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Social Constructionism (8): Knowledge is Constructed

Social Constructionism (8): Knowledge is Constructed

Over the last seven posts, I have attempted to shed light on the postmodern epistemology known as social constructionism. The first couple posts set the scene and context. These last couple posts have highlighted the characteristics of this philosophy. The first characteristic is that this philosophy insists that we take a critical stance toward taken-for-granted knowledge. This causes society to doubt everything; certainty finds no home here. The second characteristic is that knowledge and understanding are always specific to a culture and a time period. This characteristic is the product of the relativism that thrives in postmodernity.

We finally reach the third characteristic, and it is the heart of social constructionism. It is where its name is derived. The third characteristic of social constructionism is that knowledge is created and sustained by social processes.[1] This is enveloped in the phrase “the sociology of knowledge” which is quite a common phrase in colleges today. If we are going to judge this philosophy, we need to shed a little disinfecting sunlight on the matter so we can kill the pollutants of vacuity present in much of this philosophy.  

The phrase “social processes” needs clarification. Quite simply, we can interpret this phrase as meaning “people doing something.” According to social constructionism, knowledge is created and sustained by people doing something or people interacting together. As such, people construct knowledge and understanding between themselves. That is, through social interaction, society fabricates their knowledge and understanding.

Let’s examine this through an example. The social constructivist will say our understanding of alcoholism is a product of social process. Only a couple hundred years ago, alcoholism was seen as a moral failing in society. The alcohol wasn’t the problem, but the person was the problem. He or she lacked the will to resist. As people began to study this problem, much social interaction took place. What is this social interaction? Different psychological perspectives emerged[2] coupled with new scientific knowledge of the human body. Through the transaction of thoughts and ideas, society’s view of alcoholism has changed. Societal consensus is that the problem is no longer found in the individual as a person, but it is found in the interplay of chemicals in the human mind. It isn’t an issue of morality, it is an issue of disease and treatment. The alcoholic is a victim to the alcohol. Thus, today, alcoholism is no longer understood in the sphere of morality, but in the sphere of medicine and psychology.

I have chosen one category of knowledge (alcoholism) and over-simplified it to highlight the social constructivists understanding of ALL knowledge. According to Burr, truth is not a product of “objective observations of the world, but of the social processes and interactions of people constantly engaged with each other.”[3]

I will pause here a moment. Burr is wrong on both ends. Truth is neither a product of objective observations[4] nor is it the product of social interaction.[5] Secular humanists can’t see past these two choices. You see, truth isn’t a product at all. It can’t be a product. John 14:7 teaches us that Jesus is truth. Jesus, the Word of God, is truth. Jesus, the complete revelation of God himself, is truth. Jesus is not a product.

What is the essential basis for this human interaction? Language. Human interaction is rooted in our use of language. For this reason, postmodern scholars have swarmed the realm of language studies. Language (and our use of it) is of their highest concern.

Ravi Zacharias, a well-known Christian apologist and author, once remarked in one of his lectures, “Language has everything to do with how we perceive reality.” Let’s again pause for a moment and think about that. Language has everything to do with how we perceive reality. Zacharias made this statement in the context of a speech on the mysteries of evil. He went on to state that from the very beginning Satan has been using language to propagate evil. Let’s examine this.

God is a language God. This doesn’t mean that God is simply a God who uses or employs language. Nor does this mean God is a God who merely invented language. God is language in himself. We know this because God as God is differentiated by three distinct and “peculiar qualities.”[6] One of these qualities is that he is the Word. He is the full speech of himself. Language is integral to God.

This truth must be set forth and understood because there is then power in language. It does in fact have everything to do with how we perceive reality. If words symbolize meaning, and meaning shapes our knowledge, and knowledge grounds our perception of reality, then language has everything to do with our perceptions of reality. If a student says to another child who doesn’t even know me, “Mr. Mingerink is a task-master,” that child will form a perception of me, not based on his observation of me nor of any prior knowledge he has about me, but simply based on his understanding of what the word “task-master” means. Simple words like that can shape our perceptions of reality. And if we recall from the previous post: to the constructivist, even if there is a reality, it isn’t accessible. All we have are people’s perceptions. People’s perceptions are their reality. And since the constructivist takes that for truth, words are extremely powerful to them. If we let the manipulators of language play their games, that power can be deadly.

