social constructionism posits that much of what individuals perceive as 'reality' is actually the outcome of a dynamic process of construction influenced by social conventions and structures.[2]

Unlike phenomena that are innately determined or biologically predetermined, these social constructs are collectively formulated, sustained, and shaped by the social contexts in which they exist. These constructs significantly impact both the behavior and perceptions of individuals, often being internalized based on cultural narratives, whether or not these are empirically verifiable. In this two-way process of reality construction, individuals not only interpret and assimilate information through their social relations but also contribute to shaping existing societal narratives.

Examples of social constructs range widely, encompassing the assigned value of money, conceptions of concept of self/self-identity, beauty standards, gender, language, race, ethnicity, social class, social hierarchy, nationality, religion, social norms, the modern calendar and other units of time, marriage, education, citizenship, stereotypes, femininity and masculinity, social institutions, and even the idea of 'social construct' itself.[3][4][5][6] These constructs are not universal truths but are flexible entities that can vary dramatically across different cultures and societies. They arise from collaborative consensus and are shaped and maintained through collective human interactions, cultural practices, and shared beliefs. This articulates the view that people in society construct ideas or concepts that may not exist without the existence of people or language to validate those concepts, meaning without a society these constructs would cease to exist.[7]


A social construct or construction is the meaning, notion, or connotation placed on an object or event by a society, and adopted by that society with respect to how they view or deal with the object or event.[8]

The social construction of target populations refers to the cultural characterizations or popular images of the persons or groups whose behavior and well-being are affected by public policy.[9]

Social constructionism posits that the meanings of phenomena do not have an independent foundation outside the mental and linguistic representation that people develop about them throughout their history, and which becomes their shared reality.[10] From a linguistic viewpoint, social constructionism centres meaning as an internal reference within language (words refer to words, definitions to other definitions) rather than to an external reality.[11][12]


Each person creates their own "constructed reality" that drives their behaviors.

In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne wrote that, "We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things."[13] In 1886 or 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche put it similarly: "Facts do not exist, only interpretations." 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."[14] 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".[15][16] With Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality published in 1966, this concept found its hold. 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."[16] 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."[16] It provides a substitute to the "Western intellectual tradition" where the researcher "earnestly seeks certainty in a representation of reality by means of propositions."[16]

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."[16] Rather, there can be "multiple realities that compete for truth and legitimacy."[16] 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".[16][17] The majority of social constructionists abide by the belief that "language does not mirror reality; rather, it constitutes [creates] it."[16]

A broad definition of social constructionism has its supporters and critics in the organizational sciences.[16] A constructionist approach to various organizational and managerial phenomena appear to be more commonplace and on the rise.[16]

Andy Lock and Tom Strong trace some of the fundamental tenets of social constructionism back to the work of the 18th-century Italian political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist Giambattista Vico.[18]

Berger and Luckmann give credit to Max Scheler as a large influence as he created the idea of sociology of knowledge which influenced social construction theory.

According to Lock and Strong, other influential thinkers whose work has affected the development of social constructionism are: Edmund Husserl, Alfred Schutz, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Jürgen Habermas, Emmanuel Levinas, Mikhail Bakhtin, Valentin Volosinov, Lev Vygotsky, George Herbert Mead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gregory Bateson, Harold Garfinkel, Erving Goffman, Anthony Giddens, Michel Foucault, Ken Gergen, Mary Gergen, Rom Harre, and John Shotter.[18]


Personal construct psychology[edit]

Since its appearance in the 1950s, personal construct psychology (PCP) has mainly developed as a constructivist theory of personality and a system of transforming individual meaning-making processes, largely in therapeutic contexts.[19][20][21][22][23][24][excessive citations] It was based around the notion of persons as scientists who form and test theories about their worlds. Therefore, it represented one of the first attempts to appreciate the constructive nature of experience and the meaning persons give to their experience.[25] Social constructionism (SC), on the other hand, mainly developed as a form of a critique,[26] aimed to transform the oppressing effects of the social meaning-making processes. Over the years, it has grown into a cluster of different approaches,[27] with no single SC position.[28] However, different approaches under the generic term of SC are loosely linked by some shared assumptions about language, knowledge, and reality.[29]

