Social Construction Theory

The social construction of crime, through its amplification by social reaction, can produce the real consequence of career criminals as the offender becomes engulfed in coping with the stigma of a criminal identity that ultimately might lead to his or her embrace of that socially constructed identity through identity transformation.


I. Introduction

II. The Concept of Social Construction

A. Definition and Significance

III. Historical and Theoretical Roots of Social Constructionist Theory

A. Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenology

B. Schutz’s Sociological Phenomenology

C. Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality

D. Garfinkel’s Ethnomethodology

E. The Social Interactionism of Mead and Blumer

F. Labeling Perspective in the Sociology of Deviance

IV. Core Features of Social Constructionism

V. Types of Social Constructionism

A. Radical Constructionists

B. Contextual Constructionists

C. Postmodern Constructionists

VI. Crime and Deviance as Social Constructions

VII. Crime as a Social Construction

VIII. Conclusion

I. Introduction

According to social constructionists, what counts as crime varies depending on who is defining it: “There are no purely objective definitions; all definitions are value laden and biased to some degree,” and what is defined as crime by law “is somewhat arbitrary, and represents a highly selective process” (Barak, 1998, p. 21). This social constructionist challenge to the fact of crime as defined by law is rooted in a history of critical theory.

II. The Concept of Social Construction

Social construction is a theoretical position that cuts across a number of disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields, including sociology, psychology, psychotherapy, women’s studies, queer studies, the history and philosophy of science, narrative philosophy, and literary theory, among others. As Stam (2001) noted, social constructionism has not only permeated many fields of study but also has become part of popular culture (for overviews, see Burr, 1995; Gergen, 1999; Potter, 1996). Advocates of social constructionism argue that the social world has an existence only, or largely, through humans’ routine interaction. By identifying some features of social life as significant, distinguishing those features from others, and acting as though they have a real, concrete existence, humans create social reality.

In its extreme form, social constructionism draws on the idealist/nominalist philosophical tradition that social reality has no independent existence outside the human mind. Humans interpret the world and make summary representations (images in their mind) that they believe reflect an underlying reality; at issue is whether there is any independent objective existence to the reality that these representations appear to reflect. Most social constructionists, however, are not total relativists but are more moderate. They believe that some fundamental reality exists; they also believe that even social constructions, once created, have a degree of reality in that they recognize that if humans define situations as real, then they are real in their consequences. Therefore, if we categorize behavior, events, and experiences as similar, and name or label them in specific ways, they appear before us as representations of object-like realities with real effects that can be experienced positively or negatively.

Although we create the realities that shape our social world, and are impacted by the actions of those who put energy into sustaining them as realities, we are also capable of changing these realities by recognizing our role in their construction. Crime is seen as one such social reality, one that we collectively construct and, by implication, can collectively deconstruct and replace with a less harmful reality.

There are different versions of social constructionist theory, depending on the extent to which theorists attribute independence to reality existing outside of the human mind and whether this attributed reality is seen a result of personal cognitive meaning creation (personal construct theory) or the result of shared symbolic social processes (social constructionist theory). There are also differences in regard to whether theorists believe that social reality can be changed depending on how far they believe humans can free themselves from their own social constructions.