Social Constructionism Definition and Examples

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Social constructionism is the theory that people develop knowledge of the world in a social context, and that much of what we perceive as reality depends on shared assumptions. From a social constructionist perspective, many things we take for granted and believe are objective reality are actually socially constructed, and thus, can change as society changes.

Key Takeaways: Social Constructionism

  • The theory of social constructionism states that meaning and knowledge are socially created.
  • Social constructionists believe that things that are generally viewed as natural or normal in society, such as understandings of gender, race, class, and disability, are socially constructed, and consequently aren’t an accurate reflection of reality.
  • Social constructs are often created within specific institutions and cultures and come to prominence in certain historical periods. Social constructs’ dependence of historical, political, and economic conditions can lead them to evolve and change.

Origins

The theory of social constructionism was introduced in the 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality, by sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman. Berger and Luckman’s ideas were inspired by a number of thinkers, including Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and George Herbert Mead. In particular, Mead's theory symbolic interactionism, which suggests that social interaction is responsible for the construction of identity, was highly influential.

In the late 1960s, three separate intellectual movements came together to form the foundation of social constructionism. The first was an ideological movement that questioned social realities and put a spotlight on the political agenda behind such realities. The second was a literary/rhetorical drive to deconstruct language and the way it impacts our knowledge of reality. And the third was a critique of scientific practice, led by Thomas Kuhn, who argued that scientific findings are influenced by, and thus representative of, the specific communities where they're produced—rather than objective reality.

Social Constructionism Definition

The theory of social constructionism asserts that all meaning is socially created. Social constructs might be so ingrained that they feel natural, but they are not. Instead, they are an invention of a given society and thus do not accurately reflect reality. Social constructionists typically agree on three key points:

Knowledge Is Socially Constructed

Social constructionists believe that knowledge arises out of human relationships. Thus, what we take to be true and objective is the result of social processes that take place in historical and cultural contexts. In the realm of the sciences, this means that although truth can be achieved within the confines of a given discipline, there is no over-arching truth that is more legitimate than any other.

Language Is Central to Social Construction

Language abides by specific rules, and these rules of language shape how we understand the world. As a result, language isn’t neutral. It emphasizes certain things while ignoring others. Thus, language constrains what we can express as well as our perceptions of what we experience and what we know.

Knowledge Construction Is Politically-Driven

The knowledge created in a community has social, cultural, and political consequences. People in a community accept and sustain the community’s understanding of particular truths, values, and realities. When new members of a community accept such knowledge, it extends even further. When a community’s accepted knowledge becomes policy, ideas about power and privilege in the community become codified. These socially constructed ideas then create social reality, and—if they aren’t examined—begin to seem fixed and unchangeable. This can lead to antagonistic relationships between communities that don’t share the same understanding of social reality.

Social Constructionism vs. Other Theories

Social constructionism is often placed in contrast with biological determinism. Biological determinism suggests that an individual's traits and behavior are determined exclusively by biological factors. Social constructionism, on the other hand, emphasizes the influence of environmental factors on human behavior and suggests that relationships among people create reality.

In addition, social constructionism should not be confused with constructivism. Social constructivism is the idea that an individual's interactions with her environment create the cognitive structures that enable her to understand the world. This idea is often traced back to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. While the two terms spring from different scholarly traditions, they are increasingly used interchangeably.

Critiques

Some scholars believe that, by asserting that knowledge is socially constructed and not the result of observations of reality, social constructionism is anti-realist.

Social constructionism is also criticized on grounds of relativism. By arguing that no objective truth exists and that all social constructions of the same phenomena are equally legitimate, no construct can be more legitimate than another. This is especially problematic in the context of scientific research. If an unscientific account about a phenomenon is considered as legitimate as empirical research about that phenomenon, there is no clear path forward for research to make a meaningful impact on society.

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