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 (4)

There is a section in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers I enjoy. A little lapse into this story may prove instructive. The section I’m referring to is the Battle of the Hornburg. The forces of the malevolent wizard Saruman have gathered before the great Hornburg fortress of King Theoden at Helm’s Deep. Seeking safety behind these great walls are the good people of Rohan. At first, the evil orcs and the Uruk-hai take a head on frontal assault. Thousands launch themselves against the mighty fortress, but the great wall at Helm’s Deep is impenetrable. A small remnant of soldiers under King Theoden resist the open attacks of the wicked Saruman. But soon Saruman changes tactics. He knows destroying the great fortress is key to overcoming them. He learns about a vulnerable spot in the wall. He sends a soldier with a bomb strapped to him to run headlong into a small culvert at the base of the wall which allows water to drain out. The bomb explodes; the wall crumbles; the fortress is breached. The inhabitants seeking safety in Hornburg fortress are exposed. They are susceptible to death.

For years, the principalities of darkness have been searching for that small culvert at the base of the wall of God’s creation. They’ve been searching for the key that will allow them to turn the great institutions of our lives on their heads; to manipulate them for their purposes. I am not saying God’s creation has a flaw that the wicked attempts to exploit. Not at all. Nor do we fear that God’s Kingdom even has the possibility of falling. We know the serpent’s head will be bruised through Christ (Gen. 3:15). But the kingdom of man doesn’t lay down arms. It is now focusing on destroying the very foundations of these ordinances so that they no longer offer a protective barrier for the creatures that are designed to operate and live within the bounds of these ordinances. In its denial of any absolute truth, social constructionism is one of Saruman’s bombs that has assaulted these creation laws.

I identify three major creation ordinances or laws: 1. work and vocation 2. marriage and family 3. rest. God’s creation ordinances are decrees he established concerning the ordering of creation. They aren’t creatures; rather, they are decrees by which all of creatures are to live within. They are boundaries and directives for God’s creation. They are sown into the very fabric of creation itself. As such, you cannot rebel against them without marring creation and staining it for generations to come.

There is also a very close connection to the nature of the creature and the creation ordinance. God designed his world in a way that makes the obedience of these ordinances natural. Man and woman are each uniquely designed to fulfill the decree of marriage and multiplication. The whole cosmos is created in unity of purpose which allows the creation to operate within the bounds of God’s decrees for them. Every form fulfills the God-ordained function. He doesn’t command the tree to bring forth fruit without having created in the tree a form for producing seed. He doesn’t command man to keep and dress the garden but not equip him with the physical form to carry out this decree. Thus, a rebellion against an ordinance can stain the very creature too.

But the kingdom of man chaffs under the authority of God. These decrees remind him that he is forever under a higher power. It reminds him that he is simply a creature who owes allegiance to his Creator. If modernism emancipated society from the authority of a Creator by giving birth to evolutionism, post-modernism is emancipating society from the decrees of that same Creator imbedded in creation. The former has proven more difficult. It not only has to contend with religious certainties, but scientific or natural certainties in creation. Even the unregenerate scientist can see that there is a form in creation perfectly fitted for its function. Post-modernism, however, is succeeding. Truth no longer exists. Work, marriage, family, and rest are being challenged by social constructionism. No longer will a human’s natural body dictate what their gender will be, he will choose what he wants it to be. No longer will that same body point to the fact that marriage should be between a man and woman, but society will choose what marriage should be. No longer will man till and dress his earthly garden through vocation, but progress and culture will proceed despite the sweat of his brow. No longer will children be the fruit of marriage; they will simply be a consequence which can be removed by a simple procedure in a clinic. No longer will the Sabbath provide the rest man needs, but he will find it wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and in any form he desires.

Just like Saruman knew simple arrows launched at the Hornburg fortress would avail little, so too does the kingdom of man know that something more powerful and seismic is necessary. Long standing institutions don’t fall easily, but they do fall when the foundations of truth are swept away. In the next few posts, we will examine social constructionism and see how it is fitted to do this disruptive work.  

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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 (3)

We are living in a transition period. For those of us who live in America, think about the deep changes that have taken place in the last decade. Some of these changes are specific to Americans, but often they represent changes experienced across the globe. We may be surprised to be reminded of the following:

  • In 2000, California approved Proposition 22 which restricted marriage to one man and one woman. This passed by 61% of voters supporting the bill! Even the majority in Los Angeles county approved the measure. Would they do the same in 2017?
  • In 1960, over 70% of Americans identified themselves as Protestant Christians. In 2000, it dropped to 52%. Today, only 37% of Americans identify as a Protestant Christian. (Gallup poll)
  • Throughout human history, mothers were the primary care givers of their children. Today, mothers are the sole or primary breadwinner in 40% of American families with children under age 18. Someone else is raising their children. Of course, this percentage is greatly influenced by the fact that many families are single parent homes. (Pew Research Center)
  • A few decades ago, robots and their artificial intelligence was a conspiracy theory for the science fiction world to muse on. Per Pew Research, all the experts they interviewed in their research predicted robots and artificial intelligence will pervade almost every aspect of our lives by 2025. There will be a disruption to our current occupation practices.
  • Less than a decade ago, homes used to be children’s sanctuary from the pressures of school, work and society. With the emergence of smartphones and tablets, it has quickly become their command center.

