Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations


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This award supports his current research on autoethnography and social construction. Congratulations to our colleague, Dr. Stanley Witkin! He joined the department in serving as its first permanent Chair until Professor Witkin holds a B. He also holds an honorary doctorate in Social Science from the University of Lapland, Finland where he was a Fulbright scholar in Professor Witkin had published widely and is a frequent presenter at national and international venues.

Examples of recent publications include:. New York: Columbia University Press, The Construction of Reality in the Child. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Vygotsky, Lev S. Winner, Langdon. Cite this article Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography. September 24, Retrieved September 24, from Encyclopedia. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia. In the domain of social constructionist thought, a social construct is an idea or notion that appears to be natural and obvious to people who accept it but may or may not represent reality, so it remains largely an invention or artifice of a given society. Games are an example of socially constructed entities and often exist because of certain sets of conventional rules. These sets of social conventions and agreement to abide by them give games their meaning in any given social context.

The meaning given to games is therefore socially constructed. Gender, which represents ways of talking, describing, or perceiving men and women, is also a socially constructed entity. Generally distinguished from sex which is biological , notions of gender represent attempts by society, through the socialization process, to construct masculine or feminine identities and corresponding masculine or feminine gender roles for a child based on physical appearance and genitalia.

Social class is yet another socially constructed entity. While most scholars agree that class appears to represent a universal phenomenon, its meaning is often contextually located because what determines class varies from one society to another, and even within a culture different people may likely have different notions of class determinants.

Depending on the constructionist perspective, social construction may be the outcome of human choices rather than of immutable laws of nature. Here, then, lies the core issue over which social scientists diverge. Are human ideas and conceptions generated more on subjective criteria than on objective realities? Debates have raged in the social sciences along the divide of science versus objective truth.

In the social construction of reality, the question has often been asked: To what extent is our claim to knowledge supported by reality? In other words, to what extent is this claim a social construct? Some writers believe that to the extent that knowledge is aligned with reality, it approximates objective truth; anything less represents a social construct. According to this thinking, even morality is a social construct.

However, others believe that all knowledge is social construction. The basis of this debate — in fact the point of departure among scholars — is the claim that social constructions are based on social facts and surrounding social conventions.

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On the contrary, the social arena is quite different, as vital social realities are socially constructed, existing by virtue of that social construction by people over time and space. This seeming narrow threshold between scientific construction and social constructs presents problems in social analysis — indeed hard nuts that need to be cracked and cracked satisfactorily.

In the resulting ongoing science wars, one side argues that scientific results, including even those of basic physics, are socially constructed. Others protest, arguing that these results are usually discoveries about our world; they are not the production of society but exist independently of consciousness.

However, some sociologists, such as Barry Barnes and David Bloor , have taken a relativist view of social construction, claiming that any notion is as good as the other. Thus, for instance, if a new social construction of the Holocaust emerges, arguing that claims about Nazi extermination camps are exaggerated and that the gas chambers are a fiction, that view may well then be at par with other beliefs about the same phenomena, though this may represent historical revisionism. Nevertheless, the fact remains that constructionists attempt to sort out their notions and beliefs using standards of their own convictions and culture.

Peter Cohen , in his discussion of drug use as a social construct, argues that concepts used to describe and explain the phenomenon of drug use are surrounded by bias, a bias produced by a cultural dependency rather than drug use itself. The so-called scientific analysis of drug use, he argues, has often been used as an instrument for survival of the most powerful; power is not only relevant to decision making and resource allocation but also to the social construction of ideology and morality.

Scientific constructions and concepts are thus developed according to the interests and tastes of people in power a trend that is inescapable though may not be justified , and so these constructions often fit into conventional standpoints on topics of research. The implications of these varying constructionist positions is that, once again, it is not often clear what is, or what should be, socially constructed.

Radical constructionism best underscores this basic problem in social construction. Radical constructionists are concerned, for instance, with the domain of technology, with showing how social processes affect the content of technology and what it means for technology to be seen as working. They claim that the meaning of technology, including facts about its workings, are themselves social constructs. Similarly, on the social construction of reality, radical constructionists believe that the process of constructing knowledge regulates itself and that knowledge is a self-organized cognitive process of the human brain, a construct rather than a compilation of empirical data.

If this is so, it is impossible to determine the extent to which knowledge reflects an ontological reality. The problem of social construction has become more pronounced in different constructions of race based on diverging claims on racial distinctions.


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For instance, while William A. Darity Jr.

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They argue that people of different races, even within the same population, have different ancestries, meaning that different genes are inherited from ancestors. However, Hacking insists that research studies have tended to challenge the idea of race by presenting evidence that the scientific basis for racial distinctions is based on shaky grounds. Attempts to confine race to social construction appear to be based on the potential dangers of emotions that may be triggered by suggestions that racial differences reflect meaningful biogenetic differences.

