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Journal Reflection
o What do you think sets therapeutic conversation apart from regular conversation? 
o How does multiculturalism intersect with the practice of counseling and the therapeutic 
o What are some of your own values, biases and assumptions that may have effects when
engaging with a client?
o How do you hope to attend to these factors?An Introduction to Social Constructionism
An Introduction to Social Constructionism is a readable and critical account of social
constructionism for students new to the field.
Focussing on the challenge to psychology that social constructionism poses, Vivien
Burr examines the notion of ‘personality’ to illustrate the rejection of essentialism by
social constructionists. This questions psychology’s traditional understanding of the
person. She then shows how the study of language can be used as a focus for our
understanding of human behaviour and experience. This is continued by examining
‘discourses’ and their role in constructing social phenomena, and the relationship
between discourse and power. However, the problems associated with these analyses are
also clearly outlined.
Many people believe that one of the aims of social science should be to bring about
social change. Vivien Burr analyses what possibilities there might be for change in social
constructionist accounts. She also addresses what social constructionism means in
practice to research in the social sciences, and includes some guidelines on doing
discourse analysis.
An Introduction to Social Constructionism is an invaluable and clear guide for all
perplexed students who want to begin to understand this difficult area.
Vivien Burr is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Huddersfield.
An Introduction to Social
Vivien Burr
London and New York
First published 1995 by Routledge 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE
Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge 29 West 35th Street, New York,
NY 10001
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2006.
“ To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s collection of
thousands of eBooks please go to http://www.ebookstore.tandf.co.uk/.”
© 1995 Vivien Burr
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or
by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including
photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission
in writing from the publishers.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from
the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book has been
ISBN 0-203-13302-1 Master e-book ISBN
ISBN 0-203-17605-7 (Adobe e-Reader Format)
ISBN 0-415-10404-1 (hbk)
ISBN 0-415-10405-X (pbk)
Introduction: What is social constructionism?
1 Where do you get your personality from?
2 Does language affect the way we think?
3 What is a discourse?
4 What does it mean to have power?
5 Is there a real world outside discourse?
6 Can individuals change society?
7 What does it mean to be a person? I The person as discourse-user
8 What does it mean to be a person? II The self as constructed in language
9 What does it mean to be a person? III Subject positions in discourse
10 What do discourse analysts do?
Name index
Subject index
This book is for students. As a lecturer teaching social psychology to Behavioural
Sciences undergraduates, I have in recent years attempted to include in my teaching
something of what I shall call the social constructionist movement within social
psychology. This has proved to be a difficult task, partly because of the inherent
difficulty of the subject matter, but also because of the dearth of reading material
appropriate to the needs of students coming to social constructionist ideas for the first
time. Although there exist a number of excellent books written from a social
constructionist perspective (e.g. Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Weedon, 1987; Shotter,
1993a, 1993b; Parker, 1992), for the most part these appear to be written by academics
for other academics. This book, then, is an attempt to redress the balance. Its primary aim
is to introduce social constructionist ideas to social sciences students so that they may
then be in a position to read and understand more advanced material. To this end, I have
tried to explain the key concepts and terms clearly and simply, and have used illustrative
examples as much as possible in order to help students gain a foothold in what may be to
them quite alien territory. To guide students in their choice of more advanced reading, I
have provided a short, annotated reading list at the end of each chapter. Sometimes it was
an arbitrary decision whether to recommend a book or journal article in an earlier or a
later chapter, and sometimes I have done both.
I believe that it is not possible to write about something in a completely impartial and
dispassionate way, that is, taking up no personal stance at all with respect to the subject
matter (and as it happens this itself appears to be consistent with a social constructionist
view). One must (even if only to engage the interest of one’s readers) decide whether one
is on the whole an advocate or a critic of the material one is writing about. In writing this
book, I have generally adopted the position of the advocate, so that my overall strategy
has been to persuade the reader of the advantages of a social constructionist approach.
However, this is not an uncritical advocacy, and a second major aim of this book is to
point out the weaknesses, inadequacies and dangers of social constructionism and to
indicate the areas where I believe there is still much to be resolved. As one who has as
yet no history of publication or research in this area, I feel myself to be particularly free
of axes to grind and reputations to defend, and therefore able to advocate and criticise
with relative impugnity.
As an introductory text, some may feel that my account of social constructionism is
somewhat idiosyncratic. However, while it may not be the story that another person
would have told, I justify it on the grounds, firstly, that it concerns itself with social
constructionist viewpoints that I believe students are likely to meet up with in their
excursions into the literature, and, secondly, that it reflects the questions (built into the
chapter titles) most commonly raised by students. Although the book is British in its
emphasis, drawing examples from issues and everyday life in the UK and highlighting
the debates current in British social constructionist writing, it brings together both British
and North American contributions under a common umbrella. With respect to the
illustrative examples that I use, I have endeavoured to render them meaningful to the
North American reader.
Social constructionism is in a state of flux. It is a field of enquiry which is changing
and expanding very rapidly, and it is therefore quite difficult to gain a stable perspective
on the issues. This book is a ‘snapshot’ of what the social constructionist world looks like
to me at present, and, like any snapshot, it is a likeness that is recognisable without
passing itself off as the only true image. I hope that you find it useful.
I am indebted to all those who have suffered during the birth of this book. In particular,
special recognition is due to Trevor Butt, who tirelessly read and commented upon earlier
drafts, and to my great friend, Katrine Ellerd-Styles, who helped me to elaborate my
ideas during many telephone conversations and still managed to remain full of
enthusiasm and support. My thanks are also due to Dallas Cliff for readily providing me
with some of his own material, and for his commitment to this project. And, bringing up
the rear in this motley troupe, I must include my musical friend Geoff Adams for once
again giving up his free time to prepare both indexes.
June 1994
What is social constructionism?
Over the last fifteen years or so, students of the social sciences in Britain and North
America have witnessed the gradual emergence of a number of alternative approaches to
the study of human beings as social animals. These approaches have appeared under a
variety of rubrics, such as ‘critical psychology’, ‘discourse analysis’, ‘deconstruction’
and ‘poststructuralism’. What many of these approaches have in common, however, is
what is now often referred to as ‘social constructionism’. Social constructionism can be
thought of as a theoretical orientation which to a greater or lesser degree underpins all of
these newer approaches, which are currently offering radical and critical alternatives in
psychology and social psychology, as well as in other disciplines in the social sciences
and humanities. Social constructionism, as it has been taken up by psychology and social
psychology, is the focus of this book, and my aim is to introduce the reader to some of its
major features, while also elaborating upon the implications it holds for how we are to
understand human beings, and for the discipline of psychology itself.
In this introductory chapter, my first task will be to say what kinds of writing and
research I include within the term ‘social constructionism’, and why. This will not
necessarily be where others would draw the boundary, but it will serve as an initial
orientation for the reader, giving some indication of what it means to take a social
constructionist approach. I will say something about the contributors to the field, and why
I have included them as social constructionists. It is quite possible that I will be guilty of
labelling as ‘social constructionist’ writers who would not wish to be labelled as such,
and vice versa. I apologise in advance to those who feel uncomfortable with my
description of them, but must adopt the rationale which appears to me to make sense of
the area. I shall use the term ‘social constructionism’, rather than ‘constructivism’,
throughout. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but Gergen (1985)
recommends the use of ‘constructionism’, since ‘constructivism’ is sometimes used to
refer to Piagetian theory and to a particular kind of perceptual theory, and could cause
I will then go on to outline something of the history of the social constructionist
movement, especially as it has been taken up by social psychology. As we shall see,
social constructionism as an approach to the social sciences draws its influences from a
number of disciplines, including philosophy, sociology and linguistics, making it
multidisciplinary in nature.
Finally, I shall raise the major issues that will be addressed by this book, indicating the
chapters where they will be dealt with.
