Constructivism refers to the philosophical perspective that human beings actively participate in creating their psychological selves and social worlds. Translated to the social sciences, where it is often known as “social constructivism” or “constructionism,” Constructivism is commonly considered to be a paradigm of its own, with epistemological tenets and methods of inquiry that contrast sharply with those of objectivist science.
Key Tenets of Constructivism
Many varieties of Constructivism have been developed in the social sciences and humanities, most of them adhering to the tenet that reality is actively constructed – that is, created, maintained, and transformed – by human actors, not passively assimilated from the environment. As a corollary to this tenet, most forms of Constructivism reject the idea that meaning is materially fixed in time or place. Instead, meaning is considered to be prolific, ever-changing, and subject to negotiation. Humans are conceived as cognizing subjects who construe the world according to their purposes, stocks of knowledge, and semiotic resources. This meaning-making activity establishes the “factual” nature of the world (in the form of institutions, policies, laws, rules, objects, technologies, and so forth) at the same time that it justifies belief in those facts. Whenever constructivists speak of a “social construction,” they are normally referring to this reification of experience: the object or event that seems natural or inevitable, but is actually the outcome of a historical process of negotiation (or management) of meanings by human agents. However, social constructions can also be the subject of dispute due to the competing value claims or meanings that people may attribute to them.
Another key tenet of Constructivism concerns the role of science itself. Most forms of Constructivism reject the independence thesis of objectivist science, which holds that any truth statement must answer to a world that exists independently of human consciousness and interests. Constructivists contend that science does not literally discover a single, uniform reality “out there.” Rather, different kinds of scientific discourse, which embed different modes of perceptual encoding and interpretation, have the effect of bringing different versions of reality into being. Thus, there is a strong relativistic theme in constructivist thought and research.
Finally, again in contradistinction to objectivist science, the methods of constructivist inquiry tend to be explicitly reflexive. If everything we know is at least partly of our own making, then constructivist scholars can choose to – and often must – reflect on the situated practices and reality assumptions that help shape knowledge about social, psychological, and aesthetic phenomena. Indeed, there is a significant constructivist presence in science and technology studies, focusing on how knowledge claims are constituted in the activities of scientists, laboratory work, discourse, and artifacts (Van Den Belt 2003). Qualitative strategies such as ethnography and discourse analysis are among those best-suited for carrying out reflexive research projects.
Development of Constructivism
Early proponents of the view that truth (or reality) is made, not found, include George Berkeley and Giambatista Vico. But a key figure in developing the logic for Constructivism was the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. In his “transcendental analytic” in The critique of pure reason (1781), Kant argued that sensory impressions contribute to a person’s knowledge of the world insofar as they can be perceived and organized through “categories.” In other words, humans have no direct access to external reality, but instead rely on a priori concepts (categories) to apprehend its features. Numerous questions arose from this formulation, not least of which is the role of experience in defining and shaping the content of these concepts. However, the Kantian idea that concepts mediate our contact with the world had a significant impact on the early development of psychology and the social sciences.
Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenological philosophy, is often credited with articulating the nature of conscious experience in everyday life. Two of his arguments hold special importance for Constructivism. First, Husserl argued that human consciousness is rooted in intentional acts. That is, the material status of things is of no real consequence. Rather, it is our psychic relationships with an object – the intentions we have for acting toward it – that constitute the relevant ontological data. Second, Husserl called attention to the profoundly taken-for-granted quality of the lifeworld of everyday existence. This “natural attitude” – or commonsense orientation – consists of layers upon layers of meaning that are seldom questioned in the daily course of living. A proper investigation of the structure of consciousness, according to transcendental phenomenology (Husserl 1970, 1st pub. 1936), involves a series of analytic moves that “bracket” (or suspend) the components of the natural attitude. Only by systematic efforts such as these can an analyst truly understand not just what a thing is, but how a thing appears real.
