RE: Social Constructionism

Bob Parks (
Fri, 5 Jun 1998 09:26:26 -0500

Your posting takes up a problem quite similar to mine; but you seem sure
you are looking for a "referent" in the real world. Thus, your problem
would have three parts: (1) the personal "meaning" of the word "shout" to a
given child; (2) the possibly similar "meaning" of the word "shout" to a
group of children; and (3) the behaviors to which the children appear to be

I approach the question from more of a Wittgensteinian point of view, and
see (2) and (3) as an integrated problematic. "Shout" probably acquires a
meaning by its USE among the children in their communications. It appears
to have personal meanings that revolve around the notion of being
chastized, disciplined or corrected, rather than having someone raise their
voice. Thus, the "referent" behavior can only be understood in terms of the
way of life that is created in this community.

Perhaps we should distinguish between the "meaning" of a word, which must
have some element of judgment about the use of a term in a communication
system; and "significance" of a word. The significance of a word to a
particular person incorporates the personal associations as well as the
socially constructed alignments of words in the world.

Bob Parks

>I'm not really replying to contribute to this current thread, because I
>haven't read Saussure and I'm not sure I can understand exactly what is
>being discussed here, but I think that it is hitting, at least
>indirectly, on something that I am finding a bit perplexing in my
>research. Please forgive this tangeant, which is a bit long winded,
>but I'm hoping some of you may be able to help me solve this problem:
>I am doing my PhD in Children and Adolescent Mental Health, looking at
>how children construe their experiences of psychiatric services. I
>have not fully decided on the methods I will be using yet, however, I
>want to look at both language and meaning. I'm using two separate
>theoretical frameworks to approach these issues: 1) Discourse Analysis:
>to explore how power relationships are expressed between "service
>users" and professionals. 2) PCP: to explore the meanings that
>"service users" place on their experiences, which will include the
>experiences of communicating with professionals.
>Now (Discourse Analysis and power relationships aside), a problem
>arises in assuring that I am capable of coming to an understanding of
>what the children tell me. I think that PCP, in terms of eliciting
>constructs, rep grids, etc are very useful in providing me with the
>"meaning" of their experiences,(if they choose to tell me). However, I
>think that I (and we) need to make a distinction between "meaning" of
>words and what the words actually "refer to" in the real world (as
>Frege does). So what I am saying is that understanding language =
>grasping meaning AND grasping reference.
>Here is an example from previous research that I undertook with
>'children in need', which consisted of unstructured interviews:
>A large majority of the children I interviewed told me that they become
>distressed by interactions with adults (parents, teachers and support
>staff) because they are always 'shouting' at them. What 'shouting'
>meant to these children varied in different contexts from: "the teacher
>shouts because she is frustrated with me" "people shout because they
>are angry" "shouting upsets me" "It makes me cry" "I can't get my
>homework done because parents are shouting" "if there were no shouting
>it would be peace and quiet and I would be okay", etc...
>On the surface, this seems quite clear. However, after writing up my
>research and writing a report, including several recommendations to
>staff regarding the way they interact with children, for the support
>service that I was doing the research for, I came to the realisation
>that the recommendations regarding "shouting" were irrelevant and will
>not change the way the children and staff communicate. Firstly, while
>I was interacting with children and staff I did not notice any
>shouting. Also, one of the staff members works in the schools and
>mentioned not hearing teachers shouting at the children or certainly
>not as regularly as was reported by the children. The children could
>not have been fabricating this because too many of them mentioned it as
>a serious issue for them and most of the children in the study did not
>know each other.
>. A month later, I was doing some temporary therapeutic group work at
>one of the support services where I did part of the research. A scene
>arose between a staff member and a child with behaviour and emotional
>problems. Once the child began to assault the staff member, I removed
>him from the group and had a one-to-one session with him. He indicated
>that he became frustrated because the staff member was "shouting" at
>him. I witnessed the entire scene and the staff member did not raise
>her voice once.
>I'm left thinking that despite knowing what meaning children place on
>"shouting", I haven't a clue what the word refers to, for them. For
>me, it refers to "raising ones voice" and it means, depending on the
>context, that the person who is shouting is "angry" or "full of joy".
> Although eliciting bi-polar constructs may go some way to grasping
>reference, it is not foolproof. For instance, if I had elicited
>constructs in this previous research the children may have provided:
>If I were asked I would say:
>The first construct does not tell me if shouting refers to raising
>one's voice, or 'telling someone off' in a normal voice, or what...(I
>still don't know), etc. Common sense does not necessarily work when
>you are communicating with someone from a different culture or
>sub-culture to yourself because language use may differ between these
>So, my final question is: Does PCP have a solution to determining the
>reference of words?
>Thank you for reading this long explanation and I look forward to any
>suggestion of methods or further reading on the issue.
>From: Esteban Laso[]
>Sent: 04 June 1998 18:22
>To: pcp
>Subject: Re: Social Constructionism
>I would say "yes, it is, but not precisely". A language, to Saussure,
>is a
>system composed of simbols which are meaningful only because a given
>has chosen to use them; there is no connection between the simbols and
>objects they stand for. But the spoken language, or parole, can be used
>communicate because of the system itself, the langue, which is in turn
>system of differences. No sign has a positive meaning; they mean
>each one is different from the others. This is somewhat parallel to
>notion of a system of dichotomic constructs where the meaning of any
>pole is defined by his opposite.
>So anything that can be a difference is a sign, but only by being part
>of a
>system of differences. Since the words used by your subject in
>expressing a
>construct are the material form of his concepts, they are signifiers
>necessarily signs. But signifiers, for Saussure, were the mental
>images of words, not words themselves; so it's a signifier, but not
>Esteban Laso