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 (2nd ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2012). Despite the heavily intellectual content, I hope you’ll get the joke at the end.

Without question, 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 back in my occipital lobe and, yes, I perceive an image of a woman 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.

This time the woman responded immediately. “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 is subjective. Constructivists, as represented by the man in the forest, believe knowledge and reality are constructed within individuals. In contrast, social constructionists, as represented by the woman in the forest, 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 subjectivist 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, we de-emphasize distinctions between constructivist and social constructionist perspectives. Mostly, we lump them together as constructive theories and therapies and emphasize the fascinating intervention strategies developed within these paradigms. This might be upsetting to staunch constructivists or radical social constructionists, but we take this risk with full confidence in our personal safety. That’s because most constructive types are nonviolent thinkers who very much like talking and writing. Consequently, within our socially or individually constructed realities we’ve concluded that we’re in no danger of harm from disgruntled constructive theorists or therapists.

29 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.

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