Ken Gergen talks about Social Constructionist Ideas, Theory and Practice

hello I'm Ken Goren and I've been asked to come here today to talk about social construction and actually there's nothing I'd rather do I've been involved with social constructionist theory practices implications for well let's say over 25 years and it still is exciting today as it was for me 20 25 years ago and part of that excitement is because these ideas and the implications and practices that have grown out of them basically at this point travel the globe and I can be in Delhi I could be in Kyoto Japan I could be in South Africa I could be in Buenos Aires Argentina Helsinki Finland and still have the same kinds of conversations with the same edge the same sort of exciting applications everyone wanting to talk everyone wanting to be in dialogue because a lot hangs on it many people feel that in fact possibly the future of global condition depends a great deal on how we can take in and absorb these ideas and use them now that's a tall order and I don't know what I can make good on that in one day 1/2 hour however it is I'm going to talk today but let's see where we can go now it's really important to realize that social construction as a theory as a set of ideas doesn't belong to any single person it's not my theory it is a group of ideas that have come together to form a mixture a compound out of which new dialogue spring and new conditions the new new conversations emerge so that in fact one can try to freeze those conversations at a given point but you're going to fail and by the way this is also to say that because it's not fixed and not frozen that you as viewer are invited into the conversation you too could be part of the conversation which pushes into the next level you should also realize that exciting as these ideas are they are enormous ly contra they unsettle a lot of ideas about things like truth objectivity value neutrality the self and so on so realize that as I talk about these ideas they're going to seem fairly obvious is the way I'm going to put it but a lot hangs on it so be careful and perhaps we can come back then how why this controversy in a few minutes let me try to make this clear by simply laying out a set of very simple propositions that for many people lie somewhere close to the center of social construction not all would agree on every one of these propositions but let's try them out because this will certainly get you into the center of what this is all about there's a first proposition whatever there is makes no requirements about how we talk about it how we characterize it how we depict it that is to say for example whatever this is makes no demands on us about what language we use how we characterize it and so on we could talk about it there's a lot of different things we could use nonsense syllables that we talked about it we could talk about it as Charlie we could talk about it as a good bottle of water but that's optional okay now watch that I mean that seems simple enough doesn't it but be careful because most of the world's peoples today will want to Center in on something which this is and that is what is true about it that is as a strong tendency to the limit and narrow the range of what it is we could call that now let's go into a second proposition whatever it is that I do call this however it is I characterize it will not be demanded by the what we'll call the thing in itself but we'll grow from a set of relationships in which I'm involved some kind of tradition some sort of community of which I'm a part thus you and I in our sort of daily life we'll call that a water bottle a bottle of water no problem and we would look at that as kind of a solid object now there's no in the terms of let's say physics if you were part of that community there is no technical thing called a water bottle it's just not a label in physics and that would not be a solid if we were to approach this let's say from the standpoint of chemistry still there would be no bottle of water technically that's a humdrum day-to-day term what we would be interested in is the chemical composition of that and what is it in the interior the liquid and that which it's contained in it would be a whole language into itself a whole language that is used by that community to do something with that object if I were an art historian I might be interested in this as a quintessential modernist production that is the particular design feature of this comes out of a tradition which is probably 80 to 90 years old if you design that particular object we wouldn't have the plastic but if you design something to be a bottle let's say 150 years ago would have a quite different style so it becomes an object for me in our history as a modernist design now if I were environ environmentalist team that becomes a degradation to our environment it it bears a carbon footprint that would suggest that this is an abomination why do we need plastics why do we need to import water from far distances why do we need to have water which is probably not very different from what we drink out of a tap in any case so it simply becomes another thing so in effect what this is grows into being what it is for us out of some kind of community now ask yourself this we can look at that we can apprehend it we can take it into account for many different perspectives but if you abandon all the perspectives what can you say about it nothing so in effect everything that is real for us that is which come demands our attention for us comes out of some kind of communal relationship I'm going to come back to that a few minutes terribly important another way to say that is that we socially construct this for what it is now a third proposition is very closely related whatever construction I make of that whatever perspective I take on it is going to bear something that will call values that is there is no value neutral construction of that there's no value neutral description of the world because each one of these terms that I've used from these varies from physics from chemistry from environmentalism and so on and for us in daily life carries with it something we want to do with it something which is valuable for or not valuable for if we want to reconstruct this material we'd like to know the chemical composition we want to read if we want to make sure the purity of that whatever the liquid is we want to know the chemical composition that is our value and that will lead us to describe it in certain ways as opposed to others if we're an environmentalist we have certain values which lead us to call this an abomination or lead us to look at it in terms of its carbon footprint that it's bearing and similarly if we could conceivably generate why not a form of religion in which that could be a holy object we could construct it that way and it would be value for valuable for us because of of its sacred properties we could bring it into worship service we could bathe one in it – at a baptism ceremony so in effect all descriptions will carry with them certain kinds of ways of life certain sorts of things that we like to do with this as opposed to others now this doesn't mean that anything goes with respect to what this is clearly not because once you're in a community there are only certain things that will go and not others if we worship it we're not going to call it an abomination