Social Constructionism (9): Ideas have Legs

For within the framework of men’s bodies is generated the most powerful explosive force known in history—the explosive force of ideas. …Ideas change men. Ideas shape nations. So many ideas bid for the allegiance of each human heart as it takes its journey from the womb to the tomb. And when millions of ordinary men and women begin to follow the same star history is molded.

Great Britain’s Peter Howard wrote this shortly after World War II in his book Ideas Have Legs. With European soil still soaking in the blood of innocent Jews, the people of the 1940s experienced in raw form the truth that there are consequences to ideas.

Social constructionism is one of the great ideas which has legs. It produces an abundance of human action. If ideas are an “explosive force,” social constructionism and its network of corresponding theories is a nuclear bomb. I state this because social constructionism isn’t just an isolated theory waiting for someone to take it to its logical end. Social constructionism is wrapped up in social action and it is self-generating. It isn’t content to let human action flow from it organically.

One of the tenets of social constructionism is the idea of praxis. Praxis is an old Greek word that has been baptized in Marxist theory and used with much devotion by many postmodern scholars. Praxis is the idea of doing theory. The idea is that theory (or an idea) is perfected through human activity. Our theory flows out of our practice and our practice informs our theory. So, human action is integral to social constructionism. It is part of the warp and woof.

Postmodern researchers operating within a social constructionist framework will often engage in action research. Vivien Burr writes “the aim [of action research—RM] is not just to study some existing state of affairs but to change them for the better…the values and political agenda motivating the research is therefore explicitly acknowledged.[1] This form of research, which is flourishing in colleges and universities, is designed to address “problems” with the goal of rectification. What is considered a problem and who gets to make this determination is the real problem. It certainly isn’t the word of God.

Action research has been accompanied by another practice: activism. Activism is direct, vigorous action by people in order to change the status quo. At its root, activism isn’t a new concept. History is replete with groups rising up for a cause. However, modern activism has been exploding. It is being done on all sides of the political and religious spectrum. More recently, we see corporations engaging in it. The idea of activism and active research is central to social constructionism. Both are a call to social action in an effort to socially construct a new reality.

Why? Let’s remember what social constructionism is all about. Knowledge is socially constructed. Recall from the last post, they claim knowledge is constructed through human interaction. The social constructivists aren’t content to simply assert this claim and then stand by and wait for interaction to take place. Social constructivists are compelled to produce interaction through their philosophy of praxis.

Since social constructionism is rooted in Marxism and Humanism[2], the agenda is secular and serves the kingdom of man. Often it is cloaked in the term social justice. At Calvin College, where I attended, this humanistic social justice is cloaked in the Jewish concept of Shalom, which means “peace.” In this context, it is a “vision of human flourishing. Shalom means people living in right relationships with God, themselves, each other, and nature—and in taking delight in such relationships.”[3] Participation in social justice ventures on the basis of shalom is erasing the antithesis between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God. One hardly knows which kingdom and on whose behalf he is laboring in.

Whether it is responsive action for the sake of a culturally identified social injustice or a foolishly conceived disruption in a heretical conception of God’s kingdom, the human activity to construct a new reality isn’t Christ centered. The agenda isn’t a closer obedience to God’s word. It isn’t the advancement of biblically based institutions. It isn’t the affirmation of the creation ordinances of work/vocation, marriage/family, and rest. Rather, the prince of darkness has his tentacles deep within postmodernism. His kingdom is being advanced through this agenda-driven human action.

In conclusion, social constructionism combines knowledge and social action. The social action is resulting in widespread action research and activism. This activity is not promoting a God centered agenda, but it is fueling the rise of man’s kingdom where the prince of darkness and his evil host stalk behind every shadow and crevice.

This post completes my brief examination of the four basic characteristics of social constructionism: 1.) A critical stance toward taken-for-granted knowledge; 2.) Knowledge is historically and culturally relative; 3.) Knowledge is sustained by social processes; 4.) Social action is integral to knowledge. I intend to conclude this series with a post or two on the educational practices that are rooted in constructivism. This is where the rubber really hits the road and that road comes close to home.

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[1] Burr, Vivien. Social constructionism. 2. ed. Routledge, 2004.

[2] Berger, Peter Ludwig, and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Anchor Book, 1996.

[3] Wolterstorff, Nicholas, et al. “Introduction.” Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2004, p. 13.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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.)

