CHAPTER3 SELF AS SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION The Theory of Social Constructionism
A Brief Historical Perspective
The rise of the constructionist movement can best be understood against the backdrop of the continuous disputation between two very different basic epistemological orientations (Gergen, 1982, 1985b; Shatter & Gergen, 1989). These two perspectives, like all epistemology, set out to elucidate the processes by which people come to describe, explain or otherwise account for the mrld in which they live.
On the one hand, there is the exogenic perspective which sees knowledge as a pa’Mlof nature. This view, as expounded by philosophers such as Locke, Hume and Mills [see for example, Locke (1979)], sees proper knowledge as mirroring the actualities of the real ‘M:>rld. This tradition forms the basis of much of modernist thinking (for example, behaviourism) as discussed above. The exogenic perspective can also be described as forming the metatheoretical basis of the science of psychology itself (Gergen, 1982).
On the other hand, philosophers such as Spinoza, Kant and Nietzsche [see for example, Spinoza (1956) and Nietzsche (1968)] and various phenomenologists have adopted an endogenic perspective which sees knowledge as endemic to the organism. Human beings are seen to possess certain tendencies and/or abilitiesto think, categorize and thus process information. Thus, according to them, it is these innate tendencies and abilities, rather than the world out there, which is of paramount importance in fashioning knowledge (Gergen 1985a, 1985b; Shetter & Gergen, 1989).
The endogenic perspective has emerged in the field of psychology in a few guises, most notably in phenomenological psychology, and cognitive and social psychology. For example, concepts such as cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), emotions as perceived (Schachter, 1964) and the transactional model of stress (Lazarus, 1980) all carry the premise that human action is dependent on the world as processed rather than the world as it is.
Gergen (1985a), however, sees this exogenic-endogenic antimony (as witnessed not only in psychology, also in philosophy and other social sciences) as an ongoing pendulum of which the movement can be recapitulated again and again. The challenge accepted by many, such as the constructionist thinkers (Rorty, 1979), has been to rise above this subject-object dualism. Knowledge is neither something that is inherent and attainable in the ‘MJrldout there, nor something that individuals possess, but rather something they do. This perspective of knowledge as social achievement is what social constructionism sets out to explicate.
The Basic Tenets of Social Constructionism
Gergen (1985a) summarizes a central theme of social constructionism succinctly when he states that it rests on a « radical doubt in the taken for granted mrld » (p.6). This theory challenges the objective basis of conventional knowledge. It does not accept that commonly accepted knowledge, beliefs and understandings can be clear mental representations of the ‘Mlrldand achieve their validity through appropriate observation of the world out there (Gergen, 1971, 1982, 1985a, 1985b).
Rather, social constructionism sees the terms in which the world is understood as « social artifacts, products of historically situated interchanges between people » (Gergen, 1985a, p.6). Thus, seemingly objective criteria for identifying behaviours, traits, events or entities (which much of psychology endeavours to achieve in various specific inquiries) are always highly circumscribed by history, culture and social context.
In this way a recentering (Gergen, 1981) is achieved, a move from a concern with ~gnitiv~ ~rocesses to one of social exchange. Cognition is not seen to essentially . determine social activity as much as -~o~i~~~~ivity is see_n to__deterrnine what we .
~~~~ve to constitute cognitive processes. Terms of understandings within groups and societies are, therefore, the result of an active, co-operative enterprise of persons in relationships. Languages of understanding are employed by persons in their attempt to carry on mutual enterprises (Gergen, 1982, 1985a, 1989; Gergen et at., 1980).
These constructions that are socially negotiated can undergo significant changes .
across time. Such change is not seen to reflect alterations in the object of concern, but is once again based on other historically significant social or cultural factors.
Thus, the degree to vA’licha given form of understanding prevails across time is not a functipn of its empirical or objective validity. Rather, it depends on the vicissitudes Gf ‘socialprocesses. (This view can, for example, be illustrated through the argument that the epistemology of modem science and its accompanying description of person and the ideal of individualization were developed largely as a means of social control.) Likewise, vA’letheran act is defined (for example) content-wise as sex or violence or morality-wise as appropriate or not, rests on a myriad of social exchanges and negotiations. Thus, communities of interpreters evolve through vA’lom reality is essentially negotiated (Gergen, 1985a, 1989; Hoffman, 1993).
