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This short study discusses the theory of social constructionism, with special regard to its implications for social workers and how its use can help them to understand human behaviour.
Social constructionism represents a sociological theory of knowledge that studies the development of various sociological phenomena in social contexts. The theory, simply put, questions widely held assumptions about inherent qualities of items, concepts, or issues, and instead brings attention to the dependence of such qualities upon the contingent rationale of our social sense. It helps us in realising that human perceptions of reality and the world, of things, concepts and ideas, are shaped by deliberate human choices and linguistic reinforcement, rather than by natural laws or divine intention.
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A social construct, the anchor of this theory, represents the artefact of a specific group. To illustrate, intangible words like talent or brilliance, which in the overwhelming majority of cases represent little else than greater effort or the achievement of proficiency, are imbued with special significance and then tagged on to specific people separate them from the hoi polloi, resulting in the alteration of perceptions and behaviour of the masses towards such individuals. To be hard working is to be commonplace, to be brilliant is to be extraordinary. And to be called brilliant is even better. Language, as is obvious, plays a key role in the development of social constructs.
The origins of present day social constructionist theories go back to the writings of Immanuel Kant. Kant argued for the existence of a world that was independent of human minds, thus implying that humans should not assert that they created the world. This world, he said, is without structure and is not divided into things and facts. Structure is imposed on the world by perceiving it and thinking of it in specific ways, as also by the adoption of particular, (rather than other), sets of beliefs about it.
Vivine Burr (2003, p 2) and other advocates of social constructionist theory put forth the view that knowledge of constructionism enables individuals to adopt critical attitudes towards their conventional lenses for perceiving and understanding the world and their own selves. It provides humans with fresh ways of assessing ideas and things that are otherwise considered to be commonplace and accepted without demur. Numerous things like money, newspapers or citizenship are socially constructed and would not obviously have existed in the absence of society. Each of them furthermore could have well been differently constructed.
This essay analyses and critiques the use of social constructionism by social workers in the understanding human behaviour. Specific emphasis has been given to the role of constructionism use in analysing commonly held perceptions and attitudes towards mental disorders. The study is segregated into three sections that sequentially take up the use of social constructionism for social workers in understanding human behaviour, its relevance in understanding mental disorders, and its areas of ambiguity and possible misuse.
The Use of Social Constructionism to Understand Human Behaviour
Social workers have two fundamental objectives, namely, (a) the strengthening of the ability of individuals and groups to cope with the many difficulties and challenges they confront in life and (b) the bringing about of improvements in various social and environmental circumstances in order to improve the satisfaction of human needs; especially of people from underprivileged and oppressed social segments.
Social workers plan and attempt their various interventions through their understanding of environmental circumstances, the various reasons for development of such conditions, and the client system. Such knowledge and the consequent adoption of theoretic approaches significantly influence the point, the tool, and the nature of social work intervention. It becomes evident that understanding of the reality of the client environment is crucial, both to social work theory and to its practice.
Theories of classical empiricism assert that the truth about the world is established and is independent of the individual. Social constructionism conversely puts forth the viewpoint that such truth, far from being independent of individuals, actually depends upon their thoughts, perceptions and beliefs. Whilst empiricists state that reality cannot be known separately from our elucidation of it, social constructionism messages that reality is constructed socially, with language being critical for the interpretation and construction of commonly accepted “reality”. It encourages people to question the widely held perception that conventional and accepted knowledge has sprung from objective and impartial examination of the world. It is in this sense opposed to the positivist epistemology of traditional science and spurs thinking individuals to constantly question their assumptions about the appearance of their environment and its various components.
Objectivists assert that individuals make discoveries and find out about the reality of the world through the construction and testing of hypotheses via the actions of neutral observers, even as constructionists debunk such assumptions, arguing that the interests and values of observers can never be separated from their observations and are thus bound to influence the final construction of common perceptions about world realities. Gergen (1985, p 270), states that generation of ideas of reality is initiated by social, rather than individual, processes and that the touted objective reality of the positivist approach is actually the result of various social construction processes that are influenced by historical, political, cultural and economic conditions.
