Social construction and social constructionism
Social construction and social constructionism

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Social construction and social constructionism

1 Understanding social construction and social constructionism

The audio file included in this course was designed to complement the D218 Social Policy: Welfare, Power and Diversity Open University course. It is intended to help you gain a greater understanding of the terms: social construction and social constructionism.

The audio file was recorded in 2001. It is a studio discussion between academic colleagues who examine and define social construction and social constructionism.

Participants in the discussion were:

  • John Clarke Professor of Social Policy at The Open University;

  • Esther Saraga Social Sciences Staff Tutor in The Open University's London region;

  • Gail Lewis Social Sciences Staff Tutor in The Open University.

    All are experienced OU tutors.

Activity 1

Listen to the audio files. You may find it helpful to listen to the recordings a second time and take notes that help define the terms social construction and social constructionism.

Social Construction/Constructionism part 1 (8 minutes 5.5 MB)

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Transcript: Social Construction/Constructionism part 1

John Clarke
This is D218: Getting to grips with social construction and social constructionism.
John Clarke
Hello. I'm John Clarke and I'm a member of the D218 course team. I'm joined today by Esther Saraga and Gail Lewis, who are both members of the course team, and who’ve been tutors on the course. We're here to talk about the course's approach to studying social policy.
So let me turn first of all to Esther. Esther, what do you think are the core elements of the course's approach to social policy?
Esther Saraga
Yes I think the most important word that you've used John is approach, and that's the key thing to get hold of with D218, that it's about a particular way of studying social policy.
So it isn't about learning lots of facts and figures or about a range of policies and procedures or the way society's organised, the structural arrangements among welfare organisations, that obviously is included in the course.
There's a series of topics, important topics, which are to do with welfare, but they're all used to illustrate a particular way of looking at the world in which we live and in particular the ways in which welfare is organised.
And so the starting point is a very questioning one, that as part of this approach one needs to not take things for granted, to be as sceptical stranger, to ask lots of questions and to step back and say well, people say this about welfare or they make these statements about who needs welfare and who's deserving but let's just always step back and say, who says that, why do they say it, in whose interests is it said and so on. So there are two main ideas, which are really important and they'll take a while to get used to but these two main ideas are social construction and social constructionism. And that distinction's important, social construction and social constructionism.
John Clarke
Okay so that's the starting point. It's a way of looking at society and the place and organisation of social welfare within it, which requires us as people studying it to step back from what we might think we know to start with. And the key ideas are: social construction, and social constructionism so let me turn to Gail. What does social construction mean in the context of D218.
Gail Lewis
Yeah I think Esther's already hinted at it really when she talks about, you know, who says what about X, and I suppose the second part then if we're studying 218 is to say, do I know what they mean when they say X.
There's an assumption that if a policy maker or a member of government stands up and talks about poverty or homelessness, that we all know what's meant, this kind of commonsense understanding, and what 218 does is says let's stop and think about what it is that's assumed that we all understand.
So that's in some sense is already carried by the idea of social construction, social in the sense of shared by many. And I suppose the key thing is what we're trying to get at in that notion is to try and think about the ways in which certain things are made to mean something, the way in which poverty is made to mean something, the way in which homelessness is made to mean something, the way in which race is made to mean something, or disability. And what we do by asking that question is immediately to suggest that there is indeed a question, we can question ‘do we really understand what's meant by those words’?
