Re: APA panel on constructivism, social constructionism, and

Viv Burr (
Tue, 13 Feb 1996 11:22:16 +0000

It's very useful to see these issues communally brainstormed on the
net! Some thoughts from Trevor Butt and me:

Like many others, we have been feeling our way through the maze of
constructionist and constructivist theories. And like other
contributors, we have sensed a hostility towards constructionism
among constructivists. This seems unnecessary, since the
similarities between the two appear to us to outweigh the
differences, but reading between the lines we get the impression
that a big problem for constructivists is the 'disappearance' of the
self that seems to occur in some forms of constructionism (a worry
that we share).

The main difference seems to be about the status of the individual
in the two perspectives. In constructionism the unit of analysis is
the interaction, the dyad or the group. In constructivism, the
individual retains a privileged status, along with their agency. The
danger with constructionism is that the individual dissolves into
surrounding discourses, but the strength of the approach is that it
highlights many phenomena that are just not visible with an
exclusively individual focus, for example the way we conjure up
different selves in different social contexts.

We have been thinking along two different lines on this problem,
which may or may not be compatible with each other:

1. Perhaps we should take the view (prehaps this is similar to what
Tim Connor was saying) that constructionism and constructivism are
different levels of analysis, and we should not be asking "which is
the right one?" but pragmatically assessing each for its usefulness
in particular contexts or with respect to particular problems. There
are times when some concept of 'self' or 'core' (even if a
construction itself) is necessary to do the job of explaining and
understanding human beings, especially when we are looking at the
choices that people make.

So, for some purposes, the individual as a unit of
analysis, with its stress on agency, is helpful in helping people
steer a course in their lives. Sometimes however, a focus on the
space between people, rather than what is 'within them', allows us
more of a purchase on life.

2. Our second train of thought is more to do with how we might
theorise the 'interface' between the (constructed) subject and the
social world. We can accept that the ideas and concepts with which
we anticipate our world have social origins, and that the power of
language and discourse to frame our subjectivity is far greater than
psychologists in general are prepared to admit. But human beings are
conscious, reflective animals who have something we call memory and
who seem to universally engage in a process of sense-making. When
that sense-making is applied reflexively to to our own experience,
the 'self' is in the making. Given (contemporary western)
'possessive individualism' the emergence of selfhood as we know it
is understandable.

Our 'personal' constructs are therefore not our own, but drawn from
the sea of discourses in which we all swim. Nevertheless, whether we
can take up positions within discourses and live them out in our
identity will depend on our sense of self, our personal history, the
possibilities for a narrative that is personally convincing.

Viv Burr
School of Human and Health Sciences
The University of Huddersfield Voice: (0484) 422288 ext 2454
Queensgate Fax: (0484) 472794
Huddersfield HD1 3DH (UK) Email: