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Social constructionism

Social constructionism is a sociological theoryof knowledgedeveloped by Peter L. Bergerand Thomas Luckmannwith their 1966book, The Social Construction of Reality. The focus of social constructionism is to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the creation of their perceived reality. As an approach, it involves looking at the ways social phenomena are created, institutionalized, and made into traditionby humans. Socially constructed reality is seen as an ongoing, dynamic process; reality is re-produced by people acting on their interpretationsand their knowledge of it. 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. When people interact, they do so with the understanding that their respective perceptions of reality are related, and as they act upon this understanding their common knowledge of reality becomes reinforced. Since this common sense knowledge is negotiated by people, human typifications, significations and institutions come to be presented as part of an objective reality. It is in this sense that it can be said that reality is socially constructed. Social constructionism is dialectically opposed to essentialism, the belief that there are defining transhistoricalessences independent of conscious beings that determine the categorical structure of reality.

Within social constructionist thought, a social construction, or social construct, is an idea which may appear to be natural and obvious to those who accept it, but in reality is an invention or artifactof a particular culture or society. The implication is that social constructs are in some sense human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature. This is not usually taken to imply a radical anti-determinism, however.

Some ideas which have been famously described as social constructs include: race, class, gender, sexuality, morality, mental illness, and even reality. Less controversial but equally important social constructs are languages, games, money, shares, school grades, nobility titles, nations, governments, universities, corporations, and other institutions.


  • 1 Early precursors to social constructionism
  • 2 Social constructionism in sociology and cultural studies
    • 2.1 Social constructionism and postmodernism
  • 3 Degrees of social construction
    • 3.1 Weak social constructionism
    • 3.2 Strong social constructionism
      • 3.2.1 Criticisms of strong social constructionism
      • 3.2.2 Radical constructionism
  • 4 The anatomy of a social constructionist analysis
  • 5 Notes
  • 6 References
  • 7 See also

Early precursors to social constructionism

In the tradition of sociology of knowledge, what seems real to members of a social classarises from the situation of the class, such as the capitalistor working classes, especially with respect to the economic fundamentals which affect the class. According to the theories advanced by Karl Mannheim, who formulated the classic theories of sociology of knowledge, intellectualsoccupy a special position which is to some extent free of the intellectual blinders imposed by the social position of other classes.

Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemonyboth prefigures and enriches current social constructionist discourse. As a Marxist, Gramsci was interested in the way inequitable class relations are maintained, and the role of knowledgein this process. Marxhimself recognized the important role of knowledge in the maintenance of class supremacy, observing that the prevailing ideology in society tends to be the ideology of the ruling class, and proposing that the proletariat are suppressed by the implementation of a ?false consciousness?. Whilst previous Marxist thinkers saw hegemonyin terms of political and ideological leadership, Gramsci took the idea of hegemonyas ideological dominance and expanded it to the common sense knowledge of the everyday. In Gramsci?s view, the interests of the ruling class are not only reflected in politics and ideologies, but also in the taken-for-granted, assumed-as-natural knowledge that appears as common sense. By accepting a version of common sense that protects the interests of the bourgeoisieas natural and inevitable, the proletariat?consent? to domination: revolution is prevented and the social order is maintained.

Social constructionism in sociology and cultural studies

Berger and Luckman's work has been influential in the sociology of knowledge, including the sociology of science, where Karin Knorr-Cetina, Bruno Latour, Barry Barnes, Steve Woolgarand others use the ideas of social constructionism to relate supposedly objective facts to processes of social construction, with the goal of showing that human subjectivityimposes itself on those facts we take to be 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.

Social Constructionism has also left its mark on the Social Shaping of Technologyfield, especialy on the Social construction of technology, or SCOT, and authors as Wiebe Bijker, Trevor Pinch, Maarten van Weseletc.

An illustrative example of social constructionist thought at work is, following the work of Sigmund Freudand Émile Durkheim, religion. According to this line of thought, the basis for religion is rooted in our psyche, in a need to see some purpose in life. A given religion, then, does not show us some hidden aspect of objective reality, but has rather been constructed according to social and historical processes according to human needs. Peter L. Berger wrote an entire book exploring the social construction of religion, The Sacred Canopy.

