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Methodology and Methods

What is social constructionism?

Over the last twenty years or so, students of the social sciences in Britain and North America have witnessed the gradual emergence of a number of alternative approaches to the study of human beings as social animals. These approaches have appeared under a variety of rubrics, such as ‘critical psychology’, ‘discursive psychology’, ‘discourse analysis’, ‘deconstruction’ and ‘poststructuralism’. What many of these approaches have in common, however, is what is now often referred to as ‘social constructionism’. Social constructionism can be thought of as a theoretical orientation which to a greater or lesser degree underpins all of these newer approaches, which are currently offering radical and critical alternatives in psychology and social psychology, as well as in other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Social constructionism, as it has been taken up by psychology and social psychology, is the focus of this book, and my aim is to introduce the reader to some of its major features, while also elaborating upon the implications it holds for how we are to understand human beings, and for the discipline of psychology itself.

In this introductory chapter, my first task will be to say what kinds of writing and research I include within the term ‘social constructionism’ and why. This will not necessarily be where others would draw the boundary, but it will serve as an initial orientation for the reader, giving some indication of what it means to take a social constructionist approach. I will say something about the contributors to the field, and why I have included them as social constructionists. It is quite possible that I will be guilty of labelling as ‘social constructionist’ writers who would not wish to be labelled as such, and vice versa. I apologise in advance to those who feel uncomfortable with my description of them, but must adopt the rationale which appears to me to make sense of the area. I will then go on to outline something of the history of the social constructionist movement, especially as it has been taken up by social psychology. As we shall see, social constructionism as an approach to the social sciences draws its influences from a number of disciplines, including philosophy, sociology and linguistics, making it multidisciplinary in nature. Finally, I shall raise the major issues that will be addressed by this book, indicating the chapters where they will be dealt with.

Is there a definition of social constructionism?

First of all, I would like to point out that social constructionism is a term that is used almost exclusively by psychologists. As Craib (1997) points out, many of its basic assumptions are actually fundamental to one of its disciplinary cousins, sociology, and it is a measure of the unhelpful separation of the disciplines of sociology and psychology since the early 20th century that psychologists are only just ‘discovering’ social constructionist ideas. There is no single description, which would be adequate for all the different kinds of writers whom I shall refer to as social constructionist. This is because, although different writers may share some characteristics with others, there isn’t really anything that they all have in common. What links them all together is a kind of ‘family resemblance’. Members of the same family differ in the family characteristics that they share. There is no one characteristic borne by all members of a family, but there are enough recurrent features shared amongst different family members to identify the people as basically belonging to the same family group. This is the model I shall adopt for social constructionism. There is no one feature, which could be said to identify a social constructionist position. Instead, we might loosely think of as social constructionist any approach which has at its foundation one or more of the following key assumptions (from Gergen, 1985). You might think of these as something like ‘things you would absolutely have to believe in order to be a social constructionist’.

A critical stance toward taken-for-grantedknowledge

Social constructionism insists that we take a critical stance toward our taken-for-granted ways of understanding the world, including ourselves. It invites us to be critical of the idea that our observations of the world unproblematically yield its nature to us, to challenge the view that conventional knowledge is based upon objective, unbiased observation of the world. It is therefore in opposition to what is referred to as positivism and empiricism in traditional science—the assumptions that the nature of the world can be revealed by observation, and that what exists is what we perceive to exist. Social constructionism cautions us to be ever suspicious of our assumptions about how the world appears to be. This means that the categories with which we as human beings apprehend the world do not necessarily refer to real divisions. For example, just because we think of some music as ‘classical’ and some as ‘pop’ does not mean we should assume that there is anything in the nature of the music itself that means it has to be divided up in that particular way. A more radical example is that of gender and sex. Our observations of the world suggest to us that there are two categories of human being, men and women. Social constructionism bids us to seriously question whether the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are simply a reflection of naturally occurring distinct types of human being. This may seem a bizarre idea at first, and of course differences in reproductive organs are present in many species. But we become aware of the greyness of such categories when we look at practices such as gender reassignment surgery and the surrounding debate about how to classify people as unambiguously male or female. We can thus begin to consider that these seemingly natural categories may be inevitably bound up with gender, the normative prescriptions of masculinity and femininity in a culture, so that that whole categories of personhood, that is all the things it means to be a man or a woman, have been built upon them. Social constructionism would suggest that we might equally well, and just as absurdly, have divided people up into tall and short, or those with ear lobes and those without. Social constructionism’s critical stance is particularly adopted toward mainstream psychology and social psychology, generating radically different accounts of many psychological and social phenomena.

Historical and cultural specificity

The ways in which we commonly understand the world, the categories and concepts we use, are historically and culturally specific. Whether one understands the world in terms of men and women, pop music and classical music, urban life and rural life, past and future etc. depends upon where and when in the world one lives. For example, the notion of childhood has undergone tremendous change over the centuries. What it has been thought ‘natural’ for children to do has changed, as well as what parents were expected to do for their children (e.g. Aries, 1962). It is only in relatively recent historical times that children have ceased to be simply small adults in all but their legal rights. And we only have to look as far back as the writings of Dickens to remind ourselves that the idea of children as innocents in need of adult protection is a very recent one indeed. We can see changes even within the timespan of the last fifty years or so, with radical consequences for how parents are advised to bring up their children.

This means that all ways of understanding are historically and culturally relative. Not only are they specific to particular cultures and periods of history, they are seen as products of that culture and history, and are dependent upon the particular social and economic arrangements prevailing in that culture at that time. The particular forms of knowledge that abound in any culture are therefore artefacts of it, and we should not assume that our ways of understanding are necessarily any better, in terms of being any nearer the truth, than other ways.

