What Is Social Constructionist Approach?

A social constructionist approach is the perspective that many of the characteristics and groups that shape society are inventions of the people living within it in order to create a hierarchy. Race, sexual orientation, class, gender and even mental illness are just a few examples of things that have been postulated to be social constructs and do not exist in reality. In essence, society is a conglomeration of perspectives.

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.

In contrast, the Thomas Theorem, first presented by sociologist W.I. Thomas, says that to a certain extent, what people perceive is real. In other words, if society perceives that someone is of a certain race based on appearance or skin color, then that person is. While the theorem seems to contradict the idea of social constructionism, to a certain extent, it confirms it. It does not put forth the idea that race is not a construct of society. Rather, it acknowledges that if society perceives that the construct has validity, it embraces it. Thomas furthermore asserts that a large part of who or what man is is due to conditioning and circumstance. In its most basic form, social constructionism is a branch of the classic nature versus nurture argument. It is a debate of how much of a person's character is shaped by the innate versus the taught.