Social Construction of Reality
Social constructionism is a theory of reality and knowledge. Centered on two fundamental questions—(1) What is real? and (2) How is one to know?—social constructionism proposes that what people recognize as real and what they know—with some degree of certainty—in or about that reality is an effect of social interactions. Moreover, people’s understanding of what constitutes the social world is historically contingent and socially relative. Reality, in other words, is not an objective or fixed “given.” Rather, it is a construct that is bound by the specifics of cultural and social location, by the outcomes of historical negotiations over meanings and understandings of the social world, and thus by power relations.
This entry focuses on the significance of discourse in the construction of social realities. It first provides some crucial background on the origins and tenets of social constructionism, before elaborating on both the limitations and the possibilities of deploying social constructionism as a theoretical premise in corporate reputation–related matters.
The Academic History of Social Constructionism
The seminal text on social construction is Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Constructionof Reality (1966). Problematizing the positivist and materialist approaches to reality, while acknowledging the limitations of addressing questions of reality on philosophical turf only, Berger and Luckmann’s work is to be read as a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. This branch of sociology, developed from the late 19th century onward, calls for a theoretical and analytical reflection on what constitutes knowledge about the aspects of the social world. Crucially, sociology-of-knowledge scholars move beyond understandings of knowledge either as universally applicable facts deduced from a material reality or as cultural values and beliefs that are forced on people through a false consciousness.
While Berger and Luckmann’s thesis outlines a program for sociology-of-knowledge scholars, some criticized the work for not displaying a firmer reflexive awareness of the constructive and contextual nature of scientific knowledge, including sociology itself. Subsequent groundbreaking work in the sociology of scientific knowledge and the related field of science and technology studies from the 1970s onward—especially that of Karin Knorr Cetina, Steven Woolgar, and Bruno Latour—paved the way for a much broader and reflexive understanding of the constitutive powers of knowledge in all spheres of social life.
Coinciding with the founding of cultural studies as an academic discipline and the increased distribution and influence of poststructuralist writings in critical scholarship, especially in Britain, came a particular scholarly interest in the constitutive potential of discourse and language. Especially the early works in social constructionism emphasize the significance of generic social interaction, which entails a wide range of generic symbolic resources and practices, including those that are discursive. Since the late 1970s, scholars working within the realm of social construction have increasingly focused on discourse. Language was long considered a structural, apolitical resource for expressing or reflecting a preexisting (experience of) material reality. Particularly, Michel Foucault’s thesis of reality as an effect of discourse is influential in social constructionist scholarship across academic disciplines that reject such traditional views of language. Research from the 1980s onward increasingly explores and reveals how attributes of social identities—cultural characteristics that are reduced or “essentialized” to, for example, people’s gender, race, class, or ethnicity—are constructed and sustained through institutional and everyday discourse. Social constructionist premises are crucial in acknowledging and investigating how core concepts and delineations, both in organizations and in the academic field itself—such as, leadership, reputation, organizational diversity, and social responsibility—are discursive constructs that inevitably privilege the interests of some over those of others.
Tenets of Social Construction
Social constructionism posits a critical stance toward taken-for-granted knowledge. Rejecting essentialist notions of an “objective” reality, social constructionism asks us to be mindful and reflective of our own understandings of the world and to challenge the fixity and “reality” of what we have come to accept as a given—for example, gender and race relations and even sociopolitical-organizational phenomena such as “the financial crisis” or “diversity management.” Social constructionists contend that meanings arise from social systems rather than from individual members of society and that humans derive knowledge of the world from larger social discourses. In other words, there is no objective reality, and what we understand as knowledge, meaning, and experience are socially produced and reproduced rather than residing within individuals. Understanding how meaning is produced and reproduced through communicative interactions is central to the social constructionist thesis.
Social constructionism holds that our knowledge of the world is historically and culturally specific and the processes of constructing social identities depend on and are embedded in the relational, social, political, and historical circumstances in which we are located. What follows is the realization that what we “know” is contextually situated and that our interpretation is always partial and incomplete because reality is provisional and situational.