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Social Constructionism (7): Knowledge and Understanding are Historically and Culturally Relative

The second characteristic of social constructionism is that human knowledge and understanding are historically and culturally relative. Relative here is best understood by examining the differences between relativism and realism.

Realism asserts that there is a world—a cosmos—that exists independent from our representations of it. For example, we may go to an art dealer and purchase a $1,000 oil painting of Mount Everest, but that painting is only a representation of reality. The reality, of course, is Mount Everest itself.

Relativism, however, asserts that even if the reality of Mount Everest exists, that reality is not accessible to us and all we have is our own individual representation of Mount Everest. Just like each painter will paint Mount Everest slightly different from another, so, too, we all understand Mount Everest differently because we perceive it differently. Since the reality is inaccessible to us, we have nothing to judge our representations against. Hence, the relativist concludes, each person’s representation of reality is equally valid.

Let’s replace Mount Everest, which is a physical reality, with a concept, which is metaphysical. I’ll use the concept murder. The realist will argue that the concept of murder has a definite body of understanding. For realists, concrete and enduring definitions are very important. A realist will likely turn to a reputable dictionary as a first step in their task of knowing and understanding this concept.

Not so for the relativist. The concept of murder, even if there was a definite understanding of it, it wouldn’t be accessible to us. The dictionary is no good, unless you use it alongside a multitude of other sources and experiences. Because what is real about murder is inaccessible to us, each person only has their own distinct understanding of murder. The child who grew up in the Bronx and watched his father savagely killed by gang members will have an understanding of murder that is different from the child growing up in Hudsonville, Michigan who only understands murder through secondary sources. Different, still, will be the child growing up in Syria who is being trained by ISIS members to kill their enemies or has even taken part in the killing itself.

I understand these examples are quite divergent. I chose these examples to make a point. But the social constructivist argues that every person’s understanding will be different from the next because we all have different experiences and perceptions. Even among children growing up in Hudsonville, there will be slightly different understandings of murder among each of them.

According to the social constructivist, however, these minute differences can widen especially when examined in context of history and culture. The knowledge and understanding of fatherhood varies dramatically across the ages and the continents. What Americans collectively understood as father in 1940 is different from what Americans collectively understand it today.

This is what is to be understood when social constructivists claim knowledge and understanding are culturally and historically relative.

I challenge this position. Although we do see changes in societies’ understanding of certain concepts over time and culture, I do not agree with the social constructivist when he claims that this is a legitimate or valid change or that such a change produces an equally valid product. The social constructivist embraces these changes and points to them as proof of relativisms merits as being a legitimate form of understanding the world. I argue that the changes in societies’ knowledge and understanding of physical and metaphysical objects are not necessarily legitimate nor do they support a relativist’s explanation of this phenomenon. The social constructivist and the relativist alike are missing a fundamental piece to their philosophies. They deny this reality: God’s word is truth and it is real. This premise cuts through the heart of postmodernism. This is the antidote to the poison of postmodern imaginations. This is where all philosophy must begin. You see, we can build philosophies of all kinds and the Christian and the unbeliever alike may use the same tools and follow the same research principles, but if the foundation upon which this philosophy is to be built is not the realization that God’s word is truth and it is real, the product will only be a vain imagination of man. The word of God speaks very clearly:

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.—Romans 1:21, 22

Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God.—2 Corinthians 10:5

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the traditions of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.—Colossians 2:8

This is where we must be careful when examining the philosophies of the world. The men and women working on these edifices are not poor thinkers. On the contrary, they are often brilliant. They have minds that can probe this creation and they have built a powerful communication network which allows them to piece their thinking together across all the disciplines. Their theories and philosophies integrate many aspects of God’s creation that are real. Because of this, we can be held captive by their perceived wisdom. But this isn’t our task. We are not to be held captive by their vanity, rather we are to bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). I’m convinced that if I didn’t hold to the truth of God’s word as absolute, I would be a relativist, a social constructivist, a postmodern man. These tabernacles of men make sense if you don’t have the truth of God’s word as an objective standard.