it also means that we could in science have things have carry out practices of prediction and control of that that is as for example in the one a desire to recreate that liquid health ware and chemical form but in order to do that in order to make predictions of that kind in order to have a science we have to have agreement that is we have to have communal agreements that we're going to call this let's say that we're going to have certain kinds of things that we're going to call a chemical elements and we're going to agree on what they are and that's what we're going to agree on the assays we may cover the descriptions we make or the ways in which we study it let's say the apparatus that we'll use to make studies and within that community we can do things like predict but realize that because science makes predictions that doesn't mean that the terms of science are true it doesn't mean they're objective it doesn't mean they're required by the nature of the object that is they're just terms that are used within a certain tradition of agreement which allows you to do things like make predictions if that's not your goal if your goal is to have let's say a refreshing drink then there are other way other languages that you'd want to have for that so in effect within a community one can have certain kinds of then can have a science in which truth can be declared but realize it's true with a small tea one piece of the background of this which is very helpful at this point is the work of a 20th century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that consigned part of the his importance falls from the notion of there is no descriptive language and his language doesn't get its meaning from what there is we've already said in a certain way but what Wittgenstein offers as an alternative and it's implied in what I've said so far is that the meaning of any kind of word is generated within what we call a language game as we can say certain things and not depending on the agreements we make about how we talk ok at a basic way let's say we have simply rules of grammar but we also have words that fit only within certain sentences and not within others I can't say for example that my I feel the emotion of square 'dom not because Square them isn't real but because what does that mean it doesn't fit in any language game we know I say I can say I feel angry or I feel happy no problem but square them doesn't fit not because again because it's not a good eating of whatever it is I might be feeling but because that's not a way we have of talking so you can look at let's say physics and chemistry and environmentalism and psychology and sociology political science and so on in a sense as representing different kinds of language games and for Vidkun Stein these language games are built into what he called forms of life they're not just games of words what you can say they're also things you can do as I can have a let's say in baseball I could have a the truth about whether something was a foul ball or not in the same way I could know whether it was whether objects fall of a certain speed to the earth or whether there are witches and I can have it right in baseball about what is a foul primarily because it agrees with a certain kind of form of life that is the game of baseball which includes players home plates bats balls gloves and so on so each form of life then contains a world contains its own values within that world okay now if you get these reap opposition's you can then begin to move out say well look um isn't that doesn't that suggest that everything that we hold to be real everything that's true for us everything that seems absolutely clear the day-to-day common-sense realities the great realities of science of religion and so on everything that we stand for everything that's worth getting up for in the morning this is valuable no that's why what I really want to do with my life comes out of some kind of relational background not from in here not from some kind of thing that I have brought into the world but from I'm talking with who I'm relating to who I love who I care for who cares for me what my reputation is how we get along together so that relationship become enormous ly important become a centerpiece for most constructionist as something to care for something to look at something to take into account as fundamental now I'm going to add one more piece to this because it would prove important in a moment and that you might say it's a proposition which says nothing I've said so far is true that is nothing I've said so far as an accurate picture map account of what is the case it may seem that way and I may have talked that way but from a constructionist standpoint clearly I have constructed this it's a way of talk so we're not out to sort of prove the truth of or the objectivity of social construction it's more a way of orienting in life to more of a way of approaching all declarations all ways of life as thrown constructs by people in relationship which have certain kinds of embedded values it's not a belief system it's not saying how you are constructionist or not constructions again it's a way of talking way of writing it's a resource that can be used or not refused and most parts of everyday you might say I'm a realist not a constructionist that is I talk in terms of the bottle of water as I don't question that every moment I'm not a constructionist trying to say well that's an interesting construction what way of life does that represent and so on but it's a resource that I can use and and in fact we'll invite an enormous amount of creativity for example death now I'm constructionism isn't saying death is not real or not unreal constructionism makes no basic statements about what there is but the way in which at least in the West we have now come largely to believe not exclusively but it's a biological ending and for certain purposes that's a useful way of looking at what happens that we call death but it also carries certain kinds of values because it begins to suggest that whatever that was is finished gone and so on let's get on with life that's just the end period now that's ok up to a point but it's a very impoverished way of looking at death that is it that it begins to close down on all sorts of alternative constructions that one might make of it all sorts of other traditions which might have different and more enriching more uplifting ways of looking at what has happened is it a transition to another state will one come back and another state is it part of a great evolutionary and so on is it move a movement to some other space some other time as one adds laminations to the concept of death that is opens it up it begins we can do many other things for example I have a friend who says look it's a problem that we look at people as having their lives as having been finished because in certain respects we carry their lives they are part of us their language is part of us their ways of life in habit us we carry them in fact we stay alive we keep them alive through us now that's a rather wonderful way of looking at death but it requires that you put some constraints over the biological view and say well that's a construction but there could be others nor need we did devalue death that is we can begin to ask would we want to for example expand the lifespan indefinitely would we really want to do that