2.4 The social construction of ‘difference’
Social constructionists take issue with psychological accounts of human behaviour, criticising them for making universal generalisations and for having too great a focus on the individual. By contrast, a social constructionist approach sees behaviour as shaped by social context, and by issues of power and knowledge.
Those arguing from a critical social perspective would criticise essentialist accounts of difference for several reasons. First, they would argue that there is a danger of making sweeping generalisations about particular groups, such as women, black people or older people, that cannot be substantiated. According to these critics, essentialist approaches tend to see ethnic and other groups as homogeneous and to overlook diversity within groups. Moreover, they would argue that such an approach risks ignoring important similarities between groups, in its drive to identify clear differences. Following on from this, a third criticism is that an essentialist view mistakenly sees the boundaries between groups as fixed and unchanging, when in fact they are dynamic and socially constructed (for example, see Ahmad, 1996).
A critical social approach, rather than looking for the origins of apparent differences within individuals or groups, focuses instead on the ways in which differences are ‘produced’ in a social context and as a result of social processes. If essentialists view difference as a ‘something’ that resides inside people and influences the ways they interact, those adopting a more social model regard difference as a process by which people are ‘differentiated’, or constructed as different.
At the most basic level, this approach suggests that different kinds of context play an important role in the process of producing difference. Dalrymple’s characterisation of Indian women as emotionally reticent could be criticised on the ground that such behaviour might be specific to the immediate context, rather than a symptom of some innate cultural ‘difference’. It could be suggested that the immediate interactional context – women from a marginalised group visiting a white, male doctor – might play a part in ‘producing’ what appeared to be a lack of emotional openness. A different kind of interactional context – for example, a consultation with an Asian woman doctor – might result in very different communicative behaviour.
An important element in the interactional context is the relationships of power between those involved, and this too needs to be considered as a factor in the production of ‘difference’. In considering why people communicate in a particular way in a particular context, we need to look at the ways in which inequalities of power, based for example on race, ethnicity or disability, are at work in that setting.
One example of a critical social perspective is social constructionism: briefly, the notion that the ways in which we think and talk about phenomena such as interpersonal communication reflect the dominant ideas of our society and culture. Ideas of Michel Foucault have been extremely influential in debates about ‘difference’. Foucault argues that the ways in which people think about, classify and categorise experience is influenced by wider social discourses, and that these reflect and reproduce relationships of power within society. So, for example, he argues that discourses of mental health in western societies have changed significantly over the past 200 years, and that this reflects changing power relationships and the interests of particular groups (Foucault, 1967). Categories such as ‘the mad’ or ‘the mentally ill’ refer not to unchanging ‘facts out there’ but to changing social constructions of the world. There is a good example of this in Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality, in which he claims that although same-sex relationships are known to have existed in nearly all societies throughout history, the category of ‘the homosexual’ and ‘homosexuality’, with all that flows from it, is an invention of 19th-century European medical discourse (Foucault, 1981).
Turning to apparent ‘differences’ based on ethnicity, gender or disability, a Foucaldian approach would argue that such differences are socially constructed. Different societies categorise and classify people in particular ways – for example as ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ or ‘women’ or ‘disabled’ – and then use those categories to explain so-called differences between them. Social constructionists would argue that ‘you find what you’re looking for’, and that if you imposed a different set of labels, you might find other differences – or similarities. Moreover, as explored further in Section 4, constructions of difference are never innocent or neutral. The ways in which people are categorised – ‘gendered’ or ‘racialised’, for example – tends to reflect the interests of those doing the categorising, who usually have the greater power.
Does this mean there are no ‘real’ differences between people, on the basis of their gender, ethnicity or disability, that impact on their experience of communication? What about the ‘language problem’ in the case study in Activity 1? Surely the Bangladeshi woman’s lack of English was a ‘fact’ that meant that her communication needs were different from those of the majority, English-speaking population? Responding to this, social constructionists would not deny that particular individuals have a range of different abilities, needs and experiences. However, labelling this woman’s language abilities as ‘different’ is undeniably a construction – the product of a particular social context. Perhaps it is stating the obvious to say it would not represent a ‘difference’ if she was in hospital in Bangladesh, or using a service in the UK that had a significant number of Bangla-speaking staff. Moreover, her language abilities only become a ‘problem’ in a particular context: a context in which the hospital has failed to make provision for the language needs of all members of the local community. Activity 1 posed the questions: what is the communication problem, and whose problem is it? Social constructionists would add two more questions: who is constructing this situation – and this person – as a ‘problem’, and what kind of power relationship is reflected and reproduced in the process of doing so?
There are varied and competing ways of understanding issues of difference and diversity.
An essentialist perspective views differences as innate and as either biologically or psychologically determined, or as the result of socialisation within a particular group.
Essentialism has been criticised for overlooking diversity within groups and similarities between groups.
A social constructionist perspective views difference as a process rather than an essence, and understands it as being produced in social contexts and constructed within wider discourses of knowledge and power.