Now one of the difficulties I think for 218 students is the word construction is an everyday word, we see it all the time, building construction etc., and in some ways to start there can be useful, the idea of build-up, make up, to literally bring into being, construct a building it comes from nothing apparently and it comes up into something. But on the other hand that might be a problematic way to start, you can kind of say oh yeah it's about making up, but we'd need to do something else then and say, meanings aren't like buildings you can't necessarily go and touch them, and yet they guide us to action.
So when we're talking about social construction in 218 terms, the key thing to hold on to all of the time is to say that we're talking about processes of definition, the ways in which certain behaviours, characteristics of groups, conditions of life, are made to mean something, and that then those understandings are embedded in social policies. And what we do on 218 is to begin to say let's explore both what those meanings are, and their implications for the shape of policies and how they're then implemented.
John Clarke
There's something about that question about saying what things mean. And there's a sort of easy version of that which is just a sort of quibble thing like it depends what you mean by, or it's a sort of technical matter of how you define homelessness as a condition, but it seems to me that what you've been talking about is something much grander and more significant than that.
It is about how we collectively might understand an issue, a problem, a condition, and that that's a rather larger sense of something being socially constructed. But isn't it also the case that something like poverty or homelessness will have more than one construction that might be in play around it so that actually you can see that there are different perspectives or approaches or thoughts or concepts being mobilised, organised around what poverty means and therefore what you do about it, is that a reasonable conclusion to draw.
Gail Lewis
Absolutely. Let's think about an example from now. It's July 2001, and there's been a whole series of disturbances in West Yorkshire and Lancashire towns and most recently, and perhaps the most violent have been the ones in Bradford. And if we listen in detail to some of the news and current affairs programmes about that or read the newspapers about how these things are being interpreted when people are trying to sift through trying to get to the causes, one of the things that we notice is constantly a shift between British Asians, so the naming or labelling of a group of youths who are very much involved in these disturbances as British Asians on the one hand, and on the other hand as Asians or Pakistanis.
Now those names apparently talk about the same groups of people. In 218 terms we'd say actually the effects of those names, positions, those groups of peoples in very different ways in the context of Britain in 2001, and in the context of those disturbances.
To say British Asian suggests a heritage of South Asian origin, but British places them as much a part of the population as the white youths because the other group that are talked about are white youths without any ethnicity, but they're equally British. There's white youths and there's British Asians. To talk about them as Asians or Pakistanis suggests that these are young people who've migrated in, that their origins are somewhere else in terms of where they're born, and all of their understandings, all of their kind of interpretations of the world, are of Pakistan.
The consequences of that, for thinking about the issues that are put on the tape was the result of these disturbances, issues of policing, issues of education have come to the foreground and issues of unemployment suggest very different things. If you're talking about the indigenous population, whether that's of Welsh, Scottish, English or South Asian heritage, then you might move in a particular way in terms of the policy in comparison to if you're talking about groups of people who are migrant into the country.
And that's the ways in which there's contestations there's a struggle over how you define the groups of people who are involved in those disturbances, but those struggles over the…how you define will have implications for the policies. And that in a sense is what 218 is about over and over and over again.
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Social Construction/Constructionism part 2 (10.5 minutes 4.0 MB)

