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Social Construction

With my completion of doctoral studies in social construction through the Taos Institute and Tilburg University I find myself wanting to spread the word(s) in continuing to utilize social construction practices in my personal and professional interests and work. I believe it to be a foundational approach to being, thinking and living that holds promise for many situations – including those current social and global challenges that we find ourselves facing in the 21st century.

I enjoy and share Dan Wulff’s eloquently simple description of a social constructionist:

Social Constructionists live and breathe in the world, take positions, make decisions, make differences. So of course we act in the world, but an important distinction may be that social constructionists (and others) tend to be ready, willing, and able to appreciate alternative positions or even to shift positions if warranted. With an appreciation of multiple possible viewpoints and positions, the need to be locked into one best or true choice is unnecessary and at times quite unhelpful. We take preferred positions, but with new information or new contexts, we can re-evaluate and adjust.

Social Constructionism – What is it?

A more detailed description follows …

Our Words Create Our World

*The following are excerpts from my dissertation How Might Appreciative School Leadership Meet the Needs of 21st Century Schools?

In the Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology (2010), Ken Gergen states that social constructionism refers to a tradition of scholarship that traces the origin of knowledge, meaning, or understanding to human relationships. Gergen also shares that social constructionism may serve as a perspective which believes that human life exists the way it does due to social and interpersonal influences (1985).

In exploring social construction further, I find the work of Kenneth Gergen invaluable. The basic proposition of social constructionism is that we construct the world through our relationships, interactions and dialogue as we continuously seek to make sense of the world (Gergen & Gergen, 2004, p. 8). Our understandings have no necessary link to what there is; rather, what we “know” arises from our relational use of language (in the broadest sense of language) as we attempt to describe and explain the world (Gergen, 2009) to each other.  In the process, we fashion our future; innovating through an ongoing process of meaning making, we open up certain possibilities and close off others. The sense making and sense giving process in relationships generate new meanings and offer new possibilities for action.

Kenneth Gergen (2009a) highlights the need for each of us to consider how we make our own meaning of the world—which depends upon the social relationships of which we are a part. It is from our social relationships—not bound by history or tradition if we so choose, that we construct the world. Gergen & Gergen (2004) notes that the future is ours to create together, “as we speak together, listen to new voices, raise questions, ponder alternative metaphors, and play at the edges of reason, cross the thresholds into new worlds of meaning” (p. 12). Gergen (2009a) offers the following five central assumptions of social construction of which I provide brief connections to the study at hand:

  1. The way in which we understand the world is not required by what there is. We may use our language to construct alternative worlds.
  1. The ways in which we describe and explain the world are the outcomes of relationship.
  1. Constructions gain their significance from their social utility.
  1. As we describe and explain, so do we fashion our future. Sustaining traditions requires a continuous process of regenerating meaning together, which is a challenge in a world of rapid global change.
  1. Reflection on our taken-for-granted worlds is vital to our future well-being. (pp. 5-12)

Gergen believes that critical reflection may lead to increased sensitivity to traditional biases from the mainstream culture. If so, a social constructionist orientation encourages a wide-ranging sensitivity to the nature of truth claims and a sense of release from their limits. As Gergen and Gergen (2004) note, “It is when people can see the limits and biases inherent in the otherwise taken for granted that they are freed to consider alternatives” (p. 29). Throughout his address on the utility of social construction in qualitative inquiry, Kenneth Gergen (2003) stresses that knowledge is socially constructed.  He states, “from the constructionist position the process of understanding is not automatically driven by the forces of nature, but is the result of an active, cooperative enterprise of persons in relationship” (p. 15). As such, a social constructionist orientation allows for alternative constructions of greater promise. Gergen (2009a, 2009b) has shown how a social constructionist stance can be applied to meaning making activities in organizations with a focus on collaborative decision making and relational leadership.

In examining social constructionist epistemology, Warmoth (2000) highlighted the proposition that knowledge is ultimately grounded in conversations among members of communities. Fundamental to this has been the study of the sociology of knowledge by Kuhn (1970) in his recognition of paradigm shifts that open up new ways for understanding.  Berger and Luckmann (1966) in The Social Construction of Reality noted that people interacting in groups in a social system over time reciprocally form habitual behaviors that are acted out in day-to-day relationships and become institutionalized into a socially constructed reality.

Recommended Resources (please see Bibliography page for more resources)

Ken Gergen talks about Social Constructionist Ideas, Theories, and Practice (video)

Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community (book)

Relational Leading: Practices for Dialogically-based Collaboration (book)

Ken Gergen Talks about Social Constructionism in Spanish (video)

Construccionismo Social (Blog Website)

WorldShare Books (Free downloadable books associated with Social Construction)

A Guiding Question: How might a Social Construction perspective serve you in your endeavors?


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