There is an objective truth and because of that we can conclude that there is an objective reality. And it is in that order. We don’t acknowledge the existence of a tree primarily because our senses tell us that tree is real, for then our perception can become our reality. Rather, we know and have certainty that such a tree exists because principally God’s word confirms that he created it, that he spoke and it stood fast, that he continues to uphold the tree by the power of that Word. This would support Bavinck’s teaching that one believes in order that he may know.[1]  

If knowledge and understanding of a concept changes over time or from culture to culture (and it does), it doesn’t imply that change is legitimate or valid. It takes discernment to know whether the change is good or grotesque. I see two fundamental reasons for any change in knowledge and understanding.

A: Through the process of exercising dominion over God’s creation, man probes deeper the existence of reality so that a fuller understanding of that reality emerges. Here, we say there is a growth and development of knowledge and understanding.[2] In this case, the change is only a change in development and, therefore, it is good.

Or,

B: Due to the wickedness in the heart of man, there is a rejection of truth and then a rejection of what is real. Man attempts to create his own universe through the vain imaginations of men. In this case, the change wars against the truth. It is the lie. It is grotesque.

In summary, knowledge and understanding are not culturally or historically relative. The various forms of understanding as they can be found across the ages and cultures are not equally valid. Even Aristotle asserted “that which exists does not conform to various opinions, but rather the correct opinions conform to that which exists.” If they do not align themselves with truth, they are only a lie. This is what Aristotle was hinting at.

Next time we will look at the significance of language in our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. There is indeed a power in language that is real. It’s an aspect of God’s creation that originates from his very essence; his Son is the language (word) of God and the Holy Spirit is the breath on which it rides. The social constructivist’s position hinges on this principle: language and thought are inseparably integrated. If our thoughts can be created through language, and if language is a product of men, then he who controls the language will be the master of the world. This will then launch us into our fourth and final characteristic of social constructionism: knowledge and social action go together. Social action is the culminating principle, and it is bearing deadly fruit.

 

[1] Jaarsma, Cornelius. The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1935.

[2] Norris, Christopher. Reclaiming truth: contribution to a critique of cultural relativism. Duke University Press, 1996.

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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.

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Social Constructionism (6): Shaping a worldview of doubt and uncertainty

In my reading, I’m usually not attracted to articles written in a series. For starters, I want the option of reading everything the author has to say in one sitting. Secondly, unless the author can produce new installments on a timely basis, I don’t have the patience to wait four months before I read the next article. This lamentably leads me to my opening point: I’ve done everything in this series of posts that I dislike as a reader. Mea Culpa.

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In the last post, I wrote about the difficulty in defining social constructionism. It doesn’t package well. Frankly, very little in postmodernism packages well. But we can build a framework for understanding. For that, I turned to Vivien Burr’s four key assumptions of that which social constructionism is built upon.[1]

  1. A critical stance toward taken-for-granted knowledge.
  2. Historical and cultural specificity (i.e., truth is relative to time and place).
  3. Knowledge is sustained by social processes.
  4. Knowledge and social action go together.

I will turn to the first assumption in this post.

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Social constructionism takes a critical stance toward taken-for-granted knowledge. This phrase “taken-for-granted knowledge” may not sit well with you, but it simply refers to a body of knowledge that many in society hold to be true without deliberate or intentional acceptance. For example, there are two genders in humans: male and female. Most people in this world acknowledge this to be true.[2] Therefore, the knowledge that there are two genders (male and female) would fall into the artificial bracket of “taken-for-granted” knowledge.

Social constructionism challenges this. Intentionally so. It does this by sowing the seeds of doubt over many established social norms which find their roots in creation ordinances. In the process, the idea of truth itself is obliterated.

Social constructionism finds its oxygen in the air of doubt. The lexical definition of doubt is “a feeling of uncertainty.” This is exactly what social constructionism requires to thrive. It not only requires it, but it breeds it as well. Uncertainty as a mode of perceiving the world is the offspring of postmodernism.

You see, uncertainty and doubt have always existed and will always be with us, however, it has been the chief aim of man to establish certainty out of that which was once uncertain. This shouldn’t be a surprise. We do this all the time. If you are uncertain about how to get to your child’s volleyball game, you do everything you can to alleviate that uncertainty. If the mechanic is uncertain about what is wrong with the car, it is his job to find certainty so that he may provide a solution. But social constructionism doesn’t want certainty. It wants to always question. Now, I am not wary of questioning. This is a requirement if we want to seek truth. But social constructionism doesn’t view questioning as a means to truth; questioning is the means and the ends. In social constructionism, the question is primary, and any answer is secondary. Answers are secondary because there will always be another way to question one’s understanding of reality and thus different answers will emerge. The constant questioning unaccompanied by the conviction that there is a truth and reality independent of the knower simply breeds doubt about everything.