Knowledge is sustained by social processes

If our knowledge of the world, our common ways of understanding it, is not derived from the nature of the world as it really is, where does it come from? The social constructionist answer is that people construct it between them. It is through the daily interactions between people in the course of social life that our versions of knowledge become fabricated. Therefore social interaction of all kinds, and particularly language, is of great interest to social constructionists. The goings-on between people in the course of their everyday lives are seen as the practices during which our shared versions of knowledge are constructed. For example what we understand as dyslexia is a phenomenon that has come into being through the exchanges between those who have difficulties with reading and writing and others who may teach them or offer them diagnostic tests. Therefore what we regard as truth, which of course varies historically and cross-culturally, may be thought of as our current accepted ways of understanding the world. These are a product not of objective observation of the world, but of the social processes and interactions in which people are constantly engaged with each other.

Knowledge and social action go together

These negotiated understandings could take a wide variety of different forms, and we can therefore talk of numerous possible social constructions of the world. But each different construction also brings with it, or invites, a different kind of action from human beings. For example, before the Temperance movement, drunks were seen as entirely responsible for their behaviour, and therefore blameworthy. A typical response was therefore imprisonment. However, there has been a move away from seeing drunkenness as a crime towards thinking of it as a sickness, a kind of addiction. The alcoholic is not seen as totally responsible for their behaviour, since they are the victims of a kind of drug addiction. The social action appropriate to understanding drunkenness in this way is to offer medical and psychological treatment, not imprisonment. Descriptions or constructions of the world therefore sustain some patterns of social action and exclude others. Our constructions of the world are therefore bound up with power relations because they have implications for what it is permissible for different people to do, and for how they may treat others.

How is social constructionism different from traditional psychology?

If we look closely at the four broad social constructionist tenets outlined above, we can see that they contain a number of features which are in quite stark contrast to most traditional psychology and social psychology, and are therefore worth spelling out.


Since the social world, including ourselves as people, is the product of social processes, it follows that there cannot be any given, determined nature to the world or people. There are no essences inside things or people that make them what they are. Although some kinds of traditional psychology, such as behaviourism, would agree with this, others such as trait theory and psychoanalysis are based on the idea of some pre-given ‘content’ to the person. It is important to stress the radical nature of the proposal being put forward here. People sometimes misunderstand the social constructionist argument for cultural and historical specificity, and see it as just another way of taking the nurture side in the ‘nature/ nurture’ debate. But social constructionism is not just saying that one’s cultural surroundings have an impact upon one’s psychology, or even that our nature is a product of environmental, including social, rather than biological factors. Both of these views are essentialist, in that they see the person as having some definable and discoverable nature, whether given by biology or by the environment, and as such cannot be called social constructionist. Social constructionism opposes the essentialism of much traditional psychology. Often this is because essentialism traps people inside personalities and identities that are limiting for them and are sometimes pathologised by psychology, which then becomes an even more oppressive practice. For example, if someone is described as a manic-depressive and this is seen as an abiding feature of their personality, they not only face a future in which change appears unlikely but may also become subject to invasive psychiatric procedures.

Questioning realism

Social constructionism denies that our knowledge is a direct perception of reality. In fact it might be said that as a culture or society we construct our own versions of reality between us. Since we have to accept the historical and cultural relativism of all forms of knowledge, it follows that the notion of ‘truth’ becomes problematic. Within social constructionism there can be no such thing as an objective fact. All knowledge is derived from looking at the world from some perspective or other, and is in the service of some interests rather than others. For example, I may say that my dining-room table is made of excellent wood. Someone else may say that is of contemporary design, and yet another may comment that it is too small to be practical. None of these statements is the truth about the table, and each description is driven by a different concern, such as quality, style and practicality. The search for truth, the truth about people, about human nature, about society, has been at the foundation of social science from the start. Social constructionism therefore heralds a radically different model of what it could mean to do social science. The social constructionist critique of the realist philosophy of much traditional psychology focuses upon psychology’s denial that its own grasp on the word must itself be partial. It is partial both in the sense of being only one way of seeing the world among many potential ways and in the sense of reflecting vested interests. Although social constructionism is generally suspicious of realist claims, some social constructionists embrace a form of realism known as critical realism (see below).

Historical and cultural specificity of knowledge

If all forms of knowledge are historically and culturally specific, this must include the knowledge generated by the social sciences. The theories and explanations of psychology thus become time-and culture-bound and cannot be taken as once-and-for-all descriptions of human nature. Stearns (1995) notes that there are numerous emotional states recognised and clearly experienced by people in non-western cultures that just do not translate into western terms. For example, for the Japanese, amae refers to a ‘feeling of sweet dependence on another person’ (p. 42). The disciplines of psychology and social psychology can therefore no longer be aimed at discovering the true nature of people and social life. They must instead turn their attention to a historical study of the emergence of current forms of psychological and social life, and to the social practices by which they are created. Social constructionism criticises traditional psychology for adopting an implicit or explicit imperialism and colonialism in which western ways of seeing the world are automatically assumed to be the right ways, which it then attempts to impose on others.

