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What is a social constructionist approach?

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Social constructionist approaches encompass a variety of positions but share the core idea that human behavior shapes knowledge of the world. One may be a social constructionist with respect to knowledge or with respect to objects (such as money) and categories (such as genders and races).

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Social constructionist views of knowledge assert that people's knowledge about the world is mediated or constructed by their pre-existing beliefs and ways of interacting with the world. For example, what counts as normal behavior in one society may be considered evidence of a mental disorder in another society. More radical social constructionists assert that although there may be an objective reality that exists independently of human activity, people can in principle never know anything about the world as it really is. This is because people always approach inquiry from a particular frame of reference that they cannot abandon. Knowledge is therefore always knowledge from a specific historical and cultural viewpoint. Social constructionists especially emphasize the role of language in understanding and creating reality.

Another version of the social constructionist approach is concerned with social kinds such as objects and categories. Socially constructed objects and categories contrast with natural kinds such as trees and water, which would exist independently of human activity. For example, a social constructionist about race would argue that racial categories are determined not by biological facts but by social decisions about who counts as a member of one race or another.

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