While Husserl was interested in the universality of individual consciousness, it was Alfred Schütz who brought phenomenology into social science. In The phenomenology of the social world (1932) and other works, Schütz focused on the problem of how the natural attitude arises as a social phenomenon and how it takes different forms in society (Natanson 1968). The contributions of his decades-long work, as they pertain to Constructivism, are essentially threefold. One of these has to do with the definition of meaning. Building upon Weber’s study of human action and verstehen, Schütz conceptualized meaning as a way of regarding the stream of action, either by reflecting upon an already-completed act, or by projecting an action about to begin. In this way, meaning and social action mutually inform each other and together produce a moment-by-moment sense of goal-direction in the ego. Schütz also posited intersubjectivity as the process by which the constructs of everyday experience emerge. That is, understandings of reality stem mainly from the reciprocal, face-to-face relations we have with contemporaries; however, relationships with predecessors (those who lived before us) and successors (those who live on after we die) also play significant parts in shaping our sense of social reality and where we are positioned biographically. Finally, Schütz sought to explain how we can navigate a complex social world in which we are largely ignorant of other individuals’ motives, goals, and subjective meanings. He theorized that typifications – or, constructed generalizations about roles, motives, actions, and institutions – are among the principal “stocks of knowledge” used to interpret the scenes around us. Some of these typified schemes are employed very broadly (e.g., the routine actions of selling and buying), while others are more context-specific (e.g., a politician’s understandings of voters’ interests). By using typifications, it is possible to act in socially intelligible ways in public without possessing expert knowledge of every content domain or being intimately familiar with every person we encounter. Our sense of an objective reality of mundane life is heightened by the fact that typified schemes are so successful in getting us through the day – and are so seldom questioned by others or ourselves.
The ideas developed by Husserl, and Schütz in particular, inspired further explorations into the constructed nature of everyday life. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The social construction of reality became a classic text in the sociology of knowledge. It is largely due to this work that the term “social construction” came into wide usage. The central question for sociological theory, Berger and Luckmann argued, is how subjective experiences become “objectified” as a world of things (Berger & Luckmann 1966, 18). Their tentative answer, drawing upon Schütz as well as Karl Marx’s social determinism and Émile Durkheim’s functionalism, is that society’s “reality-maintaining procedures” enable individuals to learn and “internalize” certain identities and role performances, as well as the stocks of knowledge that support them.
Considering reality construction at a micro-social level is ethnomethodology. In his Studies in ethnomethodology, Harold Garfinkel (1967) proposed a theory of how interlocutors are able to make orderly sense of their world from the resources they have at hand. The basis of any culture’s most trusted, self-evident notions of reality, from this point of view, is nothing more nor less than the artful “methods” that competent members use to coordinate meaning. For example, an ethno methodologist would approach the study of family not by explicating the concept itself, but by a meticulous analysis of the contexts and social practices in which “family” is referenced, i.e., studying how family “is done.”
By the mid-twentieth century, constructivists had largely accepted, and begun to explore the ramifications of, the idea that language and other symbol systems are critical to the process of reality construction. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later work, Philosophical investigations (1953), was influential in constructivist circles, especially for his claim that “language games” animate the “forms of life” of human existence. Symbolic interactionism, following from its intellectual forebear, pragmatism, put language and other significant symbols at the center of its explanations of social interaction. The semiotics of Charles S. Peirce, the mind-self-society formulation of George Herbert Mead, and the social dramaturgy of Erving Goffman, among others, laid the groundwork for studying communicative action in social life. Arguably, symbolic interactionism is the theory most closely aligned with the spirit of Constructivism, an affinity suggested in W. I. Thomas’s famous dictum: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Much of the methodology for doing constructivist informed research, including participant observation, depth interviewing, and grounded theory, was also developed by symbolic interactionists.
At the end of the twentieth century, Constructivism and its allied research programs had established niches in all of the social science disciplines. The humanities also embraced the social phenomenology implicit in the emerging theories of texts, readers, and processes of semiosis. Constructivism itself was infused with a new sense of vitality and relevance as the “crisis of representation” bubbled up from cultural anthropology, and philosopher-critics like Richard Rorty and Michel Foucault articulated new views of cultural relativism and radical contingency. And, by hybridizing with such intellectual movements as feminist epistemology, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual studies, race theory, postmodernism, and postcolonial theory, the concepts and methods Constructivism uses for studying the production of meaning are increasingly harnessed to issues of identity, political voice, and empowerment in multicultural worlds.
Constructivism and Communication
The field of communication was not immune to Constructivism’s advancement in the academy. If anything, communication is commonly recognized as the chief means by which the social world is created, understood, and reproduced across time and space. As Anderson observes in Communication Theory, “the constructed nature of reality and knowledge” now underpins a number of theories in the field of communication (1996, 36).
In mass communication, all of the components of the media circuit – production, content, and reception – are potent sites of meaning production. Whereas early studies of media production focused on the decision-making for filtering events or presenting the news, constructivist studies look at how organizational routines and workers’ practices actually create – or “manufacture” – the news product. Gaye Tuchman’s Making news (1978) is an early and important exemplar of this kind of research. Also, some authors see the news value of news factors, i.e., as a tool for journalists to apply in order to construct social reality (Schulz 1976). Recent studies stress the interdependency of media with other institutional entities in the co-construction of media products.