Berger and Luckmann, (1966), state that individuals experience the world to be an objective reality, comprising of persons and events that exist separately of individual perceptions. Payne (1997), additionally states that reality, according to social constructionism, can be stated to be the guidance of behaviour by individual perceptions of knowledge and reality. Individuals arrive at shared perceptions of reality through the sharing of their knowledge via different social processes that first organise such knowledge and thereafter establish it by making it objective. Social and individual activity thus becomes habitual with individuals sharing their assumptions about their perceptions of reality. People behave in line with social conventions that are based on such shared knowledge. These conventions are furthermore institutionalised because of the agreement of many people on such understandings on different aspects of society. Such realisations and accords thereafter become legitimised by processes that integrate these ideas about reality into ordered and believable systems.
Language provides the means through which individuals make sense of their environment, classify persons and events, and interpret new experiences. The shared reality of everyday life by different individuals distinguishes it from individual realities, (like dreams). Language helps individuals in sharing their experiences and making it available to others. Such sharing of reality leads to institutionalisation and thereafter to habitual ways of working. Habitualism in turn makes the behaviour of different individuals predictable, facilitates joint activity and perpetuates social control mechanisms. Knowledge is as such institutionalised within sub-groups, or at social levels, and significantly influences the behaviour of people. Shakespeare famously used his felicity with language to construct an illusionary reality about Jewish greed that persisted for centuries and shaped the perceptions and behaviours of millions of people towards the community.
With such knowledge of reality being essentially constructed, it can change over time and diverge across cultural groups that embrace different perceptions and beliefs about human nature and development. Considering that the norms, beliefs, values, traditions, attitudes and practices of different cultural groups vary from each other, the social construction of their knowledge is also likely to differ significantly. An understanding of this fundamental principle can help social workers in their realisation of the different perceptions, attitudes and behaviours of different individuals towards similar social phenomena or stimuli.
Social constructionism helps social workers in adopting critical stances towards established assumptions that reinforce the interests of powerful and dominant social groups and assists them in realising that the world has come about because of historical processes of communication and negotiation between groups and individuals. Gergen (1985, p 266), states that people see the world through the eyes of their particular communities and cultures and respond accordingly. Established assumptions, understandings and behaviours of people are sustained by social, political, economic and moral institutions. Social workers should, through its application, be better able to understand the various dimensions of reality within such individual thoughts, perceptions and beliefs.
Social workers, the writer feels, need to realise that social understanding is finally the combined result of various human understandings through the operation of circular processes, wherein individuals contribute to the construction of social meaning within social structures of societies through processes of institutionalisation and legitimisation. Societies consequently create conventions through the participation of individuals in their structures, which, in turn influences the behaviours of people. Spirals of constantly moving influences build and rebuild the conventions that people adopt and by which they live.
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Social constructionism allows social workers to question dominant structures of knowledge and understand the impact of culture and history. Social workers understand the requirements of humans by and large through the application of specific ideological, ethical, political and economic approaches. An understanding of social constructionism can help them in understanding the responses behind the actions of both dominant and vulnerable groups of society and decide upon the adoption of the best suited routes for bringing about social change.
Social Constructionism and Mental Illness
Much of modern society’s perceptions about mental ailments are influenced by the medical and psychological models. These state that medical illnesses are real; they concern disturbances in thoughts, experiences, and emotions that can be serious enough to cause functional impairment in individuals. Such ailments make it difficult for individuals to sustain interpersonal relationships and conduct their jobs. They can also sometimes result in self destructive actions, including suicides. The more serious of such illnesses, like extreme depression and schizophrenia, can often be chronic and lead to serious disability.
Social constructionism argues that such perceptions about mental ailments are caused by specifically constructed vocabularies of medical and psychological models, which are replete with elaborate terminologies for mental disorders and focused on deficits. Walker, (2006), states that vocabularies of medical and psychological models, including the concept of mental illness itself, are essentially social constructions. They are made up of terms that describe deficits and diseases and perceive human beings as things that can be examined, diagnosed and treated, much in the manner of machines. Such perceptions (a) lead to obsessions with compliance, (b) distinguish between normal and pathological states, (c) position practitioners as experts, and (d) represent clients as passive and obedient objects of treatment. Recommended treatments focus on elimination of symptoms, support established paternalistic roles, and are not focused on actual client needs. Social constructionism, the writer feels, can help social workers in understanding the destructive illusions that have been created by existing medical and psychological models and deficit based language.