would we want everyone living to 200 what kind of sustainable world would that be okay now you can begin to see some of the controversies here that is many people have staked their lives on something being of the – of discriminating between what's true and false about object of developing objective knowledge of approximating what is truth of spending a life and science to try to reach the truth and so on or you can look at the whole Western tradition of the individual where the self is the center where me as an autonomous agent or the center and where a relationship is formed by separate selves the constructionism begins to raise questions about all those views normos heat goes on in that and so or again take the view of value what is valuable many people want to have foundational ethics where this is valuable and some things are not valuable and some cultures and some people's stand for things which I find immoral constructionism doesn't seems to recognize is the possibility for multiple moralities none of which could declare themselves superior now that makes for a lot of heated debate most of that debate is ill-conceived because again it falls back on this traditional way we have of talking with each other which says it's my truth against your truth that if constructionism is true then truth goes out the window of construction of the true objectivity and neutrality or science goes out the window and that's not the point of constructionism because constructionism isn't trying to say what is true it's a way of talking it's a way of looking at things and what it doesn't do is to eliminate any particular perspective that is it doesn't eliminate science it doesn't imitate religion as those two traditions will tend to do because each one wants to declare truth on its side it doesn't eliminate a tradition which we might call immoral it asks another thing how is that possible and how could we relate to it constructionism invites a strong concern with multiplicity in the world and how it is that we can reconcile multiplicities as I said earlier constructionist ideas are debated throughout the world at this point and one of those debates hangs on and many people look at the future hanging on how it is we can exist in the next 50 years in a world with multiple realities multiple declarations of what is true what is real what is right how can we crosstalk how can we have a dialogue which will soften those borders how can we take on alternative realities and again constructionist ideas begin to develop so or at least open that way by sort of saying that we should mutually recognize the possibilities inherent and various ways of life and it's not a matter of which is going to be superior it's a matter of attempting to develop forms of living together new forms of coordination that's another topic I want to spend a few minutes talking a bit about the background of social construction in the last last Billy 3040 years I mean you could trace constructions and ideas a lot further back in time but most of the dialogues that were involved with today come out of three different lines of argument it's interesting to to be able to understand those because each of them has a kind of a critical edge and each of them offers a sort of opening of creative opening and I'm not going to talk about these at length you can go to books that I've written one realities and relationships is a good one an invitation to social construction would be another in which some of this is laid out in more detail so just in in brief there's three different forms of argument if you understand these arguments no Authority can stand as they will bring down they will undermine any kind of authority which says this view is superior first argument we'll call it critical theory argument can trace it back the Marxist questioning of the ideology of capitalism you can bring it up into contemporary feminist critique of male centered institutions you could do gay and lesbian between Hispanic ratina black Minister Atika that has been used by enormous numbers of minority groups to challenge what is called the dominant discourse major figure here if you want a touchstone would be Michel Foucault French social theorist and Foucault's best known for a kind of a phrase knowledge power knowledge / power now how does that go that says look for any declaration of what is true once you take hold of it once it becomes true for you it will begin to have power over you you will become in his terms a sort of a docile body you become its victim we'll give you an example we have in the last hundred years within within psychology psychiatry developed a set of categories of mental illness and we these are looked at as the authoritative categories that are used in diagnosis book all the DSM contains these categories and we insurance is based on ones having these categories and drug companies are all too pleased to total generate pharmaceuticals to cure people in these various categories okay but look remember mental illness whatever on all those terms schizophrenia depression ADHD and so on are constructions they're not required by the way anything is they are constructions that we use to lay on it and if you believe those constructions if you accept the categories they become ways of understanding yourself we didn't have depression as a category of mental illness until almost mid century of the 1900s 1940s or so depression got to be a category now we've got 1 in 10 people in the United States are said to be depressed and probably within a lifetime free people out of 10 will go we knew a depression and antidepressants become a multibillion-dollar drug so in since we made up a category we accepted it as being yes we have depression let me know we all have depression of and everybody's a how do you feel today I'm depressed we're just a common usage of the term and antidepressants are almost over-the-counter at this point go to any doctor and you can get antidepressant within probably a half hour so that we have become in some sense victims of a category system and all the more threatening because that category system continues to expand and expand and expand so now there are about 300 different categories of mental illness 300 different ways that professionals can call you mentally ill again that reduction to mental illness of all the other possibilities for how it is we might understand someone who is somewhat strange and how we might relate to them so it's a be careful of the categories be careful of the constructions in which we live because they throttle us so that's the critical edge it says be always cautious of what you're crawling into as things get to be called as you listen to anyone talking about what is the case because there's always a value hook there there's always a way of life implied now that's the critical edge the better edge is to say look whatever we do in our lives however it is we talk is also going to carry values and as we construct the world we're going to create if we are collaborative whether it be we're going to create realities and we're going to live by those so it says you are not limited for those traditions that you can construct alternative ways of talking which will carry alternative ways of acting which will carry the future so anything you do whether it be in science politics or any other venture and day-to-day life in a family carries