Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. 2009. Sage Publication.
Social construction theory addresses the processes by which people jointly construct their understandings of the world. Advocates assume that meanings are developed in coordination with others rather than separately within each individual or in the world of things, making social interaction the loom upon which the social fabric is woven. A variety of terms has been used to identify this line of thought (social construction of reality, social constructionism, social construetionist, social constructivism, social constructivist), but the current term of choice is simply social construction, which can refer both to the process and to the movement of scholars who use this approach. Recently, several related terms have gained popularity, including coconstruction or joint construction (used to emphasize people working together), constitutive (used as a synonym, as in the constitutive approach), and the shortened version construction.
The term social construction was introduced in Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s book The Social Construction of Reality, but it has roots in American pragmatism and symbolic interactionism. Berger and Luckmann combine certain assumptions of sociology and philosophy, and the theory has since been taken up by other disciplines as well, including particularly education, psychology, and communication. Berger and Luckmann wanted to understand the construction of knowledge, not the communication process behind it, so many of their points are actually irrelevant to what is studied today by communication scholars under the phrase social construction.
In the communication field, two elements are most relevant: (a) the central assumption that people make sense of experience by constructing a model of the social world and how it works and (b) the emphasis on language as the most important system through which reality is constructed. The resulting implication is that conversation serves as a critical tool for reality maintenance. This entry is organized around the main parts of the social construction of reality, the special role of language, and social construction as a theory.
One of the implications of social construction theory is the acknowledgment that social reality requires interaction between people. Construction is social in the sense of requiring collaborative rather than individual effort. Whatever exists in the social world does so as a result of the words and/or actions of people talking and interacting together. Each culture or social group develops its own understandings of the world, creating its own meanings for behavior and how this is to be understood. People, acting together, develop traditions over time, and then begin to take them for granted. Status is a typical example: The fact that we treat presidents or CEOs differently than janitors or waiters has little to do with physically obvious differences, relying instead on socially granted characteristics. Margaret Mead demonstrated in the 1930s that gender roles were not linked to sexual characteristics: What one culture expects of men, another expects of women. The different ways groups create their own meanings underscores the significance of the context relevant to interpretation of a particular social construction. People create the meanings for behavior that make sense within their own group; the same behavior has different meanings to members of other groups. This applies equally to understanding the significance and implications of a word, an action, an object, or a media product.
Central to social construction is the verb to construct, which implies building something, making something, or bringing something into being that had no existence previously. The construction metaphor leads researchers to study how people make things such as families or emotions, which do not have material substance, appear to have substance and definition. Following James Carey, social construction is generally understood to incorporate four stages: construction, maintenance, repair, and change. First, social actors develop a concept and then figure out ways to make it concrete. For example, a Girl Scout badge represents knowledge gained in a particular area, and knowledge normally remains invisible.
Second, people need to actively maintain a particular social construction if it is to remain viable, for if it is no longer relevant, it will be ignored and thus dissolve. Finding a grandfather’s army uniform with medals on it that no longer are used—and are thus meaningless to descendents—shows how social meanings change or even dissipate if not actively maintained; the film conventions from the 1930s are not followed today, or if they are, they convey different information.
Third, social actors need to periodically repair their constructions because aspects may be inadvertently forgotten or deliberately changed over time. Wearing Scottish tartan as part of a punk teen’s outfit demonstrates change in meaning of that particular sign. And finally, there are many times when the construction that worked in one time period conveys a message that is no longer supported, so it needs to be changed for the next generation. The married couple using two single beds means one thing in a 1950s sitcom, but another in 2008. These steps imply a greater role for current participation in the construction of the social world than might otherwise be assumed: Each generation reaffirms and maintains some parts of the social world, repairing or recreating or discarding other parts.