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John Clarke
That's really important cos it's the bit that gets away from the quibbly sense of ‘it depends what you mean’. Cos what that does is allow us to see how the process of defining or constructing has consequences for policy, for politics, for action, and in the end for peoples lives and how they live them. I mean I want to take that a little further because it seems to me that the examples fill out what we mean by social construction, and I want to ask Esther if there are other examples in relation to social policy where social construction can be seen having that sort of implication.
Esther Saraga
Yes I mean I think what's so interesting about the example that Gail's just given is how subtle that difference is, and that's quite hard sometimes for students to get hold of, that it's in a sense one word which might not seem until you start thinking about it very significant, makes an enormous difference in terms of meaning, and I think that's probably an example in which the struggle about meaning isn't immediately obvious to everybody, because there's probably a dominant meaning that comes across in the press and the news broadcasts.
I think there are other examples where it's much easier to see that there is a struggle that goes on and, an example that's been in the news over the last few years which comes to mind is around the age of consent for young gay men, where I think it was really clear to see that there were different kinds of meanings about whether this was something that's a different form of sexuality, equally valid, with heterosexuality and therefore the consequences as we're saying of that meaning is that people should have equal rights within the law, and the other version was that this is abnormal, to be discouraged in every possible way and therefore certainly not to be encouraged as it was assumed by giving people the same rights within the law.
And I think it's very easy to see that there was a struggle going on, and I think what's important is to recognise that those struggles are going on when there seems to be one dominant view that comes across.
I mean the other example that came to mind for me which again has has been in the news a lot recently and over the last few years is around asylum seekers, where you do get a dominant view that asylum seekers are a problem. But what's interesting is to see how the terminology has changed, and that whether or not you talk about people as refugees or asylum seekers may have different kinds of meanings.
If people get called economic migrants that's become something that is almost like a term of abuse, and yet you know I think about it and I think but people have always migrated for economic reasons, but suddenly it's become a terrible thing to be, and of course again when I was saying earlier like the one word makes a difference, and you get this word bogus that comes in, you know, so you get somebody who becomes a bogus asylum seeker, and immediately the meaning is completely different, somebody who's obviously undeserving, shouldn't be here and should be treated in a very different way from somebody who's not bogus. So I think those are different kinds of examples of how just the words we use are very significant but how sometimes we can see the struggle that's going on about meaning and sometimes we have to search a little bit more carefully.
John Clarke
And it seems to me that's very helpful and I particularly think I mean those questions around bogus versus genuine, or deserving versus undeserving I mean are part of the sort of range of constructions that play a particularly strong role in relation to social welfare.
I mean, governments and professionals and public debates often circle round and round who has legitimate claims to welfare and that sort of division of people into bad, undeserving, scrounging, bogus, against decent, legitimate, deserving, respectable, is I think one of the sort of recurrent features that students might find throughout D218.
Gail Lewis
May I add one other point in relation to that as well that as Esther was talking it occurred to me as well that one of the consequences of these struggles over which definition which meaning becomes the one that we all know, is that the one that we all know establishes itself as the unquestionable, the truth, the thing that just is, one doesn't ask the question about it.
And that becomes terribly important in terms of thinking about the relationship between competing definitions, because one does seem to occupy the position at the centre, the one through which everybody else is positioned so the deserving, the single mother who's the widow, whose husband may have died in the Gulf or in Kosovo, in that sense she's deserving and entitled to the range of benefits, and there's no question about her.
