Social constructionism is a theoretical perspective within sociology and other social sciences that suggests that reality is not an objective, concrete, and fixed entity but a socially constructed concept created, maintained and changed by people’s perceptions, beliefs, and practices. Social constructionists argue that various aspects of social life, such as gender, race, sexuality, mental illness, and knowledge, are not natural or biologically determined but are products of cultural and historical contexts, social interactions, and power relations.
Social constructionism emphasises the role of language, discourse, and symbolic communication in shaping our understanding of the world and ourselves and highlights the importance of critical reflection, deconstruction, and social change in challenging and transforming dominant cultural norms and values.
Social constructionism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a response to the limitations of positivism and other dominant paradigms in social science, which emphasised objectivity, empiricism, and naturalism. It was influenced by a range of intellectual and social movements, including postmodernism, feminism, critical race theory, and queer theory, as well as by the works of sociologists such as Berger and Luckmann, Goffman, and Foucault.
Postmodernism, emphasising the deconstruction of metanarratives and the contingency of knowledge, provided a critical framework for social constructionism to challenge the idea of a unified and objective reality. Feminism and critical race theory highlighted how social categories such as gender and race were constructed and shaped by power relations and provided insights into how these categories were used to maintain and reproduce social inequality. Queer theory challenged the norms of heterosexuality and binary gender and showed how they were historically constructed and enforced through institutions such as marriage, law, and medicine.
Berger and Luckmann’s work on the social construction of reality, Goffman’s dramaturgical theory, and Foucault’s genealogical approach to power and knowledge also influenced social constructionism. These scholars emphasised the role of language, symbols, and discourse in shaping social life and provided insights into how individuals and groups negotiate and contest social meanings and identities.
Social constructivism vs social constructionism
Social constructivism and social constructionism are related but distinct theoretical perspectives. Social constructivism posits that individuals construct knowledge and understanding of the world through their interactions with other people and their environment. In other words, knowledge is not discovered, but rather actively created by individuals as they engage in social interactions and build mental models of reality. Social constructivists focus on the process of learning and how individuals make meaning of their experiences.
Social constructionism, on the other hand, is a broader perspective that examines how social phenomena are constructed and given meaning by individuals and societies. This includes not only knowledge and understanding, but also social norms, identities, and institutions. Social constructionists examine how power and privilege influence the construction of social reality, and often seek to challenge dominant narratives and bring attention to marginalized perspectives.
In summary, while social constructivism focuses on how individuals construct knowledge, social constructionism examines how social phenomena are constructed and given meaning by individuals and societies.