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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: June 11, 2004
Latest Update: June 11, 2004

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Kenneth Gergen has done extensive writing on social constructivism. In the Saturated Self he suggests that there are so many stimuli that bombard us from the world around us that the self doesn't really mean self in the sense that we control it. We are shaped into what we are, according to radical social constructivism, by the myriad stimuli we experience.

I have a lot of trouble with that perspective. I fully recongize the need for illocutionary understanding. And I fully recognize that we are not insular from our surroundings, but interdependent. But I do not believe that that interdependence means that there is no "self," only that the "self" and the infrastructure, the community are all interdependent.

One of the worst problems that we as sociologists have suffered from "the social construction of reality" is that there are some things out there. Really out there. If you walk into a table on the assumption that you can define reality and that the table is not real, you're going to get hurt, since no two objects or masses can occupy the same space at the same time, social construction or no. Years ago, I came across an article in which some professor talked about recognizing the difference between what can and what cannot be socially constructed. Then there was Ian Hacking's the Social Construction of What, which points out that we have overused the metaphor, and that most of the time social construction is the only kind available to us.

I guess I prefer illocutionary understanding and answerability and legitimacy and accountability to explain how we become who we are at any given moment, for at least that moment. That's because those are social theories I'm teaching. But others will do. Social constructivism will do, especially if we don't go so far as to suggest that there is no me. There's a me; there's creativity; there's difference. There are also lots of belief systems that we (being social) construct, and they do affect who we are because we see the world through those belief systems. Constitutive theoryreminds us that there's no right perspective, no right way, just change and growth (that may sometimes go backwards), and always the sum total (constitutive) of all these many factors and spiritualities and transcendances. I'm OK with that. That's what liberal arts education is all about. About thinking and exploring and wondering and reasoning and empathising our way through all the world has known and thought, or whatever small part we can manage in a life time.

Whatever theories you learn, across all the disciplines, take what helps you make sense of life and our world. Try cognitivism. I don't buy it. I don't buy it because it is so closely related to behaviorism, and that is so categorical, and I don't believe that the categories make sense because they are based on, gee, social construction. But that's just my conclusion. Read about them all, delve into the ones that matter to you, and respect the thoughts of Others. That doesn't mean you have to believe those Others are right. Nobody knows. There probably isn't any right. Respect that Others can answer, and speak and act accordingly, so that you will harm no one.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, June 2004.
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