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Definition: constructivism from Dictionary of Psychological Testing, Assessment and Treatment

The argument that learning is not objective and factual but is inevitably shaped and even biased by the learner’s prior experience, the context in which the learning takes place, etc.

Summary Article: Constructivism from International Encyclopedia of Political Science

Constructivism is a theory according to which social phenomena are constructed through interactions among humans, who interpret one another's actions and define situations based on those interpretations. Thus, constructivism offers a way of studying social phenomena, which people tend to treat as though they were objective entities. However, from the viewpoint of constructivism, what people believe to be objective entities are actually accomplished through interactions between human actors who interpret those phenomena within specific social and historical contexts.

Constructivism is not a theory composed of a series of hypotheses but a perspective that studies discourse in order to analyze phenomena. This perspective gained prominence following the publication in 1966 of Peter Berger's and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality. Since then it has become widely influential throughout the social and human sciences. For example, in anthropology and sociology, there were the debates between “essentialism” and “constructivism” concerning sex, race, and ethnicity. The debate made it clear that sex and race cannot be differentiated using only biological standards nor reduced to unchanging essences. People use these categories in practical ways, contingent on the context: Depending on the situation, a certain gender or racial category is attributed to a particular person.

Thus, it is impossible to identify sex using only an objective biological standard. There are people who experience an inconsistency between their biological sex and their subjective consciousness of the sex to which they think of themselves as belonging. In Japan, a law was passed in 2003, by which people who undergo gender reassignment surgery and who do not have any juvenile children can be categorized legally as being of their new sex by getting permission from the family court. They can marry people of their previous gender. Similar laws, some of which allow more lenient conditions for changing one's legal sex, were legislated in a number of European countries.

Race (usually understood as rooted in biology) and ethnicity (understood as cultural) also prove hard to classify. Many people are so-called mixed race, and ascribing racial categories to them is not easy. For example, the U.S. Census treats “Hispanic” and “Latino” as ethnic categories, and Hispanics or Latinos may classify themselves as belonging to the racial category of White, Two or More Races, or Some Other Race. However, in informal contexts, Latino and Hispanic may be considered to be either ethnic or racial classifications.

Ethnicity is characterized by cultural traits such as language, religion, customs, and social behavior, but standards for ascribing ethnicity also are uncertain. In the United Kingdom (UK), Chinese are sometimes considered an independent category, differentiated from the separate Asian category, while there are different ethnic groups among Arabic people. Also, as ethnicity has become the focus for many nationalist movements in the world, it becomes apparent that the concept of ethnicity itself is a historical product.

On Terminology

Readers may have encountered two terms: constructivism and constructionism. Concerning these different terms, Holstein and Gubrium, the editors of a comprehensive handbook on the study of constructivism published in 2008, point out that, although constructivism is the preferred term in science and technology studies and constructionism is more widely used in the social sciences, the two terms can be used interchangeably in most cases. Joel Best, another sociologist, notes that constructivism has high cultural overtones and appears to be favored by British scholars, although American sociologists seem to use the two terms interchangeably. Thus, this entry's use of constructivism as a generic term in the social sciences encompasses constructionism, the term often used in empirical research by political scientists.

Constructivist Studies of Science

No one can dispute that the roots of constructivism are in the sociology of knowledge. However, the sociology of social problems and the sociology of science were the specialties that took the lead in exploring constructivism and within which this perspective became dominant. Using ethnographical and/or anthropological studies, sociologists interested in studying science from a constructivist viewpoint described how scientists reach agreement when they discover new information.

Although these researchers focused on the interactions among scientists in the laboratory, they tended to neglect outside influences. Constructivists who study the sociology of science often do limited, microsphere ethnography in laboratories. Some of them focus narrowly on scientists' conversations, as though only discourse can determine what is considered a scientific finding. These researchers are liable to be committed to relativism. That is, some of them seem to argue that anything might be recognized as true so long as there is consensus through discourse within a community, or they seem to imply that there is no way to make sure of the certainty of assertions. When some of them expanded their research to scientists' networks outside the laboratory, they discovered much broader, structural contexts that influence the activities of scientific research.

Constructivist Studies of Social Problems

The study of social problems is the constructivist work most relevant to political science. Research in which sociologists escaped from the trap of relativism can be seen in the study of social problems. Social constructivist studies of social problems evolved from the labeling perspective on deviant behavior. Labeling, which flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, focused less on the deviant behavior itself than on the process through which some behavior is defined and treated as deviant. It studied how deviant behavior is socially constructed. Positivists who study social problems search for the causes of social problems. Constructivists, however, point out that social problems are taken for granted by positivist scholars.

Positivists presuppose what are social problems and treat them as though they are social conditions, rather than first studying how some phenomenon is constructed into a social problem through the interactions among social actors, agencies, groups, organizations, and institutions. A social problem is what those people—not academic researchers—define as a social problem. Thus, as Malcolm Spector and John Kitsuse (1977) assert, social problems are not objective conditions but the activities of individuals or groups who make claims with respect to some “putative conditions.” Analysts should focus on the people making and responding to claims and counterclaims and on the interactions among claims-making groups and responding groups and institutions.

When this constructivist perspective was criticized for inevitably presupposing some characteristics of the “putative conditions,” it divided into two schools: strict constructivism and contextual constructivism. Strict constructivism claims that researchers should refrain from any presuppositions about the characteristics of “putative conditions” and aims for a pure, presupposition-free constructivist position. Contextual constructivism says that it is impossible to have presupposition-free constructivism. It also says that scientists can sometimes check the “putative conditions” and find that some claims might be absurd, even though the aim of contextual constructivist research is not debunking the content of the claims. At the beginning, there seemed to be much support for strict constructivism, yet the great majority of published research adopts the stance of contextual constructivism.

Even when the same behavior is claimed to be a social problem, the people making the claims can adopt very different “frames,” depending on historical and social contexts. Social problems that are constructed using frames that are easy to accept tend to become established, familiar social problems. Recent examples of such widely accepted frames include “human rights,” “health,” and “democracy.” Consider the case of smoking. Selling cigarettes was banned in 15 states, such as Kansas, Illinois, and Minnesota, in the United States by 1909. (During World War I, people became tolerant of cigarette smoking, and these laws were later abolished.) This was accomplished by defining it as a vicious habit and an immoral behavior from the viewpoint of Protestant ethics. More recently, smoking became regulated because of its harmful effects on health. But even the health frame can be constructed in different ways: Initial claims emphasized the damage to the smoker's own health; however, more recent regulations have been justified in terms of the risks to others' health caused by passive smoking. Thus, the current construction invokes a synthesis of health and rights frames.

Once a social problem gains acceptance, it can undergo what Best (2008) calls “domain expansion.” When “hate crime” was first categorized, it was defined as a crime caused by racial prejudice. However, its domain has expanded to include prejudice against sexual orientation. Similarly, child abuse initially meant physical violence inflicted on children, such as beatings, but now it has been expanded to include verbal and psychological abuse.

When the mass media focus on some phenomenon claimed to be a social problem, to attract more attention and have a stronger impact, they tend to depict an extremely serious case. Because it is referred to repeatedly, it becomes a high-profile case, and people are liable to think of this instance as though it were a typical case of that social problem. For example, claims about missing children are illustrated with cases of children kidnapped and murdered by strangers. However, the reality is that most child abductions are committed by a separated partner in the course of a family dispute, while the great majority of children reported as missing have been runaways who returned home safely and voluntarily.

Social problems are constructed by using the language and narratives of claims makers, victims, supporters, and the media and through interaction among them and their readers and audiences. First, a phenomenon should be recognized and named. In that sense, it is constructed as being linguistically different from other phenomena. Such claims serve as a kind of advertising activity, promoted by mobilizing resources to make the phenomenon recognized as a serious problem to others and to demand some sort of solution from among various alternatives. Rhetoric is crucial to stimulate people's emotions and to persuade them. Thus, victims are presented as innocent and vulnerable.