Social constructionism and postmodernism

Social constructionism can be seen as a source of the postmodernmovement, and has been influential in the field of cultural studies. Some have gone so far as to attribute the rise of cultural studies (the cultural turn) to social constructionism.

Within the social constructionist strand of postmodernism, the concept of socially constructed reality stresses the on-going mass-building of worldviewsby individualsin dialecticalinteraction with societyat any time. The numerous realitiesso formed comprise, according to this view, the imagined worlds of human social existence and activity, gradually crystallised by habitinto institutionspropped up by languageconventions, given ongoing legitimacy by mythology, religionand philosophy, maintained by therapiesand socialisation, and subjectivelyinternalisedby upbringingand educationto become part of the identityof social citizens.

Degrees of social construction

Though social constructionism contains a diverse array of theories and beliefs, it can generally be divided into two camps: Weak social constructionism and strong social constructionism. The two differ mainly in degree, where weak social constructionists tend to see some underlying objective factual elements to reality, and strong social constructionists see everything as, in some way, a social construction. This is not to say that strong social constructionists (or weak social constructionists, for that matter) necessarily see the world as ontologicallyunreal, that the raw stuff of reality exists only insofar as some group of people believes that it exists, but that our epistemologicalaccess to it to some degree filters and sorts the world into our set of social constructions.

Weak social constructionism

Linguist Steven Pinker(2002, p. 202) writes that "some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist. Examples include money, tenure, citizenship, decorations for bravery, and the presidency of the United States."

In a similar vein, Stanley Fish(Fish 1996) has suggested that baseball's "balls and strikes" are social constructions (Hacking 1999, pp. 29-31).

Both Fish and Pinker agree that the sorts of objectsindicated here can be described as part of what John Searlecalls "social reality". In particular, they are, in Searle's terms, ontologically subjectivebut epistemologically objective. Informally, they require human practices to sustain their existence, but they have an effect that is (basically) universally agreed upon. The disagreement lies in whether this category should be called "socially constructed". Hacking (1997) argues that it should not. Furthermore, it is not clear that authors who write "social construction" analyses ever mean "social construction" in Pinker's sense. If they never do, then Pinker (probably among others) has misunderstood the point of a social constructionist argument.

Strong social constructionism

"Science is a highly elaborated set of conventions brought forth by one particular culture (our own) in the circumstances of one particular historical period; thus it is not, as the standard view would have it, a body of knowledge and testable conjecture concerning the real world. It is a discourse, devised by and for one specialized interpretive community, under terms created by the complex net of social circumstance, political opinion, economic incentive and ideological climate that constitutes the ineluctable human environment of the scientist. Thus, orthodox science is but one discursive community among the many that now exist and that have existed historically. Consequently its truth claims are irreducibly self-referential, in that they can be upheld only by appeal to the standards that define the scientific community and distinguish it from other social formations." (Gross and Levitt, Higher Superstition)

Criticisms of strong social constructionism

Scientists and historians generally do not attempt to refute the idea that most or all of the world is a social construction. The entire idea is widely dismissed as a disguised version of solipsism. Some literary critics do think it is worth refuting this position. A few attempts have been made to refute the idea that everything is socially constructed. However, it is not clear that anyone has seriously claimed that everything is a social construct. (Hacking 1999, pp. 24-25). Consider The Social Construction of Reality. In the introduction, Berger and Luckmann clarify that they are not investigating "reality" in any deep philosophical sense, only what the common man takes as real on a day-to-day basis.

Radical constructionism

Radical constructionism is concerned with showing how social processes influence the very content of technology, for example, what it means for a technology to be deemed working. It draws heavily upon the sociology of science and claims that the meaning of the technology, including facts about its working, are themselves social constructs. This latter view is opposed to any conception of technological determinism.

Ernst von Glasersfeldis the most prominent proponent of radical constructionism. He attempts to show that knowledge is the self-organized cognitive process of the human brain. That is, the process of constructing knowledge regulates itself, and since knowledge is a construct rather than a compilation of empirical data, it is not possible to know the degree to which knowledge reflects upon an ontologicalreality.

