Tag Archives: constructive

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.

A Tradition Like All Others

The big sports event of this past weekend was the Master’s Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, GA. As usual, the hyped advertising slogan included the phrase, “A tradition like no other.” This is especially ironic and basically such a good lie that would make post-modern theorists proud.

In fact, the Master’s is a tradition like nearly all other traditions. It’s run by an all male club that doesn’t allow women to be members and only allowed Blacks membership in 1990. It’s about money and power and exclusivity. According to Wikipedia (I know I’m not elevating my research reputation here), “. . . club co-founder Clifford Roberts is reputed to have said, ‘As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.'”

This year’s Master’s champion got $1,440,000. When Martha Burk tried protesting the tournament in 2004, tournament officials decided to air the entire tournament without commercials. This is just a taste of the money and power linked to these particular links.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like sports. I enjoy golf. I even get excited about watching a bit of the Master’s golf tourney on television. It’s good theater, a beautiful venue, and there are some amazing golfers out there. But it’s a little hard to justify Augusta not allowing women members. . . and I say this not because I think men only and women only organizations shouldn’t exist . . . but because excluding women from something that is so prestigious and so associated with money and power smacks too much of discrimination. When I watch the Master’s I always feel a little dirty. 

And so I’m hoping that one of these years an excellent golfer (think Tiger or Phil) will decide to skip a tourney held at a club that wouldn’t let their daughters, girlfriends, wives, mothers, or grandmothers be members. Somebody besides Martha Burk and this insignificant blogger should take a stand to do the right thing. Please pass this message the next time you bump into a great professional golfer.