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Social problems: Who makes them?
Social problems: Who makes them?

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8 Conclusion: the view from social constructionism

This course has concentrated on the question of how social issues are socially constructed. It has done so not because this is the only form of analysis in the social sciences. There are many different approaches, theories and perspectives that bear upon social problems, patterns of social differentiation and the organisation of social welfare. Nevertheless, all of them have to operate in a social world where the meaning of things shapes how we act. It is this that makes processes of social construction such a central focus for the study of social issues. As we have seen, there are different ways of engaging with studying social constructions – we can treat them as labels, forms of knowledge, ideologies or discourses – but it is difficult to proceed without studying them. However, it is important to end this course with two cautionary points. The first concerns the fragility of social constructions. The second concerns the relationship between social constructionism and politics.

The focus on social construction often sounds rather ethereal, dealing with fragile tissues of what things mean and how they are interpreted or defined. This all sounds rather intangible alongside what is often referred to as the ‘real world’ – hard facts, solid structures and grim realities. Indeed, part of the attraction of social constructionism as a perspective is that it suggests the social world might be slightly less solid and permanent than such emphasis on the ‘hard facts of life’ might imply. Social constructionism does, after all, indicate that the social world is constructed – meanings are made, definitions produced and interpretations propounded. In this way, social constructionism highlights the provisional character of social life: in other words, what was constructed this way could have been constructed differently. It implies a degree of fragility or impermanence in social arrangements. Social constructionism, as a way of looking at the world, implies the possibility of other constructions.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to confuse social constructionism as a perspective – the way of looking – with the lives of particular social constructions. The perspective may imply impermanence or fragility: the idea that the social world is fluid or changeable. But this is not the same as saying that all social constructions are fluid, changeable or intangible. Nor does it mean that they do not have real consequences for people as they live their lives. Many social constructions are deeply embedded or solidified as ways of thinking and acting that change hardly at all. Despite the impact of competing constructions like feminism, many of our social constructions about men and women have resisted change. They remain deeply rooted in ‘natural’ orientations about what men and women are ‘really’ like. As a consequence, we encounter the sorts of contradictory common sense that we saw earlier in relation to poverty. As regards gender, though, ‘what everybody knows’ might include the knowledge that: there is a ‘glass ceiling’ that stops women being promoted; men are better managers; equal opportunities have gone too far; men can't get a fair deal; women who want careers are unnatural; and men should have the same rights as women to look after children. Confusing and contradictory this array may be, but it is the product of overlaid forms of competing constructions – some long-standing and deeply sedimented in our society but intersecting with others which challenge and attempt to change the ways we think and act.

In this respect, social constructions should not be seen as fragile, insubstantial or impermanent. Berger and Luckmann (1967, pp. 65–89) discuss three interlinked processes through which social constructions become solidified: habitualisation, institutionalisation and sedimentation. Each of these processes relates to the way human societies build patterns of predictability and stability that are reproduced over time. The reproduction of social arrangements requires predictability – the development of habits of thought and action that impose a social order. Berger and Luckmann argue that:

All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort… Habitualization further implies that the action in question may be performed again and again in the same manner and with the same economic effort.

(Berger and Luckmann, 1967, p. 71)

The fact that this order is socially constructed does not make it any less real.

Berger and Luckmann deal with the way in which social constructions become institutionalised as the ‘taken for granted’ facts of everyday life. Although these ‘habits’ may be socially constructed, each individual encounters them as social facts – they are solidified and intransigent. We face these as institutions to which we have to adjust. What the perspective of social construction allows us to see is the way in which a social order – its habits, institutions, characteristic ways of thinking and acting – is both socially produced and appears as the natural and proper way of behaving. Over time, patterns of human behaviour are laid down, or sedimented, and each new development has to relate to the sediments of the past. The social constructionist perspective enables us to understand both stability (the reproduction of this social order) and change, as competing constructions attempt to break old habits and create new ones. The perspective of social constructionism allows us to see these social arrangements as both fragile and solid, permanent and changeable. So, when we explore the social construction of social problems, we can see how particular ways of thinking and acting become ‘habits’, institutionalised and ‘sedimented’ as the normal way of life.

To many people, it has appeared that social constructionism is equivalent to a radical political stance. To point out the constructed nature of social arrangements does raise challenging issues. Indeed, some social and political movements have used the perspective of social constructionism to argue for the need to change existing or dominant constructions. For example, some versions of feminism developed challenges to dominant images, expectations and constructions of femininity as oppressive, exploitative and legitimating forms of inequality. However, social constructionism as a perspective is not equivalent to any particular form of politics. As a perspective, it is politically agnostic – it makes no direct political claims of its own – except about claims that the social order is natural, eternal, immutable or otherwise fixed. Social constructionism presents an inherent challenge to such claims because of the insistence on social orders being socially constructed. But beyond that, social constructionism has no intrinsic politics. It leaves open the question of what sort of social constructions would be most desirable. These are the focus of political choice, conflict and argument.

Such matters cannot be resolved by or within a social constructionist perspective. It may be that, like most social science, social constructionism is ‘inherently disturbing or critical, because to look for explanations of what is normally taken for granted as natural … runs counter to the norms of everyday behaviour’ (Platt, 1991, p. 345). In that sense, the practice of scepticism, the taking up of the role of a ‘stranger’ in one's own society, and the insistence that social orders are socially constructed, is disconcerting. It involves a perspective which refuses to ‘take for granted’. But it is a perspective, not a politics. Social constructionism is, above all, a method of analysing social arrangements. What to do about them is a question that follows from the analysis: the method does not presuppose any particular conclusion.

At the centre of this course is an attempt to explore the ways in which social differences are constructed. The issues explored are sensitive and challenging. They may sometimes raise points that make you uneasy or challenge deeply held convictions about the way the world works and your position in it. We believe, however, that it is only by approaching issues systematically with the help of a social constructionist perspective that the emergence of social problems and the development of social policy can be explored effectively.