Social Constructionism A Sociological Theory Of Knowledge Sociology Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Our society is constantly developing. We explore everyday reality concerning the aims that we make for ourselves in our lives. Among these aims can be financial welfare,

cultural or sociological establishment or simply a satisfaction of our everyday needs. Being a part of society, we influence it to the visible extent. Our contemporary reality is build mainly by the process of communication and making commun decisions. Our way of behavior, cloth style, social activity are based on what kind of society we are in. So every personality makes an impact on the society, and, of course, society makes a distinct impact on a a personality. Such social exchange of information and everything that is constructed in such a way can be called social constructionism.

In set terms, social constructionism is a sociological theory of knowledge that considers how social phenomena or objects of consciousness develop in social contexts. The main part of social constructionism as a notion is social construct. Social construct is a kind of socially developed belief or mode of behavior that is popular among members of a particular group of people. The views that others have of us, the ways the dominant discourse describes us, those are social constructions. People have agreed that they believe those views because they hear them over and over, and they seem to be just something "everyone knows". Social “construction,” “constructionism” and “constructivism” are terms in wide use in the humanities and social sciences, and are applied to a diverse range of objects including the emotions, gender, race, sex, homo- and hetero-sexuality, mental illness, technology, quarks, facts, reality, and truth. While constructionist claims often take the passive form of a declaration that “Y is socially constructed,” it is more useful to think of social constructionist claims as having the form of a two-part relation:

X socially constructs Y.

We can then think of different accounts of social construction as differing in their accounts either of the relation itself, or of one or both relata.

Constructionist notions shed light on how internalized and externalized expressions of a subject's constructs interrelate and spur further development. A good example of how this can be fleshed out is found in the research of Lev Vygotsky.

Vygotsky was one of the first who used sociocultural approach to understanding cognitive processes in childhood development. Instead of researching a mental activity of an isolated individual, he tried to reveal the impact of social and cultural interactions on the genesis of cognitive functions. Vigotsky believed that it is our need to interact and communicate in the sociocultural context that makes human cognitive development intellectual and distinct from animal cognition:

Signs and words serve children first and foremost as a means of social contact with other people. The cognitive and communicative functions of language then become the basis of a new and superior form of activity in children, distinguishing them from animals. (Vygotsky, 1978, pp. 28-29)

The internalization of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature in human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology.

Vigosdky came to a conclusion that social interactions are vital for successful cognitive development. It is clearly seen from his experiments that external activities

play an important part in the development of internal mental constructions. Thus Vigodsky revealed the basics of social constructionism.

We digest external information step by step. It progressively changes our inner world, influencing our beliefs, attitudes, and values. Such transformations are easily seen in children's behavior. A good example of this process may be found in the development of pointing. This gesture appears initially as an unsuccessful attempt to grasp something, a movement aimed at a certain object which designates forthcoming activity. The child attempts to get an object placed beyond his reach; his hands, stretched toward that object, remain poised in the air. His fingers make grasping movements. At this initial stage pointing is represented by the child's movement, which looks like pointing to an object.

Seeing such a movement, mother tries to help her child to get what he wants. This changes the situation completely. Pointing becomes a gesture for others. Child's attempt engenders an outside reaction. He learns how to show his mother that he want something, understanding what this movement means for others. Thus the child understands a social value of his action. So initially grasping movement transforms to the act of pointing. The movement becomes more simplified and denotes a usual act of pointing that we may call

a true gesture. Its meaning and functions are created at first by an objective situation and then by people who surround the child. Using this example, Vigotsky explains the early stage of development representational and communicational skills by the child. He describes the child's internal order of digesting the new external information. This primary role played by external relations suggests profound implications are involved in the effects that social and cultural settings have on individuals during developmental stages. In fact, Vygotsky goes so far as to claim that all higher mental functions evolve from social relations.

From constructivist point of view every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.

Vigotsky states that social level is primary in all higher mental functions of people. This statement has drawn considerable fire from constructivist critiques, claiming that

many internalized mental structures evolve before getting to the sociocultural milieu. However, in spite of such talks, we can see that social and individual halves of intellectual development should be equally considered to get a real picture of this process.

