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Although the term constructivism is used as a label for an important movement in art history (as in Russian constructivism), constructivism in the social sciences refers to a distinctive approach to theory and research that is opposed to the dominant empiricist, naturalist, and realist frameworks of mainstream social thought. This general approach is also frequently designated by the terms social constructivism and social constructionism.
The constructivist outlook can be formulated based on three general claims: (1) the ontological thesis that what appears to be “natural” is in reality an effect of social processes and practices; (2) the epistemological thesis that knowledge of social phenomena is itself socially produced; and (3) the methodological thesis that the investigation of the social construction of reality must take priority over all other methodic procedures.
Historically, constructivist epistemologies have opposed both empiricist and realist philosophies of science. Empiricism is rejected for its passive view of mind and its assumption that beliefs and knowledge are formed through associative patterns of theory-neutral “sense data.” Realism—the belief in independently existent objects—is criticized for ignoring the various interpretive and constructive processes through which cognition of objects is actually realized. Against these naïve epistemologies, constructivism commends something like a Copernican revolution in our taken-for-granted ways of conceptualizing knowledge and reality. For the constructivist, cognition is no longer viewed as an objective representation of the real, but is approached as an active construction of reality, shaped by particular interests, actions, representational media, and social practices. Human beings do not merely “adapt” to a preexisting world; rather, as active agents, they participate in the interpretive construction of reality.
One primary form of interpretation can be found in practical interaction mediated by everyday language and communicative forms. Thus, what might seem to be pregiven “natural” categories and relations are seen as products of particular social practices and interests. Moreover, such categories and relations are subject to historical change. Against empiricism and naturalism, constructivists argue that we should see every phenomenal order as the product of active processes of social interaction. The “real,” in other words, is viewed as a construction of agents and productive activities. Whatever beliefs we hold about reality are contextually defined and culturally constructed. Orthodox epistemology and commonsense thinking influenced by it tend to be atomistic, monological, and representational, whereas constructivism is holistic, instrumentalist, and pragmatic.
This conflict between forms of realism and more pragmatic and praxis-oriented worldviews can be traced back to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the thinking of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The constructivist spirit was symbolically expressed by a principle that was first proposed by the great Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668– 1744)—the verum-factum principle—according to which historians and social theorists can only truly know what has been made or shaped by human intention and design. For Vico, this idea opened the continent of history as a realm of contingent social constructions.
The other important philosophical source of constructivist themes is the antiempiricist critical epistemology formulated by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) toward the end of the eighteenth century. Against the dominant empiricism of his day, Kant argued that cognition is not a passive reception of sensory data, but is, rather, the outcome of constructive processes of active cognition (involving a priori forms of intuition, categories of the understanding, and so on).
In keeping with the changing forms of empiricism and realism, the development of constructivism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries took many forms. These include the historicist perspective of historical materialism (with Karl Marx’s [1818–1883] elaboration of a more praxis-based “dialectical” realism); Émile Durkheim’s (1858–1917) image of the social as a collective “social fact”; the verstehende or interpretive sociology defended by Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), Georg Simmel (1858–1918), and Max Weber (1864–1920); Edmund Husserl’s (1859–1938) transcendental phenomenology; the philosophical hermeneutics associated with the philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) and Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005); the social phenomenology of Alfred Schutz (1899–1959); the sociology of knowledge represented by Karl Mannheim (1893–1947); and a range of interpretive sociologies influenced by these thinkers. Perhaps the seminal text in post–World War II (1939–1945) American sociology was Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966), which developed a sociology of knowledge synthesized from Marxist, Durkheimian, Meadian, and phenomenological traditions.
Constructivism became an influential current of thought in the 1960s and 1970s as it converged with new approaches to the understanding of the constitutive rules and regulatory processes that inform the framework of social life. This was particularly important in so-called labeling theories of deviance and the “new criminology”; in debates about the symbolic sources of social identity (in the symbolic interactionist tradition); in the study of stereotyping, prejudice, and authoritarianism in the field of ethnicity and race relations; in the renewed concern with the historical and political construction of sexuality and gender relations (associated, in particular, with feminist sociology); and in the emergence of more microsociological inquiries into the negotiated character of everyday social orders.
The constructivist outlook has had a major impact in shaping the landscape of contemporary intellectual life. Among the most important fields influenced by constructivism are: semiotics and structuralism, critical theory, general systems theory, structuration theory, postmodern theory, and gender theory.
In semiotics and structuralism, the structuralist movement explicitly embraces the constructive role of language and other cultural systems as reality-shaping forms of social production and reproduction (in terminology derived from Ferdinand de Saussure [1857–1913], language becomes a differential system of meaning construction). In psychology, Jean Piaget’s (1896–1980) structuralism provided one of the first explicit constructivist conceptions of human cognition, learning, and socialization, and James Gibson’s (1904–1979) theory of active affordances has led to constructivist research in perception and cognition (Gibson 1966).
