May 21, 2017

The Conceptual Confusions and Ontological Fluidity of Social Constructionism

In the previous blog post I discussed the interchangeability problems referring specifically to social constructivism and social constructionism. Convenience and ease of understanding are possible reasons why writers choose to use constructionism and constructivism interchangeably under a single subjectivist umbrella. Whilst it is a pragmatic approach for beginning researchers as they begin to understand the diversity, variability, complexity and intricacy of the field of research philosophy and methodology, it is strongly advisable for Ph.D. candidates (I am currently doing this myself) to approach each theory separately whilst acknowledging their subjectivist, epistemological position. A key separation, among several that I shall be exploring in future blog posts, is their disciplinary origins: constructivism originated in psychology from the likes of Paiget and Vygotsky as key authors, whilst Constructionism developed from sociologists such as Burr, Gergen, Berger and Luckmann among many others. Therefore, constructivism focusses on the cognition both in individual and social contexts, whilst constructionism from my current understanding focusses more on the historical, cultural and social contexts of the participants and social concepts such as language and discourse.


Conceptual differences


As I navigated my way around the literature, initial confusion set in as I attempted to understand the way that different writers conceived of the social world and therefore the way that social constructionism has been used with respect to constructs of the social world, which includes reality, knowledge, truth, meaning and understanding. As I continued to navigate through the literature, I came to observe a group of writers classifying reality as existing independently of the mind, whilst classifying reality’s constituent concepts (knowledge, truth, understanding and meaning) as constructions of the mind; another group was observed to have classified both reality and its constituents as constructions of the mind.


Previous understanding of ontology led me to perceive the difference between the writers’ positioning of reality within their thinking, and led me therefore to perceive each group as advocating an ontological stance. The group of writers who treated reality as a mind-dependent concept were relativists, whilst the group of writers who treated reality as mind-independent concept were considered realists. But here I had the interesting thought that unlike social constructivism, which has a relativist ontology, social constructionism is ontologically neutral.


Ontological Neutrality And Fluidity


Now I had the idea that social constructionism could be situated within a realist or relativist ontology, which to me makes sense because, as I have covered in earlier blog posts (and what I shall be continuing to explore and write about in the future), the selection of a particular ontological position does not necessarily influence the epistemological stance. We as human beings are far too diverse in our thinking and interactions with reality to place ourselves within linear ontological-epistemological relationships as commonly presented in textbooks, but I accept that this might not be a universally accepted claim.


Guided by my new assumption of social constructionism as being ontologically neutral, I came across a journal paper written by John Cromby and David Nightingale called “What’s Wrong With Social Constructionism?” The authors partway through the paper draw on the wider literature to come to the same conclusion: that social constructionism can be situated within either a realist or relativist ontology. Social Constructionism therefore has a subjectivist epistemology but can be placed within a realist or relativist ontology, and this perfectly reflects my beliefs that, as mentioned, we as humans are cognitively and psychologically diverse: we all think of reality and of our coming to know and understand reality differently; therefore, it might not be suitable or accurate to simply assume that a particular ontological position naturally leads to a particular epistemological position. This might be in contrast to the typical linear presentation of the ontological and epistemological relationships in literature: that a realist ontology necessitates an objectivist epistemology whilst a relativist position necessitates a subjectivist epistemology. Again this might be due to authors attempting to simplify associations for ease of understanding and to encourage the early researcher to understand that there are distinct differences between philosophical positions, but this oversimplification could undermine the potential worth and value of perceiving philosophical positions as flexible and fluid instead of strictly regimented.


What does this mean for my research specifically?


This could actually cover another blog post, which is at the time of writing this blog post is currently in the making. But here it suffices to say that my beliefs in the diversity of human thinking, understanding, exploration and contemplation of the world, reality and the entire universe is complex and should not be encapsulated in some pre-defined linear ontological-epistemological relationship. That said, I do have the belief that there is a single reality out there and that there are aspects of the social world that exists independently of our thinking, knowing or perceiving of these aspects. But, I do not have the belief that we can access this social reality easily: our thinking, theories, thoughts and frameworks that we have about reality should always be considered fallible and held with an element of scepticism and be subjected to constant reanalysis and refining. It is therefore right that I consider my research within the context of a realist ontology and a subjectivist epistemology; more specifically at this time as I currently understand the field of research Philosophy, a subtle realist ontology and a constructionist epistemology.


I shall be writing more about this subject as my understanding of subtle realism and constructionism improves, along with the relationship between them, and the methodologies and methods.


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