Social construction theory implies a distinction between the physical and social realms. Most people think of physical reality by and large as a given since they do not now and never will actually create parts of the natural world: mountains, trees, animals, plants (despite the potential of cloning). People do, however, create social meanings for these and other parts of the physical world (think of rainbows or money, both of which have physical existence matched to social conventions). In addition to adding meaning to the physical world, people definitely do create the social world. Many things have social reality without having prior physical existence (including social roles, relationships, or religions). This means social actors invent texts of various sorts, whether verbal (stories, conversations, arguments) or visual (brochures, press releases, flags), as well as understandings of the significance of these and other social productions. All these texts may appear natural or obvious, yet must be recognized as human inventions.
Social construction includes a range of views, generally framed in terms of strength. Weak social construction theory accepts that there is an underlying physical reality upon which most social constructions are based: There is a mountain, but the common understanding of a mountain as a challenge to hikers is a human addition; there is a rainbow, but the various connotations (from the biblical promise not to impose a second flood, to its use as a symbol of gay pride) are social constructions. In contrast, strong social construction theory argues that the very concepts of real and unreal are socially created and thus question whether there is in fact a mountain or rainbow. If humans cannot understand a mountain or rainbow in any other terms than the meanings that have been constructed, then physical reality is for all intents and purposes socially derived. Because physical reality appears to create constraints to what can be known, most current theorists in communication and other fields fall into the weak social construction camp.
Social actors use language to make things happen: Naming things gives them substance and makes them real. Thus language, the most important social construction, moves to center stage as the key topic for analysis. Each group develops its own set of linguistic codes at various levels of complexity: languages (such as English), dialects (African American vernacular English), registers (medical jargon), and systems of use for each of these. Studying language makes it immediately apparent that not everyone shares the same assumptions, for simply walking into a room where people are speaking an unfamiliar language clearly shows the constructed nature of the social world.
The linguistic code each person uses during interaction helps to construct the self that is relevant for a particular moment. In social construction theory, the self is not unitary, but multiple, so there is always a choice of which self is relevant in a particular context. For example, someone may be simultaneously a daughter, lawyer, tennis champion, and cancer survivor. This works for media as well as for interaction, which is why there are dialect coaches for films. Directors use the way particular actors talk as a vehicle to convey information, thus constructing the personality, history, and social status of that character. No one uses the same way of talking in all contexts, and everyone has a range of selves relevant to different interactions: Even within a single physical setting, the same person can display identities as parent and customer in quick succession through linguistic choices, usually made unconsciously. This is what Berger and Luckmann meant by saying conversation functions as a critical tool in reality maintenance.
The largest topic to which social construction has been applied has been the social construction of identity, especially cultural identity. This links to language by way of narratives; it is through story construction that people make sense of experience and give it shape, and so some researchers have examined narratives told in various contexts as a form of identity construction through language. Other scholars have examined other aspects of how language shapes the social world, including power, conflict, negotiation, or accounts. Because therapy can be, among other things, a way to rewrite someone’s life stories, it has been a particular focus of research.
Social Construction as Communication Theory
Social construction theory is critical to communication because it is through communication that we construct the social world and our understandings of it. We create the social world through our words, our actions, and our media products. Interaction is no less a social accomplishment than is the creation of a film: Both require considerable creativity and coordination on the part of participants. For this reason, social construction theory lends itself particularly well to discussion of the connection between the macro and micro. Most often this implies using analysis at the microlevel (specific words, images, actions) to examine a macroprocess (or structure, or institution). For example, a study of how people use words describing race, or what roles individuals of different races have been given on television, can help to reveal how racism has been maintained (or how it can be dismantled).
From the start, social construction theory has implied reflexivity (an awareness of the researcher’s role in conducting research) and questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions, especially in the construction of knowledge. Reflexivity means stopping to ask questions about what is occurring rather than taking matters for granted, and then letting the questions (and their answers) influence future choices. One implication is that researchers need to discover their own assumptions and biases in order to account for them. Central to social construction are questions about what scholars know and what forms of evidence are accepted as valid. These questions are equally relevant to other theories, of course, but are explicitly considered less often. Perhaps since social construction theorists focus on the created nature of knowledge and information, they are more likely to ask questions about their own activities as well as the activities of those they study.