In critical theory, the revision of historical materialism began with the Frankfurt School and continued under Jürgen Habermas and his students. Habermas’s differentiation of knowledge into three basic interest-defined types— instrumental (knowledge constructed in relation to work and labor), interpretive-hermeneutic (knowledge concerned with practical understanding in social life), and emancipative (knowledge linked to social criticism and change)—is an example of constructivism in critical theory. In general systems theory, societies actively construct their “environments” through cultural codes and representations. Structuration perspectives take as their theme the variable practices and differential processes of culturally mediated world construction. Examples of the latter are the “structuration” theories of society in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) and Anthony Giddens, and the closely related genealogical investigations of power/discourse formations associated with the work of Michel Foucault (1926–1984). Constructivism in postmodern theory is represented by the theory of language-games in Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) and the theory of simultation and hyperreality formulated by Jean Baudrillard. Gender theory has become especially marked in accounts of the discourse-constructed character of gendered identities, sexual inequalities, and patriarchal power influenced by post-structuralist theories of language.
Constructivist approaches can be found in a wide range of perspectives in contemporary social thought. The first and most pervasive is the so-called linguistic turn within contemporary philosophy and, closely linked to this, the “cultural” turn across all the social sciences. This insight into the radically constitutive implications of cultural processes challenges naturalistic methodologies by demonstrating the way in which all social relations and spheres of society are culturally produced, organized, and reproduced (Burr 1995; Gergen 1999). One example is the influence of a type of discursive “genealogy” influenced by the writings of Foucault (in essence, Foucault’s studies of disciplinary practices are inquiries into the discursive construction of “normal” schooling, penal practices, clinical medicine, and so on). In moving from a framework of individual construction (for example, the early work of Piaget) to theories of social construction, we emerge with a more radical sociology of the frameworks of knowledge viewed as cultural formations.
It is no exaggeration to say that a field such as ethnicity or “race” relations has been transformed by constructivist approaches to the discourses of “racial” differences and “racialized” inequalities and disadvantage. The history and sociology of racism has developed in ways that demonstrate how particular categories of ethnic difference have been constructed historically in order to sustain particular systems of domination. Viewing human groups in terms of “races” is a relatively recent example of the violence that can be inflicted upon populations and whole societies by social categories. Every ideology based upon a belief in the innate or culturally prescribed inferiority of one group defined by some physical attribute, characteristic, or trait is seen as an example of wider processes of socially mediated power and domination. Constructivism thus not only offers new avenues of research into the workings of racist discourse but also has led to a renewed sense of the ethical and political problems inherent in using “racial” terms and ethnic stereotypes. Divisions between groups and communities based upon such discourses are primary examples of socially constructed relations. The problem of institutionalized discrimination and how such inequalities are maintained by racialized discourse is seen as being central to the workings of power and domination in society (an insight that has led to renewed interest in the historical dynamics of colonial and postcolonial systems).
Another field in which constructivist approaches have been highly productive is the branch of microsociology inspired by the writings of Harold Garfinkel, Aaron Cicourel, David Sudnow, and Harvey Sacks. Their work has led to the emergence of a distinctive framework of research concerned with the sense-making activities of everyday discourse and conversation (usually referred to as conversation analysis). Discourse perspectives have also been influential in social psychology (as seen, for example, in the work of Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherell), including the explicitly social understandings of debates in experimental and physical science (Mulkay 1979; Knorr-Cetina 1981; Latour and Woolgar 1986), as well as the constructivist sociology of science associated with the Edinburgh School and approaches to the symbolic construction of organizations and organizational cultures (for example, in Karl Weick’s Sensemaking in Organizations ). Further analysis of the constructivist program would need to distinguish between the different varieties of sociological and phenomenological constructivism, symbolic interactionism (Plummer 2000), linguistic constructivism, moderate and radical constructivism, and more ideologically sensitive discourse-theoretical models of knowledge construction (Gadamer 1975; Edwards and Potter 1992; Gergen 1982 and 1999; Grint and Woolgar 1997; Potter 1996; Potter and Wetherell 1987).
Social constructivist approaches have actively transformed almost every subdisciplinary field within sociology and, more creatively, given rise to new research configurations and inquiries, most particularly associated with the sociology of the body, the self, cultural identity, and systems of difference. These approaches are most explicitly evident in the concept of embodiment regarded as a symbolically mediated process (Shotter 1993; Shotter and Gergen 1988); discursive psychology (Edwards and Potter 1992; Potter and Wetherell 1987); the symbolic dynamics of social identity and identity construction (Levine 1992; Bayer and Shotter 1998); the sociology of sex roles, sexuality, gender, and gender socialization (Burr 1998); critical investigations of ethnicity, racism, sexism, prejudice, and stereotyping (Billig 1991); the social construction of health and illness (White 2002); and more radical programs of reflexive social theory into the different forms of power and domination in everyday life and society (Sandywell 1996; Steier 1991). All of these approaches depend upon a more critical understanding of the historical dynamics of the construction of identity and difference in and as social relations. The challenge faced by contemporary constructivism is to open dialogues with these new problematics and to develop more reflexive frameworks that respect the constructive processes of social existence.
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