III. Historical and Theoretical Roots of Social Constructionist Theory
A. Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenology
The roots of social constructionism can be attributed to nominalist philosophy. Although the nominalist philosophical tradition can be traced back to the 11th century and can be found in the 18th-century philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the 19th-century philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, it is Edmund Husserl’s 20th-century transcendental phenomenology that laid the foundation for social constructionist theory. Husserl combined insights from philosophy, mathematics, and early psychology. He developed a method for suspending, or “bracketing,” what was taken for granted as objects in the natural attitude (a commonsense, mundane approach to the world) in order to see how these are constituted in the human consciousness. The natural attitude is the taken-for-granted assumption that objects have material-like qualities. Husserl’s phenomenological inquiry revealed how our acting toward objects as though they are real constitutes them as real; their apparent material qualities are, in part, a result of the ways in which we act intentionally toward them as real.
B. Schutz’s Sociological Phenomenology
Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology was a major influence on the work of sociologist Alfred Schutz. In his Phenomenology of the Social World (1932/1967), Schutz integrated Husserl’s phenomenology with Max Weber’s sociology, in particular with Weber’s concepts of interpretive understanding and ideal-type construction, which are generalized types of behavior. Schutz saw that in their day-to-day mundane existence in the social world, humans experience both an objective and subjective existence. Humans both take this world for granted as a reality yet also see it as shared with others intersubjectively, while also interpreting it differently, depending on their past experience. Because human action is purposive, based on human interpretation and shaped as a project by past biography and social position, a socially constructed shared experience by people having different experiences produces multiple views of social reality, which leads to a position of moral relativity.
C. Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality
In the 1960s, during a time when Western industrial societies were undergoing significant social and political change and when protest against establishment institutions was rampant, from anti–Vietnam war protests to civil rights and women’s movement protests, a social climate emerged that resonated with the intellectual view that social structures and their institutions need not be what they had always been and that they could be changed. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s (1966) classic book, The Social Construction of Reality, captured the historical moment of liberation from our self-made social order by building on the insights of Schutz. In this work, they showed that although society and its institutions appear to be real, having an independent and object-like existence, its reality is the outcome of a series of social processes through which humans interactively create institutionalized social phenomena but in the process lose sight of the fact that they created those phenomena. The resultant reification leaves the created social world appearing through types and patterns of behavior as an object-like entity, acting outside and independent of the humans who created it. Berger and Luckmann said that reification involves three interrelated processes: (1) externalization, (2) objectification, and (3) internalization. Externalization occurs through communication whereby people create categories that define and classify the events that they experience, eventually becoming patterns that are institutionalized, formalized, and codified to stand objectified apart from those who created them, who then develop “recipe knowledge” about them and how to relate to them. The process of objectification and explaining the existence of these object-like social entities serves to further legitimate their independent existence. The process of internalization occurs when knowledge about these social institutions and structures is communicated back to members of society, who embody it as part of their knowledge of social reality. Not only do humans lose sight of their role in the creation of social reality but, importantly, they also lose sight of their ability to change the world.