This has meant that some experts are inclined to publicize the idea that race does not exist. But as a social construct, connotations of race change as social, political, historical, and economic structures of society change. Rodney D. Coates argues that notions of race are created for people to fit into, to raise consciousness in line with conceptual boxes so created, and often to generate racial outcomes, for instance, notions of racial inequality to produce racial superiority.

This invariably reveals the dynamic nature of social reality. If constructions of this lived reality fail to reflect that dynamism, it may become an invalid analytic or discursive unit, that is, a unit or object of analysis or discussion and debate. Stephen Spencer has further asked: If race is a social construct, of what is it precisely constructed if not the scientifically invalid false consciousness of biological race? He argues that it is as necessary to problematize the social construction of race as it is to question its scientific construction.

He concludes that for those who believe in biological construction of race but not in its social construction, the basis of their construction has an underlying biological conception, whether or not they admit that. Such constructions often create false consciousness, producing uncertainty as to what are or are not social differences and ultimately creating a new consciousness, a new social reality.

These questions highlight the problem of what is and what is not a social construct. It remains that people may often attempt to justify self-serving definitions, but this raises yet another fundamental question: Can this alter consensus on the validity of concepts? It is apt at this point to note that the use of invalid concepts in social research, public discourse, or policy debates may in fact lead to reification. However, in scientific construction, researchers must move outside the boxes of existing notions of matters of investigation to evaluate and analyze issues on such matters from radically different assumptions, even the assumptions of their disciplines Coates Barnes, Barry.

Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Barnes, Barry, and David Bloor. Relativism, Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge. In Rationality and Relativism , eds. Martin Hollis and Stephen Lukes, Berger, Peter L. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Coates, Rodney D. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers. Cohen, Peter. Drugs as a Social Construct. This is done through the medium of language. Burr comments that within social constructionism language is not an unproblematic means of transmitting thoughts and feelings, but in fact makes thought possible by constructing concepts.

In other words, it is language that makes thoughts and concepts possible and not the other way around. Language predates concepts and provides a means of structuring the way the world is experienced. Berger and Luckmann maintain that conversation is the most important means of maintaining, modifying and reconstructing subjective reality. Subjective reality is comprised of concepts that can be shared unproblematically with others.


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In other words, there is shared meaning and understanding, so much so that concepts do not need to be redefined each time they are used in everyday conversation and come to assume a reality which is by and large taken for granted. The words imply a whole world within which these propositions make sense.

Schwandt differentiates between radical and social constructionism, the latter has been outlined above, while the former is concerned with the idea that knowledge cannot represent or correspond to the world. Burningham and Cooper discuss constructionism in terms of being either contextual or strict. Contextual constructionism recognises objective reality and its influence, while the latter maintains a relativist position, that is the belief that there are multiple realities and all are meaningful. As will be discussed next, this relativist position is the source of most of the criticisms levelled at constructionism.

The main criticisms levelled against social constructionism can be summarised by its perceived conceptualisation of realism and relativism. It is accused of being anti-realist, in denying that knowledge is a direct perception of reality Craib Bury maintains that social constructionism challenges biomedical reality and questions apparently self-evident and stable realities, but he offers little evidence to support this contention. As an example, Bury claims that it views the discovery of diseases as themselves social events rather than having an objective reality.

This criticism of social constructionism not recognising an objective reality is both widespread and common Bury ; Burr ; Craib ; Schwandt, ; Sismondo , that nothing exists beyond language Bury There is an increasing tendency within qualitative research to adopt the relativist position which leads Hammersley to question the usefulness of the findings generated from studies using this method, given that the multiplicity of accounts produced can each claim legitimacy.

If all are legitimate and given the logical conclusion of relativism, then there is no reason to prefer one account to another. That is, the conclusions of research themselves constitute just another account and as such cannot claim to have precedence over any other account. The relevancy of such research can be questioned. In other words, if research is not contributing to knowledge in any meaningful way, then its usefulness may be questioned, particularly in relation to health care research Murphy et al.

Realism and relativism represent two polarised perspectives on a continuum between objective reality at one end and multiple realities on the other. Both positions are problematic for qualitative research. Adopting a realist position ignores the way the researcher constructs interpretations of the findings and assumes that what is reported is a true and faithful interpretation of a knowable and independent reality.

Relativism leads to the conclusion that nothing can ever be known for definite, that there are multiple realities, none having precedence over the other in terms of claims to represent the truth about social phenomena. However, this is to confuse epistemology with claims about ontology and is a fundamental misunderstanding of the philosophy that underpins social constructionism. As outlined, social constructionism as discussed by Berger and Luckman makes no ontological claims, confining itself to the social construction of knowledge, therefore confining itself to making epistemological claims only.