The anatomy of a social constructionist analysis

"Social construction" may mean many things to many people. Hacking, having examined a wide range of books and articles with titles of the form "The social construction of X" or "Constructing X", argues that when something is said to be "socially constructed", this is shorthand for at least the following two claims:

(0) In the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted; X appears to be inevitable. (Hacking 1999, p. 12)
(1) X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable. (Hacking 1999, p. 6. Emphasis added.) [1]

Hacking adds that the following claims are also often, though not always, implied by the use of the phrase "social construction":

(2) X is quite bad as it is.
(3) We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed. (Hacking 1999, p. 6)

Thus a claim that gender is socially constructed probably means that gender, as currently understood, is not an inevitable result of biology, but highly contingent on social and historical processes. In addition, depending on who is making the claim, it may mean that our current understanding of gender is harmful, and should be modified or eliminated, to the extent possible.

According to Hacking, "social construction" claims are not always clear about exactly what isn't "inevitable", or exactly what "should be done away with." Consider a hypothetical claim that quarksare "socially constructed". On one reading, this means that quarks themselves are not "inevitable" or "determined by the nature of things." On another reading, this means that our idea (or conceptualization, or understanding) of quarks is not "inevitable" or "determined by the nature of things". [2] Hacking is much more sympathetic to the second reading than the first (Hacking 1999, pp. 68-70). Furthermore, he argues that, if the second reading is taken, there need not always be a conflict between saying that quarks are "socially constructed" and saying that they are "real" (Hacking 1999, pp. 29-30).

The stronger first position, however, is more-or-less an inevitable correlary of Willard Van Orman Quine's concept of ontological relativity, and particularly of the Duhem-Quine thesis. That is, according to Quine and like-minded thinkers (who are not usually characterized as social contructionists) there is no single privileged explanatory framework that is closest to "the things themselves"—every theory has merit only in proportion to its explanatory power.

As we step from the physical word to the world of human beings, "social construction" analyses can become more complex. Hacking briefly examines Helène Moussa’s analysis of the social construction of "women refugees" (Hacking 1999, pp. 9-10). According to him, Moussa's argument has several pieces, some of which may be implicit:

  1. Canadian citizens' idea of "the woman refugee" is not inevitable, but historically contingent. (Thus the idea or category "the woman refugee" can be said to be "socially constructed".)
  2. Women coming to Canada to seek asylum are profoundly affected by the category of "the woman refugee". Among other things, if a woman does not "count" as a "woman refugee" according to the law, she may be deported, and forced to return to very difficult conditions in her homeland.
  3. Such women may modify their behavior, and perhaps even their attitudes towards themselves, in order to gain the benefits of being classified as a "woman refugee".

Hacking suggests that this third part of the analysis, the "interaction" between a socially constructed category and the individuals that are actually or potentially included in that category, is present in many "social construction" analyses involving types of human beings.


[1] Numbering begins with 0 for consistency with Hacking's usage.

[2] The distinction between "quarks themselves" and "our idea (or conceptualization, or understanding) of quarks" will undoubtedly trouble some with a philosophical bent. Hacking's distinction is based on an intuitive metaphysics, with a split between things out in the world, on one hand, and ideas thereof in our minds, on the other. Hacking is less advocating a serious, particular metaphysics than suggesting a useful way to analyze claims about "social construction". See (Hacking 1999, pp. 21-24).


  • Peter L. Bergerand Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality : A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Anchor, 1967; ISBN 0385058985).
  • Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Harvard University Press, 1999; ISBN 0674004124).

See also

Wikiquotehas a collection of quotations related to:
[[Wikiquote:{{{1|Special:Search/Social constructionism}}}|{{{2|{{{1|Social constructionism}}}}}}]]
  • Consensus reality
  • Constructivist epistemology
  • Epistemology
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Major consensus narrative
  • Phenomenology
  • Science and technology studies
  • Social construction
  • Social epistemology
  • Symbolic interactionism

de:Sozialkonstruktivismus fr:Constructivisme social zh:社会建构主义

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