Overcoming the interchangeable nature of Social Constructivism and Social Constructionism
As Ph.D. candidates, we can become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of literature that is read through to orientate ourselves with our field of interest from the philosophical and methodological levels, and the phenomena of interest from different disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. During the navigation of literature so far, I have encountered numerous cases where several terms have been used interchangeably to refer to the same concept or principle, and this has and can cause much confusion among Ph.D. candidates about the exact meaning of a concept.
Social constructivism and social constructionism are two subjectivist epistemological theories that have been used interchangeably within papers and textbooks to refer to the same principle: that we come to understand reality through constructing knowledge, meaning, truth and understanding within a social context. Whilst they share this principle, their application and process of social construction of concepts differ greatly as both theories focus on different aspects of interaction within the social world, and therefore focus on different attributes and concepts of the social world. It is worth noting that there is no single version of either constructivism or constructionism: there are various types of both theories developed ranging from “weaker” versions to “stronger” versions, the variety which, whilst adding to the initial confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed, corresponds to the diversity of human thought and the way in which we interact with reality.
Since there are varying forms of constructivism and constructionism and given the sheer volume of literature published regarded both, it is not a major surprise to find out that there is a trend to simplify terminology and represent, in arguably a simplistic fashion, different points across the epistemological spectrum using simplistic conventions. The points typically range from positivism / post positivism (objectivism), followed by pragmatism and critical realism (middle range), and then constructionism / constructivism (subjectivism). Sometimes the subjectivism section goes a step further and include interpretivism, which again is different to both constructionism and constructivism in terms of its purpose and the concepts it deals with, but for matters of convenience these writers appear to categorise them as the same. A classic example I have recently come across that explains why some writers prefer to lump conceptually similar theories together is to try to explain (I assume for the benefit of the Ph.D. candidate or other beginning researchers) a clear distinction between objectivism and subjectivism epistemologies. There is some discussion that suggests that Charmaz termed her version of Grounded Theory as Constructivist Grounded Theory to attempt to separate it from the more positivist (Glaser and Strauss version) and pragmatist / symbolic interactionist (Strauss and Corbin) versions of the time. There is some debate therefore in Constructionist circles about whether her conceptualisation of Grounded Theory is Constructionist rather than Constructivist. This is an area of debate that I shall be exploring further and shall write any further thoughts about this in a follow up blog post.
As can be observed, subjectivist theories particularly constructionist and constructivist have been used interchangeably to refer to the same concept even though there are significant differences between them. The question is therefore, in what way can we overcome a potential barrier to clarity?
Overcoming The Barrier Of Interchangeability
The best way I find to overcome the barrier of progress caused by the confusing interchangeability is to hold a sense of scepticism and level of questioning. I asked myself why constructivism and constructionism were being used interchangeably and was therefore sceptical of their representation in the literature as if they were the same. Essentially, I refused to take at face value the possibility of constructivism and constructionism being the same, and explored each of these further to find out what they meant as a research Philosophy. It was an open, inquiring mind, my own nature you could say, that motivated and inspired me to ask relevant questions.
An additional help was that for quite a while prior to starting a Ph.D. I had a lot of interest in the theory of social constructivism and I originally intended on exploring social constructivism in some way on the Ph.D. (gosh haven’t times changed since then!), therefore the reading that had occurred did assist in my immediate suspicion and scepticism about both terms meaning exactly the same concept. A reason for this immediate suspicion and scepticism was that I had read constructivism, as well as constructionism, within the context of a learning theory, which is quite different from reading both as research philosophies. Even so, constructivism and constructionism both differ significantly as learning theories; therefore, I had the impression from this difference that they would be different as research philosophies.
Translating this into more practical academic tasks, the best way to begin is to either use a search engine or an academic database to explore constructionism and constructivism separately. Google Books is usually an excellent way to find introductory research textbooks that explain what each of these terms are, or your own University library digital databases. Slideshare and other presentation sites are excellent applications to help assist with what these are in bullet point terms and some presentations have some excellent visuals to help assist with your learning of these terms. Once you have mastered the definitions and differences between each of these theories, use Google Scholar and your University library databases to explore specific implementations and applications of these theories as well as the wider debate and discussions for and against various aspects of these theories.
The introductory materials, followed by papers that cover the implementations and applications of these theories, then followed by exploring the wider literature regarding the interpretations, debates and discussions about various aspects of these theories shall give you a firm basis and understanding of the differences between these theories. As well as, what I found, giving you a firm basis to decide whether constructionism or constructivism are relevant for your research (or even aspects of each), or if something completely different is required.
I still wonder why some writers are motivated to categorise similar yet widely differing theories as the same. I suspect that it is because of convenience and simplicity of understanding to assist beginning researchers on their quest to understanding the vast array of different epistemological theories, debates, discussions and applications. The Ph.D. candidate therefore must be aware that whilst such convenient categorisations are useful for introducing the fact that there is a vast distinction between objectivism and subjectivism, they need to question further and explore each point along the epistemological spectrum in order to fully grasp and understand the variety of theories, and variation within these theories, in order to identify, select, and justify their epistemological stance, which in turn acts as an input to forming a philosophical justification of the research design.
I’m still learning, I’m still exploring, I’m still experimenting, and I still ponder and analyse the significance of my now settled philosophical perspective and the role it plays in my research design!