Social constructivism

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Social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge that applies the general philosophical constructivism into the social. The concept has a long history in sociological and philosophical thought, but the term has been coined by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann with their book The Social Construction of Reality. Based on a combination of Alfred Schutz' Sociology of Knowledge and Durkheim's concept of institution, they develop a theory that aims at answering the question of how subjective meaning becomes a social fact. The concept uses George Herbert Mead's Ideas of Socialisation and Interaction and in this respect some aspects resemble ideas in Russian cultural psychology, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a "small" culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings. When one is immersed within a culture of this sort, one is learning all the time about how to be a part of that culture on many levels. It is emphasised that culture plays a large role in the cognitive development of a person. Its origins are largely attributed to Lev Vygotsky.

Social constructivism and social constructionism

Social constructivism is closely related to social constructionism in the sense that people work together to construct artifacts. However, there is an important difference: social constructionism focuses on the artifacts that are created through the social interactions of a group, while social constructivism focuses on an individual's learning that takes place because of their interactions in a group.

A very simple example is an object like a cup. The object can be used for many things, but its shape does suggest some 'knowledge' about carrying liquids (see also Affordance). A more complex example is an online course - not only do the 'shapes' of the software tools indicate certain things about the way online courses should work, but the activities and texts produced within the group as a whole will help shape how each person behaves within that group. A person's cognitive development will also be influenced by the culture that he or she is involved in, such as the language, history and social context.

For a philosophical account of one possible social constructionist ontology, see the 'Criticism' section of Representative realism.[1]

Social constructivism and philosophy

'Strong' social constructivism as a philosophical approach tends towards the suggestion that "the natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge".[2] According to Maarten Boudry & Filip Buekens, Freudian psychoanalysis is a good example of this in action.[3] As Freudian psychoanalysis is also regarded as epistemically fundamentally flawed—using its own inventions to support its arguments—this suggests that 'bona fide' science, which (by and large) is not flawed in the same way, is also not validly subject to social constructivism.

Interestingly, however, Boudry & Buekens do not claim that 'bona fide' science is completely immune from all socialisation and the (Kuhnian) claims of paradigmatic shifts,[4] merely that the 'strong' social constructivist claim that all scientific knowledge is constructed ignores the reality of scientific success, and falls prey to the ancient Cretan, Epimenides' famous dictum, "All Cretans are liars." — including, of course, Epimenides.[3]

One characteristic of social constructivism is that it rejects the role of superhuman necessity in either the invention/discovery of knowledge or its justification. In the field of invention it looks to contingency as playing an important part in the origin of knowledge, with historical interests and resourcing swaying the direction of mathematical and scientific knowledge growth. In the area of justification while acknowledging the role of logic and reason in testing, it also accepts that the criteria for acceptance vary and change over time. Thus mathematical proofs follow different standards in the present and throughout different periods in the past, as Ernest argues.[5]

Social constructivism, psychology, and religion

One branch of social constructivist philosophy is best represented in the works of the psychologist Robert Rocco Cottone. Cottone has taken a radical philosophical position purporting a purest relational realism (an ontology where everything is viewed as relationship). Things, accordingly, only exist in relation to observers who are able to understand their perceptions through social interchange. Cottone merged the works of the cognitive biologist Humberto Maturana with the works of the social psychologist Kenneth Gergen to produce a fully relational conception of the process of understanding experience. His most compelling concept is that of "Bracketed Absolute Truth" (also called a "consensuality"),[6] where a truth is held within a community as absolute, but outside the community it is held by observers as relative to other truths. All understanding of experience is thereby socially constructed, but different communities can construct different interpretations of their shared experience. Truths are never constructed outside of interaction—truth is social. There are as many truths on any one topic as there are communities to construct them. Some truths on one topic may be consistent and others may be contradictory, depending on the perceptual and social linguistic contexts of the groups making the interpretations. Cottone used the example of religion to make his point.[7] Different communities may have different conceptions of a god, for example, even though historically they are speaking of the same godly origin (e.g., Islam, Christianity, Judaism). Religion provides a compelling example of how people socially construct their understanding of experience by means of social-linguistic traditions. Each religion, therefore, represents a bracketed absolute truth. Cottone proposed that people operate in a matrix of multilayered consensualities and people progress through life by connecting with, disconnecting from, and continually negotiating through relationships that reflect communities of understanding (e.g., religions, professions, local communities, governments, etc.). He called this process "social trajectory".[7] This branch of social constructivist thought does not purport that individuals socially construct a reality, rather it purports that people construct understanding of experience together, not alone. In effect, there are communities of understanding.