But the label single mother somehow, as a definitional sense, doesn't really conjure her up, that's not who we mean, so immediately when you say single mother we conjure up a particular kind of woman, young probably, carries with it the idea that she's probably trying to do that to get public housing in some way, etc, etc. And so there are competing definitions, but some are stronger than others, stronger in the sense that they're the ones that become established as truth, and that's also carried in that notion of social construction and that we'll see throughout the course.
John Clarke
I think that's very helpful cos I think it takes us back in a sense to where Esther started with the idea of having to be sceptical and standing back from the most obvious clear true, apparently true, statements about the world and welfare and the relations between the two.
So it seems to me we…we've rehearsed in a sense some of the key things about social construction, that it involves naming, that it involves definition that it involves attaching as it labels to particular types of people or particular types of condition, and that they have consequences, both for welfare policies and for peoples lives, but also that we ought to be attentive to the fact that there may be other definitions struggling to be heard sometimes, very tiny voices as it were at the edges, but nevertheless as social scientists we ought to be attentive to them.
So that as it were has taken the first word, that's taken social construction. But there was a second word attached to what D218's approach to the course is, which was social constructionism. So can I turn to you again Gail and say, what's social constructionism?
Gail Lewis
Social constructionism is the overall perspective that runs throughout the course. It signals to us the stages, sets of questions, that we want to ask as we go through all the different components of the course. Its starting point is the notion embedded in social construction, in the way that we'd be talking, and that is that language is active. It doesn't simply describe homeless people etc., it sort of brings them into being, it shapes them in a sense, in the sense that we talked about that we know who is being referred to when you say particular terms.
So social constructionism starts from that notion of language as active, but in the D218 context it moves slightly beyond that and talks about…I suppose we could identify seven to eight elements. The first one would be that question of naming or labelling, or making something mean something.
Then the consequences of making things mean things - particular things - is that groups or conditions get categorised in some way: deserving, undeserving, black, white, ablebodied, disabled, etc. So there's categorisation.
But then I think it's particularly in the policy context, what happens is is that different degrees of value are attributed to those categories. For example the married mother in this day and age who manages successfully to bring up especially her boy children and handle some form of paid employment, is valued more highly in policy terms than the single mother who may be recognised but who some way is not quite of the same order.
So this then valuing of the categories leads to some degree of hierarchical ordering. There's a way in which you can see tiers of groups of people or states of being, conditions of life, or behaviours – I mean Esther's reference to the idea of young homosexual activity on the part of men as opposed to heterosexual activity among young men.
Then in social constructionism in the 218 erm sense we would want to then move on to say well how does this sequence get reflected in policies, and how in other words, do policies take a particular shape because they're premised on a particular understanding, a particular definition given to a group or condition, and then in being embedded in that policy and therefore guiding welfare practice, they begin to reinforce and reproduce those dominant meanings.
Then I guess, and this is where a kind of bricklaying metaphor earlier comes in again, is the layers, the sedimentations, the idea that a particular kind of family is seen as the best, and therefore if that's the case there must be particular kinds of gender relationships that gets laid on the top of that family because that family presupposes husband and wife and children living together etc.
So in social constructionism then we're wanting to move through those six elements, but key as well and this is perhaps the seventh element, is the question of power. Whose definition wins out as the one against which others have to struggle, whose definition is embedded in the policy. Whose definition guides professional practice in welfare agencies, and then finally but not least, where and in what forms are contestations to those dominant constructions emerging, influencing policy, reshaping it in a particular kind of way with more or less effectivity. Social constructionism in 218 goes through those layers. We can look at policies in a number of ways and start at any point in those layers.
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Social Construction/Constructionism part 3 (9 minutes 4.5 MB)

