Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 16 January 2009

What is Social Constructionism?

Fielding University has a Winter Session in Santa Barbara each year for a week and a summer session in Kansas City. These sessions are filled with many choices of half day sessions, small “tastes” of topics that might be of interest for in-depth study. Faculty also may conclude an online study course by having a day or two with students face to face (F2F) to conclude the course.

My two favorite sessions were: “Social Constructionism” and “Becoming an Inclusive Scholar.” This post focuses on social constructionism. The presenters were Dr. W. Barnett Pearce and Dr. Frank Barrett.  Dr. Pearce is the “father of Coordinated Management of Meaning” (more on CMM in a future post) and Dr. Barrett is one of the originators of Appreciative Inquiry. I feel very fortunate to have them on our faculty.

What is Social Constructionism?

Most simply, social constructionism is a philosophy which contends that we create our reality through our thoughts and beliefs.  Language is the medium of thought.  According to Heidegger, we “speak things into being.”

A very brief overview

The seminar began with a “history of ideas” leading to social constructionism. We began with the Greeks, followed by St. Augustine’s “City of God,” the “Great Chain of Being” and then Descartes’ positivist ideas. Hume, Kant and Locke, who were philosophers of the “enlightenment” espoused dualism and the concept of a separation between mind and body (inner/outer). In the centuries that followed, the prevalent view as that”true knowledge” needed to be expressed through mathematical and scientific language. Vico, an Italian philosopher began to challenge the Cartesian vision.

What follows next almost reads like Genesis – it’s the geneaology of social constructionist philosophy.  Weber, the father of social organizational theory, focused on understanding people’s values related to their actions.  Husserl, the father of phenomenology, focused on the internal experience of knowing and understanding.  Schutz, who also wrote about phenomenology, was Husserl’s student.  Heidegger, founder of existentialism, was influenced by Husserl.  Gadamer, who was a student of Heidegger, made a significant contribution to hermeneutics, which focuses on interpretation of text.

According to Hubert Dreyfus, a professor at UC Berkeley, Heidegger defined the notion that we are totally embedded and engulfed in the world and therefore have access to all knowledge.  This idea reminds me of my consciousness studies – where especially in non-Western theories, our individual consciousness is embedded in a Universal Consciousness.  Gadamer said that “knowledge is dialog.”  The world projects its horizon toward me and I project my horizon toward it.  Knowledge occurs in the middle, where there is a fusion of the horizons.

Eventually, the post-modern philosophers have added their ideas to this set of ideas.  Though Foucault and Derrida did not give credit to Heidegger during their lifetimes, just before each died, they said something to the effect of “I owe everything to Heidegger.”  Here are some further notes from the seminar:

  • If we accept that we are always living in a world of our own making, we have to give up any sense of certain reality.  The world is unfinished and continually changing.
  • We are imprisioned by our language.  The limits of one’s language are the limits of that person’s world.
  • If you want to change the world, change the way we talk

Key criticisms of social constructionism

  • The concepts are not “provable” in the language of science and mathematics
  • There is an implied revolution to the dominant world view – to accept S.C. you need to give up the idea of certainty
  • Social constructionism does not distinguish between the moral and ethical values
    of various courses of action (per Peter Marshall – 16th Australasian Conference on Information Systems,  Social Constructionism & Pragmatism in IS; 2005)

I find these ideas challenging and exciting.  I look forward to taking a detailed course in the topic to gain further understanding.


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