Re: APA panel on constructivism, social constructionism, and

Dave Nightingale (
Tue, 13 Feb 1996 13:03:18 +0000

To take a brief bit of Viv's posting:

>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.

I think the answer here lies not in assuming that these are two distinct
levels of analysis, in the sense of getting different answers to different
questions (ie is is social or is it personal?), but in assuming that the
personal and the social represent two sides of the same coin, two aspects
of the same process. The difficulty in this sort of analysis seems (to me)
to be a question of how we conceptualise such things as human agency,
choice and (in opposition) determinism. I think our difficulties arise in
assuming that agency and determinism represent two different kinds of
process; a kind of 'did s/he jump or was s/he pushed' mentality - or in
other words; if we wish to explain why a person acts in a particular way,
do we attribute it to something internal or something external.

A (start at a) preliminary answer could begin with the following analogy -
does language enable us to say what we want or does it determine what we
say? In this context the question seems slightly non-sensical but (IMO)
gives us some clues as to how we might reconceptualise notions of the
social and the personal. Clearly language limits/constrains what we can say
but without the commonality of language then any interpersonal
communication would be nigh on impossible - language simultaneously
determines AND enables communication.

While the concerns that constructivists voice with respect to the loss of
the subject in social constructionism are (partially) valid, I think that
these concerns arise not from a necessary weakness within constructionist
theory but as a consequence of the (practical) focus of constructionist
research; i.e. an emphasis upon identity as constructed and shaped by
external factors. Having said that, I also feel that the
personal/individual 'side' of constructionist research is currently
under-represented/stressed within constructionist thought. Moves to address
this shortfall have been made (by Viv and Trev amongst others) and,
hopefully, will rise to greater prominence in the future. In the meanwhile,
I don't think that constructivists have much to gain by assuming that
constructivism and constructionism are incompatible or in opposition. A
more fruitful way forward would be to look to the ways in which
constructivism can 'fill the gaps' in constructionist thought.

The question, it seems to me, is not to ask whether we should explain
things in social or personal terms but to generate theories and practices
that allow us to represent both.

The above, on re-reading, isn't particularly coherent, but a 1 O'Clock
lecture beckons ... more later.

David Nightingale
Lecturer in Social Psychology
Division of Psychology & Biology Fax: 01204 399074
Bolton Institute of Higher Education Voice: 01204 528851
Deane Road International: +44 1204 528851
Bolton BL3 5AB (UK) Email:

We should not pretend to understand the world only by intellect.
We apprehend it just as much by feeling. Therefore, the judgement
of the intellect is, at best, only the half of truth, and must, if
it be honest, come to an understanding of its own inadequacy. Jung