An introduction to social constructionism
There is no single description which would be adequate for all the different kinds of
writer whom I shall refer to as social constructionist. This is because, although different
writers may share some characteristics with others, there is not really anything that they
all have in common. What links them all together is a kind of ‘family resemblance’ (this
is what Rosch (1973) meant by ‘prototypes’ or ‘fuzzy sets’). Members of the same family
differ in the family characteristics that they share. Mother and daughter may have the
typical ‘Smith nose’, while father and son may have inherited from grandma Smith, who
also has the Smith nose, their prominent ears. Cousin George may share the prominent
ears, and also, like his aunt Harriet, have the Smith thick, curly hair. There is no one
characteristic borne by all members of the Smith family, but there are enough recurrent
features shared amongst different family members to identify the people as basically
belonging to the same family group. This is the model I shall adopt for social
constructionism. There is no one feature which could be said to identify a social
constructionist position. Instead, we might loosely group as social constructionist any
approach which has at its foundation one or more of the following key assumptions (from
Gergen, 1985). You might think of these as something like ‘things you would absolutely
have to believe in order to be a social constructionist’:
1 A critical stance towards taken-for-granted knowledge:
Social constructionism insists that we take a critical stance towards our taken-forgranted ways of understanding the world (including ourselves). It invites us to be
critical of the idea that our observations of the world unproblematically yield its
nature to us, to challenge the view that conventional knowledge is based upon
objective, unbiased observation of the world. It is therefore in opposition to what
are referred to as positivism and empiricism in traditional science—the
assumptions that the nature of the world can be revealed by observation, and that
what exists is what we perceive to exist. Social constructionism cautions us to be
ever suspicious of our assumptions about how the world appears to be. This
means that the categories with which we as human beings apprehend the world do
not necessarily refer to real divisions. For example, just because we think of some
music as ‘classical’ and some as ‘pop’ does not mean we should assume that there
is anything in the nature of the music itself that means it has to be divided up in
that particular way. A more radical example is that of gender. Our observations of
the world suggest to us that there are two categories of human being—men and
women. Social constructionism would bid us to question seriously whether even
this category is simply a reflection of naturally occurring distinct types of human
being. This may seem a bizarre idea at first, and of course differences in
reproductive organs are present in many species, but we should ask why this
distinction has been given so much importance by human beings that whole
categories of personhood (i.e. man/woman) have been built upon it. Social
constructionism would suggest that we might equally well (and just as absurdly)
have divided people up into tall and short, or those with ear lobes and those
2 Historical and cultural specificity:
The ways in which we commonly understand the world, the categories and
concepts we use, are historically and culturally specific. Whether one understands
the world in terms of men and women, pop music and classical music, urban life
and rural life, past and future, etc., depends upon where and when in the world
one lives. For example, the notion of childhood has undergone tremendous
change over the centuries. What it has been thought ‘natural’ for children to do
has changed, as well as what parents were expected to do for their children (e.g.
Aries, 1962). It is only in relatively recent historical times that children have
ceased to be simply small adults (in all but their legal rights). And we only have
to look as far back as the writings of Dickens to remind ourselves that the idea of
children as innocents in need of adult protection is a very recent one indeed. We
can see changes even within the timespan of the last fifty years or so, with radical
consequences for how parents are advised to bring up their children.
This means that all ways of understanding are historically and culturally relative.
Not only are they specific to particular cultures and periods of history, they are
seen as products of that culture and history, and are dependent upon the particular
social and economic arrangements prevailing in that culture at that time. The
particular forms of knowledge that abound in any culture are therefore artefacts of
it, and we should not assume that our ways of understanding are necessarily any
better (in terms of being any nearer the truth) than other ways.
3 Knowledge is sustained by social processes:
If our knowledge of the world, our common ways of understanding it, is not
derived from the nature of the world as it really is, where does it come from? The
social constructionist answer is that people construct it between them. It is
through the daily interactions between people in the course of social life that our
versions of knowledge become fabricated. Therefore social interaction of all
kinds, and particularly language, is of great interest to social constructionists. The
goings-on between people in the course of their everyday lives are seen as the
practices during which our shared versions of knowledge are constructed.
Therefore what we regard as ‘truth’ (which of course varies historically and crossculturally), i.e. our current accepted ways of understanding the world, is a product
not of objective observation of the world, but of the social processes and
interactions in which people are constantly engaged with each other.
4 Knowledge and social action go together:
These ‘negotiated’ understandings could take a wide variety of different forms,
and we can therefore talk of numerous possible ‘social constructions’ of the
world. But each different construction also brings with it, or invites, a different
kind of action from human beings. For example, before the Temperance
movement, drunks were seen as entirely responsible for their behaviour, and
therefore blameworthy. A typical response was therefore imprisonment.
However, there has been a move away from seeing drunkenness as a crime and
towards thinking of it as a sickness, a kind of addiction. ‘Alcoholics’ are not seen
as totally responsible for their behaviour, since they are the victims of a kind of
drug addiction. The social action appropriate to understanding drunkenness in this
way is to offer medical and psychological treatment, not imprisonment.
An introduction to social constructionism
Descriptions or constructions of the world therefore sustain some patterns of
social action and exclude others.
If we look closely at the four broad social constructionist tenets outlined above, we can
see that they contain a number of features which are in quite stark contrast to most
traditional psychology and social psychology, and are therefore worth spelling out:
1 Anti-essentialism:
Since the social world, including ourselves as people, is the product of social
processes, it follows that there cannot be any given, determined nature to the
world or people. There are no ‘essences’ inside things or people that make them
what they are. Although some kinds of traditional psychology, such as
behaviourism, would agree with this, others such as trait theory and
psychoanalysis are based on the idea of some pre-given ‘content’ to the person. It
is important to stress the radical nature of the proposal being put forward here.
People sometimes misunderstand the social constructionist argument for cultural
and historical specificity, and see it as just another way of taking the ‘nurture’
side in the ‘nature/nurture’ debate. But social constructionism is not just saying
that one’s cultural surroundings have an impact upon one’s psychology, or even
that our nature is a product of environmental (including social) rather than
biological factors. Both of these views are essentialist, in that they see the person
as having some definable and discoverable nature, whether given by biology or
by the environment, and as such cannot be called social constructionist.
2 Anti-realism:
Social constructionism denies that our knowledge is a direct perception of reality.
In fact it might be said that we construct our own versions of reality (as a culture
or society) between us. Since we have to accept the historical and cultural
relativism of all forms of knowledge, it follows that the notion of ‘truth’ becomes
problematic. Within social constructionism there can be no such thing as an
objective fact. All knowledge is derived from looking at the world from some
perspective or other, and is in the service of some interests rather than others. The
search for truth (the truth about people, about human nature, about society) has
been at the foundation of social science from the start. Social constructionism
therefore heralds a radically different model of what it could mean to do social
3 Historical and cultural specificity of knowledge:
If all forms of knowledge are historically and culturally specific, this must include
the knowledge generated by the social sciences. The theories and explanations of
psychology thus become time- and culture-bound and cannot be taken as onceand-for-all descriptions of human nature. The disciplines of psychology and
social psychology can therefore no longer be aimed at discovering the ‘true’
nature of people and social life. They must instead turn their attention to a
historical study of the emergence of current forms of psychological and social
life, and to the social practices by which they are created. The complex issue of
how people create and yet are created by the society in which they live is the
focus of chapter 6.
4 Language as a pre-condition for thought:
Our ways of understanding the world come not from objective reality but from
other people, both past and present. We are born into a world where the
conceptual frameworks and categories used by the people in our culture already
exist. These concepts and categories are acquired by all people as they develop
the use of language and are thus reproduced every day by everyone who shares a
culture and a language. This means that the way people think, the very categories
and concepts that provide a framework of meaning for them, are provided by the
language that they use. Language therefore is a necessary pre-condition for
thought as we know it. Some psychologists, such as Piaget, believed that thought
developed in the child before the acquisition of language, and most of traditional
psychology at least holds the tacit assumption that language is a more or less
straightforward expression of thought, rather than a precondition of it.
5 Language as a form of social action:
By placing centre-stage the everyday interactions between people and seeing
these as actively producing the forms of knowledge we take for granted and their
associated social phenomena, it follows that language too has to be more than
simply a way of expressing ourselves. When people talk to each other, the world
gets constructed. Our use of language can therefore be thought of as a form of
action, and some social constructionists take this ‘performative’ role of language
as their focus of interest. As pointed out above, traditional psychology has
typically regarded language as the passive vehicle for our thoughts and emotions.
6 A focus on interaction and social practices:
Traditional psychology looks for explanations of social phenomena inside the
person, for example by hypothesising the existence of attitudes, motivations,
cognitions and so on. These entities are held to be responsible for what individual
people do and say, as well as for wider social phenomena such as prejudice and
delinquency. Sociology has traditionally countered this with the view that it is
social structures (such as the economy, or the major institutions such as marriage
and the family) that give rise to the social phenomena that we see. Social
constructionism rejects both of these positions, and regards as the proper focus of
our enquiry the social practices engaged in by people, and their interactions with
each other. Explanations are to be found neither in the individual psyche nor in
social structures, but in the interactive processes that take place routinely between
7 A focus on processes:
While most traditional psychology and sociology has put forward explanations in
terms of static entities, such as personality traits, economic structures, models of
memory and so on, the explanations offered by social constructionists are more
often in terms of the dynamics of social interaction. The emphasis is thus more on
processes than structures. The aim of social enquiry is moved from questions
An introduction to social constructionism
about the nature of people or society and towards a consideration of how certain
phenomena or forms of knowledge are achieved by people in interaction.
Knowledge is therefore seen not as something that a person has (or does not
have), but as something that people do together. The way that such social
practices are intimately bound up with social structure is discussed in chapter 6.
My criterion for including as social constructionists the people that I do is that they
appear to agree (either explicitly or implicitly) with one or more of the above. Working in
North America, K.J. and M.M.Gergen, Shotter and Sarbin are key contributors to the
field. Gergen and Gergen (1984,1986) and Sarbin (1986) have particularly concentrated
upon how people’s accounts of themselves are constructed like stories or narratives, and
Shotter’s focus of interest is on the dynamic, interpersonal processes of construction,
which he calls ‘joint action’ (Shotter, 1993a, 1993b). In Britain, Harré, drawing upon the
philosopher Wittgenstein, has been a keen exponent of the view that language provides
our ways of understanding ourselves and the world. The view that knowledge is
historically and culturally specific is fundamental to the work of the French philosopher
Foucault (e.g. Foucault, 1972, 1976, 1979), and he also stresses the constructive power of
language. His ideas have been taken up and used in the field of discourse analysis in
Britain by numerous people, including Parker (e.g. Parker, 1992) and Hollway (e.g.
Hollway, 1984, 1989). Foucault’s approach has been successfully adopted by Rose (e.g.
Rose, 1989, 1990) to show how notions such as ‘science’ and ‘the individual’ have been
socially constructed. The historical and cultural relativity of knowledge, and the way that
‘truth’ claims are constructed, have been taken up with enthusiasm by those who wish to
give psychology a political cutting edge, such as Kitzinger (Kitzinger, 1987, 1989),
Parker, Burman (e.g. Burman, 1990) and Walkerdine (e.g. Walkerdine, 1984). I also
include as ‘social constructionists’ writers such as Potter, Wetherell, Edwards and Billig,
some of whom prefer to call themselves ‘discourse psychologists’. I include them since
they are concerned primarily with the performative, action-oriented function of language
and see accounts as constructed to achieve particular social goals rather than representing
and expressing intra-psychic events (e.g. Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Edwards and Potter,
1992; Billig, 1987; Billig et al., 1988). In addition, these writers in one sense hold an
extreme social constructionist view. They argue that ‘there is nothing outside the text’,
i.e. that when we talk about ‘reality’ we can only be referring to the things that we
construct through language.
Social constructionism as it is now infiltrating British and North American psychology
and social psychology cannot be traced back to a single source. It has emerged from the
combined influences of a number of North American, British and continental writers
dating back more than thirty years. I shall give here what may be considered an outline of
its history and major influences, bearing in mind that this ‘history’ itself is only one of
many possible constructions of the events!
Sociological influences
As someone working and teaching in a multidisciplinary university department, it has
been apparent to me that many of the fundamental assumptions of social constructionism
have been alive and well and living in sociology for quite some time. Sixty years ago
Mead (1934), writing in the USA, founded ‘symbolic interactionism’ with his book Mind,
Self and Society. Fundamental to symbolic interactionism is the view that as people we
construct our own and each other’s identities through our everyday encounters with each
other in social interaction. In line with this way of thinking, the sociological subdiscipline of ethnomethodology, which grew up in North America in the 1950s and
1960s, tried to understand the processes by which ordinary people construct social life
and make sense of it to themselves and each other. But the major social constructionist
contribution from sociology is usually taken to be Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) book
The Social Construction of Reality. Berger and Luckmann’s anti-essentialist account of
social life argues that human beings together create and then sustain all social phenomena
through social practices. They see three fundamental processes as responsible for this:
externalisation, objectivation and internalisation. People ‘externalise’ when they act on
their world, creating some artefact or practice. For example, they may have an idea (such
as the idea that the sun revolves around the earth) and ‘externalise’ it by telling a story or
writing a book. But this then enters into the social realm; other people re-tell the story or
read the book, and once in this social realm the story or book begins to take on a life of
its own. The idea it expresses has become an ‘object’ of consciousness for people in that
society (‘objectivation’) and has developed a kind of factual existence or truth; it seems
to be ‘out there’, an ‘objective’ feature of the world which appears as ‘natural’, issuing
from the nature of the world itself rather than dependent upon the constructive work and
interactions of human beings. Finally, because future generations are born into a world
where this idea already exists, they ‘internalise’ it as part of their consciousness, as part
of their understanding of the nature of the world.
Berger and Luckmann’s account shows how the world can be socially constructed by
the social practices of people, but at the same time be experienced by them as if the
nature of their world is pre-given and fixed. We could say that ‘social constructionism’
itself has now achieved the status of an object. In writing this book and ostensibly
describing it I am contributing to its objectivation in the world. And in the future,
students who read this and other books ‘about’ social constructionism will tend to think
of it as an area of knowledge that has been ‘discovered’ rather than as an effect of social
processes. In writing this book, then, I am contributing to what might be called ‘the social
construction of social constructionism’.
The emergence of social constructionism in psychology
In psychology, the emergence of social constructionism is usually dated from
K.J.Gergen’s (1973) paper ‘Social psychology as history’, in which he argues that all
knowledge, including psychological knowledge, is historically and culturally specific,
An introduction to social constructionism
and that we therefore must extend our enquiries beyond the individual into social,
political and economic realms for a proper understanding of the evolution of present-day
psychology and social life. In addition, he argues that there is no point in looking for
once-and-for-all descriptions of people or society, since the only abiding feature of social
life is that it is continually changing. Social psychology thus becomes a form of historical
undertaking, since all we can ever do is try to understand and account for how the world
appears to be at the present time. In this paper can be seen the beginnings of the Gergens’
later work on social psychology, history and narrative.
Gergen’s paper was written at the time of what is often referred to as ‘the crisis in
social psychology’ (e.g. see Armistead, 1974). Social psychology as a discipline can be
said to have emerged from the attempts by psychologists to provide the US and British
governments during the Second World War with knowledge that could be used for
propaganda and the manipulation of people. It grew out of questions like ‘How can we
keep up the morale of troops?’ and ‘How can we encourage people to eat unpopular
foods?’ It also grew up at a time when its parent discipline of psychology was carving out
a name for itself by adopting the positivist methods of the natural sciences. Social
psychology as a discipline therefore emerged as an empiricist, laboratory-based science
which had habitually served, and was paid for by, those in positions of power, both in
government and in industry.
Social psychologists in the 1960s and early 1970s were becoming increasingly worried
by the way that the discipline implicitly promoted the values of dominant groups. The
‘voice’ of ordinary people was seen as absent from its research practices, which, in their
concentration on decontextualised laboratory behaviour, ignored the real-world contexts
which give human action its meaning. A number of books were published, each in its
own way trying to redress the balance, by proposing alternatives to positivist science and
focussing upon the accounts of ordinary people (e.g. Harré and Secord, 1972) and by
challenging the oppressive and ideological uses of psychology (e.g. Brown, 1973;
Armistead, 1974). These concerns are clearly apparent today in the work of social
psychologists in social constructionism.
The cultural and intellectual ‘backcloth’ against which social constructionism has taken
shape, and which to some extent gives it its particular flavour, is what is usually referred
to as ‘postmodernism’. Postmodernism as an intellectual movement has its centre of
gravity not in the social sciences but in art and architecture, literature and cultural studies.
It represents a questioning of and rejection of the fundamental assumptions of
modernism, the intellectual movement which preceded it (and exists alongside it,
generating much argument and debate) and which in many ways embodies the
assumptions underlying intellectual and artistic life that have been around since the time
of the Enlightenment, which dates from about the mid-eighteenth century.
The Enlightenment project was to search for truth, to understand the true nature of
reality, through the application of reason and rationality. This is in sharp contrast to the
mediaeval period, in which the church was the sole arbiter of truth, and in which it was
not the responsiblity of individual human beings to discover the truth about life or to
make decisions about the nature of morality. Science, as the antidote to the dogma of the
mediaeval period, was born in the Enlightenment period. The individual person, rather
than God and the church, became the focus for issues of truth and morality. It was now
up to individuals to make judgements (based on objective, scientific evidence) about
what reality was like and therefore what were appropriate moral rules for humans to live
The modern movement in the artistic world took up its own search for truth. This led
to much discussion about, for example, the value of different ways of painting (was the
Impressionist way better than the pre-Raphaelite way, or the Expressionist way?). This
search for truth was often based upon the idea that there were rules or structures
underlying the surface features of the world, and there was a belief in a ‘right’ way of
doing things which could be discovered. Classical architecture (i.e. that of the Romans
and Greeks) was based upon the use of particular mathematical proportions (for example
the ‘golden section’) which were thought to lie at the heart of beautiful forms, and
modern architecture too embodied the assumption that a good design in some way
expressed the underlying function of the building.
In sociology, the search for rules and structure was exemplified by Marx, who
explained social phenomena in terms of the underlying economic structure, and
psychologists such as Freud and Piaget each postulated the existence of underlying
psychic structures to account for psychological phenomena. In each case the ‘hidden’
structure or rule is seen as the deeper reality underlying the surface features of the world,
so that the truth about the world could be revealed by analysing these underlying
structures. Theories in the social sciences and humanities which postulate such structures
are known as ‘structuralist’; the (later) rejection of the notion of rules and structures
underlying forms in the real world is thus known as ‘poststructuralism’, and the terms
‘postmodernism’ and ‘poststructuralism’ are sometimes used interchangeably. The
common feature of all of these theories is that they constitute what are often called
‘metanarratives’ or grand theories. They offered a way of understanding the entire social
world in terms of one all-embracing principle (e.g. for Marx it was class relations), and
therefore recommendations for social change were based upon this principle (in this case,
revolution by the working class).
Postmodernism is a rejection of both the idea that there can be an ultimate truth and of
structuralism, the idea that the world as we see it is the result of hidden structures. In
architecture, it is exemplified by the design of buildings which appear to disregard the
accepted wisdoms of good design. In art and literature it is seen in the denial that some
artistic or literary forms are necessarily better than others, so that ‘pop’ art claimed a
status for itself and the objects it represented equal to that of, say, the works of Leonardo
or Michelangelo. In literary criticism, it also led to the idea that there could be no ‘true’
reading of a poem or novel, that each person’s interpretation was necessarily as good as
the next, and the meanings that the original author might have intended were therefore
Postmodernism also rejects the idea that the world can be understood in terms of grand
theories or metanarratives, and emphasises instead the co-existence of a multiplicity and
variety of situation-dependent ways of life (sometimes referred to as pluralism). It argues
that we (in the west) are now living in a postmodern world, a world which can no longer
be understood by appeal to one over-arching system of knowledge (such as a religion).
Developments in technology, in media and mass communications mean that we are now
An introduction to social constructionism
living in a condition where there are available to us many different kinds of knowledge
(such as a variety of natural and social scientific disciplines, many religions, alternative
medicines, a choice of ‘lifestyles’ and so on), each of them operating as a relatively selfcontained system of knowledge which we can ‘dip’ in and out of as we please.
Postmodernism thus rejects the notion that social change is a matter of discovering and
altering the underlying structures of social life through the application of a grand theory
or metanarrative. In fact, the very word ‘discover’ presupposes an existing, stable reality
that can be revealed by observation and analysis, an idea quite opposed to social
As we shall see, the flavour of these ideas has been absorbed by much of social
constructionism in the social sciences. Its multidisciplinary background means that it has
drawn its ideas from a number of sources, and where it has drawn on work in the
humanities and literary criticism, its influences are often those of French intellectuals
such as Foucault and Derrida. Its cultural backdrop is postmodernism, but it has its own
intellectual roots in earlier sociological writing and in the concerns of the ‘crisis’ in social
psychology. Social constructionism is therefore a movement which has arisen from and is
influenced by a variety of disciplines and intellectual traditions.
Having laid out the theoretical framework, it is now possible to see what some of its
implications are. In the remainder of this introduction, I shall outline the questions that
will be the concern of the rest of this book, and indicate in which chapters they will be
dealt with.
The rejection of essentialism and the questioning of commonsense ways of
understanding human beings is tackled in chapter 1, using the idea of ‘personality’ as a
vehicle. The aim here is to question traditional psychology’s understanding of the person
sufficiently to open the way for an alternative, social constructionist account. If
essentialism is rejected, where should we look for our explanations of human behaviour
and experience? Social constructionists focus upon language, and in chapter 2 I examine
the role of language in our thinking and our sense of ourselves as persons. This is
continued in chapter 3, when I look at the notion of ‘discourses’ and their role in the
construction of social life. Different discourses construct social phenomena in different
ways, and entail different possibilities for human action. So why do some discourses,
some ways of representing the world, appear to receive the label of ‘truth’ or ‘common
sense’? This raises the issue of power relations, because some ways of representing the
world appear to have an oppressive or constraining effect upon some groups in society.
The relationship between discourse and power is examined in chapter 4, but this concern
with power raises a problem for social constructionism. If social constructionism
abandons the idea of ‘truth’ and of a reality that can be directly apprehended by human
beings, how can we be justified in saying that some people in society are ‘really’
oppressed—is ‘oppression’ not just another discourse, just another way of looking at the
world? The gap between reality and people’s everyday understanding of the world and
their place in it is often discussed in terms of ‘ideology’. The problem of the status of
reality and the possible role for the concept of ideology in social constructionism is
addressed in chapter 5.
Many believe that one of the aims of social science is, or should be, ultimately to
facilitate social change. Within the social constructionist framework, what possibilities
for social change are there? Can individual people make a difference, or do you have to
change the structure of society? The answer to this question partly depends on how you
conceptualise the relationship between the individual and society, and this is the focus of
chapter 6. And what notion of ‘the individual’ are we left with anyway? Does the person
still have ‘agency’? As the full impact of social constructionism on the concepts of
traditional psychology becomes clear, it is obvious that a radically different concept of
personhood, or ‘subjectivity’, is offered by social constructionism to the ones we have
been used to. In chapters 7, 8 and 9, I look at three concepts of the person as made
possible by different approaches within social constructionism.
Finally, as social scientists we must address the important question of what it might
mean to practise social science within a social constructionist framework. In chapter 10, I
look at the way that the theory informs (or should inform) research practice, and illustrate
the kind of research (typically in ‘discourse analysis’) that has been performed. This
chapter also includes some guidelines, in the form of ‘worked examples’, for how to
carry out discourse analysis.
Throughout the book, I draw attention to the problematic areas in social
constructionism and to the issues that need to be resolved if it is to be taken seriously as
an approach to social science with useful things to say about how we might change
ourselves and our lives.
Like any other area, social constructionism abounds with words and phrases that are
unfamiliar to many people, and their meaning may be hard to grasp at first. In reading
more advanced social constructionist texts, students are often confused by the terms they
meet with, and I have to say that I consider a fair amount of what is written to be
unnecessarily difficult and obscure. Throughout this book I have explained the meaning
of terms that I think may be new to readers coming from traditional social science,
particularly psychological, backgrounds. The relationship between the different terms and
concepts is also a problematic one. Are all poststructuralists necessarily social
constructionists? Is poststructuralism part of postmodernism? Does anti-essentialism or
anti-realism make you a social constructionist? The answer to these questions is beyond
the scope of this book, and in any case they are questions which are part of the debates
and arguments which make social constructionism the rapidly changing, dynamic body of
thinking that, currently, it is. To aid readers in their struggle for understanding, I have
provided a brief glossary of common terms at the back of the book.
Chapter 1
Where do you get your personality from?
Social constructionism involves challenging most of our commonsense knowledge of
ourselves and the world we live in. This means that it does not just offer a new analysis
of topics such as ‘personality’ or ‘attitudes’ which can simply be slotted into our existing
framework of understanding. The framework itself has to change, and with it our
understanding of every aspect of social and psychological life.
The idea of ‘personality’ is a good place to begin, since it has a central place in our
understanding of ourselves and others. It is fundamental to our concept of what it means
to be a person. Social constructionism is counter-intuitive; it is precisely that which we
take for granted which is rendered problematic by this approach, and with regard to our
notions of personhood this means that the very idea that we exist as separate, discrete
individuals, that our emotions are personal, spontaneous expressions of an inner self we
can call our ‘personality’, is fundamentally questioned.
My aims in this chapter are, firstly, to challenge the commonsense view of personality,
and in doing so to lay the way for an alternative, social constructionist, view, and,
secondly, to draw attention to a number of central features of a social constructionist
view of the person.
The notion of ‘personality’ is one which is so firmly embedded in our thinking in
contemporary western society that we hardly, if ever, question it. It seems to us
undeniably the case that the people we know have very different personalities, and that
these remain relatively stable throughout our lives. We have in our language a great
diversity of words for referring to a person’s personality: generous, shy, sensitive, selfish,
charming and so on—and we call upon them whenever we are asked to say what we think
of a person, perhaps in writing a reference for a job or in describing to a friend someone
we have just met. And these descriptions would be worthless if they simply referred to
transient, short-lived characteristics. If I write to an employer and say that I consider Jane
Smith to be an intelligent and ambitious person, my words would carry no weight if Jane
Smith were in fact intelligent and ambitious today but dull-witted and lacking in
motivation tomorrow.
So our notion of personality incorporates the ideas of individual differences (all people
have their own unique combination of personality characteristics) and stability (your
personality does not change radically from day to day, or even from year to year).
Personality change is seen as something which only occurs as the result of some major
life event (‘Paul has become much less irresponsible since his father died’) or as the
Where do you get your personality from?
result of some planned intervention, such as going to see a therapist for help in getting rid
of excessive shyness.
Individual differences and stability are two aspects of what we mean by ‘personality’,
then. But there is more. If I were to describe to you someone I had just met, and to tell
you that they were independent, broad-minded, rash, fun-loving, blunt and gregarious,
you would not have much difficulty in putting together a mental picture of the person.
And if I were to suggest that you meet them, you would probably be able to anticipate
how the meeting might go (you might look forward to it or dread it, depending upon your
own ‘personality’!). But if I were to say that this person is friendly, nervous, competent,
thoughtless and warm you might have more difficulty. This is because we expect
someone’s personality to be consistent, to be composed of a set of characteristics which
‘go together’. ‘Fun-loving’, ‘rash’ and ‘gregarious’ seem to go together in a way that
‘competent’, ‘thoughtless’ and ‘warm’ do not. So that although we think of ourselves as
being made up of many personality characteristics, these are by no means a random
conglomeration of diverse traits with nothing in common. What we see in ourselves and
in others is a unified personality, a coherent and consistent self.
As well as these three aspects of personality—individual difference, stability and
coherence—there is also a fourth important aspect, and this is the relationship of our
personality to our behaviour. We usually think of this relationship as a one-way street.
We think of our personality as being a very strong influence on our behaviour—what we
do is the result of the kind of person we are (unless we have been coerced). Kind people
help you when you are in trouble, tight-fisted ones never buy a round, and shy people
avoid parties. We do not imagine the ‘traffic’ going in the other direction, that is, we tend
not to think of our behaviour as causing or explaining our personality. We do not imagine
that people become mean because they do not buy you a drink in the pub.