Language as a pre-condition for thought

Our ways of understanding the world do not come from objective reality but from other people, both past and present. We are born into a world where the conceptual frameworks and categories used by the people in our culture already exist. We do not each conveniently happen to find existing categories of thought appropriate for the expression of our experiences. For example, if I say that I prefer to wear clothes that are fashionable rather than out-dated, it is the concept of fashion that provides the basis for my experienced preference. Concepts and categories are acquired by each person as they develop the use of language and are thus reproduced every day by everyone who shares a culture and a language. This means that the way a person thinks, the very categories and concepts that provide a framework of meaning for them, are provided by the language that they use. Language therefore is a necessary precondition for thought as we know it. The relationship between thought and language has been the focus of a long-standing debate in psychology, with a number of different conceptualisations of this relationship being offered. A significant difference for our purposes exists between the positions adopted by Piaget and by Whorf (1941). Piaget believed that the child must develop concepts to some degree before verbal tags could be given to them, but Whorf argued that a person’s native language determines the way they think and perceive the world. Most of traditional psychology at least holds the tacit assumption that language is a more or less straightforward expression of thought, rather than a pre-condition of it.

Language as a form of social action

By placing centre-stage the everyday interactions between people and seeing these as actively producing the forms of knowledge we take for granted and their associated social phenomena, it follows that language too has to be more than simply a way of expressing ourselves. When people talk to each other, the world gets constructed. Our use of language can therefore be thought of as a form of action, and some social constructionists take this ‘performative’ role of language as their focus of interest. As pointed out above, traditional psychology has typically regarded language as the passive vehicle for our thoughts and emotions. Social constructionism challenges this, because language has practical consequences for people that should be acknowledged. For example, when a judge says, ‘I sentence you to four years’ imprisonment’, or when a priest says, ‘I pronounce you man and wife’, certain practical consequences, restrictions and obligations ensue.

A focus on interaction and social practices

Traditional psychology looks for explanations of social phenomena inside the person, for example by hypothesising the existence of attitudes, motivations, cognitions and so on. These entities are held to be responsible for what individual people do and say, as well as for wider social phenomena such as prejudice and delinquency. Sociology has traditionally countered this with the view that it is social structures, such as the economy, or the major institutions such as marriage and the family, that give rise to the social phenomena that we see. Social constructionism regards as the proper focus of our enquiry the social practices engaged in by people, and their interactions with each other. For example, a child with a learning difficulty is pathologised by traditional psychology by locating the difficulty within the psychology of the child. The social constructionist would challenge this by looking at how the learning difficulty is a construction that emerges through the interactions between the child, its teachers and others. Similarly, a person with a physical disability can only be seen as such when we take into account the fact that this person must inhabit a world in which social practices, for example driving long distances to the workplace and playing sports at the weekend, and material facilities, for example the standard height of kitchen units, are geared to the capabilities of the majority. Social constructionism therefore relocates problems away from the pathologised, essentialist sphere of traditional psychology.

A focus on processes

While most traditional psychology and sociology has put forward explanations in terms of entities, such as personality traits, economic structures, models of memory and so on, the explanations offered by social constructionists are more often in terms of the dynamics of social interaction. The emphasis is thus more on processes than structures. The aim of social enquiry is removed from questions about the nature of people or society towards a consideration of how certain phenomena or forms of knowledge are achieved by people in interaction. Knowledge is therefore seen not as something that a person has or doesn’t have, but as something that people do together.

Where did social constructionism come from?

Social constructionism as it is now infiltrating British and North American psychology and social psychology cannot be traced back to a single source. It has emerged from the combined influences of a number of North American, British and continental writers dating back more than thirty years. These in turn are rooted in philosophical developments that began two to three hundred years ago. I shall describe here what may be considered an outline of its history and major influences, bearing in mind that this history itself is only one of many possible constructions of the events!

The Enlightenment, modernism and postmodernism

The cultural and intellectual backcloth against which social constructionism has taken shape, and which to some extent gives it its particular flavour, is what is usually referred to as postmodernism (see Hollinger, 1994 for a discussion of postmodernism in the social sciences). Postmodernism as an intellectual movement has its centre of gravity not in the social sciences but in art and architecture, literature and cultural studies. It represents a questioning of and rejection of the fundamental assumptions of modernism, the intellectual movement which preceded it and exists alongside it, generating much argument and debate. In many ways it embodies the assumptions underlying intellectual and artistic life that have been around since the time of the Enlightenment, which dates from about the mid-eighteenth century.

The Enlightenment project was to search for truth, to understand the true nature of reality, through the application of reason and rationality. This is in sharp contrast to the mediaeval period, in which the church was the sole arbiter of truth, and in which it was not the responsibility of individual human beings to discover the truth about life or to make decisions about the nature of morality. Science, as the antidote to the dogma of the mediaeval period, was born in the Enlightenment period. The philosopher Emmanuel Kant was an advocate of ‘Enlightenment’, and saw the motto of this project as sapere aude!—have courage to use your own understanding. He argued that all matters should be subject to publicity and debate. The individual person, rather than God and the church, became the focus for issues of truth and morality. It was now up to individuals to make judgements, based on objective, scientific evidence, about what reality was like and therefore what were appropriate moral rules for humans to live by.

The Modern movement in the artistic world took up its own search for truth. This generated much debate and argument about, for example, the value of different ways of painting (was the Impressionist way better than the pre-Raphaelite way, or the Expressionist way?) This search for truth was often based upon the idea that there were rules or structures underlying the surface features of the world, and there was a belief in a ‘right’ way of doing things, which could be discovered. The classical architecture of the Romans and Greeks was based upon the use of particular mathematical proportions, like the ‘golden section’, which were thought to lie at the heart of beautiful forms and Modern architecture too embodied the assumption that a good design in some way expressed the underlying function of the building.

