Drawing on empirical examples, discuss the insights into the human world that the social constructionist perspective offers.
Social constructionism focuses on meaning and power. It maintains that, as humans, we respond to the meaning of events and objects rather than the actual objects and events themselves. This meaning is actually a construction, a product of social interaction between individuals. Our behaviour is regulated by guidelines, which make everyday life predictable and understandable. These guidelines set boundaries as to what is acceptable behaviour, and are themselves a product of social interaction. They cause us to behave in a certain way the way that is seen as the norm. It is through social interaction that people "act and react in relation to others." Through this social interaction, we learn what is acceptable and what is not. Over time these rules' become internalised within us, and eventually become a somewhat unconscious part of our lives. We end up just taking them for granted, as we begin to see that what we do is just normal (e.g. habit).
Burr (1985) identifies four assumptions that the social constructionist perspective follows: The first is that, as social constructionists, we should "take a critical stance towards our taken-for-granted ways of understanding the world." Whereas traditional science assumes that observation can be used to explain the nature of the world, social constructionism is wary of this opinion. It argues that just because we divide people and things in the world into categories, they may not actually be real divisions. Burr uses the example of music there is nothing in the
nature of music that denotes that it should be divided into such categories as pop' or classical'. The second point Burr raises is that of historical and cultural specificity'. This is the idea that the understanding we have of the world, and concepts in it, are specific to particular cultures and time periods. Burr also insists that these concepts are products of, and dependent on, the culture and the economic arrangements of the culture at that time. The next point Burr mentions is that people construct their own understanding of the nature of the world through social interaction. Social constructionists are especially interested in how individuals interact, particularly the idea of language. Through communication, we distinguish shared meanings. As Littlejohn argues, "People communicate to interpret events and to share those with others." These shared meanings would be impossible without communication. The interaction that takes place between individuals never ends. Like socialisation, it exists throughout one's life. It leads to a collective understanding of meanings. Institutions are formed, and rules and policies are put into place. This brings us on to the last of Burr's assumptions; the idea that knowledge and social action go hand in hand. Each social construction differs, and "brings with it
. a different kind of action from human beings." Berger and Luckmann introduced the concept of the social construction of reality', to identify the idea that humans build the social world and everything in it through their interaction, and so social interaction amounts to the negotiating of reality. So, how is it that we construct our reality? From the moment we are born, we 040165640
become involved in the process of learning. A newborn baby has everything that they need to walk and talk, but they still have to learn the skill of walking, and language, from others. de Swaan uses the example of smiling. Babies have the ability to smile and make other facial expressions, but it is through interaction with others that they learn when to make the appropriate mouth movements. They hear high-pitched sounds coming from their parents and others around them, and after a few months, they learn how to respond, especially to familiar faces. This suggests that such processes are...
References: Berger, P, 1963, Invitation to sociology, Harmondsworth, Pelican
Burr, V, 1995, An introduction to social constructionism, London, Routledge
de Swaan, A, 2001, Human societies, Cambridge, Polity
Jenkins, R, 1996, Social identity, London, Routledge
Macionis, J, and Plummer, K, 2002, Sociology: a global introduction, Harlow, Prentice Hall
Oakley, A, 1985, Sex, gender and society, London, Gower
Taylor, S, 1999, Sociology: issues and debates, Basingstoke, Palgrave
What is social constructionism? http://www.psy.dmu.ac.uk
Sociology online www.sociologyonline.co.uk
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