This discourse of claims can be analyzed from different approaches to constructivism. Historically sensitive constructivism inspired by Michel Foucault analyzes discourse at a macrolevel. Constructivism informed by ethnomethodology and conversation analysis studies discourse at a microlevel.

Construction of Crime Problems and Social Policy

In advanced societies, social problems and politics intersect when deviant behavior is being constructed as a criminal problem. One strategy taken to solve such problems is to “get tough” and mete out harsher punishment. This policy is most evident in the United States and the UK.

In the United States, the “broken-windows” theory has been put into practice. According to this theory, broken windows, graffiti, and similar public displays of neglected property and petty criminality tend to encourage further criminal behavior. The strategy in this theory is to regulate such minor offenses in order to prevent serious offenses. In the UK, the government has instituted laws to control antisocial behavior. Drawing graffiti, making noise to disturb neighbors, annoying pedestrians, and other similar behaviors are defined as antisocial. When people commit such behavior for the first time, they are cautioned and get an Anti-Social Behavior Order (ASBO), which leads to a civil case before a magistrate's court. If they exhibit antisocial behavior again and breach the ASBO, they can be prosecuted by an agency of the local government at a magistrate's court as a criminal case and can be imprisoned.

People are afraid of youth crime. By showing themselves to be “tough on crime,” politicians gain popularity and receive more votes from their constituents. Even though politicians may know that the true dichotomy is not tough versus soft on crime, when they see the tabloid newspaper headlines and articles, which they think reflect public opinion, they hesitate to be seen as soft, being afraid to lose popularity among voters.

Media coverage can foster a strong fear of crime. Also, it encourages readers and audiences to empathize with victims. The fear of being victimized and the desire for revenge against the perpetrators rises, and people demand tougher policies against crime. Politicians not only think it their responsibility to respond to the population's desire but also try to use the situation as an election instrument. This is “penal populism,” promoted by distorted public opinion inspired by the mass media's sensational crime reporting, politicians' posturing so as not to lose popularity, campaigns by interest groups including formal social control agencies, and the enterprises that run private correctional facilities.

In 2008, the International Centre for Prison Studies reported that the number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails was 2,293,157 (including pretrial detainees). The incarceration rate was 756 per 100,000 of population: the highest rate in the world, and according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, one in nine Black males between the ages of 20 and 34 years was in jail. The International Centre reported that in England and Wales, the number of prisoners nearly doubled, from 42,000 in 1991, to more than 83,000 in 2008. The 2008 incarceration rate was 153 per 100,000 population.

Another aspect of the social construction of policy is the social construction of target populations of social policy. Research done by constructivist policy scholars shows that people who are most vulnerable tend to participate least in politics, so their interests are liable to be ignored in the designs of social policies. It is also the case that people who are deemed the target of benevolent social policies tend to be disadvantaged and therefore neglected, as they suffer from a scarcity of resources and fail to participate in politics.

Constructivism and International Relations

In the study of international politics, realism has been the dominant theory. That perspective supposes that nations unwaveringly pursue power and wealth. However, the situation of “the war of all against all” is not always a natural condition nor universally adaptive to all situations. If the leading nations adopt an attitude that assumes all other nations are enemies, the situation of the war of all against all seems to be accomplished by the reactions of other nations, which is to take the same attitude to defend themselves from stronger nations. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, this is not an unavoidable or necessary situation. Alexander Wendt (1999) identified three types of cultural conditions of anarchy and called this type “Hobbesian.” He pointed out that there are alternatives such as “Lockean,” which is based on roles of rivalry, and “Kantian,” which is based on friendship roles. Using the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens and symbolic interactionism in sociology, Wendt postulates that agents and structures are mutually constitutive, and he emphasizes agents' interpretive activities through which collective identities are formed.

Thus, what looks to be a general principle presupposes some conditions that are not universal. Constructivism points out what is taken for granted by ordinary citizens, diplomats, leaders, groups, organizations, agencies, and states. Thus, in the field of international relations, there cannot be objective and universal rules such as those that govern in the natural sciences.

