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The process of creating social reality by individuals, groups, or organizations in interaction with social structure is often termed social construction. Sociologist W. I. Thomas defined the concept of the situation as, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928, p. 572). And this theorem demonstrates that human perceptions in large and small ways create the social world.
While individuals actively participate in creating social reality, simultaneously, they are influenced by social reality. Human behaviors, everyday interactions, and social life do not occur in random fashion; rather daily experiences in the social world are patterned based on the organizing of individuals, groups, and organizations. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman presented, “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product” (Berger and Luckman 1966, p. 61).
Different perspectives and research approaches are used to investigate social construction and its results. Social scientists have used the term social construction to emphasize how identity, roles, statuses, knowledge, and institutions are created and maintained relating with other members of society in socio-historical context. Postmodern theorists demonstrate how social reality is constructed by deconstructing in various ways what is taken as reality. For instance, some postmodern researchers deconstruct knowledge to demonstrate a totalizing general theory or an ultimate truth is misguided.
The creation of identity, the sense of self, demonstrates how the social construction works at the individual level, how significant it is to an individual in various contexts, and how individual identity creation is a reflection of social structure. Individual identity is formed by social processes in different socio-historical contexts. So identity can be fluid, situated, multidimensional, and interactive between individual consciousness and social structure. Identity is created, re-created, and maintained by reacting upon the given social structure and personal characteristics.
Social psychological studies have focused on how social structure intersects with individuals’ construction of identity. Many studies focus on people experiencing identity struggles, especially managing lower status in the hierarchical order of social life. For example, creation of sexual identity in relation to majority culture is complicated and is a particular struggle for those belonging to marginalized or stigmatized groups, such as homosexuals. It is through interacting with others and by learning cultural norms and values that individuals become aware of which sexual identity is desirable and appropriate in society. Thus, for homosexuals, construction and maintaining of their sexual identity is the socio-political process of obtaining legitimacy.
Social scientists have incorporated various types of research methods to explore the process and consequence of social construction. These include in-depth interviews, participant observation, ethnomethodology, documentary-historical studies, discourse analysis, experiments, and surveys.
- Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckman. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday.
- Calhoun, Craig, et al. 2002. Contemporary Sociological Theory. Maiden, MA: Blackwell.
- Howard, Judith. 2000. Social Psychology of Identities. Annual Review of Sociology 26: 367–393.
- Seidman, Steven. 1994. The End of Sociological Theory. In The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives in Social Theory, ed. Steven Seidman. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Thomas, William I., and Dorothy Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf.
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