I could list more, but I don’t think I need to. An aware person understands they are living through a period of profound changes. In fact, social change seems to be a normalized characteristic of life. Change isn’t unexpected; rather, we’ve built our lives around its continual presence. These statistics and anecdotes not only highlight changes that have taken place over a relatively short period, but they highlight deep changes. They impact our heart, mind and soul in powerful ways. They are just small evidences of a great alteration in the social and moral fabric of America and abroad.

Some of the most long standing institutions of humanity are disintegrating. Institutions of marriage, family, and vocation are radically crumbling. These are creation ordinances. The humanist would say these ordinances are “transforming” or “evolving”, but that simply isn’t the case. They are crashing down around us. It isn’t even the crash that is so alarming as to the speed with which they are crashing.

How can this be happening? How can God’s creation ordinances be so openly violated in such a short time?  

The Bible tells us in the last days Satan will be loosed (Rev. 20:7). The people of God have known this for many ages. We may answer the above questions by simply acknowledging that Satan is at work. Or we may remind ourselves that we are “living in the last days.” But we would do well to probe a little deeper. Yes, Satan will be loosed; he may be loose already. And we are living in the last days, but the post-apostolic church has always “lived in the last days.” Such answers are too simple if we want a deeper understanding.

Satan employs means. Satan isn’t personally manipulating every man, woman or child that lives an ungodly life which deteriorates the fabric of our world. He isn’t omnipresent. He embraces tools which are used to undermine the great truths of God as they are applied and practiced in the social life of humanity. He employs means. Social constructionism is one of these means and it is changing our society.

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We are living in a transition period. We are entering a new era. The modern is giving way to the post-modern. What is coming isn’t fully known. We watch as the world morphs in front of our eyes. It’s as if we are seeing the late autumn forest drop her beautiful fall colors in fast forward. The death of winter is near. The chill lingers.

But even winter has a sudden beauty if we can look past the cold and death. For the child of God, we do not live in fear, “for he that feareth is not made perfect in love” (I John 4:18). Neither do we separate from the society we are so intrinsically connected to. We live in this world so that we can use her, develop her, and cultivate her as God’s garden for his glory. Just as God placed Israel in the land of Canaan which was at the crossroads of civilization, we too do not flee the great public intersections of life. To help us live full lives by using our gifts and talents in joyful doxology to God, we would do well to prepare ourselves and understand the forces that are at play, lest we mistake darkness for light and light for darkness.

Let’s keep peeling the onion layers away. In upcoming posts, we will investigate what might be motivating the kingdom of darkness to specifically assault God’s creation ordinances. Also, we still need to explore social constructionism in more detail and show how it is an effective tool at doing just that. Stay tuned!

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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 (2)

Last time we defined social constructionism and showed that it falls into the category of postmodernism. Our goal with this series is to understand the layers of social constructionism so that we might be aware of its dangers as Reformed Christians. To peel away the first layer of the social constructionist onion, let’s begin by understanding our place in history.

Throughout the history of the world there have been great time periods which are marked by common and stable characteristics. Historians have recognized this and have given names to these great bands of time to help us understand the vast and complex flow of human history. The Iron Age comes to mind, and the Classical Age, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution. These are just to name just a few. This is called the periodization of history.

Sometimes we recognize these patches of history by the spirit of prevailing philosophies which characterize them. The Germans called this the zeitgeist which means “the spirit of the times.” The age of reason or modernism or postmodernism are but a few.

In truth, history is the unfolding of God’s sovereign counsel. It is seamless; one day flows into a thousand years. To lump together segments of God’s counsel as it unfolds is surely an arbitrary construction of man. But the periodization of history helps us think about history by providing us with a framework to analyze the unfolding of God’s activity.

Because it is artificial, people living through a particular time period seldom realize it. The poor Irish farmer of the sixth century hardly understood he was living during a time known as the Early Dark Ages. He simply lived his life within the framework his culture provided, hardly aware of the forces that brought about the zeitgeist of that era.  It is for the student of history to look back and identify the period many years after the period has existed.

Throughout the flow of time, there have been great disruptions which often bring about the end of an era and the beginning of something new. Some of the most fascinating times in history occur not during the period, but between them. These are called transition periods and they are usually marked by a radical change in human life because of some powerful external factors. In his sovereign counsel, God has used many different means to carry out his will in history. These disruptions do not escape his sovereignty. They exist because of his sovereignty. Maybe it was the discovery of iron. Maybe it was the invention of the engine. Or maybe it was some sweeping philosophical or political ideology. In a transition period, disruption is the defining characteristic.

Because of these cataclysmic disruptions, it is possible to recognize, in the moment, that something old is dying away and the birth of something new, maybe even mysterious, is imminent. When the printing press was invented, the disruption to the status quo was recognizable in the relative moment. Pope Alexander VI issued his notorious Inter Multipleces (1501) which banned the printing of any books which were not endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church. He realized that the printing press had ushered in a great change which he did not like.

If we are perceptive enough, we can identify these transition periods while the transition is taking place. Sometimes the changes that take place can be so great, so effectual, so powerful, that even the oblivious person knows something big is happening. Sometimes the disruption is gradual, but deep.

We are in a transition period right now. When this period started and when it will end is for the coming generations to determine. It would do us well to take a moment to try to understand what age we are living in. It is my purpose to prove to you that social constructionism is one of the main disrupters.

More on this next time.

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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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