V. Types of Social Constructionism
Although it is possible to identify the core themes that social constructionists share, there are a variety of different approaches to constructionism depending on the extent to which advocates accept or reject realism as well as the extent to which they subject their own analysis to a constructivist critique. Gergen (1994), in Toward Transformation in Social Knowledge, distinguished between the psychological version of constructionism rooted in Kelly’s (1955) personal construct theory, which is concerned with how individuals cognitively construct their world by making sense of their own experiences of their environment, and the other view of social constructionism, which is rooted in the sociological interactionist–phenomenological tradition of the shared construction of meaning shaped by situational and social context, culture, and history. It is this second, social constructionist approach that has been adopted by scholars who examine crime and deviance. Within social constructionism there are three major positions: (1) radical, (2) contextual, and (3) postmodernist.
A. Radical Constructionists
Social constructionists such as Woolgar and Pawluch (1985), who completely reject the idea of an objective reality, are known variously as “extreme,” “radical,” “strict,” “vulgar,” or “strong” social constructionists. They see everything as socially constructed and reject the existence of an independent objective reality. Such perceived reality is seen as nothing more than the agreed-on assumptions of the specialized community that created the assumptions. Advocates of the radical version of social construction also reflexively consider their own theory as a social construction. They believe that people observe the world from different communities and make “truth claims” about constructions of the world but are not able to objectively verify the existence of the reality they perceive.
Radical constructionists also differ among themselves, with some seeing knowledge constituted by an individual’s mental process as being closed to outside influence. Such radical individual constructionists see the world as composed of collections of individual worldviews, or multiverses. Other radical constructionists see the world as co-constructed or coproduced, whereby the social interaction of human agents through discourse—talking, language, gestures, and other communications—coproduces shared meaning about the world. This shared meaning depends not on qualities of the individual mind but on continual construction and reconstruction in the company of others, or recursivity. As a result, there is a relationship between the human agent and the social world such that each constitutes and is constituted by the other (Henry & Milovanovic, 1996).