Traditional psychology has broadly adopted this view of personality, and
psychologists have devoted many years to describing, cataloguing and measuring a great
variety of personality traits. Cattell, the designer of the 16PF (16 Personality Factors)
personality inventory, believed that all the traits exhibited by human beings could be
reduced down to just 16 (e.g. Cattell, 1946; Cattell and IPAT staff, 1986). Any person
could then be described in terms of how much of each of these 16 factors his or her
personality contained. Eysenck (e.g. Eysenck and Eysenck, 1967), from whom we get the
Eysenck Personality Inventory, or EPI, preferred to group together such traits broadly to
form personality types. By completing an EPI a person will gain a score on two
dimensions of personality (introversion/extraversion and neuroticism/stability). They can
thus be described as, say, a neurotic introvert or stable extravert.
This common-sense notion of personality (‘common’ in that it is a widely shared idea)
can be described as ‘essentialist’. ‘Essentialism’ is a way of understanding the world that
sees things (including human beings) as having their own particular essence or nature,
something which can be said to belong to them and which explains how they behave
(things like chairs, paper and plastic spoons do not ‘behave’ in the human sense of ‘doing
something’, but they do react differently to different environmental conditions, and these
reactions can be explained in terms of the things we know about the ‘nature’ of plastic or
wood). Tables and desks are hard (a property) and therefore do not bend when you put a
pile of books on them. In the same way, we think of the ‘nature’ of the shy person being
such that it is unsuited to the conditions of a noisy social gathering.
An introduction to social constructionism
This ‘essentialist’ view of personality, then, bids us think of ourselves as having a
particular nature, both as individuals and as a species (ie. ‘human nature’), and this nature
determines what people can and cannot do. Just as you cannot expect to make a useful
table out of knitting wool, so you cannot expect an impatient person to wait for you. And
if we believe that the nature of the human species is essentially aggressive and selfinterested, the best we can do is to ensure that society provides ways of restraining people
and physically preventing them from behaving ‘naturally’.
This view of personality, then, suggests that the kind of person you are is in some
degree the result of your biology (perhaps inherited through your genetic make-up,
through the balance of chemicals operating in the brain, or through hormones and so on).
To say that a person’s personality is entirely determined by biological factors is an
extreme view, and one held by very few people today. Most people settle for a model of
personality which suggests that these biological ‘givens’ are to some extent modifiable by
environmental influences (such as the kinds of childhood experience you have). But the
fact that we find personality change so difficult when we attempt it (perhaps you are a
timid person trying to become more confident, or a ‘worrier’ who is trying to be less
anxious) seems to give credence to the idea that, even if personality is not entirely
determined biologically, one way or another, once your personality is formed your
‘programming’ has been fixed for the future.
To a large extent, this common-sense view of personality serves us reasonably well in
our day-to-day lives. It appears to make sense of what we see around us in other people
and in ourselves. However, it is not without problems, and the rest of this chapter will be
devoted to pointing out some of the things that this common-sense view does not explain
well. The aim here is to raise enough questions about this notion of personality to make
you think that alternative explanations are worthy of consideration. And throughout the
rest of the book I shall be developing one particular kind of alternative explanation, that
of social constructionism (‘personality’ is only one of a number of psychological and
social phenomena that social constructionism seeks to explain).
First of all, how can you be sure that you have a ‘personality’ at all? If I were to ask you
for evidence that, say, you have brown eyes, or that you live in a second-floor flat, the
matter would be settled very quickly. You could let me look at your eyes, and you could
show me your flat. But can you show me your personality? Where is it? Even if a surgeon
were to open you up and look, she or he would not find it. There is no objective evidence
that you can appeal to which would demonstrate the existence of your personality. What
this shows is that whatever this ‘personality’ creature is, its existence is inferred. This
means that in order to account for the things you find yourself and other people doing, the
ways you behave, you have come up with the idea that people have a thing called a
personality that is responsible for this behaviour. This is just what physicists did with
‘black holes’ in space. The idea of black holes was put forward to try to explain certain
phenomena long before there was any objective evidence for black holes themselves.
Where do you get your personality from?
Their existence was inferred from observations of other phenomena. But in the case of
personality, you could say we are still waiting for the evidence.
What this amounts to is a kind of circular reasoning. Let me give an example. If we
witness someone physically attacking another person, unless we have good reason to
think otherwise (perhaps that they were acting in self-defence, or that it was an accident)
we are likely to infer that the attacker is an aggressive person. This is a description of his
or her personality. However, if someone were to ask us why we think the attacker did it,
we are likely to say something like ‘If you’re an aggressive person, that’s the kind of
thing you’re likely to do.’ This is circular reasoning. We have observed the behaviour
(the attack) and inferred from it that the attacker has an aggressive personality. But when
asked to say what made him or her do it, we account for the behaviour in terms of the
‘aggressiveness’ that this behaviour itself was used to infer. We call someone aggressive
because of his or her behaviour and then say it was the aggressiveness that made her or
him do it, but we have had no way of establishing the real existence of this ‘aggressive
personality’ outside of the personality-behaviour circle that we have created.
This suggests that the idea of ‘personality’ is one that we use in our everyday lives in
order to try to make sense of the things that we and other people do. ‘Personality’ can
then come to be seen as a theory (one held very widely in our society) for explaining
human behaviour, and for trying to anticipate our part in social interactions with others.
We could say that in our daily lives we act as if there were such a thing as personality,
and most of the time we get by reasonably well by doing so. But it is a big leap from this
to saying that personality really exists (in the sense of traits inhabiting our mental
structures, or being written into our genetic material).
Another weak point in the ‘personality really exists’ argument is this. If personality
does really exist in this way, then we are describing part of human nature. We should
expect to find ‘personality’ as we know it in all human beings, no matter what part of the
world they inhabit or what period of history they may have occupied. But it is clear that
all peoples do not subscribe to our western view. In some cultures, people account for
their actions by reference to invisible spirits and demons and would find our idea that
behaviour originates in personality a very strange one. Many people today, as well as in
the past, see their actions as the result of divine guidance, and in some circumstances,
people who claim that they are directed by invisible spirits are labelled ‘insane’. The
uniqueness and private nature of much of what we mean by ‘personality’ is also not a
feature of all cultures. For example, we tend to think of our emotions as private events
that are bound up with the kind of people we are. A person with a ‘depressive’
personality might be expected to feel ‘sadness’ often. We imagine a ‘caring’ person to
have ‘loving’ feelings. These feelings or emotions are thought of as the internal, private
experience of individuals, and are intimately connected to the type of person they are. For
example, anger is something we feel inside us, and which is manifested in the things we
say and do. However, as Lutz (1982, 1990) has pointed out, this is not the case in all
cultures. For the Ifaluk (Samoan and Pintupi Aborigine), emotion words are statements
not about people’s internal states but about their relationship to events and other people.
The Ifaluk talk of song, which in translation comes out as something like ‘justifiable
anger’. This justifiable anger is not a privately owned feeling, but a moral and public
account of some transgression of accepted social practices and values.
An introduction to social constructionism
Of course we could claim that these cultural differences are due to differences in
education and understanding. We could suggest that non-western cultures (and those of
previous historical periods) do not have the benefit of our knowledge. What we would be
doing then is making a claim about the truthfulness of our own view as opposed to the
falsity of theirs. We would be saying ‘We know that in fact people have personalities,
and that the way people behave is heavily influenced by their personality. People in other
cultures have not realised this yet, and they therefore hold a false view of reality.’ This is
to state the case rather strongly, but it makes the point that unless we have complete
confidence in the ‘personality really exists’ view, we have to accept that personality may
be a theory which is peculiar to certain societies at a certain point in time.
Some writers, such as the psychoanalyst Fromm (though he is not a social
constructionist), have suggested that ‘human nature’ is a product of the particular societal
and economic structure that we are born into (e.g. Fromm, 1942/1960, 1955). For
example, in a capitalist society the keyword is ‘competition’; society is structured around
individuals and organisations that compete with each other for jobs, markets, etc. The
assumption is that the person with the most skill, intelligence, ability, charm, etc., will
succeed where others will fail. So that where competition is a fundamental feature of
social and economic life, what you will get is ‘competitive’ people and a model of the
person which is framed in terms of individual differences. In other words, we think of
ourselves as individuals differing from each other along a number of personality
dimensions because we live in a society founded on competition. ‘Competitiveness’ and
‘greed’ then come to be seen as products of the social and economic structure we live in
rather than as features of an essential human nature.
As well as cultural differences in how people think about and describe their
experiences, there are also historical differences which add weight to the argument. Our
language is constantly changing and we accept that the meanings of words mutate over
time. But the way in which some meanings have changed, and often quite recently at that,
is of interest. The verb ‘to love’ is a good example. To children learning the intricacies of
grammar, verbs are described as ‘doing’ words—they are words that tell you what people
are doing, like ‘working’ or ‘crying’. But the way in which today we employ the verb ‘to
love’ has different connotations. When we say we love someone, what we are often
referring to is our feelings for them, not our actions. And yet this has not always been the
case. When I was a child, my grandmother sometimes used to say ‘Come here and give
me a love’ or ‘Let me love you for a minute.’ To ‘love’ someone here means to embrace
them physically, and perhaps to comfort them. Maybe in some parts of the country this
meaning is still used occasionally, but in the vast majority of cases when we talk about
loving someone, we are talking about private events, our feelings, things which are taken
to exist inside us and which influence how we treat people. ‘Love’ has therefore become
something which is seen as motivating our behaviour rather than as a word which
describes our behaviour. Ironically, when love is relegated to this internal domain it can
become so unrelated to conduct that it can be used to excuse the most appalling
behaviour (‘I hit her when I get angry—but I love her really…’).
This trend towards using words to describe internal events, like feelings, rather than
actions can be called ‘psychologisation’. In other words, we are tending more and more
to describe human life in terms of psychological qualities (such as feelings and
personality traits) rather than in terms of what we are doing with or to other people.
Where do you get your personality from?
‘Caring’ is another good example. To care for someone, in today’s language, means not
only to look after them and tend to their needs, but also to have caring feelings toward
them. To be a ‘caring’ person today is taken to be a description of the kind of person you
are rather than of the type of activities you are engaged in. This move towards accounting
for ourselves in terms of internal events is of course entirely consistent with the above
idea that the way people think about themselves and represent their experience to
themselves and others is dependent not upon some pre-existing essential human nature
but upon the particular social and economic arrangements prevailing in their culture at
that time.
So far I have raised a question mark above two of the key elements of the commonsense view of personality—the idea that personality traits influence behaviour, and the
notion of individual differences (in traits, feelings, etc.) as trans-cultural, trans-historical
‘essences’ of the person. But we still need to question the two remaining notions of
‘stability’ and ‘coherence’ in personality.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the fundamental assumptions of the common-sense
view of personality is that personality is stable across situations and over time. However,
this does not stand up to scrutiny when we examine our own day-to-day experience. Do
you behave in the same way when you are in the pub with your mates and when you are
taking tea with great-uncle Eric? (I’m sure you can find your own equivalents.) Do you
talk to your closest friend in the same way as to your bank manager? Do you feel
confident, outgoing and ‘on the ball’ when you are at a party with people you know?
What about when you go for a job interview? These examples may look trivial and you
will probably already be coming up with explanations for the differences. But the overall
message is an important one. We behave, think and feel differently depending on whom
we are with, what we are doing and why. There already exist a number of psychological
and social psychological theories which, while they fall short of being ‘social
constructionist’ in the sense used by this book, offer explanations of the person that
reside in the social situation rather than within the person. For example, social learning
theorists talk about the ‘situation specificity’ of behaviour. They suggest that our
behaviour is dependent not upon personality characteristics but upon the nature of the
situations in which we find ourselves. Behaviour is therefore ‘specific’ to a particular
situation (and, social learning theorists would say, is acquired through the particular set
of ‘reinforcers’ present in those situations). According to this view we should expect a
person to be different in different situations, whereas for the traditional ‘personality’ view
these differences are problematic. Of course it is true that when we find ourselves in a
situation similar to one we have been in before we will tend to behave in the way we did
before. Social learning theorists would not see this as evidence for the stability of
personality traits. We are simply producing the same behaviour that has proved
rewarding in the past in a new but similar situation. See Mischel (1968) for an account of
social learning theory.
Social learning theory is not the only alternative to the ‘personality’ view that accounts
for differences in behaviour across situations. Sociologists and social psychologists use
the notion of ‘role’ to show the context-bound nature of what we do. For example, the
demands of the role of ‘mother’ are very different from those of the role of ‘committee
member’. Our behaviour will vary depending upon the role that we are currently
occupying or playing. However, it is important that we do not think of roleplaying as
An introduction to social constructionism
pretending to be something we are not, as some kind of ‘cloak’ which covers over our
real self (our ‘personality’). For example, when I am at home with my children (in the
role of ‘mother’) my behaviour, thoughts and feelings are certainly different to when I am
delivering a lecture (in the role of ‘lecturer’). However, in no sense can I be said to be
‘pretending’ in either situation.
Social learning theory and role theory are both accounts of how, once we have
questioned the common-sense view of personality, we can begin to explain how people
are different in different situations. I am including them here not as examples of ‘social
constructionism’, but to show how the field is opened up for alternative explanations
once the ‘personality’ view is disputed.
Just as we take for granted the idea that our personality is stable, so do we also tend
not to question the notion that each person has a unified, coherent personality, a self
which is made up of elements that are consistent with each other. We have already begun
to question this here with the implication that people might have a number of
personalities or selves, depending on the situation and whom they are with. But there is
also good reason to believe that a person is never a coherent system of consistent
elements. Psychologists themselves have found it necessary to come up with hypothetical
structures and processes precisely because our experience of ourselves and of each other
is just the opposite of coherent. We talk of being ‘in conflict’, we say that our thoughts
lead us in one direction and our feelings in another, we say that our heart rules our head,
or that we have acted out of character.
In psychoanalytic theory, conflict and inconsistency are accounted for by saying that
we have an unconscious, a repository of repressed feelings that act upon us but of which
we are not consciously aware. Role theorists talk of ‘role conflict’, the experience of
trying to act out two (or more) incompatible roles simultaneously. For example, the roles
of ‘mother’ and ‘employee’ give some women the feeling of almost literally being
‘pulled in two directions at once’. What we have here are different attempts to explain
our experiences of conflict and discontinuity, experiences which pose a problem for the
traditional view of personality.
What might it mean, then, to say that personality is socially constructed? One way of
looking at this is to think of personality (the kind of person you are) as existing not within
people but between them. This is hard to conceptualise at first, so I will give you some
illustrative examples. Take some of the personality-type words we use to describe people:
for example, friendly, caring, shy, self-conscious, charming, bad-tempered, thoughtless.
If you like, make your own list of words you could use to describe the people you know. I
would predict that most of them will be words which would completely lose their
meaning if the person described were living alone on a desert island. Without the
presence of other people, i.e. a social environment, can a person be said to be ‘friendly’,
‘shy’ or ‘caring’? The point is that we use these words as if they referred to entities
existing within the person they describe, but once the person is removed from their
relations with others the words become meaningless. They refer to our behaviour towards
other people. The friendliness, shyness or caring exists not inside people, but in the
Where do you get your personality from?
relation between them. Of course you could reply that, even on the desert island, a person
can still carry with them the predisposition to be friendly, shy, etc. We can neither prove
nor disprove the existence of personality traits, and similarly we cannot demonstrate the
‘truth’ of a social constructionist view simply by an appeal to the evidence. In the end our
task may be to decide which view offers us the best way of understanding ourselves and
others and thus of guiding our research and action (I will return to these issues in later
Next, think of a person you know, someone with whom you are more than just slightly
acquainted. Think about how you are when you are with that person. Perhaps you feel
that when you are with her or him you are level-headed and rational. She or he always
seems to be leaping from one crisis to another and seems to be in awe of your apparent
ability to take the world in your stride. The nature of the relationship between you is one
of counsellor and client, or ‘the strong one’ and ‘the weak one’. Now think of someone
else with whom you are just the opposite. With this person you always seem to be
pouring out your troubles, asking advice and taking the lead from him or her. Perhaps this
particular example does not fit you, but you will be able to think of comparable ones. The
point is that it makes no sense to ask which of these is the real you. They both are, but
each version of ‘you’ is a product of your relationships with others. Each ‘you’ is
constructed socially, out of the social encounters that make up your relationships. Shotter
has put forward the concept of ‘joint action’ to try to get away from the idea that what
people do and say somehow emanates from internal psychic structures such as
personality (Shotter, 1993a, 1993b). When people interact, it is rather like a dance in
which they are constantly moving together, subtly responding to each other’s rhythm and
posture. The dance is constructed between them and cannot be seen as the result of either
person’s prior intentions. Likewise, when we interact, our talk and behaviour is a joint
effort, not the product of internal forces. Amongst other things, this can explain how,
despite our best resolutions, we often end up saying and doing exactly that which we
wanted to avoid doing or saying.
If your personality depends upon whom you are with, then this is certainly a problem
not only for personality theory but also for how we think about person perception, a key
issue in social psychology. Person perception theory is heavily dependent upon the
common-sense view of personality. Very simply stated, one of the the key questions in
person perception is this: how can we make an accurate assessment of someone’s
personality? The notion of ‘accuracy’ assumes there to be ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’
accounts of what a person is really like. Try this exercise: think of three words or terms
(of the personality-trait kind) to describe yourself. Now think of three that your parents
might use to describe you to someone. Lastly, think of three words that your girlfriend,
boyfriend or partner might use. My prediction is that there will be at least some
differences between the three descriptions. But who is right? If there is only one real you,
one personality, two of these descriptions (at least!) are wrong. However, the alternative
view is to say that they are all right, but that each version of ‘you’ is a product of that
relationship, something created and constructed between you. The idea of bias and error
in person perception rests upon the fundamental assumption that a person has a particular
personality and that it is (theoretically at least) possible to ‘discover’ it.