From the viewpoint of constructivism, the actions of nations are also performed according to their accounts and interpretations of what is considered legitimate, appropriate, or authentic. It is not only material power but also ideas and norms that influence their actions. Actions of nations are not automatic reactions to the global power structure. Further, they cannot be predicted using only a rational choice theory based on the calculation of nations' material powers and interests.

Not only nations but also agencies, such as nongovernmental organizations, nonprofit organizations, human rights organizations, the United Nations (UN), the UN's Human Rights Committee, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the European Commission of Human Rights (now obsolete), and the International Criminal Court, have become more significant in international relations. It is important to take into account these groups' own definitions of the situations concerning norms, appropriateness, legitimacy, roles, and identities that affect their behavior.

Because nations interpret and define situations, they are not puppets or organs that produce the same outcome confined by the international structure. Compared with the adherents of realism, which emphasizes material power, constructivists are interested in researching international norms that affect international relations. Constructivists explore how new norms emerge, cascade, and become internalized within international relations. Although the emergence of norms in international relations is an interesting theme of constructivism, in sociology the control of human behavior by rules has been studied mainly by structural functionalists. However, in international relations, global situations are much more fluid than the social structure of a single state, and constructivists study all the facets of norms, such as their emergence, interpretation, role taking, and life cycles. This complexity is why constructivism, rather than structural functionalism, is needed to study international relations.

When a norm is applied, we can expect that interpretations of it will be very different from situation to situation. The pragmatics of norms, the rhetoric that is endorsed when norms are activated, and the discourse that can mobilize concepts such as legitimacy, authenticity, appropriateness, and conventions are interesting themes of constructivism. One of the main characteristics of constructivism is that it does not assume that the behavior of nations is objectively predetermined by material power or interest; rather, constructivism recognizes that interpretations of ideas and definitions of situations by human agencies shape international relations.


Constructivism has become too influential in most of the social sciences to be ignored. In some fields, such as the study of ethnicity and race, it has become almost impossible to find studies that have nothing to do with constructivism or were not inspired by it. The number of academic papers in the social sciences that contain terms relevant to social construction has increased (Best, 2008). Since the connotations of “social construction” or “socially constructed” have become so diversified in academic papers and books, it looks as if the term constructivism (or constructionism) might no longer cover all that their usages have come to signify. Although the majority of research in political science and the social sciences continues to be within the positivist tradition, constructivism has become increasingly valued for its insights and creativity, and it will likely continue to play a growing role.

See also:

Constructivism in International Relations, Discourse Analysis, Political Philosophy, Political Theory

Further Readings
  • Berger, P., & Luckmann, T.1966 The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Doubleday.
  • Best, J.1989 Images of issues. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
  • Best, J.1993 But seriously folks: The limitation of the strict constructionist interpretation of social problems. In Holstein, J. & Miller, G. (eds.), Reconsidering social constructionism: Debates in social problem theory (pp. 129-149). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
  • Best, J.2008 Historical development and defining issues of constructionist inquiry. In Holstein, J. & Gubrium, J. (eds.), Handbook of constructionist research (pp. 41-64). New York: Guilford.
  • Holstein, J., & Gubrium, G. (Eds.). 2008 Handbook of constructionist research. New York: Guilford.
  • Holstein, J., & Miller, G. (eds.). 1993 Reconsidering social constructionism: Debates in social problem theory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
  • Roberts, J. V., Stalans, L. J., Indermaur, D., & Hough, M.2003 Penal populism and public opinion: Lessons from five countries. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Spector, M., & Kitsuse, J.1977 Constructing social problems. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings.
  • Walmsley, R. (n.d.). World's prison population list. London: International Centre for Prison Studies. Retrieved October 15, 2010, from
  • Wendt, A.1999 Social theory of international politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ayukawa, Jun
    Kwansei Gakuin University Nishinomiya, Japan Kwansei Gakuin University Nishinomiya, Japan
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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