Social Constructionism

The idea that disease can and does exist as an independent reality is compatible with the social constructionist view. The naming of disease and indeed what constitutes disease is arguably a different matter and has the potential to be socially constructed. This is not the same as claiming that it has no independent existence beyond language.


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One can imagine the situation where a skin disorder such as psoriasis might be thought of as a contagious disease, but with continued empirical investigation, as knowledge increases about the condition, then attitudes to it and how it is constructed change. It is in this sense that disease is socially constructed but importantly makes no claims about its ontological status. For Hammersley the solution is to adopt neither position but one midway between the two, one that he terms subtle realism. This acknowledges the existence of an independent reality, a world that has an existence independent of our perception of it, but denies that there can be direct access to that reality, emphasising instead representation not reproduction of social phenomena.

Representation implies that it will be from the perspective of the researcher, thereby implicitly acknowledging reflexivity, which is acknowledgement that researchers influence the research process. Consistent with this middle course, Hammersley accepts the usefulness of what he terms common-sense knowledge, while at the same time rejecting the notion that all such knowledge is valid in its own terms. Central to this is a rejection of the view that knowledge is independent of the researcher, whose reality can be known with certainty.

Both realism and relativism share this view of knowledge in that both define it in this way as the starting point of their stances. In turn this results in the current dichotomy in qualitative research. The contention is that by avoiding such a definition, the negative implications for research associated with both philosophical perspectives can be avoided. Hamilton offers an alternative definition of knowledge as beliefs in which one can have reasonable confidence in their validity or truth. This is appeals to what Hammersley considers a common sense understanding and consensual notion of what constitutes social knowledge, particularly in judging the validity or truth of such knowledge generated through research findings.

This is a pragmatic view of knowledge based on how society resolves such matters in everyday life by judging its truth in relation to what is already known, not by appeal to philosophy. In a sense, this is an example of what Burr refers to as the self-referent system, where concepts can only be defined in terms of other concepts existing in the same language system.

Social Constructionism

In appealing for the adoption of a subtle realist approach, Hammersley is trying to resolve the seemingly intractable issue of realism versus relativism. In support of this, Murphy et al. However the current trend within qualitative research is not to draw such a sharp distinction between the realism and relativism Danermark et al.

In response to the realist critique, Sismondo differentiates between strict, radical or extreme constructionism and mild or contextual constructionism. He maintains that criticism is levelled at the former, which is said to deny physical reality. Burningham and Cooper note that in the critique of constructionism very few empirical studies adopting this approach are ever discussed. In other words, critics fail to evaluate the evidence as to how the theory is applied in practice in order to support their critique.

In a review of studies using social constructionism, Sismondo claims that the vast majority of studies adopt the mild or contextual form of analysis, where a distinction is maintained between what participants believe or claim about the social world and what is in fact already known. In practice social constructionists recognise reality and Sismondo concludes that the realist critique is misguided in that it does not fit what is actually going on in empirical studies.

Burningham and Cooper have summarised the strict constructionist position as a scepticism about ontological claims and not as an ontological claim about the non-existence of reality, that is, while they do not deny the existence of reality, they maintain that the meaning of reality is socially constructed. In terms of social constructionism, the arguments in relation to relativism are similar to those outlined earlier.

Relativism maintains that because there are multiple realities, there are multiple interpretations of those realities. This leads in the opinion of Bury to a circular argument, in that there is no way of judging one account of reality as better than another. Craib in particular ridicules social constructionism for its alleged position on the realist-relativist argument and views it as a comforting collective belief rather than a theoretical position.

He engages in what Hammersley terms a nihilist argument, namely the contention that because social constructionism is itself a social construct, then it has no more claim to be advanced as an explanation than any other theory. This results in there being no notion of what constitutes truth Burr Hammersley refers to this as the self-refuting character of relativism and attempts to counter it by proposing the adoption of subtle realism, as outlined previously.

Radical social constructionism is a trivial position Murphy et al. This gives rise to the further criticism that research using social constructionist framework lacks any ability to change things because there is nothing against which to judge the findings of research Bury, In this sense it becomes a methodological issue. This results in political inertia because of the reluctance of social constructionist research to make any recommendations Bury, Burningham and Cooper maintain that this arises because of a misreading of the process in that researchers adopting this approach do not ground their arguments in, or discredit opposing arguments by comparing them unfavourably with objective reality, that is, in presenting their findings, social constructionists do not present them in objectivist terms, but rely instead on the plausibility of their findings.

In other words, they set out to have their findings accepted by presenting a convincing argument rather than arguing that their results are definitive. This is consistent with the idea in constructionism that the findings of research are one of many discourses. The suggestion here is that far from being neutral, social constructionism can generate real debate and lead to change.

Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations
Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations
Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations
Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations
Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations
Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations Social Construction and Social Work Practice: Interpretations and Innovations

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