John Spacey, author
Social constructionism is the philosophy or academic approach that views human reality as artiﬁcially constructed by social processes. In other words, it views things that people commonly view as “real” as a ﬂexible reality that is deﬁned by processes of communication. The following are illustrative examples of social constructionism.
Culture are the intangible aspects of society that are deﬁned by shared experiences. For example, a street dance that emerges amongst youth in a city. Culture is convincingly a social construct. However, it can also be argued that culture is driven by physical things like technology, economics and biology. For the example, the invention of portable music players lead to an explosion in street dance as suddenly it was possible to play recorded music anywhere.
Law of the Instrument
Law of the instrument, also known as law of the hammer is a cognitive bias that attempts to use a familiar tool to solve all problems. Social constructionism can be accused of being an attempt to inappropriately expand the social sciences to explain things that are well beyond its useful scope. For example, if you are a psychology professor you may have a tendency to explain everything in terms of psychology, even in areas where this has questionable relevance.
Social constructionism is often used to suggest that things aren’t “real.” This is used to support relativism, the postmodernist idea that there are no universal truths such that individuals and cultures are free to deﬁne reality as they see ﬁt. For example, if democracy isn’t “real” than an individual may feel free to replace it or ignore it. However, if it is based on universal truths of human rights and freedoms, it is not so easy to dismiss.
Idealism is the philosophy that ideas deﬁne reality. This is a broader view that is consistent with social constructionism. For example, an idealist may believe that a seemingly physical problem such as a large
asteroid speeding towards the Earth can simply be overcome with the mind.
Social constructionism tends to run in opposition to hard sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology, geology and climatology. For example, climatology may model an environmental problem in terms of changes in composition of the atmosphere primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Social constructionism may model the same problem using psychology or gender studies. It is common for hard sciences to view this type of analysis as an example of the law of the instrument bias whereby social sciences aren’t the correct tool of analysis.
Social constructionism effectively views things like money or economic systems as purely illusionary. Traditional economics views such things in terms of capital, goods and constraints that are physical. For example, social constructionism may correctly state that ﬁat money is simply a digital entity or piece of paper. However, traditional economics would point out that this is a contract that is tied to physical realities such that the value of money is backed by a nation’s future ability to tax its economy. This economy has things like infrastructure, factories and institutions that are very real and not merely a product of popular imagination. This latter view would model the value of the American dollar in terms of the hard and soft capital of the United States as opposed to being a mere illusion.
Social constructionism is often based on arguments that reference vague abstractions. It is accused of being ideological as opposed to academic. In 1996, physics professor Alan Sokal submitted an article to the journal Social Text that was purely nonsense but included many of the ideological catchphrases associated with postmodern tribes. The article was accepted for publication. This was the basis for a book by Sokal entitled Fashionable Nonsense which criticized social constructionism as being an ideology that rejects objective reason or that cherry picks data to support ideological aims.