Social Constructionism (5) What is it?

In the last four posts, I attempted to shed some light on the context of the theory known as social constructionism. It is a theory that dramatically shifts man's understanding of knowledge. It is a reaction to the modern positivist understanding of knowledge. In the positivist school of thought, knowledge is only gained through scientific methods or our senses (humans discover knowledge). Social constructionism presents the post-modern theory of knowledge. For social constructionism, knowledge no longer has a separate existence, but it is constructed through social processes (humans create or construct knowledge).

In my first post on this topic, I made it clear that Calvin College utilized social constructivists to help build the philosophy of education in the Teacher Education Department.  They have based their educational philosophy on this theory of knowledge.  And this is no secret, either. It was a deliberate choice on their part. I will give quick reference to their teacher education department's Conceptual Framework (adopted in 2002)[1]:

The program recognizes that learning requires complex, challenging environments; social negotiation and shared responsibility; multiple representations of content; an understanding of how knowledge is constructed; and student-centered instruction.

Later it states:

The program is informed by the notion that it is essential to understand that learning—or more broadly, cognitive development—occurs in a social context. It is in the instructor-student and student-student relationships that students learn how to construct knowledge.

Their choice of the word "construct" or "constructed" was deliberate.

I mentioned Calvin College for two main reasons: 1.) That is where I received my graduate degree and am, therefore, well acquainted with their educational philosophies, and 2.) Calvin is an institution where many Reformed young people receive their education. I, for one, do not disparage that fact, but it does make this topic relevant to many readers of this blog.

Although, I hardly need to isolate one college. Many colleges and universities have adopted social constructivist theories in many of their departments. Paul Boghossian, in his book Fear of Knowledge writes the following:

“Over the past twenty years or so, however, a remarkable consensus has formed—in the human and social sciences, even if not in the natural sciences—around a thesis about the nature of human knowledge. It is the thesis that knowledge is socially constructed.”[2]

To summarize Boghossian: this theory is well received and common place in higher education.

So, let's peel another layer off this post-modern onion, shall we?

What is constructionism (otherwise known as constructivism)? At its core, it is an epistemology. Epistemologies are systems of thought that deal with the nature of knowledge. They ask questions like what is knowledge? or how do we know? Since knowledge and truth are very closely related, it is very important to adhere to an accurate epistemology since it has ramifications on our understanding of truth. As I laid out in the first four posts, the principalities of darkness have twisted much of the world’s concept of truth, which in turn has allowed for gross transgressions against the creation of God and his truth.

According to Vivien Burr, the author of the book Social Constructionism, there “is no single description” of social constructionism. “This is because, although different writers may share some characteristics with others, there isn’t really anything that they all have in common. What links them together is a kind of ‘family resemblance’… There is no one feature, which could be said loosely to identify a social constructivist position.”[3]

Instead, according to Burr, social constructivists have one or more of the following characteristics. They are the following:

  1. A critical stance toward taken-for-granted knowledge.
  2. The way we understand the world is culturally and historically specific.
  3. Knowledge is sustained by social processes.
  4. Knowledge and social action go together.

In the coming posts, I intend to look at these characteristics more closely.

But before I close this now rambling post, I think it is important to make one more point as we begin to look at this topic further. Man is constantly investigating and probing God's creation. He is fulfilling that creational urge to have dominion and subdue the earth. This is true for the farmer as it is for the nuclear physicist as it is for the philosopher. As a result, as man probes God's creation more deeply, he uncovers realities in God's creation that were formerly latent to him. He doesn't discover "truth", but he does discover things that are real in creation. As man continues to subdue the earth, he is able to unleash the great powers hidden within these realities, too. Think of the power in the nuclear bomb. Man did not create nuclear physics. He did not create the resulting power. It was there all along; it's how the sun makes its energy. But by continually subduing the creation over time, man is able to harness the power like never before. Think, too, of the power in the combustion engine. Not only are these objects themselves powerful, but they have a power in them by the fact that they can do much work (for good or for evil).

Just as all this is true for the hard sciences, I'm convinced it is also true for the soft sciences like philosophy (although the potential for error and damage is much greater in the soft sciences because often the results of a theory aren't manifested until many years later). That leaves us with a few important thoughts:

1.) We can learn about reality in secular philosophy. There are nuggets worth mining out.

2.) Because of this, we must read the works of secular thinkers. But we must read with wisdom and discernment as we as we ascertain what is real in God's creation and what is the chaff that must be burned off. To do this, we need the source of truth, the Word of God, believed by faith.

3.) Apart from a regenerated heart, the nuclear physicist or the philosopher cannot uncover truth in their studies. They are always motivated to build the kingdom of man in opposition to the kingdom of God. They also utilize the creational powers in these realities to not only build the kingdom of man, but also to destroy the church of Christ on this earth. As stated in earlier posts, constructionism is being utilized to build the kingdom of man and it is being used to destroy the church of Christ.

4.) As nuggets of reality are discovered in God's creation, Christians can extract the reality from the chaff, and harness their power and potential for work that is motivated out of love and service for God and his kingdom.

Until next time...

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[1] "Conceptual framework." Calvin College Guidebook. Calvin College, 2002. Web. 26 July 2017. <https://calvin.edu/academics/departments-programs/education/academics/guidebook/conceptual.pdf>.

[2] Boghossian, Paul Artin. Fear of knowledge: against relativism and constructivism. Oxford: Clarendon, 2014. Print.

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

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This post was written by Rick Mingerink, a member of the Grandville 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.

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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 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.

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