Social constructionism functions as a meta-theory of knowledge that crosses many disciplinary boundaries. It focuses on human meaning making as the primary focus of psychological enquiry. Furthermore, social constructionism rejects essentialism and demonstrates that objective knowledge is historically and culturally contingent, thus allowing an understanding of multiple and alternative ways of thinking. Constructionist psychologies have different theoretical and historical ancestries.
Accordingly, they have had a lesser impact on psychology than other movements such as radical behaviourism and cognitive and humanistic psychologies. Today however, social constructionism has become extremely relevant, and many fields of psychological enquiry are being influenced and enriched by the social constructionist perspective. This has opened the door to interchange and collaboration in numerous domains, has reconfigured discourse in non-reductionist ways, and provided alternative ways of thinking about the practice of psychology.
Social Constructionism and its Influence on the Practice of Psychology Social constructionism endeavours to elucidate the dialogical nature of the social world (Misra & Prakash, 2012). Gergen has described social constructionism as a metatheory of knowledge, and a theory in practice similar to cognitive or psychoanalytic theories (Yang & Gergen, 2012). Constructionism became prominent with Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) book, The Social Construction of Reality, which connected the notion of social constructionism to the field of mental health.
This seminal work redefined the sociology of knowledge, and has inspired a generation of philosophers and thinkers. Berger and Luckmann (1966) argue that all knowledge, including the most basic, taken-for-granted common sense knowledge (proverbs, morals, values and beliefs shared by ordinary people) of everyday reality, is derived from, and maintained by social interactions. When people interact, they understand that their respective perceptions of reality are related.
Thus, this understanding of their common knowledge becomes reinforced, and presented as part of an objective reality, particularly for future generations who were not involved in the original process of negotiation (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). During the 1970s and 1980s, social constructionist theory underwent a transformation as constructionist sociologists engaged with the work of Michel Foucault, who looked specifically at the social construction of madness, punishment and sexuality through discourse (Burr, 2003).
Foucault defined discourse as ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity, and power relations, which are inherent in such knowledges and relations (Weedon, 1987). Within the social constructionist element of postmodernism, the concept of a socially constructed, discursive reality emphasises the ongoing mass-generation of worldviews, by individuals in dialectical interaction with society, comprising imagined worlds of human social existence and activity.
As the numerous realities are formed, they gradually crystallise by habit into institutions, bolstered by language conventions that are given enduring legitimacy by mythology, philosophy, and religion, and maintained by therapies and socialisation. Thus, realities that are subjectively internalised by education and upbringing, become part of the social citizen’s identity (Baert, Weinberg, & Mottier, 2011). Social constructionism offers a shift from the individual to the social, changing the focus on knowledge to a communal cognitive construction; rather than an individual one.
This shift views language as a dynamic social process instead of merely representational, and envisions the person as a multi-being, not as a bounded self (Anderson, 2010). Social constructionism focuses on human meaning making as the primary focus of psychological inquiry (Raskin, 2002). Over the last fifty years, constructivist psychologies have developed greatly in quantity and influence. However, despite this increasing influence, constructionist psychologies have yet to develop into a coherent, theoretically consistent orientation.
Because constructionist psychologists have different theoretical and historical ancestries, they have had a lesser impact on psychology than other movements such as radical behaviourism, and cognitive and humanistic psychologies (Raskin, 2002). Thus, in its current metamorphosis social constructionism may be perceived as a shared consciousness rather than a movement. This contains implications of substantial significance, in that the foundations of psychological knowledge are thrown into critical relief, and broad vistas of inquiry are opened for study (Gergen, 1985).
Accordingly, it will be argued that although social constructionism may have had its beginnings in sociology, and Foucauldian notions of discourse, many fields of inquiry, such as Eastern religious psychology, gender psychology, indigenous and social psychology, social science research, and gerontology, as well as the dissemination of psychological interventions and counselling practices, to name but a few, are being influenced and enriched by the social constructionist perspective.
This allows for alternative ways of practicing psychology, and a greater understanding of the human condition. Social constructionism has become extremely relevant in today’s society. Firstly, social constructionism respects plurality and diversity in the social world, by entertaining the multiple realities which emerge, therefore, offering innovative ways of shaping and appreciating reality (Gergen, Gulerce, Lock, & Misra, 1996). This opens the door to interchange, collaboration, and sharing in domains such as education, health, human development, and organisation (Misra & Prakash, 2012).
Secondly, social constructionism reconfigures human discourse in non-reductionist ways (Misra & Prakash, 2012). Gergen (1973, p. 315) observed that “social psychology would never disappear via reduction to physiology”, because physiology could not “account for variations in human behaviour over time”. Furthermore, physiology could not explain the ever-changing patterns of what is considered desirable or good in society, which form primary motivational sources for the individual.
According to Gergen (1996), many social psychologists cognisant with social constructionism, choose to explore how reality is constructed within society, by utilising discourse analysis to understand how individuals determine what is true and good, rather than demonstrating universal principles. For example, researchers have utilised discourse analytic methods to disconcert traditional gender distinctions (Kitzinger, 1987). Formation of sex role expectations and gender stereotyping are socially constructed, reinforced, and passed down through the generations.