Examined from the perspective of linguistics, reified categories like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are defined by clusters termed as symptoms; schizophrenia for example is concerned with the occurrence of audio hallucinations. Such terms have come about due to the creation of consensus among doctors and psychologists and persist because of convention. Mental illnesses are often described by such specialists in terms akin to physical ailments like diabetes, where individuals manage their lives with specific medications; these comparisons are used to explain the working of medications and to make diagnosis and recommended treatment for mental ailments acceptable to clients.
Analogies like these however do appear to the writer to be forced and even trifling considering that discussions about thoughts and feelings of individuals concern their identities and not their bodies. Social workers need to understand that the vocabularies of medical and psychological models essentially position clinicians as the most suitable interpreters of client experiences. Even superficially docile terms like “clinical” or “treatment plans” establish contexts where clients are perceived to be abnormal or having pathologies, even as clinicians are established as authorities with abilities to perform interventions for assisting clients in overcoming their pathologies. With the power of definition lying with clinicians, the labelling of people as mentally ill pushes them to the borders of society and takes away from them their intrinsic rights and privileges.
Social constructionism helps social workers in understanding that whilst political and human pressure has helped in eliminating the incarceration of the mentally ill in mental hospitals, the distinction created by vocabulary on mental illness leads to the movement of foci of power to clinicians and undermines efforts for self determination and community integration. Such medical and psychological vocabularies constitute obstacles to more inclusive mental health programmes and undermine social understanding of people with mental disorders.
Social workers need to however recognise the gray areas that surround social constructionist theory. Dominelli (97) states that social workers are ironically likely to regulate the social construction of the children of poor families, with whom they work extensively, by giving credibility to the “dominant, white, heterosexual, nuclear family model”. The writer feels that the casual application of the theory for the debunking of each and every thing, including important issues like culture and community, can lead to confusion and dilute the focus of social workers. Race and religion, for example, are essentially social constructs of dominant power groups but that does not take away from the fact that they exist and are not expected to disappear because of critical analysis by social constructists.
Wanton overdoing of “social construction” has often resulted in methodologically substandard work, wherein scholars have spent time in libraries, worked on some novels and then put forth findings that the common images and metaphors in them were “social constructions” with wide relational powers in the “reality”, which such novels attempted to represent. Roche and Barnes Holmes (2003) state that the strength of social constructivism is also its weakness; its deconstructive methods dissolve the solutions as well as the problems from which they emerge.
Social constructions surround us and include diverse aspects like racism, child abuse, crime, and disease. The writer feels that these things do not become unreal because of their social construction; even though the dominance of construction processes may differ between each of them.Spending a great deal of time in showing that most things are social constructs can well be little other than wasted effort. The large body of doctors and psychologists are again unlikely to give up their vocabulary because constructionists do not believe in them.
It is evident from the preceding discussion that the ongoing debate and dialogue on social constructionism has facilitated a whole new way of looking at established and accepted “realities”. With regard to the theory and practice of social work, the use of constructionism can help social workers in understanding how dominant groups have for long institutionalised constructs like race, age, gender, and physical and mental disability to perpetuate models of oppression and discrimination.
Students and practitioners of social work, whilst making use of this theory, will however do well to consider that excessive stress on constructionist language and downplaying of materiality may well be counterproductive and result not only in idle discourse but in superimposition of their socialised views on vulnerable social segments. Social workers who participate in what they feel are social constructs could also end up questioning the relevance of their work. They may thus have to battle with their being engaged in phony actions and be adversely affected by the creation of manipulative sensibilities.
Social workers must try to ensure that the theory is used practically for widening their knowledge and clarifying different aspects of human behaviour, yet refrain from making it irrelevant and trivial.
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