These forms of negotiated understanding are critically significant in social life in that they are integrally connected to many other activities in w’hichpeople engage. Specific descriptions and interpretations invite specific actions (Gergen 1985a; Hoffman, 1993; Shatter & Gergen, 1989). This also explains the concern among certain writers (such as Foucault) with the specific conventions of discourse that psychology, for example, chooses to employ around the understanding of persons and their actions. These invented categories could have broad social implications. Consider, for example, the possibly damaging and limiting effects on children of certain constructions of how a child’smind ‘MJrks(Walkerdine, 1984) or the effects of a now intellectualized sexism inherent in the assumed superiority and universality of patricentric principles in moral decision-making (Gilligan, 1982).
The theory of social constructionism, then, emphasizes the contextual nature of truths w’hichabide in multiverses. Situations and interactions generate their o’N!’l truths, and one cannot argue that one universe exists. Constructionism basically proposes that the ‘MJrldmay not be the same if \NS do not interact or are not in it any longer – \NS co-construct the universe.
Wittgenstein’s( 1953, 1969) w-itings have contributed greatly to moving beyond a view of our vocabulary and discourse as derived through observation and representative of internal or external phenomenological givens. Instead, he sees mental predicates as semantically free-floating. In addition, he views linguistic discourse as essentially part of a social process. Words gain their meaning not in their capacity to reflect reality, but through their use in social interchange.
These tenets from Wittgenstein’s(1953, 1969) thinking have been extensively used by many w-iters in the social sciences in their efforts to find fresh perspectives on the origins and evolution of our understandings of the ‘NC>rldand people. In essence, language is conceptualized as the mechanism through which meaning and reality are negotiated. Furthermore, the conventions of the discourse are seen to guide the possibilities that open for people to engage in specific ways with self, each other and the v.orld (Geertz, 1986; Gergen, 1989; Harre, 1985, l 1989).
Writers like Anderson and Goolishian (1988, 1992) have done much to develop the idea of reality as constituted through language and of groups as constituted. through consensual languaging (into communities of interpreters). Accordingly, the · social constructionist theorists see ideas, concepts and memories as arising from social interchange and mediated through language.
It is also in this that the « social » part of social construction theory lies. The categories into which we divide the ‘NC>rld and according to which we act and attribute meaning are not prescribed by natural law, vicariously received or individually invented. They evolve in the space between people and are transmitted, communicated and passed on through symbolic action, such as language (Gergen, 1985a, 1989; Harre, 1984, 1985, 1989; Wittgenstein, 1953, 1969).
For example, Averill (1982) questions the assumption that common categories for classifying emotions reflect real or fundamental differences in biological functioning. Laing (1969) and many others challenge the so-called objective criteria for diagnozing schizophrenia as a genetically transmitted and biologically based mental illness. Hoffman (1993) sees the rush to define treatable mental conditions and the expanding of DSM-IV labels as due to the present economics of mental health. According to her, the diagnosis industry is at the heart of the reimbursement system in the USA, as health insurance coverage is only forthcoming if problems can be properly labelled, preferably as biological illnesses, and thereby defined as treatable. All of these vvriters illustrate a profound criticism of the objective criteria for identifying behaviours, events or entities, as they find these criteria to be highly circumscribed by history or social context, or altogether non-existent.
An important implication of this view is that language is not only ·the medium through which interpretations of the Vl.()rld is carried, but constitutes social action in itself. Conventions of discourse also guide social exchange.
An indeterminate array of understandings/constructions may be derived for any given situation. Some voices/understandings/categories, hO’Never, are granted superiority over others on the basis of socially derived criteria. Which voice prevails in the sea of alternatives, may be critical to the fate of the person, relationships, family life, community, or even to the Mure of humankind (Gergen, 1989; Harre, 1989). Gergen (1989) refers to the process through which certain linguistic constructions are granted superiority by offering certain rationales or justifications, as achieving warrant.
