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.”
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.