Early Childhood Education

Social Constructionism


Social constructionist theory suggests that psychological phenomena (e.g. emotions, self, and the mind) are not individual but social in nature; they are transmitted, created, maintained, and constructed through language and discourse. Social constructionism as a theory has been influenced by a number of multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary traditions, including sociology (Berger and Luckmann, 1966), critical theory (Foucault, 1976), and literary theory (Derrida, 1976). Contemporary interpreters of social constructionism in the psychological realm, including Kenneth Gergen and Rom Harre, emphasize the role of language and discourse in the construction of psychological processes such as the self, emotions, memory, and attitudes. Social constructionism came about as a challenge to empiricism and positivism and the notion of objectivity. A major assumption is that traditional notions about truth, knowledge, and the nature of reality should be examined critically, as all knowledge is historically and culturally specific.

Social constructionism as a theory of knowledge construction is distinct from, although conceptually related to, the theory of social constructivism. They differ with respect to a fundamental tenet having to do with the role and place of the individual mind. Social constructivism (see Lev Vygotsky entry) focuses on how the individual mind is first social and then individual and highlights the importance of language in the process. In social constructivism, the individual mind internalizes ways of being through the social and cultural tools of the society. Social constructionism, in contrast, places a primary emphasis on discourse as a vehicle for constructing self and ways of knowing the world. Social constructionists eschew the notion of the mind as an individual container and instead focus on what happens outside of the mind between people. From this perspective, people are not born as individuals with inner states, but rather the individual and inner states are socially constructed through moment-to-moment interactions. A major aim of social constructionist research is to uncover the ways that constructs such as knowledge, emotions, cognition, self, gender, and sexuality are socially constructed through social, cultural, and ideological discourses.

Social constructionist theory views language as a critical feature of the construction process, such that the underlying assumption is that all meaning is brought into being through language. Kenneth Gergen (1999) posits, “If language is a central means by which we carry on our lives together—carrying the past into the present to create the future—then our ways of talking and writing become key targets for concern. It is not only our grand languages of self, truth, and morality at stake; our futures are also fashioned from mundane exchanges in families, friendships, and organizations, in the informal comments, funny stories, and the remainder of the daily hubbub” (p. 62). This statement suggests that ways of talking and using language in everyday interactions shape ways of knowing, being, and doing. However, language is not simply a way to express what we see in the world, it is “the doing of life itself” (Gergen, 1999, p. 35).

Larger discourses also play a key role (e.g., discourses about gender or sexuality) and contain “frames” within which words shape meaning. For example, the larger discourse frames tell us what it means to be male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, student, teacher, black, white, poor, rich, Republican, or Democrat. These larger discourse frames provide “ways of being” that are grounded in what these terms mean in our society. As such, discourse provides a way for us to interpret the world. Through various discourses we form notions of self and identity, which are bound by power, history, culture, and ideology.

Social constructionists also suggest that research paradigms are socially constructed and built from discourses about knowledge, truth, and reality. For example, social constructionists consider how scientific knowledge is socially constructed though discourses about science, rationality, and logic. Other social constructionist critiques focus on how knowledge is located in particular historic and cultural contexts. Other areas of social constructionist inquiry include questions of how inner states such as emotions are known and regarded as true and how they are related to the power structures and ideology of a culture. How is truth related to our subjective experience? Is all truth subjective in nature? Is there a bounded individual self? If so, how is it contextual, political, and historical? What is the role of discourse and language in the construction of reality, truth, and knowledge? These are some of the questions asked by those who study social constructionism.

Early childhood scholars with interests in classroom processes have studied what gets accomplished by children in their daily lives as students and peers through a social constructionist lens. Traditional topics in the psychological literature such as gender and identity, social competence, friendship processes, and social isolation have been reexamined not as stable internal traits but as constructs that are constantly being created and recreated as children engage with each other and with adults. Bronwyn Davies and Rom Harre (1990), for example, see gender as constructed by multiple subject positioning that are taken up by children as they negotiate who they are in social interactions. Subject positioning are fluid and open to change in moment-to-moment discursive practices. Similarly, applying the notion of subject positioning to children’s social status within peer groups, Scott (2003) also interpreted children’s rejection and isolation not as an outcome of enduring poor social skills, but as a positioning constructed through discourse and social interaction.

A central criticism of social constructionism is the notion of agency. Is agency a top-down or bottom-up process? Do everyday ways of talking, being, and doing determine the larger discourse frame or does the larger discourse frame determine everyday ways of talking, being, and doing? How much of a role do humans have in shaping their ways of talking, knowing, being, and doing if everything is socially constructed? It is still unclear how much influence the larger discourse frames have on everyday interactions, as well as how much everyday moment-to-moment interactions have on the construction of the larger discourses of our society. This is an issue that is debated within social constructionist theory and is problematic. In the top-down view, humans are locked into the roles set by the larger discourse frames of the society, which leaves little room for change at the micro level and little human agency. While the bottom-up view positions humans as actively constructing and reconstructing discourse, according to Burr (2003), “The individual is a ‘given’ from which society arises, and therefore cannot be said to be constructed by that society” (p. 183). Thus, the notion of agency and the process of construction (e.g., Is it a top-down or bottom-up process?) is one aspect of social constructionism that is still under debate. See also Constructionism.

Further Readings: Berger, P., and T. Luckmann (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Doubleday; Burr, V. (2003). Social constructionism. New York: Routledge; Davies, B., and R. Harre (1990). Positioning: The discursive production of selves. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 20(1), 43-63; Derrida, J. (1976). Of grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Foucalt, M. (1976). The history of sexuality: An introduction. Harmondsworth: Penguin; Gergen, K. J. (1999). An invitation to social constructionism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; Gergen, K. J. (1994). Realities and relationships: Soundings in social construction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Harre R., and P. F. Secord (1972). The explanation of social behaviour. Oxford: Blackwell; Scott, J. A. (2003). The social construction of “outsiders” in the preschool. In R. Kantor and D. Fernie, eds., Early childhood classroom processes. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 63-98.

Samara Madrid and Rebecca Kantor