Social Constructionism

Over the next couple posts, I will be treating the subject of social constructionism. This may seem like a strange topic, hardly worth knowing. Although the term itself isn’t part of most people’s daily speech, its influence can be seen all over. If you bear with me over the next couple posts, you will find social constructionism is something you will want to know more about.

I first learned about this subject during my graduate studies at Calvin College. It was new to me, but it helped me understand why the world is consistently moving toward a progressive, non-traditional worldview. Have you ever wondered how two people living in the same country, maybe even on the same street, can have such radically different views on marriage or homosexuality and both passionately claim they are right? Or how there can be such polarization between the left and the right? The differences in worldview and ideology are so deep and foundational we have a difficult time even identifying ourselves with some of our fellow citizens. The differences no longer center on surface issues, but they go directly to the root. They deal with matters as deep as God’s creation ordinances.

In part, the answer lies in our conception of truth and knowledge. At the heart of all arguments is the desire for truth. It is human nature to want to uncover that truth. Or, so we may think. What if more and more society is operating within a radically different framework for understanding truth? What if more and more society rejects the premise that truth rests outside of themselves? In such cases, the possibility for two sides to look at the same thing and come to radically different conclusions is highly probable.

Social constructionism is a broad conglomeration of philosophies, but at its heart is the assumption that knowledge is socially created. That’s right. Knowledge (i.e., Dogs are furry and they can make good pets) is created in the minds of the knower. Because knowledge is the product of the knower, it is not independent. It does not exist outside of the mind. It is constructed in each person through the experiences they’ve had (i.e., I know dogs make good pets because I’ve had a dog and it was a good pet, or someone who’s had a dog for a pet said they were good pets, etc.). Since each person has a slightly different experience than someone else, each person forms a different knowledge base. Collectively, if knowledge is created and based on the experiences of society, absolute truth does not exist. It cannot, because absolute truth is an inflexible reality that exists apart from the knower. Take marriage for example. The social constructivist will say marriage is a construct of society. It can and must change as societies’ needs change.

Some people understand this as postmodernism. That would be correct. Social constructionism is a prominent theory in the postmodern movement. But postmodernism isn’t a theory itself, rather, it is a label. If we want to understand the activity which brings about the postmodern label, we would do well to understand social constructionism. 

This theory may seem absurd to you and me. But it is the foundational framework for so many philosophers, institutions, and organizations; and not just secular, but Christian and Reformed too. Although I have high esteem for the instruction I received at Calvin College, it may surprise you to know that her teacher education program is rooted in social constructionism. In 2002, Calvin College’s Department of Education rewrote their conceptual framework for their teacher education program. This framework was to provide the foundations for the educational philosophies taught to her students. They placed the foundations of their program on the philosophies of many social constructivists.[1] You can access their framework here (https://www.calvin.edu/academic/education/info/conceptualframework.pdf).

I have also heard more than a few Reformed (i.e., Protestant Reformed) teachers promote the idea of constructivism in their teaching. More often it comes from teachers just graduating from college. It would do them well, too, to probe a little deeper.

Let’s peel away some layers on this onion, shall we?

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[1] Their conceptual framework explicitly references social constructivists (or those who embrace constructivist theories) like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Parker Palmer, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Spencer Kagen, Jurgen Habermas, Henry Giroux, and Cornel West.

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This post was written by Rick Mingerink, a member of the Grandville Protestant Reformed Church in Michigan. Rick is also the principal at Adams Christian School. If you have a question or comment for Rick, please do so in the comment section.

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