The golden mean (I call it common sense) of such social-individual priority disputes is that people do not acquire their ideology, norms, and values solely by internalizing them from outside. They pass it through their essence sifting what they don't like and taking what they consider useful for themselves. The more varied their social experience and the more unconnected the standards they internalize, the more internal rearrangement they must make.

Hovewer, a great variety of objects discussed by social constructionists gives an easily understandable reason to think that constructivist claims have different implications depending upon the different objects at which they are directed. Nevertheless, all such talks are directed at three different sorts of entities. These are representations (e.g. ideas, theories, concepts, accounts, taxonomies, and so forth), (non-representational) facts quite generally, and a special sort of non-representational fact: facts about human traits. Discussion of social constructionism has been concerned with the so-called “science wars”, which consist in evaluating the inference from the numerous and complex social influences operating in the production of scientific theories to the social construction of the facts those theories purport to represent, or to the failure of accounts of scientific rationality, or scientific realism, or scientific process. One of the interesting topics of such disputes is human nature discussion. Social constructionism labels the position that human traits(e.g. emotions) or human kinds(built up on the basis of particular way of thinking or behavior) are produced by culture rather than by biology or nature. The most notable subjects of this discussion concerned with whether the clustering of behavioral dispositions in, for example, sex difference, emotional behavior, or mental illness, are caused by a cultural practice of differentiating persons or are instead caused by natural processes operating in relative independence from culture.

It's important to distinguish global constractionist claims stating that every fact is a social construction, from local constructionist claims that hold that only particular facts are. A great deal of philosophers consider the claims that are relatively global in scope are quite provocative and surprising while claims that would count as locally socially constructionist are quite familiar in many areas of philosophy, perhaps most importantly in meta-ethics, aesthetics, and social ontology. The domain of social ontology is especially interesting because here many facts are widely recognized as social constructions: for example, facts about being a U.S. Senator or a licensed dog are social constructions. Such kind of constructions is named avert constructions. Local constractionist claims that try to show some object may be produced by unacknowledged social practices are usually titled covert constructions. Such costructions play an important role in the philosophy of psychiatry, the philosophy of the emotions, the philosophy of race and the philosophy of gender. Here the claim that some kind is explained by received culture or practice retains its interest because it offers a metaphysical alternative to other explanations (biological, religious, etc.) of the differential features of the kind members.

It's clearly seen that the core idea of constructionism is that some social agent produces or controls some object. Of course, “construction” talk is meant to evoke a variety of connotations that attend more paradigmatic construction: intentional activity, engaged in step-by step fashion, producing a designed, artifactual product. While social construction talk is frequently understood in different ways, we can distinguish two different sorts of relationship: causal and constitutive. On the first, X constructs Y if Y is caused to come to exist, to continue to exist, or to have the properties that it does by X. On the second, Y is constructed if it is constituted by X's conceptual or social activity (perhaps even independently of X's causal influence on Y).

Causal idea can be described in such a way:

X causally constructs Y if and only if X causes Y to exist or to persist or X controls the kind-typical properties of Y.

More obscure is the idea that X's construction of Y is some sort of constitutive relationship. Many constructionist claims seem to involve the idea that the world is itself “made up” by social and cultural activities in ways that suggest our socio-linguistic behaviors are at least necessary to the object in question. This suggests a relationship such as:

X constitutively constructs Y if and only if X's conceptual or social activity regarding an individual y is metaphysically necessary for y to be a Y.

Consider the ways in which causal and constitutive claims might pull apart in a case of a socially produced artifact. Representations expressing the concept watch are causally necessary for some materials to become a watch, but they are not metaphysically necessary. It is metaphysically possible, however unlikely, that we could walk across a heath and find a watch that had “always been there.”

In contrast, the best candidates for constitutive construction are social facts:

For social facts, the attitude that we take toward the phenomenon is partly constitutive of the phenomenon. Part of being a cocktail party is being thought to be a cocktail party; part of being a war is being thought to be a war. This is a remarkable feature of social facts; it has no analogue among physical facts.

A particular gathering of persons can be a cocktail party only with the conceptual and social recognition of those gathered. A similar idea has been influential in constructionist discussions. A good example is a constructionist account of race:

Where R is a race, a person is R at a site only if R is used there to divide people.

Such social facts suggest the possibility of a model that would handle other provocative constructionist claims as well. For example, a similar treatment would entail the common claim that there were no homosexuals before the concept homosexual came to be expressed in Western culture in the nineteenth century.