Another stream of media research concerns the construction of social representations. Traditionally, content was given essentialist meanings, such as news, entertainment, advertising, pornography. Constructivists, however, regard media content as texts laden with hegemonic, ambiguous, or contested signifiers, which can be activated in various ways depending on the reception context. News is often conceptualized as a discourse that organizes story elements in such a way as to suggest the existence of a social problem, or to “frame” conflicts in moralistic or ideological terms. For example, Yar (2005) analyzed the published claims of a global movie “piracy” problem. The author concluded that the media industries promoted the social construction of widespread copyright violation in order to exaggerate the dimensions of the problem and encourage intensified policing.
Research of media audiences has also been strongly influenced by Constructivism. In the 1980s, television and other media began to be studied as resources in the interpretive activity of families, peer groups, sub-cultures, and other social formations. Thus, people form their own meanings of content, irrespective of why it is produced or what the content seems to represent by some objective standard. This does not mean that meaning is a product of “free will” or the solitary individual; meaning, whether in audiences and other situations, always arises from the individual’s experience in social collectives. In social action studies, for example, media content acquires meaning only as it is joined in a line of social action within a specific context (see Schoening & Anderson 1995 for the underlying theory). In studies of interpretive communities, meanings of media texts gain coherence within groups of people who share pools of knowledge and interpretive strategies (Jensen 1991). However, the degree of local control that audience members exercise in making meanings (versus sources of influence from outside the social formation) remains the subject of lively debate.
Similarly, social constructionist studies of how people perceive and use communication technology challenge the formerly prevailing view of technological determinism. For example, the social influence model attempts to explain how group interactions affect the meanings attributed to technology (Campbell & Russo 2003). This focus on the formation of users’ perceptions – including perceptions of how technology supports lifestyles and social needs – offers a clear alternative to the assumption that technical features are the driving force behind consumer behavior. In addition, the social construction of online identity and socio-cultural community has become a vibrant area of research in the rapidly maturing field of Internet and other computer-mediated communication studies (for overview, see Lievrouw & Livingstone 2006).
In interpersonal communication, Constructivism is most readily associated with the theory and research program of the same name. Originally developed by Jesse Delia and his colleagues (see Delia et al. 1982), this “constructivism” is a derivation of the term “construct,” which in turn refers to the mental constructs (or schemas) hypothesized to store and organize information representing the characteristics, qualities, intentions, or emotional states of other persons. The theory posits that the more abstract, differentiated, and integrated this system of personal constructs, the better able a person is to manage the production of meaning in face-toface interaction. Some of the ways in which a person with high cognitive complexity exhibits greater competence are by generating listener-adapted messages and engaging in emotionally supportive communication. Although the theory is rooted to some degree in symbolic interactionism, its epistemology builds primarily on a structural-developmental worldview (especially the theories of George A. Kelly, Heinz Werner, and Jean Piaget). As such, “constructivism” is concerned with the measurement of stable features of the construct system at the individual level of analysis, and thus generally allies itself with the assumptions and practices of objectivist science (Anderson 1996, 207–208).
Social constructionist approaches have long been employed for studying close relationships, organizational and small group cultures, intercultural communication, and the performance of community. In all of these scenes, researchers typically attend closely to the ways in which language is used to reproduce or transform cultural conditions like solidarity, schism, and empowerment. The dialogical construction of self or identity is a salient theme in much of this scholarship. Increasingly, communication scholars are forging meaningful, even intimate, relationships with the people they study. They are also inventing novel ways of using narrative to “re-construct” these relationships. This trespassing of boundaries between the self and other, and between fiction, introspection, and analysis, has led to a profusion of experiments in writing constructivist accounts (e.g., Clair 2003). Although it is too soon to say what future directions these new styles of scholarship will take, or whether the knowledge they contribute will have lasting value, it seems clear that they offer some of the most vivid demonstrations yet of the possibilities inherent in the constructivist paradigm.
The constructivist approach has been criticized mainly for denying the objective reality of the world. In the view of scientific realists, a “ready-made” world of objects and processes exists independently of the sense-making activity of human beings. People may entertain multiple, open-ended meanings, but the ontology of physical and social worlds is already settled and thus predetermines which meanings count as the “correct” ones. For example, we may describe an object such as a rose in a variety of ways, depending on our interests. But the names we create do not literally construct the object. Nor is every name an equally valid description of an exemplar of the category “rose.” In other words, our freedom to improvise “meaning” ends at the point of reference to objective reality. This argument, according to the realist perspective, undermines the relativistic foundation of constructivist thought (see Devitt 1991).
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