facade of Duisburg Landschaftspark

Noticing Social Constructionism

Social constructionism is on my mind.

In part because I’m working on the class that starts in May. I’ve learned from experience that it helps to explain, right from the start, that I come at things from a social constructionist point of view. College freshmen don’t necessarily share that perspective.

And because I’ve learned recently that smart people who are not college freshmen also don’t necessarily share that perspective. The social constructionist paradigm, which I experience as universal and fundamental, is less universal than I assume.

This non-universality feels strange to me. Social constructionism in the social sciences is something like evolution in the life sciences or the “old earth” paradigm in the earth sciences. The basic insights are uncontestable, because they make such good sense of all the data we have. The question is not “Do we or don’t we socially construct our reality?” but “How far down does the social construction go?”

And the answer seems to be … at least almost all the way down. (This is not really a new idea, even though the classic formulation of social constructionism is Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, which was published in 1966. Kant, after all, was an “all the way down” “we don’t know things-in-themselves” kind of guy.)

So, while we can always learn new things, I’m not expecting to learn that people don’t largely construct their human, social reality by means of symbolic interactions, any more than I’m expecting medical science to abandon the germ theory. Thinking that the social world – the world “for us” – is something other than socially constructed sounds to me like thinking that fetid air causes malaria, or that whales are fish.

Then I remember the college freshmen.

Intellectually, I know that the sense I have that it’s “just common sense” to see and understand the world through the lens of critical theory and social constructionism is … exactly the sense the social constructionist theory would predict I would have. For a professional graduate student in the social sciences, social constructionism is like that water that fish ask “what’s water?” about. It’s the ground we walk on and the air we breathe. When people walk on that ground and breathe that air long enough, they become thoroughly adapted to that environment.

I have been walking on that ground and breathing that air for something like 40 years.

So “meeting the students where they are” is a stretch. It is hard, these days, to remember how it feels to inhabit that other environment, in which social constructionism is not “just common sense,” but seems to fly in the face of people’s common sense about lots of things – “things” that are just “there,” and that we perceive and think about the way we do because that’s just “how they are.” A lot of people do not rofl when people talk that way. A lot of people nod.

About the image:

Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Duisburg, Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord — 2016 — 1238-44” / CC BY-SA 4.0

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