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John Clarke
I think that sense of layers and their…and the bricklaying imagery is really quite helpful, and of course I'm immediately going to spoil it by trying to pick odd layers or odd bricks out of the structure, but it seems to me that I mean in a sense I want to encourage everybody to rewind the tape and listen again to that sequence, cos it seems to me that…that playing through that sequence is a really important one, and it gives me a sense of how D218 works, that that's quite sharp and clear.
So, for everybody's sake I'm just going to repeat it very quickly which is, you know, layer one is the question of the labelling or naming or defining of things. Layer two is that the world is then categorised into different groups so that distinction between bogus and genuine, the deserving and undeserving. Then I thought that question about how we value the different categories and that they become ordered in some way, some more valued, more cherished, more loved, and even more supported by welfare policies than others, which we don't like, which we disapprove of, which we didn't want to happen, which should not be supported by welfare policies.
And so that…that connection then, a value, and in a sense that welfare policies add to, or reinforce those values, that… then that question through power to those challenges to what we think we value, seems to me to be really important because it says, why do we think, why do we take for granted that welfare policies should support this way of living rather than that way of living, and it seems to me that if D218 opens up that question of why do we think welfare policies should work that way to reinforce those things, to strengthen those values, that opens up what a proper approach to social policy ought to be, and so I mean having said that I'd pull bricks out of the structure I haven't, but I want to take that question of value and value being contested as absolutely important, because it seems to me one of the things welfare policies do is to sort of naturalise that, is to make it obvious that that's what we ought to be doing and, of course welfare policies ought to support the family.
And then you unpack what is meant by the family and it turns out to mean what sort of family, and if you invest in supporting that sort of family it means you don't support other forms of family which might be perfectly adequate, satisfactory, happy forms of living lives. And then, I mean once you begin to see that that's contestable that can be challenged; it opens up welfare policy to proper social science analysis. I love the construction, and I love bricklaying and I think it's really exciting and I want to ask Esther if she's got another metaphor or a rather different view of how that approach to social construction and social constructionism holds D218 together.
Esther Saraga
I think it does link the course in particular sorts of ways and I think it's a really useful, whether it's from the tape and you write it down or where something very similar is written in the course guide, that you have it next to you and I think in Book 1, it'll be easier to go through it and to see with the particular case studies that are used there on disability of issues to do with race and ethnicity and on sexuality, to actually very systematically see how one can go through those stages.
As you go further on through the course I think people may find that it's not spelt out in the same way, but you can do it for yourself, and I think for example when you get into Book 2 and we go back historically to see that the social constructions, the meanings, the values, which people take for granted today haven't always been there and they have a history that we can trace, they're not arbitrary.
You might want to ask some of those same questions again to see how they've changed, you know how the categories have changed, names and labels have changed, the categories have changed, the values have changed, and power and contestation have changed.
I think you can do that with your own life as well, I mean depending on how old you are but, you know I certainly, those of us you know who grew up in the immediate post-war welfare state, have lived through a lot of these changes and lived through a lot of the changes in meaning in the sense in which we grew up thinking benefits were an entitlement, which were a good thing to have, and into a world in which you're much more likely to be seen as a scrounger or undeserving and in a sense you have to prove it isn't an entitlement, but you have to prove that it's something that you really need.
Listening to what Gail said and you've said John, there was one point that seemed really important also to add, which is that, what D218 is not about is saying, what is the right answer and what are the right values. We may all have our own ideas and students will have their own ideas about what kind of family or living arrangements they value, and what the course isn't doing is saying the dominant views that are around at the moment are the wrong ones, and any particular alternative set of views are the right ones.
That's something that students will make up their own minds about, they may already have ideas about it, their ideas may change as a result of studying D218, but I think the important thing is it's saying that whatever social constructions one's dealing with, whatever names and labels and then following it through the categories and the values and the hierarchies and so on, all of these can be analysed, and they are different ways of constructing the world and they have very different consequences for social policy interventions, and for peoples lives. But, I think sometimes students can get the idea that in deconstructing the kind of dominant ideas, that what we're trying to do is put an alternative set in their place, and it's quite important to see that that's not what the course is trying to do.
John Clarke
That seems to me to be an important point cos my sense of D218 is that what it says is all perspectives, approaches, angles into these things, are social constructions, and that what we encounter in the world are, as it were, competing social constructions. None of them, in social science terms, can be privileged over others. I mean social science might say some are more powerful than others, but it can't possibly say some are more right than others.
In that sense the question about scepticism is actually to make the question of, as it were moral or political choice harder, cos it says you need to look at all of these as social constructions, you cannot simply assume that one of them is right, and…and so it…it forces a space between you as a individual, and any particular set of social constructions, it pulls you away from that a bit.
That seems to me to be extremely important, that working through er of the idea of things being socially constructed and the fact that what we deal with in studying social policy in this way, is a field of social constructions, is important. In the same way I want to pick up one little phrase that Esther used, which is when she was talking about Book 1 she said, ‘and the case studies that are in Book 1’, and I think I want to insist that all…in a sense all of D218 is case studies, that actually there's an approach, and what we've done is try to pick a range of things that can be illuminated by that approach, explored with it and that what social constructionism as an approach does, is allow you to take hold of particular areas, whether it's particular social conditions, whether it's particular social groups, whether it's particular welfare organisations, whether it's particular social policies, take any of those and say, what is going on, what is being socially constructed in and around these things. And I'd want to hold on to that sense of all of D218 being case studies, that puts the particular bits in their proper place, they are things to be explored using the approach and actually what I hope students will come out at the end of the course with, is a sense of how important and powerful the approach is, and then how many things it can illuminate in practice.
I'd like to thank you both very much for illuminating social construction and social constructionism. I hope other people find it as exciting as I have.
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