Constructivism vs. Social Constructionism: What’s the Difference?

This is an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 11 of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice (3rd  ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2018). Despite the heavily intellectual content and use of the traditional sex binary, I hope you’ll find this way of defining these two different post-modern perspectives helpful, and I hope you get the joke at the end.

****************

The best way to begin a chapter on constructive theory and therapy is with a story.

Once upon a time a man and a woman met in the forest. Both being academic philosophers well-steeped in epistemology, they approached each another warily. The woman spoke first, asking, “Can you see me?”

The man responded quickly: “I don’t know,” he said. “I have a plethora of neurons firing in my occipital lobe and, yes, I perceive an image of a another person and I can see your mouth was moving precisely as I was experiencing auditory input. Therefore, although I’m not completely certain you exist out there in reality—and I’m not completely certain there even is a reality—I can say without a doubt that you exist … at least within the physiology of my mind.”

Silence followed.

Then, the man spoke again,

“Can you hear me?” he asked.

The woman responded: “I’m not completely certain about the nature of hearing and the auditory process, but I can say that in this lived moment of my experience I’m in a conversation with you and because my knowledge and my reality is based on interactive discourse, whether you really exist or not is less important than the fact that I find myself, in this moment, discovering more about myself, the nature of the world, and my knowledge of all things.”

There are two main branches of constructive theory. These branches are similar in that both perspectives hold firmly to the postmodern idea that knowledge and reality are subjective.

What is Constructivism and What is Social Constructionism?

Constructivism, as represented by the man in the forest, includes people who believe knowledge and reality are constructed within individuals. In contrast, social constructionism, as represented by the woman in the forest, includes people who believe knowledge and reality are constructed through discourse or conversation. Constructivists focus on what’s happening within the minds or brains of individuals; social constructionists focus on what’s happening between people as they join together to create realities. Guterman (2006) described these two perspectives:

Although both constructivism and social constructionism endorse a subjective view of knowledge, the former emphasizes individuals’ biological and cognitive processes, whereas the latter places knowledge in the domain of social interchange. (p. 13)

In this chapter, just as you might avoid traditional “constructed” gender binaries, we de-emphasize distinctions between constructivist and social constructionist perspectives. Mostly, we lump them together as constructive theories and therapies and emphasize the intriguing intervention strategies developed within these paradigms. This may upset staunch constructivists or radical social constructionists, but we take this risk with full confidence in our personal safety—because most constructive types are nonviolent, strongly preferring to think, write, and engage in intellectual discussion. Therefore, within our own socially or individually constructed realities, we’ve concluded that we’re in no danger of bodily harm from angry constructive theorists or therapists.

31 thoughts on “Constructivism vs. Social Constructionism: What’s the Difference?”

  1. I want to read the whole chapter. Normally my eyes and mind glaze over at constructionist stuff, as with post modernism and Foucaltian writing. Can I get from you a PDF and would you give Rita a hug?

  2. As always, with wit and wisdom you clarify with plain talk that which others obfuscate with sophistry. Thanks.

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Beautiful, straight forward explanation which does not need a ruler. Thanks very much and God bless you always for your unselfish sharing of wisdom with us!!!

  4. My PhD creates the bridge between Constructivism and Constructionism in support of your position here. Or at least I hope it does. Going to Viva early next year!

      1. Hi John. I passed my Viva and the examiners think my theory is solid. If you’re interested in a copy of my thesis as it’s in your area of expertise, do let me know and I’ll happily send you a copy.

    1. Hi Jeff. You bet. I’m pasting the 2006 1st and 2013 2nd edition citations here: Guterman, J. T. (2006). Mastering the art of solution-focused counseling. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
      Guterman, J. T. (2013). Mastering the art of solution-focused counseling (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

  5. This explanation has clearly settled my confusion of the two. Thank you, John. Lots of hugs from Makerere University, Uganda East Africa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s