In sociology, the search for rules and structure was exemplified by Marx, who explained social phenomena in terms of the underlying economic structure, and psychologists such as Freud and Piaget each postulated the existence of underlying psychic structures to account for psychological phenomena. In each case the hidden structure or rule is seen as the deeper reality underlying the surface features of the world, so that the truth about the world could be revealed by analysing these underlying structures. Theories in the social sciences and humanities which postulate such structures are known as ‘structuralist’. The later rejection of the notion of rules and structures underlying forms in the real world is thus known as ‘poststructuralism’, and the terms ‘postmodernism’ and ‘postructuralism’ are sometimes used interchangeably. The common feature to all of these theories is that they constitute what are often called ‘metanarratives’ or grand theories. They offered a way of understanding the entire social world in terms of one all-embracing principle; for example, for Marx it was class relations. And therefore recommendations for social change were based upon this principle, in this case revolution by the working class.

But the Enlightenment also had its critics in the counter-Enlightenment movement. The philosopher Nietzsche claimed that it had in fact turned science, reason and progress into its own dogmas. He took the more nihilistic view that history and human life are not progressing, that there is no grand purpose, grand narrative or meaning to be discerned from history. We see the beginnings of postmodernism here. Postmodernism is a rejection of both the idea that there can be an ultimate truth and of structuralism, the idea that the world as we see it is the result of hidden structures. In architecture, it is exemplified by the design of buildings, which appear to disregard the accepted wisdoms of good design. In art and literature it is seen in the denial that some artistic or literary forms are necessarily better than others, so that Pop art claimed a status for itself and the objects it represented equal to that of, say, the works of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. In literary criticism, it also led to the idea that there could be no ‘true’ reading of a poem or novel, that each person’s interpretation was necessarily as good as the next, and the meanings that the original author might have intended were therefore irrelevant.

Postmodernism rejects the idea that the world can be understood in terms of grand theories or metanarratives, and emphasises instead the co-existence of a multiplicity and variety of situation-dependent ways of life. This is sometimes referred to as pluralism. It argues that we in the west are now living in a postmodern world, a world that can no longer be understood by appeal to one over-arching system of knowledge, for example a religion. Developments in technology, in media and mass communications means that we are now living in a condition where there are available to us many different kinds of knowledge. There are a variety of natural and social scientific disciplines, many religions, alternative medicines, a choice of lifestyles and so on, each of them operating as a relatively self-contained system of knowledge which we can dip in and out of as we please. Postmodernism thus rejects the notion that social change is a matter of discovering and changing the underlying structures of social life through the application of a grand theory or metanarrative. In fact, the very word ‘discover’ presupposes an existing, stable reality that can be revealed by observation and analysis, an idea quite opposed to social constructionism.

Sociological influences

Despite their differences, Kant, Nietzsche and Marx held in common the view that knowledge is at least in part a product of human thought rather than grounded in an external reality. A number of sociologists took up this theme in the early twentieth century in the form of the sociology of knowledge. This was concerned with how sociocultural forces construct knowledge and with the kind of knowledge they construct, and was initially focused on concepts such as ideology and false consciousness.

But a major and more recent contribution having its roots in the sociology of knowledge is Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) book The Social Construction of Reality. This book draws on the sub-discipline of symbolic interactionism, which began with the work of Mead (1934) at the University of Chicago. Fundamental to symbolic interactionism is the view that as people we construct our own and each other’s identities through our everyday encounters with each other in social interaction. In line with this way of thinking, the sociological sub-discipline of ethnomethodology, which grew up in North America in the 1950s and 1960s, tried to understand the processes by which ordinary people construct social life and make sense of it to themselves and each other.

Berger and Luckmann’s anti-essentialist account of social life argues that human beings together create and then sustain all social phenomena through social practices. They see three fundamental processes as responsible for this: externalisation, objectivation and internalisation. Berger and Luckmann show how the world can be socially constructed by the social practices of people but at the same time experienced by them as if the nature of their world is pre-given and fixed (see Chapter 9 for more details of Berger and Luckmann’s theory). We could say that social constructionism itself has now achieved the status of an object. In writing this book and ostensibly describing it I am contributing to its objectivation in the world. And in the future, students who read this and other books about social constructionism will tend to think of it as an area of knowledge that has been discovered rather than as an effect of social processes. In writing this book, then, I am contributing to what might be called ‘the social construction of social constructionism’.

The turn to language and the ‘crisis’ in socialpsychology

In psychology, the emergence of social constructionism is usually dated from Gergen’s (1973) paper ‘Social psychology as history’ in which he argues that all knowledge, including psychological knowledge, is historically and culturally specific, and that we therefore must extend our enquiries beyond the individual into social, political and economic realms for a proper understanding of the evolution of present-day psychology and social life. In addition, he argues that there is no point in looking for once-and-for-all descriptions of people or society, since the only abiding feature of social life is that it is continually changing. Social psychology thus becomes a form of historical undertaking, since all we can ever do is to try to understand and account for how the world appears to be at the present time. In this paper can be seen the beginnings of Gergen’s later work on social psychology, history and narrative.

Gergen’s paper was written at the time of what is often referred to as ‘the crisis in social psychology’ (e.g. see Armistead, 1974). Social psychology as a discipline can be said to have emerged from the attempts by psychologists to provide the US and British governments during the Second World War with knowledge that could be used for propaganda and the manipulation of people. It grew out of questions like ‘How can we keep up the morale of troops?’ and ‘How can we encourage people to eat unpopular foods?’ It also grew up at a time when its parent discipline of psychology was carving out a name for itself by adopting the positivist methods of the natural sciences. Social psychology as a discipline therefore emerged as an empiricist, laboratory-based science that had habitually served, and was paid for by, those in positions of power, both in government and in industry.

