Social Constructionism

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 other 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.

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Consequently, all medical belief systems operate within a culture with norms, values and expectations that make sense of illness for people in that culture and set the criteria for what, locally, can count as illness. The variation in ways of understanding illness that exists across cultures and across the range of alternative medicines in our own society can also be seen historically.

Foucault (1973, 1980) has persuasively argued that such ordering and classifying, with respect to human beings, has played and continues to play a key role in controlling the populace. By classifying people as normal or abnormal, mad or sane and healthy or sick, it became possible to control society by regulating work, domestic and political behaviours. For example, the certified mentally ill may not vote and may be forcibly confined, those who cannot obtain a sick note from their doctor may have no choice but to work and those whose sexuality is deemed unhealthy or abnormal may be denied access to family life.

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. 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.”

It is not only our behaviour that is ‘learnt’. Society affects our thoughts and emotions. Social constructionists believe that our identities in particular are shaped by society (Berger, 1963, p.140). Berger describes identity as being something that is not ‘given’, but something “bestowed in acts of social recognition.”  Through the process of socialisation, we internalise the rules of society, and are compelled to stay loyal to these rules. Various forms of social control exist to keep us ‘in line’ and prevent us from breaking the rules. More formal types of control include law enforcement, whereas there are more subtle forms such as disapproval of deviant acts, followed by guilt and shame. Berger maintains that no society can exist without social control. (Berger, 1963, P.83)

Burr argues that personalities do not necessarily exist within a person, but rather between people.  Common words used to describe people’s personalities would be somewhat meaningless if the person being described lived alone (Burr uses the example of living on a desert island). Without other people around them, how can someone be described as having a shy personality?

The point Burr is trying to make is that such descriptive words often refer to our behaviour towards other people, and don’t have much meaning if you take other people away from an individual. Similarly, our personalities may change depending on whom we are with. Burr argues that although our personalities may change slightly when we are with different people, it is still ‘us’ in all of them, but each ‘you’ is affected, and socially constructed by the relationships we have with those people.

The empirical study showed that managers enact a managerial role that involves portraying themselves as managers, maintaining the visual façade of management, controlling themselves strictly to prevent the mask slipping, and so carrying out the symbolic role of manager. However, to be a manager also requires that there be a managerial Other, and a managerialized order requires the denigration of other participants in the organization and the arrogation of others’ rights to self-determination. Managers, who are the materialized metaphysics, so to speak, of capitalist power, are in this perspective a social construction in that they belong in a social world wherein lies the possibility for thinking, and thus practising, things differently.

In order to bring about change we have to understand- the mechanisms by which current pillars of power are maintained. Marxism had too simplistic an assumption about how change could be achieved and, indeed, about how the new utopia could be built. Market managerial utopianism sadly has been more successful in imposing its own vision of utopia (Parker, 2002). Postmodernism/post-structuralism, while it has not yet helped us dream the design of the utopia we desire and has, indeed, in a peculiar reverse brought pragmatism to the discussion about utopias, helps us discern and understand those mechanisms.

As Laclau (1990) has pointed out, it helps us open the possibilities repressed in the taken-for-granted and seemingly ‘objective’ social relations and identities. One of these mechanisms is a language of management which is now so dominant that it crowds out alternative ways of thinking of, speaking about and working in organizations. The language of management is materialized in and through managers.

But it is too simple to think of the language of management as nothing more than a language of rationality, autonomy, entrepreneurship, etc. Foucault have taught to explore more deeply into any language, to discover the languages which make possible that language, and thus not to presume that the ideology spoken through the language is all that informs and sustains that power/knowledge formulation signified in writing and speech.

In other words, social constructionism, as a study of how power, first, impregnates the language of management that is found in textbooks, of how readers interact with the textbook and, seduced by the language, absorb it to some extent into their identities and thus come into being as managers. Second, it is a study of how managers’ identity is permeated through and through with and by the organizations in which they work. It is thus a study of how management is a social construction.

All in all, the social constructionist perspective maintains that social interaction and socialisation are incredibly important, as they are the backbone for building individuals. Language is of particular importance to this perspective, and it’s argued that “language provides the basis for all our thought.”  In this sense, it is through language that we can give our experiences meaning. In conclusion, the social constructionist perspective offers a lot of insight into the human world, especially with regards to the construction of society and individuals within it.


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.

Foucault, M., 1979, The Birth of the Clinic, London: Routledge.

Foucault, M., 1980, Power/Knowledge, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Jenkins, R, 1996, Social identity, London, Routledge.

Laclau, E., 1990, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, London: Verso.

Macionis, J., and Plummer, K, 2002, Sociology: a global introduction, Harlow, Prentice Hall.

Oakley, A., 1985, Sex, gender and society, London, Gower.

Parker, Martin, 2002, Utopia and the Organizational Imagination: Outopia. In Parker, Martin (ed.) Utopia and Organization, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 1-8.

Taylor, S., 1999, Sociology: issues and debates, Basingstoke, Palgrave.

What is social constructionism?

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