Social constructivism and education

Social constructivism has been studied by many educational psychologists, who are concerned with its implications for teaching and learning. Social constructivism extends constructivism by incorporating the role of other actors and culture in development. In this sense it can also be contrasted with social learning theory by stressing interaction over observation. For more on the psychological dimensions of social constructivism, see the work of A. Sullivan Palincsar.[8]

An instructional strategy grounded in social constructivism that is an area of active research is computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL). This strategy gives students opportunities to practice 21st-century skills in communication, knowledge sharing, critical thinking and use of relevant technologies found in the workplace.

Additionally, studies on increasing the use of student discussion in the classroom both support and are grounded in theories of social constructivism. There is a full range of advantages that results from the implementation of discussion in the classroom. Participating in group discussion allows students to generalize and transfer their knowledge of classroom learning and builds a strong foundation for communicating ideas orally.[9] Many studies argue that discussion plays a vital role in increasing student ability to test their ideas, synthesize the ideas of others, and build deeper understanding of what they are learning.[9][10][11][12] Large and small group discussion also affords students opportunities to exercise self-regulation, self-determination, and a desire to persevere with tasks.[11][13] Additionally, discussion increases student motivation, collaborative skills, and the ability to problem solve.[12][13][14] Increasing students’ opportunity to talk with one another and discuss their ideas increases their ability to support their thinking, develop reasoning skills, and to argue their opinions persuasively and respectfully.[9] Furthermore, the feeling of community and collaboration in classrooms increases through offering more chances for students to talk together.[10][15][16]

Given the advantages that result from discussion, it is surprising that it is not used more often. Studies have found that students are not regularly accustomed to participating in academic discourse.[11][12] Martin Nystrand argues that teachers rarely choose classroom discussion as an instructional format. The results of Nystrand’s (1996) three-year study focusing on 2400 students in 60 different classrooms indicate that the typical classroom teacher spends under three minutes an hour allowing students to talk about ideas with one another and the teacher.[12] Even within those three minutes of discussion, most talk is not true discussion because it depends upon teacher-directed questions with predetermined answers.[11][12] Multiple observations indicate that students in low socioeconomic schools and lower track classrooms are allowed even fewer opportunities for discussion.[10][11][12] Teachers who teach as if they value what their students think create learners. Discussion and interactive discourse promote learning because they afford students the opportunity to use language as a demonstration of their independent thoughts. Discussion elicits sustained responses from students that encourage meaning-making through negotiating with the ideas of others. This type of learning “promotes retention and in-depth processing associated with the cognitive manipulation of information”.[12]

One recent branch of work exploring social constructivist perspectives on learning focuses on the role of social technologies and social media in facilitating the generation of socially constructed knowledge and understanding in online environments.[17]

See also


  1. See also Wright, Edmond (2005) Narrative, Perception, Language, and Faith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 103–120.
  2. Collins, H. M. (1981) Stages in the Empirical Program of Relativism - Introduction. Social Studies of Science. 11(1) 3
  3. 3.0 3.1 Boudry, M & Buekens, F (2011) The Epistemic Predicament of a Pseudoscience: Social Constructivism Confronts Freudian Psychoanalysis. Theoria, 77, 159–179
  4. Kuhn, T (1962) Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago University Press.
  5. Ernest, Paul (1998), Social Constructivism as a Philosophy of Mathematics, Albany NY: SUNY Press.
  6. Cottone, R. R. (2012). "Paradigms of Counseling and Psychotherapy".
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cottone, R. R. (2011). “Toward a positive psychology of religion: Belief science in the postmodern era.” Winchester, UK: John Hunt Publishing
  8. Palincsar, A.S. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345–375.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Reznitskaya, A., Anderson, R.C., and Kuo, L.J. (2007). Teaching and Learning Argumentation. Elementary School Journal, 107: 449–472.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 K. Weber, C. Maher, A. Powell, and H. Lee (2008). Learning opportunities from group discussions: Warrants become the objects of debate. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 68, 247-261.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 Corden, R.E. (2001). Group discussion and the importance of a shared perspective: Learning from collaborative research. Qualitative Research, 1(3), 347-367.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 Nystrand, M. (1996). Opening dialogue: Understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Matsumura, L.C., Slater, S.C., & Crosson, A. (2008). Classroom climate, rigorous instruction and curriculum, and students’ interactions in urban middle schools. The Elementary School Journal, 108(4), 294-312.
  14. Dyson, A. H. (2004). Writing and the sea of voices: Oral language in, around, and about writing. In R.B. Ruddell, & N.J. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (pp. 146–162). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  15. Barab, S., Dodge, T. Thomas, M.K., Jackson, C. & Tuzun, H. (2007). Our designs and the social agendas they carry. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 16(2), 263-305.
  16. Hale, M.S. & City, E.A. (2002). “But how do you do that?”: Decision making for the seminar facilitator. In J. Holden & J.S. Schmit. Inquiry and the literary text: Constructing discussions in the English classroom / Classroom practices in teaching English, volume 32. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  17. Dougiamas, M. (1998, November). A journey into Constructivism.

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