Social psychologists in the 1960s and early 1970s were becoming increasingly worried by the way that the discipline implicitly pro-moted the values of dominant groups. The ‘Voice’ of ordinary people was seen as absent from its research practices, which, in their concentration on de-contextualised laboratory behaviour, ignored the real-world contexts which give human action its meaning. A number of books were published, each in their own way trying to redress the balance, by proposing alternatives to positivist science and focusing upon the accounts of ordinary people and by challenging the oppressive and ideological uses of psychology (e.g. Brown, 1973; Armistead, 1974).

While Gergen was writing in America, in the UK Harré and Secord (1972) were arguing for a new vision of the science of psychology, based upon the view that people are ‘conscious social actors, capable of controlling their performances and commenting intelligently upon them’ (preface). They therefore opposed the positivist, experimentalist tradition in social psychology and saw people as skilled social practitioners who are able to monitor and comment upon their own activity. The importance of language as something other than a way of describing things—as a social resource for constructing different accounts of the world and events—is implicit in these works as it is in that of Berger and Luckmann.

These concerns are clearly apparent today in the work of social psychologists in social constructionism. Its multidisciplinary background means that it has drawn its ideas from a number of sources, and where it has drawn on work in the humanities and literary criticism, its influences are often those of French intellectuals such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Its cultural backdrop is postmodernism, but it has its own intellectual roots in earlier sociological writing and in the concerns of the crisis in social psychology. Social constructionism is therefore a movement which has arisen from and is influenced by a variety of disciplines and intellectual traditions.

What kinds of psychology can be called social constructionist?

One of the biggest difficulties in presenting an account of varieties of social constructionism is the wide range of terms that are used by writers and researchers to describe their theoretical and methodological positions. By and large, this reflects the fact that there are a great many commonalities and differences in the field, so that it would be a misrepresentation to suggest that there exist coherent and identifiable types of social constructionism. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this chapter some broad-brush characterisations are necessary. In the following account I have chosen terms which some may feel are misleading, but I have tried to explain, where appropriate, the reasons for my choice.

Critical psychology I critical social psychology

As Danziger (1997) points out, the most obvious feature of the relationship between social constructionism and mainstream psychology is that social constructionism functions as critique. This critique encompasses the questions that psychology chooses to ask about human beings and the methods it adopts to investigate these as well as the answers it has traditionally provided, and is therefore in part a continuation of the ‘crisis’ debates in social psychology. Some writers and researchers have focused upon this critical approach, and there is now a considerable literature that has come to be termed critical psychology (Fox and Prilleltensky, 1997; Sloan, 2000; Stainton Rogers et al., 1995) and critical social psychology (Gough and McFadden, 2001; Ibáñez and Iñiguez, 1997). Critical psychology looks at how the individual is located within society in relation to difference, inequality and power and has provided alternative readings of a range of psychological phenomena, such as mental illness, intelligence, personality theory, aggression and sexuality. However, although some critical psychologists build their critique upon social constructionist princi-ples, others have arrived at critical psychology through other theoretical routes and may draw more upon ideology, Marxism or various forms of feminism. So that although much critical psychology can be said to be social constructionist in spirit, some critical psychologists would not necessarily refer to themselves as social constructionists. Critical social psychologists may also adopt a political stance, but for some the political agenda is less explicit and they are critical in the sense of raising awareness of the assumptions underlying the theory and practice of social psychology. Since there is no reason to make a distinction between the terms here, I shall refer to all such work as critical psychology.

Discursive psychology

The focus on social interaction and language as a form of social action that are characteristic features of social constructionism have been placed centre-stage by a number of theorists and researchers. This work has more recently come to be termed ‘discursive psychology’ (Edwards and Potter, 1992; Harré and Stearns, 1995). Discursive psychology has been self-adopted as the preferred term to describe the work of a number of researchers whose work is now widely known, and I have therefore chosen to use this generic title here. Discursive psychology also shares the radically anti-essentialist view of the person of social constructionism, and in particular it denies that language is a representation of, or route to, internal mental states or cognitions such as attitudes, beliefs, emotions and memories (e.g. Harré and Gillett, 1994; Harré, 1995a). Discursive psychology does not necessarily try to deny the existence of such cognitions; discursive psychologists, rather than debating the existence or nature of things, ‘bracket’ this issue. Potter says:

…I am certainly not trying to answer ontological questions about what sort of things exist. The focus is upon the way people construct descriptions as factual, and how others undermine those constructions. This does not require an answer to the philosophical question of what factuality is.

(Potter, 1996a:6)

The particular concern of discursive psychology is to study how people use language in their everyday interactions, their ‘discourse’ with each other, and how they are adept at putting their linguistic skills to use in building specific accounts of events, accounts which may have powerful implications for the interactants themselves. It is therefore primarily concerned with the performative functions of language as outlined above.

Discursive psychologists have applied this understanding of the constructive, performative use of language to a number of psychological phenomena, thereby challenging the mainstream understanding of these. Examples include memory (Edwards and Potter, 1995), emotion (Edwards, 1997), attribution (Edwards and Potter, 1993) and learning disability (Mehan, 1996/2001). The action orientation of discursive psychology therefore transforms traditional psychology’s concern with the nature of phenomena such as memory and emotion into a concern with how these are performed by people. Thus memory, emotion and other psychological phenomena become things we do rather than things we have. Some psychologists taking a discursive approach have gone beyond analysing the accounting practices of interactants to an examination of how these may be intimately related to the power of ideologies in contemporary society, for example sexism (Edley and Wetherell, 1995) and nationalism (Billig, 1995).