with it the future in terms of values now that's the first argument second argument comes it's liason totally different comes out of literary theory the argument here is somewhat different it says something like this but the moment we want to describe something we're going to go back to vidcon stein a moment we're going to go into a certain kind of language game we're going to go into rules of description so whatever anything is I'm going to have to use a set of rules and that thing is not represented in the rules for example we have a language with nouns all right so we've lament languages names things now that's not neutral because nouns cut up the world that is just to use nouns in our language cuts things into pieces that chair that table that bottle this person that ceiling that floor okay so the very language we use is a winnowing machine it could be otherwise what if your language for description for example were dance and all you could do is to move likely it wouldn't be divisive likely it would be movement like we would would show a flow of this there wouldn't be separations there would be a kind of a continuity among whatever there is as one moved about it so every form of description that we use will assert its sort of reality over it over that which we want to describe a poem will do different things to it than a song then will a neutral language of science now in the critical side it says there are no words which are necessarily authoritative in which we must necessarily take into account so in that sense it's critical of all authority or at least it allows one a way of questioning authority on a more positive side it says hey we're fee to create we're free to generate new languages worth we are free to use multiplicities of languages of blending them together using multimedia and so on in terms of our understanding of the world so it's an invitation to kind of creativity in terms of our forms of representation our forms of accounting for things our forms of describing ourselves or others third line of criticism or background not critical theory not literary theory but social theory and particularly social studies of science major figure here is Thomas Kuhn whose work the structure of scientific revolutions at one point roughly the 1970s sold more books and the Christian Bible enormous Lee important work now again there's a lot to be said about that book and a lot about controversy over it but take let's take this point and again it's not an unfamiliar one at this time but Kuhn argued look whatever scientists do is going to come out of the Enclave in which they exist that is there is no independent individual or observer who simply goes in and makes a discovery that that observer of scientific observer is part of a community and we'll use the traditions of that community to make that study you call them paradigms that paradigm might include the theories which are common in that community it might include them methods of study it might clued the assumptions of what the world is made of how to write about it whether to use statistics for example or not but that there is no study of the thing in itself there is only study from standpoint to go back to an earlier statement we study from within paradigms now the critical part of that is there is that look there is nothing outside of paradigms of of understanding and all paradigms are limited and that scent there is no way of establishing a superior paradigm you need another paradigm in fact to establish what was superior that's the critical part undermining the authority the positive part is to suggest that if we are to create alternatives we are to expand the horizons of possibility if we're to generate ways of crossing cultures it will require some kind of collaborative effort it's not a matter of us standing alone not a matter of the independent mind and we're not talking about the hero of Galileo here we're talking about people in communities moving together to create the real the possible in different ways as stances as possibilities and not as the real but a real so you can begin to see these three lines of argument coming out of totally different traditions in the academy begin to converge at some point into basically the propositions that I laid out earlier as constructionist now let me finish up here by just saying what has come out of this so far there's been this sort of enormous mushrooming of new and rich forms of inquiry and ways of life I mean if you just look at what's happened in let's say the social sciences for a moment what is to say look we can generate new theories and theories which try to bring things into the real as opposed to simply as I'm now reflecting them why not generate those theories those ways of looking at the world which will create the world for what in ways that we would like it to be it said look why not new methods of research why do we have methods of which require that I am neutral to you and remain distant from you why not an alternative methods and thus we have handbooks of qualitative methods which have gone through three or four editions in the last ten years simply with the new kinds of things people called methods of research and if you look at therapy the whole field of therapy not the whole field but vital new movements which look at therapy not as trying to get it what's wrong with the person and curing them but looking at what's wrong as a construction in itself and asking whether we can't reconstruct if a person is living a life which they feel in which they feel a failure and a depressed they feel because of that failure is that a good story is it possible we could have another narrative that you could generate about that life which would be more uplifting in which that person wouldn't feel that they were a failure so therapy becomes in a matter of reconstruction take organizations organizational work trying to organizational transformation whole new theories of the organization organizations as let's say conversation and what that means practices of change trying to bring people together in an organization trying to change trade stories about what it is they really like about this organization and using those to spring into the creation of the organization of the future and using the positive core of the organization and saying what could we create out of that and new forms of organization spring to life in work on dialog and particularly conflict reduction whole new ideas about how it is that we could talk across realities emphasis on again on stories if I can tell you a story about the pain or suffering that I've experienced in my particular group as a result of something you've done you can listen to that story in a way in which you can't listen to the diatribe and critique that I might otherwise direct in your place in your direction so a whole new challenges about forms of dialogue which we might bring into play how do we create them how would they work and so on so an effective there's a way in which constructionism is an honoring of all traditions all traditions allowing them a voice at the table bringing them into dialogue and out of that the hope that somehow together somehow together we could create whole new ways of life whole new realities and possibilities which will allow us to sustain and enrich life for all people that's a tall order but it's worth living for thank you

