Social Constructionism

Social constructionism is the idea that we can’t separate objective facts from our subjective interpretation. Literally, it means knowledge about the world is constructed in social interactions.

Some traditions, such as modernism or science, view our subjective interpretation as something unwanted that needs to be removed. Their aim is to be free from biases and cognitive distortions, so we can view the world as it really is. Once we discover and perceive the world as it truly is, they argue, we get unprecedented insight, accuracy and control over the world.

Social constructionism argues this is both impossible and undesireable. We cannot and should not view ‘objective facts’ as something separate from our subjective interpretation. We are always embedded in a cultural context, using language to describe things and processes, and using our underlying beliefs, assumptions, biases and preferences to pay selective attention to the world. And much of our language, models and thoughts originate from others, all embedded in a shared culture. See also the the ladder of inference or casual layered analysis.

A familiar quote emphasizes how our thoughts (subjective) shape the world (objective):

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Once we realize facts cannot be separated from the stories we tell, we unlock a new dimension for working with people and facilitating change. It helps go beyond discussions about who has the ‘right’ perspective on reality. It avoids succumbing to postmodern relativism of “your truth”, somehow arguing that truth is entirely subjective (it isn’t) and everybody has an equal say on the matter (they haven’t). As George Box said: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. And indeed, the stories we tell might have varying degrees of accuracy and usefulness to them. Hence, not every ‘truth’ is created equal. Social constructionism neatly positions itself in between: objective reality is out there, but you can’t ignore that we make sense of it using our stories, selective attention, etc.

On a more personal note, our confirmation bias directs our attention so that it finds evidence to confirm your beliefs. In will impact your actions and have real-life consequences - you can create self-fulfilling prophecies. This is what chosing one word is all about (see my noord woord programme )

Social constructionism makes it sensible to engage in dialogue rather than debate: A debate is a conversation in which you use arguments to convince others of your perspective. From a modern perspective, only one person can be right about objective reality, so the other person must be wrong. A dialogue, on the other hand, acknowledges the value of exploring multiple perspectives and how we make sense and give meaning to the world. See the four levels of listening from Theory U, or other methods of dialogic organization development.