Let me try to illustrate this. If a detective comes upon a crime scene in a dark alley where a woman is lying dead on the ground with bruises on her neck, it is indeed his job to do some heavy questioning. Although he may be certain the woman is dead, he is uncertain about how she died. He has a lot of questions. It is incumbent upon him to ask these questions, as many questions as he can think of. He must ask not only complicated questions such as whether or not there any chemical toxins in her blood, but he must also ask very basic questions. Even questions that challenge common assumptions. Did she kill herself? Did she want to die? Is this a trap?

In this illustration we understand questions are good and healthy; even questions that may challenge our closely held assumptions. They are tools used to uncover the truth of the matter. The question isn’t primary, it merely serves as a methodology of increasing certainty.

But social constructionism doesn’t view questions as a tool for increasing certainty. Instead questions are a tool for maintaining uncertainty. The social constructivist questions everything. But this alone isn’t the real failure. The failure comes in the motivation behind the questioning. The questions are designed to be disruptive, to challenge the truth, to overcome creational ordinances.

Let’s hear Vivien Burr in her book “Social Constructionism”:

Social constructionism cautions us to be ever suspicious of our assumptions about how the world appears to be….[An] example is that of gender and sex. Our observations of the world suggest to us that there are two categories of human being, men and women. Social constructionism bids us to seriously question whether the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are simply a reflection of naturally occurring distinct types of human being. This may seem a bizarre idea at first, and of course differences in reproductive organs are present in many species. But we become more aware of the greyness of such categories when we look at practices such as gender reassignment surgery and the surrounding debate about how to classify people as unambiguously male and female.”

She minimizes the concept of male and female by saying human culture is responsible for establishing all the norms for what it means to be “man” and “woman.” She comes to the following conclusion:

“We can thus begin to consider that these seemingly natural categories may be inevitably bound up with gender, the normative prescriptions of masculinity and femininity in a culture, so that that whole categories of personhood, that is all the things it means to be a man or a woman, have been built upon them. Social constructionism would suggest that we might equally well, and just as absurdly, have divided people up into tall and short, or those with ear lobes and those without.”

We may be quick to find this position irrational. But it isn’t. It is quite rational if one denies the existence of a knowledge of truth that is outside of human construction. If knowledge and truth are purely social constructs, then it follows sound logic to conclude that one’s understanding of gender can change at the will of humanity. After all, it was constructed by social processes in the first place!

Do you see why doubt is integral to this worldview? Nothing is certain, and everything can and should be questioned because everything is based on the constructs of mortal man. There is no transcendent rock of truth that exists outside of human construction.

That is not the worldview of a Reformed man or woman. Herman Bavinck lamented the poison of doubt. He writes, “Doubt has now become the sickness of our century, bringing with it a string of moral problems and plagues.”[3] That was written over one hundred years ago. Today the moral problems and plagues are suffocating the world. They have caused the church to dwindle. No, a Reformed man and woman are people of certainty. Bavinck writes:

In order to live comforted and die happily, we need certainty about the invisible and eternal things above. We must know what we are and where we are going. We must know that our personhood is more than a ripple in the ocean, that our moral battle stands far above the natural order, and that the highest and purest ideals of the soul are not illusions but reality. We must know how we can be liberated from the accusations of our conscience and from the weight of sin. We must know that God is and that He is our God. We must be sure we are reconciled to Him and can therefore approach death and judgment without terror. In all this, our greatest need is for certainty. It is the deepest, although often unconscious, need of the human soul.”

Next time, D.V., I will examine social constructionism’s assumption that knowledge and truth are historically and culturally relative.

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[1] Burr, Vivien. Social constructionism. 2. ed. Routledge, 2004.

[2] Although this is changing due to the influence of social constructionism. This will be mentioned later in the post.

[3] Bavinck, Herman. The certainty of faith. Paideia Press, 1980.

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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.

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Previous articles in this series:

Social Constructionism

Social Constructionism (2)

Social Constructionism (3)

Social Constructionism (4)

Social Constructionism (5) What is it?

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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 (1)

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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