Social constructionism argues that knowledge is an effect of, and is sustained by, social processes. In other words, social processes—especially language—sustain knowledge. Knowledge, then, is socially negotiated. Through the use of language, we can categorize and construct the world. The centrality of language as to the way individuals make sense of the world and produce and reproduce knowledge implies that language is more than a way of expressing ourselves; language is a form of action.
A final point is that knowledge and social action are interrelated such that our constructions of the world are inextricably bound with power relations. All knowledge privileges a certain perspective while marginalizing other possibilities. Thus, the experiences, ideas, and preconceptions that we draw on in making sense of the social world can have very real, material implications (although some contest this acknowledgment, as discussed later in this entry).
Criticisms of Social Construction
Social constructionism has been critiqued for its antirealist stance. At one extreme, critics argue, the absence of an objective reality/Truth and the possibility of several truths and stories lead to a downward spiral of relativism, of “anything goes.” Indeed, the famous parodist critique by mathematical physicist Alan Sokal in the mid-1990s exposed how ideas and perspectives assume ideological currency not because of their commitment to social reality but often because they mirror prevailing ideological preconceptions.
Furthermore, the centrality of discourse as the basis for knowledge is criticized for neglecting the material context and masking issues of power and constraint. In contrast, a “realist” perspective draws attention to the preexisting institutional arrangements as well as the political and cultural processes that shape and constrain individual action and within which dominant ideologies are constituted and reproduced.
A third critique relates to the (passive) role of the individual relative to (powerful) social processes. In downplaying individual differences and agency, some strands of social constructionism (e.g., macroconstructionism) advance a conception of individuals as passive, oversocialized entities who assume socially determined roles, whereas microsocial constructionism privileges personal agency. However, drawing on the work of Anthony Giddens, many scholars of social construction point out the symbiotic and recursive relationship between (individual) agency and (social, material, historical, political) structure.
It is worth noting that social constructionists vary in their emphasis on a “material” reality (e.g., poverty, death, climate change, racism). Indeed, many adopt a materialist approach that acknowledges that linguistic and discursive constructions of knowledge are situated within and influenced by material structures and sociohistorical contexts. Such a materialist stance permits a nuanced understanding of the relationship between language and structure, highlighting that systems of discourse and meaning are embedded in larger structures that enable and constrain the discursive possibilities available to social actors.
While acknowledging the power of discourse, the sociology of knowledge asserts that these values, beliefs, and ideologies are not necessarily the product of cultural coercion and ideological internalization alone. The kinds of values and beliefs that—at some point and place—shape mutual understandings of social realities and influence people’s actual behavior, relationships, and mentalities can also be based on cultural consent, on ongoing disputes over meaning, or on challenges to traditions and routines. Either way, the kinds of values and beliefs that are constitutive of social reality cannot be seen as separate from relations of power and domination.
Implications for Corporate Reputation
All forms of social constructionism recognize the centrality of language and other symbolic forms in the construction of reality and knowledge, where language moves from being a simple medium that mirrors reality to its role in the creation of reality. To illustrate, how organizations, institutional actors, and stakeholders construct what it means to be socially responsible has implications for the crafting of socially responsible identities and the institutionalization of particular reputations.
Seeing reputation as the outcome of social processes and as a discursive construction makes us cognizant of its contested and dynamic character. From a social constructionist perspective, reputations continuously develop and change in the interactions between organizations and their stakeholders via processes of meaning making, narratives, beliefs, expectations, experiences, and perceptions. The co-creation of reputation problematizes the assumption that reputation can be directly managed (although it can perhaps be influenced) and highlights the presence of multiple overlapping or conflicted discourses that challenge the ability to craft a coherent reputation narrative.
Simultaneously, critical analyses of reputation reveal how communication—especially language—upholds the status quo by limiting the discursive spaces for stakeholder participation in the creation, expression, and sensemaking of reputation. Local in-depth and comparative studies of corporate reputation, particularly in emerging economies, offer a compelling look at the intersections of culture, structure, and agency as well as at the specific discursive strategies that legitimize certain versions of reality about reputations (the ones that privilege corporate interests) while marginalizing the validity of alternate interpretations and reputation narratives.
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