15 thoughts on “Ken Gergen talks about Social Constructionist Ideas, Theory and Practice

  • Why cant we get some smart fuckers to do some more philosophy that gets past this gobbledygook postmodern language game? The arguments here are Frankfurt School and European Marxist critical theory.

    Finally, he lets us know the "aim" of the language game – to create this so-called new future, that allows a reconstruction of society. Yet, they fail to recognize that humans essentially have not changed in several millennia. To really create this new reality, we would have to tear our the human heart.

    Can we trust these language game artists to construct a new reality for us? Especially when we have seen the evidence of the of what marxist regimes have done in constructing their new reality?

    Listen to this for what is it, an interesting mind game fiction.

  • This theory appears to be based on a misreading of Wittgenstein. If an individual comes upon a bottle of water she doesn't need to talk about it or create a language to describe it. She just needs to find ways to make use of it. All this talk about "social construction" is really just about creating a language so that two or more people can discuss it. That doesn't take away the fact that each of us as individuals will be able to relate to the object as individuals and either be helped or harmed or unaffected by it.

  • Although I don't agree a bit with anything he's saying, his lecture was very interesting and engaging. Liked the video, disagreed with everything.

  • If a person alone, dying of thirst in the desert were to find that water bottle, they would treat it the same, regardless of whatever social background they come from, and they would have no need to speak about it. There is an underlying biological system that gives the water bottle value, without any sort of social construction.

  • The Earth existed and revolved around the Sun 4 1/2 billion times before we were around to study and measure it. We did not construct the Earth. We only constructed names, labels, definitions and descriptions of the Earth and its features. There is a world that exists outside our experience of it, and that existence cannot be socially constructed, nor deconstructed. It is telling that he is using artifacts, which exist solely to serve some social purpose, rather than natural objects or organisms, to make his point. The proposition that our understanding of the world is socially constructed is so obvious that I didn't have to take a philosophy class to figure that out.

  • very well articulated and clearly presented concept, I believe the premise here is CONSTRUCTED based on Mead's philosophy.

  • I liked what I heard. There is lots I want to mention but I will narrow my comment. I agree about the multiplicity of truths (little t) rather than the discourse of the ultimate singular Truth. This is the tension amongst the various paradigms electing to have Truth. The authority from the communities that share the same language and explain their forms of life are all subject to a jointly held construction. hence the strong relevance of relationships and language. The world we understand hinges on our everyday understanding of various language used and the multiple relationships in the world. …I want to say that I enjoyed this presentation very much. Thank you.

  • Thank you very much!! excellent! I have a question. in the 23 minute o the talk you mention that "we should mutually recognize the possibilities inherent in various ways of life and it is not a matter of which is going to be superior, it is a matter of attempting to develop forms of living together, new forms of co-ordination”. Does this mean that constructionism values "harmony"  and "peace"?

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