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Social Constructionism

Viv Burr and Penny Dick

Key Features of Social Constructionism


The core tenet of the social constructionist approach is that how we understand and even perceive the world and the objects (including people) and events within it does not necessarily reflect the nature of that world but rather is a product of how the world is represented or produced through language. Thus, for example, what we perceive as a tree is, from the social constructionist’s perspective, largely a consequence of how classifications (such as ‘flowers’, ‘shrubs’ and ‘weeds’) are produced through language rather than being a natural consequence of our perceptual capabilities. This is not to suggest that trees do not have various ‘natural’ characteristics that could be identified and charted, but rather that what are deemed to be the defining characteristics of trees are primarily a product of language. This argument is perhaps best exemplified by the use of social rather than naturally occurring phenomena. Take, for example, the current preoccupation in the media, and perhaps s ociety more generally, with body size and what counts as thin versus fat. While it

V. Burr (*)

University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, UK P. Dick

University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

© The Author(s) 2017 59

B. Gough (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Social Psychology,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51018-1_4

is probably the case that society has noted differences in body size from time immemorial, its salience or importance as a primary defining characteristic of individuals is more recent. Hence, while all objects (including people) in the world have definite properties, for social constructionists, what is more interesting is why certain properties assume importance and, critically, are then used as the basis for social or scientific evaluation (we will return to this idea below).

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