A usual way of thinking about the relationship between PCP and SC is treating them as two separate entities that are similar in some aspects, but also very different in others. This way of conceptualizing this relationship is a logical result of the circumstantial differences of their emergence. In subsequent analyses these differences between PCP and SC were framed around several points of tension, formulated as binary oppositions: personal/social; individualist/relational; agency/structure; constructivist/constructionist.[30][31][32][33][34][35][excessive citations] Although some of the most important issues in contemporary psychology are elaborated in these contributions, the polarized positioning also sustained the idea of a separation between PCP and SC, paving the way for only limited opportunities for dialogue between them.[36]

Reframing the relationship between PCP and SC may be of use in both the PCP and the SC communities. On one hand, it extends and enriches SC theory and points to benefits of applying the PCP "toolkit" in constructionist therapy and research. On the other hand, the reframing contributes to PCP theory and points to new ways of addressing social construction in therapeutic conversations.[36]

Educational psychology[edit]

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.

Social constructivism has been studied by many educational psychologists, who are concerned with its implications for teaching and learning. For more on the psychological dimensions of social constructivism, see the work of Lev Vygotsky,[37] Ernst von Glasersfeld and A. Sullivan Palincsar.[38]

Systemic therapy[edit]

Some of the systemic models that use social constructionism include Narrative Therapy and Solution Focused Therapy[39]


Max Rose and Frank R. Baumgartner (2013), in Framing the Poor: Media Coverage and U.S. Poverty Policy, 1960-2008, examine how media has framed the poor in the U.S. and how negative framing has caused a shift in government spending. Since 1960, the government has decreasingly spent money on social services such as welfare. Evidence shows the media framing the poor more negatively since 1960, with more usage of words such as "lazy" and "fraud".[40]


Potter and Kappeler (1996), in their introduction to Constructing Crime: Perspective on Making News And Social Problems wrote, "Public opinion and crime facts demonstrate no congruence. The reality of crime in the United States has been subverted to a constructed reality as ephemeral as swamp gas."[41]

Criminology has long focussed on why and how society defines criminal behavior and crime in general. While looking at crime through a social constructionism lens, there is evidence to support that criminal acts are a social construct where abnormal or deviant acts become a crime based on the views of society.[42] Another explanation of crime as it relates to social constructionism are individual identity constructs that result in deviant behavior.[42] If someone has constructed the identity of a "madman" or "criminal" for themselves based on a society's definition, it may force them to follow that label, resulting in criminal behavior.[42]

History and development[edit]

Berger and Luckmann[edit]

Constructionism became prominent in the U.S. with Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's 1966 book, The Social Construction of Reality.[43] Berger and Luckmann 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.[44] In their model, people interact on the understanding that their perceptions of everyday life are shared with others, and this common knowledge of reality is in turn reinforced by these interactions.[45] 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. For example, as parents negotiate rules for their children to follow, those rules confront the children as externally produced "givens" that they cannot change. Berger and Luckmann's social constructionism has its roots in phenomenology. It links to Heidegger and Edmund Husserl through the teaching of Alfred Schutz, who was also Berger's PhD adviser.

Narrative turn[edit]

During the 1970s and 1980s, social constructionist theory underwent a transformation as constructionist sociologists engaged with the work of Michel Foucault and others as a narrative turn in the social sciences was worked out in practice. This particularly affected 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, and others used social constructionism to relate what science has typically characterized as objective facts to the processes of social construction. Their goal was to show that human subjectivity imposes itself on the facts taken as objective, not solely the other way around. A particularly provocative title in this line of thought is Andrew Pickering's Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics. At the same time, social constructionism shaped studies of technology – the Sofield, especially on the social construction of technology, or SCOT, and authors as Wiebe Bijker, Trevor Pinch, Maarten van Wesel, etc.[46][47] Despite its common perception as objective, 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.[citation needed]


Within the social constructionist strand of postmodernism, the concept of socially constructed reality stresses the ongoing mass-building of worldviews by individuals in dialectical interaction with society at a time. The numerous realities so formed comprise, according to this view, the imagined worlds of human social existence and activity. These worldviews are 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. Together, these become part of the identity of social citizens.