As Christians, we are very familiar with the thesis “truth” and its antithesis “lie.” What is not truth must be the lie. This idea is rooted in the Genesis account. But what happens when man starts to play language games and decides to replace the Truth and Lie paradigm with an alternative one? Besides who says that it must be a Truth and Lie paradigm anyway? Let’s make it Truth and Untruth. Truth and Fake Truth. Or let’s make it Your Truth and My Truth. Society loses the Lie through language games. At the heart, this is postmodernisms potency. This is an essential ingredient to the social construction of knowledge.

The language game has been played since the beginning of time. Reflect on God’s word in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Although today that game has been developed into a complex philosophy known as Deconstructionism,[7] it was played with utter simplicity and with great success by Satan in the Garden of Eden.

In Genesis 3, Eve first encounters the serpent. Here, Satan enters the scene for the first time in God’s word. Notice what is happening between Eve and Satan. First of all, they are using language. Satan opens up contact with Eve by speaking to her. Verse 1 says, “And he said unto the woman…” Secondly, we see Satan attempting to add meaning to God’s word: “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” In other words, he is challenging her to reevaluate the language of God. Once Eve replies, Satan immediately provides a different understanding of what God says, “Ye shall not surely die.” Satan is redefining the word of God to Eve. He is attempting to change her perception of what God really said. He does this by using words. He played the language game.

This interaction is profound. Satan knows the power in language. Human philosophers know the power in language too. The insights they are uncovering in their language studies are not hog wash. They are real. The problem is that they don’t acknowledge an absolute standard for language. In doing so they fulfill Romans 1:22, “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.”

There is an absolute standard: “In the beginning was the Word.” To make the connection even clearer, I will rephrase it and state In the beginning was the DEFINITION. The definition! This is the aspect to language which gives meaning to words. Not only does God establish the word, he also establishes the definition!

When we speak a word, we are providing a signifier (word) as a symbol for something that is to be signified (object/definition). When I say “tree,” that word symbolizes a tree. Only God, however, was able to produce the signified by stating a signifier. Only God could say “tree” and a tree stood fast. Only God could say “man” and a man appeared. Man cannot generate the signified (object) by the signifier (word), and that is what social constructionists attempt to do.

When God created Adam, he did not give him sovereignty over language. Adam produced a signifier for the signified when he named the animals, but that signifier came out of the very essence of the signified. He was constrained by the creator God who created that essence in each creature to begin with. Rather than creating the name, Adam discovered the name in the creature’s essence. Adam could not call unclean which God determined to be clean. More broadly, man cannot call ugly which God has called beautiful. Man cannot call good which God has called evil. For in the beginning was the definition! 

In conclusion, social constructionism is raping language. It is happening all around us; from the hallways of academia to the boulevards of Hollywood; from the pens of writers to the screens of the news media. The fruit is the bastard child of sin and lawlessness. It is targeting the very ordinances of God’s creation. This sin and lawlessness is promoted through social action. Next time we will examine the fourth characteristic of social constructionism: Knowledge demands social action.


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


[1] Burr, Vivien. Social Constructionism. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

[2] Even the emergence of these new psychological perspectives are the result of social interaction. All knowledge in every domain is a result of social interaction.

[3] Burr, Vivien. Social Constructionism. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

[4] This is “Positivism” the notion that truth is derived from observing reality from our senses. Example: it is true that I have a broken a bone because I can see it via an X-ray and feel the pain.                    

[5] This of course is social constructionism.

[6] Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Book I, Ch. 13

[7] Deconstructionism is postmodernity’s premier philosophy of language, developed by Jacques Derrida in the 1960s/70s. According to Deconstruction, language is not as stable or reliable as we think. It is fluid and ambiguous. It shapes us without us being aware of it. (RM—although this may be true, it isn’t a valid explanation of language. If anything, it highlights some of the effects sin has on our use of language.)

Read the other articles in this series

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