Deconstructionism and Foucauldian discourseanalysis

Discursive psychology, which emphasises the constructive work that people do in building accounts of events, can be contrasted with deconstructionism. This draws on the work of poststructuralist French philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the term ‘deconstruction’ was introduced by Derrida. Deconstructionism emphasises the constructive power of language as a system of signs rather than the constructive work of the individual person. It is concerned with how the human subject becomes constructed through the structures of language and through ideology. The central concept here is the ‘text’:

A text is any printed, visual, oral or auditory production that is available for reading, viewing or hearing (for example, an article, a film, a painting, a song). Readers create texts as they interpret and interact with them. The meaning of a text is always indeterminate, open-ended and interactional. Deconstruction is the critical analysis of texts.

(Denzin, 1995:52)

In terms of the features of social constructionism outlined above, its focus is upon the historical and cultural specificity of knowledge and the relationship between such knowledge and the possibilities for social action and power. The varieties of approaches that share this broad concern really don’t appear under a generic title in the literature that you may encounter. Although deconstruction as a method of analysis is often associated with the historical development of discursive psychology (see Potter, 1996a), its research application today often appears under the rubric of ‘Foucauldian discourse analysis’ and is often associated with a concern to identify the ideological and power effects of discourse.

Foucault argued that the way people talk about and think about, for example, sexuality and mental illness—in other words the way these things are widely represented in society—brings with it implications for the way we treat people. Our representations entail particular kinds of power relations. For example, as a society we think of people who hear voices as mentally ill and refer them to psychiatrists and psychologists who then have power over many aspects of their lives. Foucault referred to such representations as ‘discourses’, since he saw them as constituted by and operating through language and other symbolic systems. Our ways of talking about and representing the world through written texts, pictures and images all constitute the discourses through which we experience the world. Deconstructionism is therefore an axiomatic example of social constructionism, since it is the structures of our socially shared language that are seen as producing phenomena at both the social and personal levels. The way that discourses construct our experience can be examined by ‘deconstructing’ these texts, taking them apart and showing how they work to present us with a particular vision of the world, and thus enabling us to challenge it. Examples of the critical use of deconstruction include Parker et al. (1995), Parker and the Bolton Discourse Network (1999) and Wodak (1996).


Readers may become confused by the fact that the term ‘constructivism’ is sometimes used to refer to theoretical approaches that seem to share fundamental assumptions with social constructionism. This is becoming less of a problem, as writers and researchers have clarified some of their similarities and differences. I shall use the term social constructionism, rather than constructivism, throughout this book.

Constructivism is sometimes used to refer to Piagetian theory and to a particular kind of perceptual theory, but in the current context readers may encounter it in the form of perspectives that, in one form or another, see the person as actively engaged in the creation of their own phenomenal world. The contrast being made by such approaches is usually with the view that things and events have an essential nature or meaning that then impacts upon the person in some predictable manner, and that perception is ideally a matter of internalising a truthful representation of the world. Much of traditional psychology fits this description, including behaviourism, psychoanalytic theory and evolutionary psychology. Constructivist psychologies, by contrast, argue that each person perceives the world differently and actively creates their own meanings from events. The ‘real’ world is therefore a different place for each of us. This is the stance of ‘radical constructivism’ (von Glasersfeld, 1981), which assumes a Kantian distinction between an individualised phenomenal world and an unknowable real world.

A similar position is espoused by Kelly (1955) in his personal construct psychology (PCP). Kelly argues that each of us develops a system of dimensions of meaning, which he calls ‘constructs’. We perceive the world in terms of these constructs and our actions, although never predictable, can be understood in the light of our construal of the world. Everyone construes the world differently, so in this sense we each inhabit different worlds, although it is possible for us to gain some appreciation of others’ constructions, and Kelly termed this ‘sociality’. The power of Kelly’s constructivist position is that we have the capacity to change our own constructions of the world and thereby to create new possibilities for our own action. Likewise, narrative psychology (Gergen and Gergen, 1984, 1986; Sarbin, 1986; Crossley, 2000) argues that we tell each other and ourselves stories that powerfully shape our possibilities.

The essential difference between such constructivisms and social constructionism are twofold: in the extent to which the individual is seen as an agent who is in control of this construction process, and in the extent to which our constructions are the product of social forces, either structural or interactional. However, given the obvious points of agreement between constructivism and social constructionism, some writers have tried to bring them together in a synthesis. (e.g. Botella, 1995; Burr and Butt, 2000).

Differences and debates in social constructionism

I present here a very brief outline of some of the major differences and debates in the field, and these will be further elaborated in later chapters.


As Danziger (1997) points out, one thing that seems to unite different forms of social constructionism is their role in forming a radical critique of mainstream psychology. But he cautions that in this sense social constructionism therefore paradoxically ‘needs’ the mainstream. There is therefore something of a tension in the field around the extent to which social constructionist theory and research is able to generate its own theoretical and research programmes, as opposed to maintaining a kind of guerrilla warfare upon mainstream psychology from the margins of the discipline. For some (e.g. Parker, 1999; Parker et al., 1995) the primary aim is to use social constructionism to subvert the more damaging or oppressive aspects of mainstream psychology. Social constructionist theory and research has been taken up in a variety of ways by those wishing to challenge oppressive and discriminatory practices, for example in the areas of gender and sexuality, disability and race.

