Social constructionism (sometimes “constructivism”) is a version of constructivism. The idea that human beings in some measure construct the reality they perceive can be found in many philosophical traditions.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophones, for instance, argued that humans construct gods in their own image (Fragment 16), a possibility that is also criticized in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious traditions (among others). But the idea that human beings epistemologically construct the reality they perceive is first given extended philosophical articulation in the work of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804).
In the nineteenth century a constructivism of sorts emerged as political theory in the work of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and others. Then, in the twentieth century, constructivism took new forms in psychology, in sociology, and in science, technology, and society (STS) studies.
Constructivism in Psychology
|Constructivism in Psychology|
A root form of social constructionism is found in psychological constructivism. Illuminating research by the British psychologist Frederick Bartlett (1886–1969) revealed how humans use prior knowledge to make sense of new phenomena. In his landmark study Remembering (1932), Bartlett presented an unfamiliar indigenous American folk tale to students at Cambridge University.
Later each subject was asked to recall the story in as much detail as possible. Bartlett was able to show how each retelling was a unique reconstruction of the story rather than a reproduction of the original. Subjects tended to replace unfamiliar elements of the story with objects drawn from their own experience.
Bartlett concluded that in coming to understand the story, his students tended to make use of pre-existing mental structures or schemata, which proved essential both for originally comprehending the story and for subsequent recall.
The notion of schemata is central as well to Jean Piaget’s (1896–1980) theory of intelligence. The Swiss psychologist undertook pioneering work on childhood intellectual development. From years of careful observations of and conversations with children and watching them function in problem-solving activities, Piaget argued that cognitive development is an adaptive process of schema correction by means of assimilation and accommodation.
We assimilate new information by fitting it within existing cognitive structures. Where preexisting schema cannot incorporate a new experience, we adjust our mental structures to accommodate them.
For Piaget, learning is not a passive activity of replication and data storage but an active process of invention and creation. Piaget’s resultant genetic epistemology describes how increasingly complex intellectual processes are built on top of more primitive structures in regularly occurring stages.
Lev Semyonovitch Vygotsky (1896–1934), a Piaget contemporary, also studied the cognitive development of children in Soviet Russia during the Stalin years and noted how children engaged in a problem-solving activity invariably speak about what they are doing. This led to his theory of speech as a means for making sense of the activity.
Although children’s use of tools during their preverbal period is comparable to that of apes, as soon as speech and signs are incorporated into any action, the action becomes transformed and organized along entirely new lines.
Language is thus central to complex reasoning and higher order thinking. Intelligence is the readiness to use culturally transmitted knowledge and practice as prostheses of the mind, and learning is inherently social; learned social speech becomes inner speech through development. Vygotsky came to believe that speech precedes thought and that human thought is a social phenomenon that develops from society to the individual.
|Lev Semyonovitch Vygotsky|
The idea that cognition emerges out of social activity is central to Vygotsky’s work. This is also a view that has become at once widely adopted—being applied especially in educational theory—and controversial, especially various forms of cognitive psychology.
Social Consctructionism in Social Theory
The American social philosopher George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) took constructivism into sociology with a theory of self consciousness as originating from social interaction. In his posthumously published Mind, Self, and Society (1934), Mead argued that personal identity is constructed through social relationships.
In the context of play, for instance, children take on the roles of others, eventually learning to view themselves from the standpoint of a “generalized other.” Children’s games thus function as instruments for personal and social development, especially when children adopt attitudes of those who in some sense control them or on whom they depend.
|Social Consctructionism in Social Theory|
For Mead the self is a dialectical conversation between the “me” and the “I”—“me” being the social self and “I” the creative self that responds to the “me” in multiple contexts to form, over time, the ontogenic, historical image of one’s self.
The theorists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann cite Mead as a major source for their seminal sociological text The Social Construction of Reality (1966). In this treatise, Berger and Luckmann extend Mead’s ontogenetic observations on the self to include all phenomena that we encounter in a social world.
