4 A social constructionist approach
The focus of a broadly social constructionist approach is on how people construct and create their social worlds through talking, interacting, arguing, and engaging with one another (Bruner, 1990; Gergen, 1991; 1994; Potter, 2000; Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Wetherell and Potter, 1992). This approach requires a certain way of thinking about the social world: rather than seeing it as existing separately from you as an individual, you have to think about how it is socially constructed or made (and remade), and also the implications of different ways of constructing the world.
To help you to begin to think about what this approach might look like in practice, read the following extract taken from a letter to a British newspaper editor about those applying for asylum in the UK:
Bad feeling occurs when refugees are housed ahead of homeless British citizens. No-one begrudges genuine refugees a home, but when bogus ones are housed within weeks and UK citizens, black and white, are left to rot in hostels, it does seem unfair?
In this extract, there are two different ways of talking about or constructing refugees – ‘genuine’ and ‘bogus’. These have very different implications. ‘Genuine’ refugees are seen to be deserving of a home in the UK, whereas ‘bogus’ refugees are constructed as unfairly taking homes away from others. You might also notice that this is presented as a common-sense fact, as something that ‘everybody knows’, rather than as something that needs to be proven or evidenced in any way. However, ‘genuine’ and ‘bogus’ may be understood differently in different contexts and by different groups of people, and some people might even contest the distinction between these two types of refugees altogether. The social constructionist approach considers the wider sociocultural context in which these constructions are embedded, for example, looking at how ideological traditions shape how people and communities make sense of the world around them.
Social psychologists working in this field are interested in discourses like this because the ways the social world is constructed can have very real social consequences, such as justifying the exclusion of some people from housing in the above example. They also tell us something about how the social world works, e.g. what is considered to be ‘common-sense’ and how these assumptions may change or be contested in different contexts. In other words, this approach helps to understand the politics of common sense, that is, the ways that some constructions become dominant but also how they might be challenged. Relevant research includes studies on how issues like race, immigration, refugees, asylum seekers, terrorism, climate change and war, are constructed in political debates (e.g. De Castella and McGarty, 2011; Every and Augoustinos, 2007; Kurz, Augoustinos, and Crabb, 2010; Tileagă, 2009), and also how these issues are understood by ‘lay’ people in everyday life (e.g. Figgou and Condor, 2007; Gibson and Hamilton, 2011; Andreouli, Greenland and Howarth, 2016).
These approaches invite you to think critically about the political: to examine and challenge how different ways of constructing political issues relate to power and to maintaining particular social relations, which are often unequal and exclusionary (Billig et al., 1988). To exemplify these points, the next section looks at the ways in which this social psychological approach has been applied to understanding one particular aspect of the political: citizenship.