Research focus

As indicated above, there exist at present two broad, major forms of social constructionist theory and research, the first focusing upon the micro structures of language use in interaction and the second focusing upon the role of more macro linguistic and social structures in framing our social and psychological life. Danziger (1997) characterises the difference in focus as ‘light’ and ‘dark’ social constructionism, emphasising the more ‘hopeful’ message implicit in the idea that people construct themselves and each other during interaction (rather than being outcomes of ‘dark’ social forces). These terms may be seen as preferable to, for example, ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ constructionism, which may imply that one form is more fragile. However, it has been argued that ‘dark’ and ‘light’ also carry negative connotations (Burman, 1999). At the risk of introducing further confusion into the literature, I am going to adopt the terms ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ social constructionism to refer to these two broad approaches. The most prominent representatives of micro and macro social constructionism may be said to be discursive psychology and Foucauldian discourse analysis respectively. Confusingly, both kinds of research may be referred to as ‘discourse analysis’.

Micro social constructionism

This sees social construction taking place within everyday discourse between people in interaction. It includes those who refer to themselves as discourse psychologists. For micro social constructionism, multiple versions of the world are potentially available through this discursive, constructive work, and there is no sense in which one can be said to be more real or true than others; the text of this discourse is the only reality we have access to—we cannot make claims about a real world that exists beyond our descriptions of it. All truth claims are thus undermined, giving rise to a keen scepticism in line with the first of the definitive characteristics of social constructionism outlined above. If power is referred to, it is seen as an effect of discourse, an effect of being able to ‘warrant voice’ (Gergen, 1989) in interaction. Micro social constructionism includes, in the USA, the work of Kenneth Gergen and of John Shotter. Gergen focuses upon the constructive force of interaction, stressing the relational embeddedness of individual thought and action (Gergen, 1994, 1999). Shotter takes the conversation as his model, emphasising the dynamic, interpersonal processes of construction, which he calls ‘joint action’ (Shotter, 1993a, 1993b), a term borrowed from the symbolic interactionist Blumer. In the UK, those sharing this emphasis on discourse in interaction include Jonathan Potter, Derek Edwards, Malcolm Ashmore, Margaret Wetherell, Rom Harré and Michael Billig, although Billig’s work goes somewhat beyond a concern with micro processes, as it incorporates the concept of ideology. Some of these writers currently work together at the University of Loughborough.

Macro social constructionism

Macro social constructionism acknowledges the constructive power of language but sees this as derived from, or at least related to, material or social structures, social relations and institutionalised practices. The concept of power is therefore at the heart of this form of social constructionism, which includes the deconstructionist approach outlined above. Macro social constructionism is particularly influenced by the work of Foucault (1972, 1976, 1979). It informs the critical realism of Parker (1992, 1999) and Willig (1997, 1999a) in the UK, and has been successfully adopted in the USA by Rose (1989, 1990) to show how notions such as ‘science’ and ‘the individual’ have been socially constructed. Macro social constructionism has also been attractive to some writers interested in feminist analyses of power, for example Hollway (1984, 1989), Kitzinger (1987, 1989), Burman (e.g. Burman, 1990) and Ussher (2000). Since their focus is on issues of power, macro social constructionists are especially interested in analysing various forms of social inequality, such as gender, race and ethnicity, disability and mental health, with a view to challenging these through research and practice.

Macro and micro versions of social constructionism should not be seen as mutually exclusive. There is no reason in principle why they should not be brought together in a synthesis of micro and macro approaches. Danziger feels that this is where most further reflection is needed in social constructionism, and some writers have attempted such syntheses (e.g. Burkitt, 1999; Burr and Butt, 2000; Davies and Harré, 1990). Wetherell (1998) also calls for a synthesis of the two ‘versions’ of discourse analysis, arguing that we need to take account of both the situated nature of accounts as well as the institutional practices and social structures within which they are constructed.

The realism/relativism debate

This is not so much a debate as a locking of horns between some social constructionists. Realism asserts that an external world exists independently of our representations of it. Representations include perceptions, thoughts, language and material images such as pictures. Realism claims that our representations are underpinned by this reality, although they are not necessarily simply accurate reflections of it, and that we can at least in principle gain knowledge about this reality. Relativism, by contrast, argues that, even if such a reality exists, it is inaccessible to us. The only things we have access to are our various representations of the world, and these therefore cannot be judged against ‘reality’ for their truthfulness or accuracy. Relativists therefore cannot prefer one account to another on the basis of its veridicality.

Although the tenets of social constructionism appear to lead automatically to a relativist position, some, usually critical, social constructionists have resisted this and have maintained some concept of a reality existing outside of discourse and texts (e.g. Cromby and Nightingale, 1999; Willig, 1999a). One reason for this has been the problematic nature of morality and political action that ensues from a relativist position. If all accounts of the world are equally valid, then we appear deprived of defensible grounds for our moral choices and political allegiances. Other reasons include the inadequacy of discursive accounts of the material body and embodied subjectivity (e.g. Harré, 1995b; Burr, 1999; Nightingale, 1999). Those taking up a relativist stance as well as those adopting a more critical realist viewpoint have both made defensible arguments regarding the moral and political implications of these positions, and these will be examined in more detail in Chapter 5.