They describe the dialectic relationship between the subjective reality of the individual and the objective reality of society that emerges in a universe of discourse that is continuously under construction.
Through interaction and conversation with others, knowledge is internalized, then externalized, becoming at once a subjective perception and an objective reality. From such a process of socialization we construct our daily lives.
Much social constructionism implies some degree of subjectivism. From an analysis of intentionality and how it plays out in a social context, however, the philosopher John Searle (1995) has argued that socially constructed reality exhibits its own distinctive type of objectivity.
Searle’s realism distinguishes between “brute facts” that exist independently of what any humans think and “social facts” that depend on human thinking while being independent of what any one human thinks. Human beings construct a social reality through common intentions that assign functions to physical objects, as when a certain type of paper comes to be treated as money.
Social Constructionism in Science and Technology
Epistemological constructivism has taken special forms in the development of cybernetics, evolutionary epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics. But insofar as cybernetics moved from analyses of interactions between organisms and their physical environments to consideration of communication in a social environment, social cybernetics offered as well a science and a technology of social interactive constructions. Yet the cybernetic approach has been only marginally influential on social constructionism in general.
One of the most contested areas of social constructionism is not in science and technology but in studies about science and technology. Ludwik Fleck (1979) first proposed, in a controversial interpretation of the medical conceptualization of disease, that even some supposedly brute facts of science were socially constructed. This idea was picked up and developed by Thomas Kuhn (1962), which subsequently led to the development of a research program in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK).
The sociology of scientific institutions, as initiated by Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) in the 1930s, came under increasing criticism in the 1970s for its idealization of science and its failures to treat the production of scientific truth and falsity in a symmetrical manner.
Drawing on the ideas from the later Ludwig Wittgenstein about the influence of language games and forms of life on human understanding, David Bloor (1983) and others proposed that social factors influenced not only the production of falsehood (a weak SSK program) but also any consensus about truth (the strong SSK program).
The SSK program in conceptual and analytic criticism was quickly complemented by empirical studies of laboratory practices and how such practices themselves contribute to the production of scientific knowledge.
Employing ethnographic approaches, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979) and Karin Knorr Cetina (1981) argued that knowledge production is seldom the rational, linear process of hypothesis testing leading to article publication found in the standard image of science.
Behind the scenes science is a mangle of practical skills, instrumental jiggering, personal relationships, interpretative debates, and consensus building that deploys a variety of rhetorical strategies to frame both problems and experimental results.
The full extent to which scientific knowledge is a social construction or laboratory production—and what this might imply for science, scientists, as science as a social institution—has been subject to extensive debate in the so-called “science wars” between scientists and their social scientific critics. Among the most philosophically astute assessments of this research program and ensuing debate has been Ian Hacking’s Social Construction of What? (1995).
The program for a parallel analysis of the social construction of technology (SCOT) has been almost as controversial as social constructivism applied to science, but for different reasons. As Louis Bucciarelli (1994) has shown with his ethnographic examination of the engineering design process, social and personal factors of all sorts readily influence engineering products, processes, and systems.
The question is whether this means that those such as Jacques Ellul (1954) or Hans Jonas (1984) who have raised ethical and political questions about the dominance of modern technology in human affairs are simply mistaken in their worries.
For proponents of SCOT or one of its related programs such as actor-network theory, critics have too often criticized technology as a kind of “black box” that they failed to examine in sufficient detail. But critics such as Langdon Winner (1994) have responded that “opening the black box” can also be an exercise in avoidance of more fundamental questions.
Relations between social constructivism in psychology, sociology, and STS deserve further examination. Moreover, arguments concerning the social construction of science and technology exhibit unexplored affinities with the pragmatic epistemologies of the “fixation of belief ” (C. S. Peirce), the merger of science and technology in the general category of tools (John Dewey), and criticisms of strict empiricism (Willard van Orman Quine).
Indeed, social constructivism presents a broad philosophical interpretation of personal and public life, from the epistemological to the ethical, in ways that will likely continue to exercise considerable influence in twenty-first century thought.