Our conceptual scheme or practice are necessary to make it true that some event instantiates cocktail party or war. We need at least a model of exactly how the conceptual practice constitutes the fact. If we think of meaning in terms of truth conditions, the claim would be that the truth conditions for something being a cocktail party must themselves express the concept of cocktail party:

The statement that x is a cocktail party is only true in the conditions when some criteria are met. This gives the participants of such party the reason to believe that cocktail party is actually a cocktail party but nothing else.

There can be many social events that can be observed from the similar point of view as cocktail party example.

Participants produce them only when they share certain intentional states about what they are doing. But such an attitude is often unsuitable for the objects of many social constructionist claims. A mainstay of constructionist research is to claim that social influence is exercised in surprising and provocative ways, especially on objects that we take to be produced naturally . Considering that we can come to an obvious conclusion that it cannot be part of our ordinary concepts of covertly constructed kinds that instances require our social-conceptual imprimatur to be members of these kinds.

Take an electron or a mountain as an example. These things are not constructed by us, their essence is independent from society. So, constructionists who view construction as a constitutive relation need another account of constitutivity: it is simply implausible and inconsistent to claim that the necessity arises out of concept or word meanings in cases of covert construction.

There is a different model of necessity for the constructionist, however, which is to hold that the necessity in question is revealed a posteriori by our investigations of the phenomenon in question. Many scientists defend a causal theory of reference on which some terms (notably natural kind terms) refer to some sort of stuff or essence underlying the central uses of the term (see Reference: Causal Theories). Crucially, however, because the reference relation is causal, competent users of a term can be radically mistaken about what the term refers to and still successfully refer. In the case of water, for example, Putnam suggests that “water” picks out the sort of stuff that bears the appropriate causal-historical relation to paradigmatic instances in our own causal history (viz. H2O), and this was true even when we did not know what sort of stuff that was (i.e. before we knew the chemical structure). Putnam emphasized that claims such as “water=H2O” express necessary though a posteriori truths.

Though the causal theory of reference remains controversial, it has become an accepted wisdom in many quarters of philosophy. It gives a ground for different interpreters of social constructionism to say that some particular terms are produced by our socio-linguistic behavior. Many scientists would agree that it is part of our ordinary conception of the concept that it refers to an independent, natural fact about the world. But constitutive constructionist would insist that further exploration of the world reveals that conventional features of our practice produce the object of our study. Discovering the process of constructing social objects, it would be a good idea to investigate the field of social representations. In talking about the construction of representations, we address the range of mental states, group beliefs, scientific theories, and other representations that express concepts or propositions. Such representations are, among other things, the vehicles of our thought as well as the means by which we store, organize, and further our knowledge of the world, and we do this in virtue of their role as bearers of meaning. A number of commentators have noted that many provocative constructionist claims are, in the first instance, claims that some sort of representation is constructed. Specifically, these are claims that social causes produce or control the selection of some representations with some meanings rather than others. Where we limit the objects of constructionist claims to representations (such as theories), the claims cease to be particularly provocative though detailed constructionist accounts of how certain representations came to be selected may still teach us a lot of interesting attitudes of different fields of science towards this question.

In light of this, philosophers may be wont to diagnose much constructionist talk as a careless (or even an intentionally provocative) error of talking about the object of construction using a representation when one should be mentioning it (thereby expressing a view about the referent of the representation rather than the representation itself). When Claudius Ptolemy offered a geo-centric theory of the universe in the second century CE, he thereby contributed to the social construction of something: namely, a geocentric theory of the universe. We can talk about how and when that theory arose, and how it changed over time, but in doing so we are simply talking about a representation (or perhaps a lineage of related representations). It would be a mistake simply to slip from those claims into saying that in constructing this theory he thereby constructed a geocentric universe. Hence, charity in interpretation alone may suggest attributing only the weaker claim to a constructionist author.

Some constructionists believe that process of structuring the theories makes itself facts for these theories. But if we leave at least the global versions of these claims aside, the distinctive feature of social constructionist explanations of representations is that they explain how we came to have those representations not by reference to the facts in the world they represent (as in realism), nor by reference to associations among our sensations (as in some forms of empiricism), nor by reference to innate knowledge or concepts (as in rationalism), nor by reference to the conditions of our thought or experience (as in transcendental arguments) but rather by reference to social and cultural background facts.