Agency and determinism

More or less mapping on to the distinction between micro and macro versions of social constructionism is the issue of personal agency. The emphasis upon the constructive work of individuals in interaction that is the focus of the micro approach implicitly affords us personal agency. Accounts must be constructed to suit occasions and are crafted in such a way as to further the speaker’s current agenda. Macro social constructionism tends toward the ‘death of the subject’ where the person can be conceptualised only as the outcome of discursive and societal structures. The implication of this latter view is that individual persons, either alone or collectively, have no capacity to bring about change. However, it is also true that neither form of constructionism allows the vision of personal agency seen in mainstream psychology, since both would deny that structures such as beliefs, values or attitudes exist as part of our intra-psychic make-up, forming the basis for our action.

Research methods

All the forms of social constructionism outlined above take the constructive force of language as a principal assumption, and it is therefore the analysis of language and other symbolic forms that is at the heart of social constructionist research methods. It would be a mistake to suggest that there are particular research methods that are intrinsically social constructionist; social constructionist research simply makes different assumptions about its aims and about the nature and status of the data collected. However, the insistence of social constructionism upon the importance of the social meaning of accounts and discourses often leads logically to the use of qualitative methods as the research tools of choice. In practice this has often been the analysis of interview transcripts and written texts of other kinds. But the specific requirements of a social constructionist approach to such work has led to the development of a range of methods of analysis referred to as discourse analysis. Confusingly, exactly what is meant by discourse analysis depends upon the particular theoretical and research orientation of the writer. I will elaborate on some of these differences in Chapter 8.

Plan of the book

In Chapter 2 I will use the examples of personality, health and illness, and sexuality to flesh out some of the main features of social constructionism and to make a case for social constructionism as an alternative way of understanding the world. Although social constructionism may initially seem counter-intuitive, by appealing to everyday experiences I will explain why we should find it persuasive.

Chapter 3 deals with the claim that it is language that provides the framework for the kinds of thought that are possible for us, and with the performative role of language. I will explore the view that our descriptions and accounts of events have consequences in the world and that language is therefore a site of struggle. I will look at the view of language within deconstruction before going on to take a closer look at discursive psychology’s understanding of discourse.

In Chapter 4, I look at the Foucauldian concept of discourse and the relationship between discourse, knowledge and power. Discourses make it possible for us to see the world in a certain way, producing our ‘knowledge’ of the world, which has power implications because it brings with it particular possibilities for acting in the world. I will look at Foucault’s notion of ‘disciplinary power’, in which we are thought to be effectively controlled through our own self-monitoring processes, and its implications for traditional psychology.

The problematic nature of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ is explored in Chapter 5. The claim that ‘nothing exists outside the text’ often provokes the reaction that social constructionism is clearly fanciful. Such questions go right to the heart of current debates in social constructionism about the status of the real and the material world and in this chapter I outline the nature of the issues that have fuelled the realism-relativism debate and indicate the extent to which I think the disagreements are capable of resolution. The heat in the debate between realism and relativism has largely been generated by concern over morality and politics. I explore the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the debate with respect to these, as well as looking briefly at the possibilities for theoretical progress lying in some accounts that have tried to re-write the terms of the debate.

In the following two chapters, I address the problem of the psychological subject. Social constructionism takes us so far from psychology’s traditional understanding of what constitutes a person that we must begin to rebuild ourselves according to a different model, and the first step in doing this is to work out the implications that the various forms of social constructionism have for us as persons. I discuss the psychological subject as it appears in both micro and macro forms of social constructionism, including issues of identity, agency and change, and explore some of the conceptual tools that social constructionists have developed for the task of re-writing the psychological subject.

Chapter 8 looks at some of the research approaches developed and adopted in social constructionist research. After examining theoretical and methodological issues, such as objectivity, value freedom and reflexivity, I go on to describe some of the methods that have been used. Using brief examples of real research studies, I look at the aims and something of the method of analysis of four approaches: conversation analysis, discursive psychology, interpretative repertoires and Foucauldian discourse analysis.

Although throughout the book I will point out some of the limitations of and difficulties with different forms of social constructionism, it is in the final chapter that I take a more critical stance and explore in depth my own arguments with social constructionism. This focuses upon the nature of subjectivity, the psychology of the person and the need for a concept of self, as well as the need to transcend the various dualisms that have haunted both mainstream psychology and social constructionism.

A word about words

Perhaps more so than other areas of social science, social constructionism abounds with words and phrases that may be unfamiliar, and their meaning may be hard to grasp at first. In reading more advanced social constructionist material, students are often confused by the terms they meet and some of what is written is, I would argue, unnecessarily difficult and obscure. To make matters worse, the same terms are often used by different writers to mean different things, so that it is sometimes impossible to come up with a definitive account of what a term means. This is partly because, as work in this field has accumulated and progressed, lines of theory and research have splintered and the thinking of individual theorists and researchers has also changed over time. Gergen (1985) wrote about ‘social constructionism’, but Potter and Wetherell (1987) took up the spirit of these ideas as ‘discourse analysis’ and Billig (1987) as ideology and rhetoric. Edwards and Potter (1992) later wrote about what they referred to as ‘discursive psychology’ and Wetherell and Edley (e.g. 1999) about ‘critical discursive psychology’.

In this book I have done my best to explain the meaning of terms that I think may be new to readers coming from traditional social science, particularly psychological, backgrounds. As mentioned above, I will use the terms macro and micro social constructionism to refer to the two broad approaches to theory and research that I have outlined, but will also use specific terms such as ‘discursive psychology’ and ‘Foucauldian discourse analysis’ where these are more appropriate in particular contexts. To aid readers in their struggle for understanding, I have provided a brief glossary of common terms at the back of the book.

[Source: Chapter 1, What is Social Constructionism, Vivien Burr, Social Constructionism, Second Edition, Routledge, 1995]

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