In the book The Reality of Social Construction, the British sociologist Dave Elder-Vass places the development of social constructionism as one outcome of the legacy of postmodernism. He writes "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."[48]


Critics argue that social constructionism rejects the influences of biology on behaviour and culture, or suggests that they are unimportant to achieve an understanding of human behaviour.[11][49][50] Scientific estimates of nature versus nurture and gene–environment interactions have shown almost always substantial influences of both genetics and social, often in an inseparable manner.[51] Claims that genetics does not affect humans are seen as outdated by most contemporary scholars of human development.[52]

Social constructionism has also 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. This criticism has been explored by psychologists such as Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate[53] as well as by Asian Studies scholar Edward Slingerland in What Science Offers the Humanities.[54] John Tooby and Leda Cosmides used the term "standard social science model" to refer to social theories that they believe fail to take into account the evolved properties of the brain.[55]

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."[56][50] 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 human social conventions, as opposed to being so naturally, then it should be possible to change them into how people would rather have them be. He then states that social constructionists argue that people should refrain from making absolute judgements 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.[57]

Woolgar and Pawluch argue that constructionists tend to "ontologically gerrymander" social conditions in and out of their analysis.[58]

Alan Sokal also criticize social constructionism for contradicting itself on the knowability of the existence of societies. The argument is that if there was no knowable objective reality, there would be no way of knowing whether or not societies exist and if so, what their rules and other characteristics are. One example of the contradiction is that the claim that "phenomena must be measured by what is considered average in their respective cultures, not by an objective standard."[59] Since there are languages that have no word for average and therefore the whole application of the concept of "average" to such cultures contradict social constructionism's own claim that cultures can only be measured by their own standards. Social constructionism is a diverse field with varying stances on these matters. Some social constructionists do acknowledge the existence of an objective reality but argue that human understanding and interpretation of that reality are socially constructed. Others might contend that while the term "average" may not exist in all languages, equivalent or analogous concepts might still be applied within those cultures, thereby not completely invalidating the principle of cultural relativity in measuring phenomena.

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]


  • Boghossian, P. Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. Oxford University Press, 2006. Online review: Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism
  • Berger, P. L. and Luckmann, T., The Social Construction of Reality : A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Anchor, 1967; ISBN 0-385-05898-5).
  • Best, J. Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems, New York: Gruyter, 1989
  • Burr, V. Social Constructionism, 2nd ed. Routledge 2003.
  • Ellul, J. Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. Trans. Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner. New York: Knopf, 1965. New York: Random House/ Vintage 1973
  • Ernst, P., (1998), Social Constructivism as a Philosophy of Mathematics; Albany, New York: State University of New York Press
  • Gergen, K., An Invitation to Social Construction. Los Angeles: Sage, 2015 (3d edition, first 1999).
  • Glasersfeld, E. von, Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 1995.
  • Hacking, I., The Social Construction of What? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999; ISBN 0-674-81200-X
  • Hibberd, F. J., Unfolding Social Constructionism. New York: Springer, 2005. ISBN 0-387-22974-4
  • Kukla, A., Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Science, London: Routledge, 2000. ISBN 978-0-415-23419-1
  • Lawrence, T. B. and Phillips, N. Constructing Organizational Life: How Social-Symbolic Work Shapes Selves, Organizations, and Institutions. Oxford University Press, 2019. ISBN 978-0-19-884002-2
  • Lowenthal, P., & Muth, R. Constructivism. In E. F. Provenzo, Jr. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the social and cultural foundations of education (pp. 177–179). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008.
  • McNamee, S. and Gergen, K. (Eds.). Therapy as Social Construction. London: Sage, 1992 ISBN 0-8039-8303-4.
  • McNamee, S. and Gergen, K. Relational Responsibility: Resources for Sustainable Dialogue. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 2005. ISBN 0-7619-1094-8.
  • Penman, R. Reconstructing communicating. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.
  • Poerksen, B. The Certainty of Uncertainty: Dialogues Introducing Constructivism. Exeter: Imprint-Academic, 2004.
  • Restivo, S. and Croissant, J., "Social Constructionism in Science and Technology Studies" (Handbook of Constructionist Research, ed. J.A. Holstein & J.F. Gubrium) Guilford, NY 2008, 213–229; ISBN 978-1-59385-305-1
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