One of the most important fields of social construction is research of human kinds and human traits. It includes analysis of human mental states and and their dispositions

to think and behave in particular ways.

Because discussion of kinds of persons with dispositions to think and behave quickly gives rise to other questions about freedom of the will and social regulation, debates over constructionism about kinds are central to social and political debates regarding human categorization, including debates over sex and gender, race, emotions, hetero-and homo-sexuality, and mental illness. Since the constructionist strategy explains a trait by appeal to highly contingent factors (including culture), partisans of these debates often come inquire whether a trait or cluster of traits is culturally specific, or can be found across cultures.

To understand social constructionalism better we need to carefully analyze constructionist positions and their alternatives. Considering the constructionalist position about cultural specificity or universality, a number of analysts have noted that constructionist claims of cultural specificity often hinge not on genuine empirical disagreement about what is or is not found through history and across cultures, but also on a strategy of individuating the phenomena in question in ways that do or do not involve contextual features that vary across cultures.

Social analysts also distinguished social constructionist claims from the possibility of cultural control, disentangled claims of social construction from claims of voluntariness and nonessentialism, set out alternate forms of constructionism or anti-constructionism, disentangled questions regarding the neural basis of a human kind from the innate/constructed dichotomy.

This conceptual project is a philosophical project par excellence, and it has contributed a great deal to clarifying just what conceptual and empirical issues are at stake in constructionist work.

A number of scientists suggest that human socio-linguistic behaviors produce social roles that in turn shape human traits (including behavior) via a number of different avenues, both developmental and situational.

Looming large here is Ian Hacking's work on “making up people” (1986, 1991, 1992, 1995a, 1995b, 1998). In a series of papers and books, Hacking argues that the creation and promulgation of bureaucratic, technical, and medical classifications like “child abuse,” “multiple personality disorder,” and “fugue” create “new ways to be a person” (1995b, p. 239). On Hacking's model, one he called “the looping effect of human kinds,” the conception of the behavior may be part of an epistemic project of understanding a human kind that in turn gives rise to the clusters of traits that the theory represents (thereby providing epistemic support for the conception).Much of Hacking's research are providing detailed historical and cultural evidence that suggests that looping effects really are a feature of (at least modern) human social life, e.g. for the American epidemic of multiple personality disorder that started in the 1980s (Hacking 1995) or the European epidemic of fugue in the late nineteenth century (Hacking 1998). Hacking makes further claims about the “looping effect,” for example, that looping effects mark “a cardinal difference between the traditional natural and social sciences” because “the targets of the natural sciences are stationary” while “the targets of the social sciences are on the move”.

Social accounts of traits or kinds may be paired with constructionist accounts of the representations that structure the social roles, and indeed, this is the natural way to read much constructionist work: work that is committed to explaining both theories of human kinds and the traits those theories purport to explain by appeal to social agents. One might hold, for example, that both our theories about gender and the differential behavior those theories structure are products of social construction.

The metaphor of “social construction” has proven remarkably supple in labeling and prompting a range of research across the social sciences and humanities, and the themes of cultural causation taken up in this research are themselves of central concern. While most philosophical effort has gone towards the interpretation and refutation of provocative accounts of social construction arising especially out of studies in the history and sociology of science, social constructionist themes emerge across a host of other contexts, offering philosophical naturalists a range of alternate ways of engaging constructionist themes. Philosophical naturalists as well as working scientists have begun to take up this opportunity in ways that use the methods of philosophy and science to both state and evaluate social constructionist hypotheses (though not always under that label). Because of the powerful and central role culture plays in shaping human social environments, behaviors, identities and development, there is ample room for continuing and even expanding the pursuit of social constructionist themes within a naturalistic framework.

1) Hacking, I. (1999). The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, USA, Harvard University Press.

2) Vygotsky, Lev (1978). Mind in Society: The Development off Higher

Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3) Vygotsky, Lev (1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

4) Burr, Vivien (2003). Social Constructionism. Second Edition.

5) Kuhn, T. S. (1962/1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

6) Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

7) Pickering, A. (1984). Constructing quarks: a sociological history of particle physics. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.