Let us now sum up the position we have arrived at. A number of assumptions
fundamental to the common-sense view of personality have been challenged. Rather than
An introduction to social constructionism
view personality as something which exists inside us, in the form of traits or
characteristics, we could see the person we are as the product of social encounters and
relationships—that is, socially constructed. This means that we create rather than
discover ourselves and other people. It is important not to mistake this for an
‘environmentalist’ position. Environmentalism also rejects the idea that people turn out in
particular ways because of a pre-existing set of biological characteristics or some form of
general ‘human nature’. However, this view would accept that people do have
personalities, stable characters, etc., but that these are determined, at least to a large
extent, by the physical and social environments in which we grow up and live. It is
therefore on the ‘nurture’ side of the ‘nature/ nurture’ debate, but is deterministic and
essentialist all the same.
Instead, then, of people having single, unified and fixed selves, perhaps we are
fragmented, having a multiplicity of potential selves which are not necessarily consistent
with each other. The self which is constantly on the move, changing from situation to
situation, is contrasted with the traditional view of the stable, unchanging personality.
And our view of ‘human nature’ becomes historically and culturally bound rather than
fixed for all time. What we have traditionally called ‘personality’ begins to look more
like a theory that we are using to try to make sense of the patterns we see in our
experience rather than a fact of human nature.
One of the problems that this kind of reasoning can lead to is the feeling that we are
living under an illusion. We feel ourselves really to have a ‘personality’, we feel as
though sometimes we are hiding our ‘true’ self, and social constructionism seems to be
saying that the person you imagine yourself to be does not really exist at all—it is just an
illusion. There is some truth in this. Social constructionism certainly cautions us against
taking at face value our experience of ourselves and the world, and suggests that our
usual understanding of ourselves may be misleading. But in saying that you have no
‘true’ self, it does not imply that the selves we inhabit are therefore false. ‘True’ and
‘false’ become inappropriate ways of thinking about selfhood. It is possible to say that we
have no ‘true’ self but that we have a number of selves which are equally real. Our
experiences of ourselves are real enough, and there is a sense in which we give the
concept of ‘personality’ real existence through the way in which we live it and act it out
in our encounters with each other. Certainly, if we are going to entertain social
constructionist ideas sympathetically, we need to be offered some explanations and
alternative accounts of our experience of being a person. For example, it is all very well
to claim that we do not have a personality, and that rather we have a multiplicity of
different selves. But we still feel (at least some of the time) as though we are a single,
unified self, and we need to be given some explanation of this feeling. One suggestion is
that our feelings of consistency and continuity in time are provided by our memory.
Memory allows us to look back on our behaviours and experiences, to select those that
seem to ‘hang together’ in some narrative framework (literally the story of your life) and
to look for patterns, repetitions and so on that provide us with the impression of
continuity and coherence. What we think of as ‘personality’ is thus seen as an effect of
memory and our search for meaning and pattern in our experiences. It will be becoming
plain that what it means to be a person and how we should understand our psychology
will look quite different, even strange, from the social constructionist perspective, and I
will look in more detail at the nature of personhood and subjectivity in later chapters.
Where do you get your personality from?
If we are not to talk of ‘personality’ as a meaningful way of understanding ourselves,
what concepts are available to us instead? One that is frequently used by social
constructionist writers is that of ‘identity’. ‘Identity’ avoids the essentialist connotations
of personality, and is also an implicitly social concept. When you identify something, say
a plant or an animal, you give it an identity. To say ‘That’s a weed’ or ‘There’s a wild
animal’ is not to detect some essential feature or nature of the thing you are looking at.
‘Flower’ versus ‘weed’ is a dimension only relevant if you are a gardener. ‘Edible’ versus
‘inedible’ might be the (albeit not articulable) dimension used by sheep and cows, and
‘wild’ versus ‘tame’ is a distinction that surely only has meaning for humans (since
‘tame’ implies an encounter and relationship with human beings). The point is that it is
you that is doing the identifying, and the identity you confer has more to do with your
purposes than the ‘nature’ of the thing itself. The same applies to the things that make up
human identities, such as masculinity/femininity, hetero-/homosexual, sane/insane,
black1/white, working-/middle-class and so on—these may be seen as socially bestowed
identities rather than essences of the person, and this is why the term ‘identity’ is often
found in social constructionist writing.
The points that I have dealt with in this chapter are important ones and will come up
again many times in later chapters. The multiplicity and fragmentation of selfhood, its
changeability, and its cultural and historical dependence are at the heart of social
constructionist accounts of the person. You do not have to be a social constructionist to
abandon traditional personality theory (as we have seen, behaviourists and social learning
theorists did this a long time ago). But it is a useful starting point from which to explore
the social constructionist views which have gained a foothold in social psychology in the
last fifteen years or so.
1 I use this term throughout the book to refer to non-white peoples. Although it may carry
slightly different meanings for North American readers, it will be a familiar term and
probably carries relatively few racist connotations.
Kitzinger, C. (1992) ‘The individuated self-concept: a critical analysis of social constructionist
writing on individualism’, in G.Breakwell (ed.) Social Psychology of Identity and the Self
Concept, London: Surrey University Press in association with Academic Press. This is a good,
clear account of the social constructionist case against the concept of ‘the individual’.
Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1987) Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and
Behaviour, London: Sage. A key text, based upon a constructionist critique of the traditional
psychological concept of ‘attitude’.
Chapter 2
Does language affect the way we think?
In chapter 1, I made a case for the view that the person is socially constructed. In this
chapter I shall present the view that this construction process is rooted in language. The
terms ‘structuralism’ and ‘poststructuralism’ will be introduced here, together with a brief
explanation of them in the context of language. In the introduction, I talked about how
structuralist and poststructuralist ideas had been appropriated by some social
constructionists. In particular, postructuralism is an anti-humanist and anti-essentialist
theoretical approach which is therefore in sympathy with much social constructionism,
and because the ‘centre of gravity’ of both structuralism and poststructuralism is in the
humanities and linguistics, they have much to offer a social constructionist understanding
of language and its role in social and psychological life.
Language is unique to human beings. Undeniably, other animals communicate with
each other. Scent, sound, markings, gesture and posture are employed by animals to
signal danger, occupation of territory, sexual overtures and so on, but do they warrant the
name of language? These behaviours clearly do have meanings, to which other animals
respond (e.g. by fighting, running away, copulating, etc.) But the difference is that these
meanings appear to be fixed and stable. When a dog rolls over and displays its belly, this
is a sign of submission. It has the same meaning for all dogs, and this meaning has
remained stable for countless generations of dogs. As we shall see later on in this chapter,
it is the insistence upon the nature of language as constantly changing and varied in its
meanings that is the keystone of social constructionism. And not only this, but language
is seen as having a much more important role in human life than traditional psychology
has given it, to the point of saying that the very nature of ourselves as people, our
thoughts, feelings and experiences, are all the result of language.
Our traditional, common-sense view of the relationship between language and the person
sees the one as a means of expressing the other. When people talk about ‘myself’, their
‘personality’ or some aspect of their experience, it is assumed that this self, personality or
experience pre-dates and exists independently of the words used to describe it. We think
of language as a bag of labels which we can choose from in trying to describe our internal
states (thoughts, feelings, etc.). The nature of the person and her or his internal states
seem to us to come first, and the job of language is to find a way of expressing these
things to other people. In this way of thinking, then, people and the language they use are
certainly closely bound up with each other; people use language to give expression to
things that already exist in themselves or in the world, but the two are essentially
independent things.
Does language affect the way we think?
This way of understanding the relationship between the person and language is in
radical opposition to a poststructuralist view, which sees the person as constructed
through language. The person cannot pre-date language because it is language which
brings the person into being in the first place. This sounds rather bizarre at first. It seems
as if we are saying that human beings just would not exist if they did not have language.
Did cave people and their forebears not exist? But human beings, people as we know
them today, inhabit a world of experience which it is hard to imagine being possible for
the cave-dweller. Our daily experience is crammed with our hopes and fears for the
future, our desires and worries, embarrassments and disappointments. We examine our
motivations, drives and unconscious wishes. It is hard to imagine that the early humans
too used these concepts to understand themselves and their world, but had not yet
developed the linguistic tools for describing them to each other. The alternative is that
language itself provides us with a way of structuring our experience of ourselves and the
world, and that the concepts we use do not pre-date language but are made possible by it.
This is very like the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Sapir, 1947), which
states that language determines thought and that if there is no way to express a particular
concept in a language, then that concept just cannot be used by people who speak that
language. This is what is meant by the phrase, used frequently by writers in social
constructionism, that ‘language is not transparent’, i.e. we should guard against the
(common-sense) assumption that language is nothing more than a clear, pure medium
through which our thoughts and feelings can be made available to others, rather like a
good telephone line or a window which has no irregularities in the glass which could
distort one’s view.
There are two implications of this. Firstly, it implies that what we take ‘being a
person’ to mean (such as having a personality, being motivated by drives, desires, etc.,
having loves, hates and jealousies and so on) is not part of some essential human nature
which would be there whether we had language or not. These things become ‘available’
to us, through language, as ways of structuring our experience. Secondly, it implies that
what we take ‘being a person’ to mean could always have been constructed differently—
and indeed we live in a world in which there is still an enormous diversity of languages
and of ways of understanding personhood. The possibility of alternative constructions of
the self and other ‘events’ in one’s world, through language, is fundamental to this social
constructionist view.
