Still investigating social constructionism: Gergenmkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: constructionism, Identity, phd, philosophy, readings, theory
Gergen, K. J. (2009). An Invitation to Social Construction (p. 200). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/1412923018/ref=oss_product.
Do social constructionists take a relativist stance? Yes. Do they argue that there is no underlying or foundational reality? No. According to Gergen, our relationships allow us to make sense of our world(s). “Relationships stand prior to all that is intelligible” (p. 6). There is a reality. But, it is through our cultural and linguistic traditions that we perceive and interpret it. The exact nature of the reality or Truth is not what is sought (or possible to discover).
His example of the desk is helpful: “In my world the desk is solid, mahogany coloured, weighs some 180 lbs, and is odourless” (p. 7). But, depending on one’s traditions, these statements are arguable. He provides these examples:
- Atomic physicist: The desk is not solid.
- Psychologist: The desk has no colour as colour is merely our interpretation of light waves on our retinas.
- Rocket scientist: The weight of the desk depends on the gravitational field.
- Biologist: To a dog, the desk is likely a cornucopia of scent.
All of these hypothetical individuals come to these views by virtue of their traditions—that is, their relationships within their socio-linguistic cultures: “Understandings of the world are achieved through coordinations among persons—negotiations, agreements, comparing views and so on” (p. 6).
Gergen appears to agree with Hacking in that our understandings of the world may be expressed in many different ways. (Hacking refers to this as contingency (1999, p. 72)). There are multiple options. We need not call a quark a “quark”. We may have chosen a different word or taken a different approach to describing the quark-phenomenon. There are or could be equally viable alternatives: “. . . no particular language is privileged in terms of its picturing the world for what it is; innumerable accounts are possible” (p. 22).
Our relationships affect how we perceive the world because they influence what we look for and what we consider possible. Gergen mentions Berger and Luckmann’s phrase “plausibility structures” which lead us to view some things as “natural, taken for granted reality” (p. 23).
Gergen also broaches the issue of Cartesian dualism: internal vs. external, mind vs. body, individual vs. collective, etc. In the dualist way of thinking, the mind (subjective) is separate from the world (objective). Along this line, our mind (as we express it through language) mirrors the experience of the external world (p. 42). This way of viewing the world has become accepted in much of the Western tradition as the common sense way to approach the world and guides what we take for granted.
Common-sense categorizations presumably capture the basic essence or “intrinsic qualities” of sets of individuals or aspects of our reality (p. 52). In our day-to-day, practical experience, these categories can be very useful and allow us to interact quickly and without thinking. But, they can also be constraining and imprisoning, locking us into certain modes of behaviour. Consider, for example, what happens to people who are labeled mentally-ill. Social constructionists seek to examine taken-for-granted concepts. When they do, they often cause discomfort. As anti-essentialists, they open up to scrutiny to categorizations of people and the world.
Gergen also indirectly alludes to Hacking’s looping effect: “if informed of a research hypothesis in the human sciences, people can typically choose not to confirm it” (p. 60). Hacking would say that people are of an “interactive kind” (1999, p. 32)—that is, they are aware of what is said about them and react to that knowledge.
More significant to my own work so far, Gergen also mentions Harré’s Positioning Theory.” The concept of positioning calls attention to the fact that you are positioned to be a certain kind of person by each of these individuals [within specified contexts] . . . your identity is dependent upon how you are positioned” (p. 70). [Note the importance of relationships in the development and maintenance of identity.]
See also: My previous notes on Hacking.