Thus, socially constructed notions of gender often comprise a perception of power differential, which may inhibit individual freedom and choice (Steigerwald & Forrest, 2004). Gender stereotyping and the resulting behaviours and attitudes need to be addressed in order to foster mutual respect and egalitarian relationships (Steigerwald & Forrest, 2004). Social constructionism has proved to be controversial. It has been contested and met with resistance by essentialists who claim legitimacy for scientifically produced objective knowledge (Misra & Prakash, 2012).
Historically, in the West, before there was scientific “truth” there was religious “truth”. With the secularisation of Western society, science became the major proprietor of truth. With the advent of the 20th century, agreement developed that logical empiricism was a meta-theory, across all subject matters that served as a foundation for making “truth claims”. Thus, social scientists did not admit that social science knowledge was socially constructed. This influenced the way in which research was thought about and practiced (Yang & Gergen, 2012).
Even today, research courses teach that empiricism is the “gold standard” in psychological research. Laboratory studies have commonly been designed to eliminate and control for extraneous variables; contextual factors that are of utmost interest to social constructionists (Raskin, 2002). Social constructionism challenges psychology’s most valued assumptions (Raskin, 2002). According to Gergen (Yang & Gergen, 2012, p. 128), “logical empiricism has no grounds, except for those it constructs through dialogue, and if one embraces this meta-theory as true, major constraints are placed on our actions as scientists.
It is deeply oppressive”. For example, death is a social construction. However, in biology, chemistry and physics, the body is simply material, and life ceases with no heart-beat and brain function. This denies spirituality, and excludes the language and value of spirit from the world of dialogue. Thus, the biological account of death eliminates other positions, which does not make it wrong – it just makes it “a” truth, not “the” truth (Yang & Gergen, 2012). This does not mean that everything proposed by traditional science is wrong.
For example, robust measures and statistical analysis are necessary in examining the efficacy of programs, such as a stop smoking program. Constructionism does not eradicate the tradition of truth. If knowledge is understood as being constructed, multiple values, forms of understanding, and ways of life are allowed, and the researcher remains open to alternative ways of thinking. This allows traditional positivist methods and social constructionism to form a symbiotic relationship (Yang & Gergen, 2012).
In recent years, psychologists have become intent on accounting for everything in terms of neuro-physiological mechanisms and processes, and have asserted that almost all psychological phenomena can be traced to brain processes, which aligns psychology as a natural science (Misra & Prakash, 2012). However, Gergen (2010) suggests that such reifications are problematic, and that the socio-cultural implications of brain based elucidations, renders important concepts empty of values. Moreover, Gergen (2010, p. 6) states that although the “brain may be a major facilitator of our actions, it is not their progenitor”.
This observation recognises the value of indigenous psychologies embedded in diverse cultures. Therefore, when human activity is seen as culturally bound, alternative futures can be envisioned (Gergen, 2010). Moreover, social constructionism may be seen as a refined form of a rising global sensitivity, as the world becomes progressively aware of multiple perspectives, due to communication technologies (Yang & Gergen, 2012).
Western psychology’s cultural imperialism marginalises other constructions, such as the neural basis of constructs such as karma, which is significant to human functioning in Hindu and Buddhist psychologies (Kwee, 2010; Misra & Prakash, 2012). Kwee (2012, p. 205) defines karma as “all intelligible intentions/actions, which exist by the grace of relational processes as they emerge within relational life”. Thus, karma is considered to be embodied intentional action that is not located in the head, and disconnected from others.
Eighteenth century enlightenment hailed the quantitative and natural-scientific approach in psychology, and encompassed the ontological perspective of logical positivism (Kwee, 2012). For example, emotions are deemed to be the biological processes of fixed neural structures. Neurology may be able to explain a blink; it does not however, say anything about the meaning of a wink. Therefore, the brain may execute emotional performance, but it is not causal to karmic action (Kwee, 2012).
Furthermore, when the brain is acculturated and meaning given, a vocabulary of psychological terms must be available in order to identify emotional states. This vocabulary is no more than a by-product of cultural processes (Gergen, 2010). When brain attribution is emphasised to the detriment of the “interpersonal mind” the primacy of culture is disregarded. Thus, in terms of neurons, human action is unintelligible, and neurons are essentially the medium that serves social purpose (Kwee, 2012).
Relational Buddhism transcends this vision (Kwee, 2012). Kwee (2012) describes relational Buddhism as a Buddhist psychology of social construction, which requires the” letting go of any grand narrative of transcendental truth and/or imagery of an absolute superpower” (Kwee, 2012, p. 204). Relational Buddhism focuses on the concept of “inter-being”, which has striking similarities to Gergen’s (2009) relational being. Both concepts stem from the cognisance that human beings are intertwined, and all we know is embedded in communal cultures.
Relational Buddhism is rooted in two trailblazing paradigms that have a cutting-edge practical understanding of life (Kwee, 2012). Firstly, the mind is not confined inside the skull, but is spaced in-between people’s interactions outside the body. Secondly, all that is noted in mindfulness and observed in science are conceptualisations, which reduce down to social constructions (Kwee, 2012). Kwee (2012) notes that individuals live from the cradle to the grave in an ocean of relationships, and that it is important that the interpersonal significance of the binding “we” is recognised.
Accordingly, the theory of dependent origination holds that “to act is to inter-act, and to be is to inter-be” (Misra & Prakash, 2012, p. 124). This insight marries well with the assumptions of social constructionism. Successful aging has become a major global issue for society, as population dynamics change in the 21st century (Misra & Prakash, 2012). Due to better nutrition and advances in health care, there are now many more older individuals than there were in previous decades.
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