I will spend the rest of this chapter looking at these in a little more detail. I have
suggested that our experience of ourselves, how we understand ourselves and others, does
not originate in ‘pre-packaged’ forms inside us. For example, psychoanalysts take the
view that there are discrete and identifiable emotions, such as anger, envy and hatred,
which are innate in all human beings. They are part of the way human beings are
‘programmed’, and the words we have attached to them are simply the labels we have
chosen to refer to these emotional entities. A social constructionist view, by contrast,
would say that, in English-speaking cultures, the words ‘anger’, ‘hatred’ and ‘envy’ and
the concepts to which they refer pre-date any one person’s entry into the world (as an
infant), and in the process of learning to talk we have no choice but to come to
understand ourselves in terms of these concepts. This view would suggest that our
experience of the world, and perhaps especially of our own internal states, is
undifferentiated and intangible without the framework of language to give it structure and
An introduction to social constructionism
meaning. The way that language is structured therefore determines the way that
experience and consciousness are structured.
Some examples will help to illustrate this point. Descartes (from whose name is
derived the term ‘Cartesian’) radically changed the way people thought about themselves
by suggesting that human experience was divided by a fundamental dichotomy—the
physical versus the mental. He saw these as two separate realms of experience, with their
own phenomena. For example, being in pain, eating one’s dinner and feeling the cold
could be said to belong to the physical realm. Dreaming, having a spiritual experience or
coming up with a good idea belong to the mental realm. Although this was a novel idea at
the time, it has quickly embedded itself in our language and thought, with profound
consequences for how we understand our experience. The mental-physical dimension is
one which is inescapable for us when we try to make sense of events. Is my headache
physical (having an organic cause) or mental (either imaginary or originating in
psychological distress)? Is ‘depression’ a physical illness or a mental illness? Can cancer
(a physical illness) be cured by having ‘positive thoughts’? The fact that these questions
are often so difficult to answer should first of all alert us to the possibility that the mentalphysical dichotomy may not be a very good way of trying to divide up at least some
aspects of our experience. But more than this, it shows that once we have divided up the
world in this way, we are left with conceptualising the mental and physical as separate
but related. We are led to ask questions like ‘Does physical illness affect your state of
mind?’ or ‘Can positive thinking cure physical illness?’ The very fact of the existence of
the mental-physical dichotomy in our language and concepts spawns a particular kind of
understanding of human beings, their experience and their potentialities.
Let us take another example. Homosexual (‘homo’ meaning ‘same’) practices have
been known throughout history, and in some cultures homosexual love has been prized
above all other forms of love. However, it is only relatively recently that the word
‘homosexual’ has appeared in our language as a noun rather than solely as an adjective.
This means that it is now possible to talk about ‘a homosexual’, which is a person, rather
than ‘homosexual practices’, which are something you do. Almost as if by magic, the
linguistic trick of turning an adjective into a noun has ‘created’ a certain kind of person
(which, by the way, can be seen as part of the general move towards seeing people in
terms of what they are rather than what they do, described in chapter 1). Because we can
say ‘a homosexual’, we can think in terms of ‘a homosexual’ (i.e. we can imagine the
existence of certain kinds of person that we can call ‘homosexuals’), and such language
and thinking is inevitably lived out by us in our everyday dealings with each other.
The idea that the structure of language determines the lines along which we divide up our
experience is at the heart of what is referred to as ‘structuralism’. In fact ‘structuralism’
means rather different things in different disciplines, but for our purposes we will take it
as referring to the ideas which originated with Saussure’s study of structural linguistics
(Saussure, 1974), and which were later re-worked and extended to become
Does language affect the way we think?
The key concept in Saussurean linguistics is that of the ‘sign’. Signs can be thought of
as the things that populate our mental life, things we may refer to, talk to others about,
muse upon, try to describe and so on. ‘Intelligence’, ‘dog’, ‘marriage’, ‘teaspoon’ and
‘art’ are all signs, and they all have two parts to them. There is the thing referred to (dog,
intelligence) and there is the word, the spoken sound, used to refer to it. Saussure gives
these two parts different names—the spoken sound is the ‘signifier’, and the thing it
refers to is the ‘signified’. I have purposely included in my list of signs some rather
abstract ones. ‘Intelligence’, ‘art’ and ‘marriage’ are different from ‘dog’ and ‘teaspoon’,
in that we do not think of them as having the same kind of concrete existence or
‘thingness’ that dogs and teaspoons apparently have. However, they all qualify as ‘signs’
because in each case the ‘signified’ is not a concrete object, but a concept. So that when
we use the words ‘dog’ and ‘teaspoon’ we are referring to the concepts of ‘dog’ and
‘teaspoon’, the meanings that these terms embody. If we watch a child in the process of
acquiring language, we can see that this is so. At first, they may point to the family pet,
and their parent may say ‘Yes, “dog”!’ ‘Dog’, the child repeats. Later, the child sees a cat
or a pig and proudly announces ‘Dog!’, to which the adult might reply ‘No, that’s not a
dog, that’s a cat (pig).’ Unless we believe that children truly do not notice any surface
dissimilarities between these animals, we must conclude that what they are doing here is
working out what features and characteristics the concepts ‘dog’, ‘cat’ and ‘pig’
Saussure’s major contribution was in his assertion that the link between the signifier
(spoken sound) and the signified (concept) is an arbitrary one. At first sight this appears
to be a rather obvious assertion. Of course we all know that there is nothing inherent in
the sound of the word ‘dog’ that makes it a singularly appropriate label for the animal,
and we only have to observe the fact that other languages use different words for ‘dog’ or
‘pig’ to be satisfied that the words we use to refer to concepts are just a convention—any
word would do as long as everyone uses the same one. But Saussure is saying more than
this. He is also saying that the concepts themselves are arbitrary divisions and
categorisations of our experience. We have divided up our world into things we have
called ‘dogs’, ‘pigs’, ‘marriage’, ‘intelligence’ and so on, and these divisions are
arbitrary. It is quite possible that in some cultures separate concepts for ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ do
not exist. In English-speaking cultures we have the words ‘sheep’ and ‘mutton’, and they
refer to different concepts, but in French there is only one word, ‘mouton’. Whatever
differences we see between the concepts ‘sheep’ and ‘mutton’, as English-speakers,
simply do not exist for the French. So when Saussure talks of the arbitrary linking of
signifiers to signifieds, he is saying that, with the aid of language, we have divided up our
world into arbitrary categories.
It is important to recognise here that ‘arbitrary’ does not imply ‘accidental’ or
‘random’. The objects of our mental world do not exist ‘out there’ ready for us to attach
our arbitrary labels to them, and although in principle our conceptual world could have
been divided up very differently (and it is in this sense that the divisions we do have are
arbitrary), the concepts we operate with are tied in with the kind of society we live in and
are therefore not random (this is the theme of chapter 1, where I suggested that the
concept ‘personality’ makes sense in a competitive capitalist society).
Signs themselves can have no intrinsic meaning. The meaning we give to the concept
‘dog’ does not reside within that concept itself; this would be a slide back into the idea
An introduction to social constructionism
that the things in our social world already exist ‘out there’, and are just waiting around
for human beings to ‘discover’ them and label them within their language. The idea of
making a division between things (any things) lies in the rules you use to say what makes
them different from each other. Any category or concept can only ultimately be described
by referring to yet other categories or concepts from which it is different. The concept
‘dog’ only has meaning by reference to its difference from other concepts such as ‘cat’ or
‘table’. The meaning of a sign resides not intrinsically in that sign itself, but in its
relationship to other signs. To give another example, it is not anything intrinsic to the
signifier ‘professional’ that gives it its meaning, but rather its difference from and
contrast with other signifiers of class such as ‘manual worker’ and ‘trader’. This is what
Saussure’s structuralism is saying, then: language does not reflect a pre-existing social
reality, but constitutes, brings a framework to, that reality for us. It is the structure of
language, the system of signifiers and signifieds and their meanings as constituted in the
differences between them, which carves up our conceptual space for us.
However, Saussure also believed that once a signifier became attached to a signified
this relationship, though arbitrary, became fixed. This means that the words we use may
have arbitrary meanings, but once words become attached to particular meanings they are
‘fixed’ in that relationship, so that the same word always has the same meaning. This
explains how all the users of a particular language are able to talk to each other, to deal in
the same currency of concepts (signifieds), by using the same words (signifiers).
But the problem with this is that it does not explain two things. It does not explain
how the meaning of words can change over time, and it does not explain how words can
carry numerous meanings, depending upon who is speaking, to whom and to what
purpose. Some examples will illustrate this. The words ‘It’s been a lovely sunny day
today’ have one meaning when spoken by the TV weather reporter, but quite another
when spoken by acquaintances who feel they cannot pass each other on the street without
a polite exchange. The word ‘gay’ in the past used to mean ‘happy and joyful’ (and still
can) but now also has a homosexual meaning, and the meaning we take from it depends
upon the context in which it is used, who is using it and why.
This is the point that writers after Saussure have focussed upon, and it is for this reason
that they are referred to as poststructuralist. (‘Post’, in this sense, means ‘coming after
and adding to’ rather than ‘rejecting’.) This argument, that the meanings carried by
language are never fixed, always open to question, always contestible, always temporary,
is fundamental to poststructuralism and has major implications for our understanding of
the person, her or his identity and the poss…
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