Gergen ( 1989) also argues that one of the most typical social conventions of warrant is the reference to mental events. For example, one may claim superiority of voice by virtue of your claim to possessing certain characteristics of mind yourself, or by denigrating your « opponent’s »inner inferiorities. You may also claim warrant on the basis of possessing privileged mental representation of the outer world (for example, « I saw it with my own eyes »). In the battle for warrant of a certain voice that ensues from the preceding kind of positioning, claim is also made to historically supported or institutionalized warrants (such as the body of knowledge in psychology Wiich has developed over time and Wiich, through repeated and particular use, is regarded as « proven knowledge »). This accumulated armamentarium of centuries of debate thus become symbolic resources in the battle of linguistic constructions of world and person.
All of the above suggests that self-knowledge (for example) is not the product of in-depth probing of the inner recesses of the psyche, or adequately controlled experimentation with emotions and the like. Rather, functional self-knowledge entails a mastery of discourse – knowing how rather than knowing Wiat. The challenge in the experience of self is to find the linguistic skills that can make the inner world come to life. Full social functioning is thus a product of the dance achieved with symbolic resources, that is, linguistic constructions that have been and are being socially negotiated.
The Social Construction of the Self
Within social constructionist thinking, as noted in the previous section, the construct self-concept is removed from the head and placed within the sphere of social discourse. The locus of individual functioning is removed from the interior region of the mind to the processes and structure of human interchange. The question »why » is answered not with a psychological trait, state or process, but with consideration of people in relationships (Brighton-Cleghorn, 1987; Gergen, 1971, 1985a, 1985b, 1989; Gergen & Davis, 1985; Hoffman, 1993; Lynch, Norem-Hebeisen & Gergen, 1981 ).
This implies that the person is not conceptualized by herself or others in specific ways because they can (more or less correctly) through observation or other methods, approximate the way she intrinsically is. A sense of self is developed in conjunction with others. There is a constant recursive process bervveen our defining of ourselves in interaction with others’perceived definitions of us. Furthermore, the way -we perceive, describe and explain our O’M1 and others’behaviour is decisively influenced by received conceptualizations of the person in relationship to the existing and historical moral-social order(s) and the perceived natural order. In this way constructed self-concepts differ radically within different kinds of societies. [Compare, for example, the prevalence of individual goals and habits in self-descriptions in Western societies with the more communal self-conception in other societies where anything idiosyncratic is muted in favour of the person’sassigned place in the continuous communal saga (as described by Geertz, 1973). It ‘NOuld ho-wever be a mistake to assume that the one language here (the Western one) comparatively allows « more » freedom in the construction of who you want to be. As pointed out in an earlier section, the vociferous adherence to individuality can also be seen as a very effective means of social control that is disguised in the discourse of individual freedom.] In all cases though, conceptualizations of ourselves and others is in some way presupposed by our constructed social orders and is a requisite for its functioning (Lax, 1992; Shweder, 1984; Shweder & Miller, 1985).
SECTION I: IN SEARCH OF SELF – A THEORETICAL JOURNEY
1 TRADITIONAL VIEWS OF SELFHOOD
2 THE EMERGENCE OF POSTMODERN APPROACHES TO THE WORLD
3 SELF AS SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION
SECTION II : TOWARDS HEALING THROUGH THE USE OF SELF : THE THERAPIST’S JOURNEY
4 THE JOURNEY TOWARDS ACKNOWLEDGING THE IMPORTANCE OF THE THERAPIST’S SENSE OF SELF,
5 ACKNOWLEDGING THE IMPORTANCE OF THE THERAPIST’S SELFHOOD: IMPLICATIONS FOR TRAINING AND THERAPY
SECTION Ill : TOWARDS TRANSFORMING SELF : THE JOURNEY THROUGH LOSS 144
6 TRADITIONAL VIEWS OF LOSS
7 PARADIGMS THAT OFFER ALTERNATIVE UNDERSTANDINGS OF THE EXPERIENCE OF LOSS
8 EXPERIENCES OF LOSS AS CENTRAL TO TRANSFORMATION IN SOCIAL MEANINGMAKING
GET THE COMPLETE PROJECT
THERAPISTS AND SENSE OF SELF: THEMES OF LOSS