Constructivism in psychology refers to the idea that people construct, rather than absorb, knowledge. Constructivism is primarily an epistemology – that is, a perspective on what knowledge is, what knowledge does, and how knowledge develops. As such, constructivism has profound implications for the study of psychology.
Constructivism embodies a range of epistemological perspectives but can be viewed generally as follows: All meaning emerges only as people construct knowledge in specific contexts. Knowledge of something does not emanate from the thing itself with a prepackaged (a priori) meaning already intact, as in the notion of a radio station broadcasting the same sounds to everyone. The constructivist view is that people interpret things and events to the degrees and in ways afforded by the interpretive abilities of people and their (notably social) contexts at particular times. As such, constructivism maintains that all knowledge is relative to people and their contexts. Thus constructivism opposes essentialism, which is the notion that things, people, ideas, etc. have essential and meaningful qualities that transcend the relativity of context-limited interpretations.
The proposition that all meanings are constructed can lead to the conclusion that nothing truly exists. However, many if not most constructivists stop short of making claims about ontology (that is, on the nature of existence or being). For example, radical constructivist Ernst von Glasersfeld claims that statements positing a true nature of existence (such as the statement “nothing exists”) run contrary to the principles of constructivism, which is that knowledge is relative to human context. What matters for understanding and adapting in everyday life is how we think about things, not the true or false nature of things.
Two key features of constructivism require elaboration at this point: self-organization and context. The two share a dynamic relationship. Constructivists in the social sciences and humanities view knowledge as generated by self-organizing, organismic systems. Individual organisms (for example, people) construct knowledge in contexts. These individual organisms, themselves systems and contexts, are also systems that include organisms – as in society’s containing individuals. The organism interprets actions in various ways (from sensations to thoughts), drawing upon cues from the present and previously experienced contexts. The organism then adapts accordingly, which subsequently changes the context. The organism and context remain in a state of mutual adaptation until equilibrium is established. However, the definitions of equilibrium and of the entire process itself are matters of how the system is interpreted or framed. For example, you might say a person eats until full, which represents equilibrium. But this is equilibrium only if you take the person-eating sequence as the frame of action; if the frame is broader, like the person’s biological life span, then equilibrium is not reached until the person’s death. Thus the process of self-organization depends on the context, and the context is shaped by its organism’s self-organization – and the view of this entire scenario is relative to the viewer’s purposes and framing of the system in question.
As for context, in a broad sense, constructivists consider physical and psychosocial factors. Constructivism can be found throughout the physical sciences and technologies – for example, systems theories, neuroscience, cybernetics, biofeedback, artificial intelligence, feedback and feed-forward loops, “smart” household appliances, and the Internet. Constructivism in each these areas deals with self-organizing systems (not necessarily human) whose function and processing of information depends on dynamic contexts. These fields and products employ the ideas of constructivism at least implicitly and often explicitly.
In the fields of psychology and social sciences, the primary context of constructivism is social. The psychological perspective is that nothing presents the individual person with greater opportunities for generating knowledge than does interacting with others. The terms social constructivism and social constructionism are used to represent the idea that social interaction is a dominant factor in everyday knowledge construction. (Both social constructivism and social constructionism imply largely the same epistemology.) Here the social context can be interpersonal, group-based, or cultural, such that different social contexts at each of these levels affect how individuals and collectives interpret meaning. Furthermore, time plays an important role in social constructivism, as human contexts are dynamic processes and are inextricable from social history.
While the popularity of constructivism in the sciences and humanities rose considerably in the past half century, tenets of constructivism can be found some 2500 years ago in Greece, India, and China. In India, the Upanishads warned of the hazards of mistaking one’s thoughts for an ultimate reality, while the Buddha added that the subjective and highly impressionable mind is what creates the self. In China, the Tao Te Ching opens with, “Existence is beyond the power of words to define” (Brynner trans., 1944/1972, p. 31). In Greece, Heraclitus claimed that permanence is illusory and that all meaning is relative to context. Similarly, the sophists espoused the relativity of knowledge, as when Gorgias said that absolutes cannot be comprehended (and went beyond mainstream constructivism to claim that, therefore, nothing exists).
Move to almost 2000 years later, in the wake of the Renaissance, to the putative founders of modern, Western philosophy and science. Here a division emerges between empiricism, which bases knowledge in sensations and actions, and rationalism, which does not. Contemporary constructivism has roots in both, but positive psychology has stronger ties to empiricism, so such thinkers will be showcased here. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) claimed that the mind cannot be trusted in pursuit of truth, that we can only use what we perceive with our senses to know the world, and that such knowledge should be built upon an inductive, scientific method of observation. George Berkeley (1685–1753) went a step further (and into ontology), stating, “to be is to be perceived” – that is, perception creates existence. Such ideas emerged within a millennium of cultural history that increasingly valued the roles of an empirical foundation for knowledge and the individual’s interpretation of experience.
The first half of the twentieth century saw the rise of phenomenology, structural linguistics, modern hermeneutics, and existentialism – each of which helped establish constructivist ideas in the academic and popular mindset. By 1966, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality was poised to become a constructivist manifesto for the social sciences. Finally, postmodernism has relied heavily on and has extended the basic ideas of constructivism in more radical ways, some of which have facilitated the aims of scientific psychology, and some of which have not (see below).
Constructivist philosophy left its mark on the new science of psychology in the late nineteenth century. Franz Brentano emphasized the system of a person constructing meaning within a dynamic context, all together constituting a “mental act.” Hans Vaihinger’s “As if” philosophy stated that people construct fictions of reality that people use to organize and adapt to their world as if those fictions were objectively true. William James and John Dewey championed a pragmatist philosophy that emphasized the relativity of interpretations and the utility in studying them empirically. Such ideas fortified the snowballing of constructivism, especially in the United States, where positivism might otherwise have ruled supreme (see below).
Developmental psychology has a long history of constructivism. Jean Piaget is commonly viewed as a seminal figure in establishing constructivism in psychological science. Theories of cognitive development generally claim that thoughts are rooted in actions and sensations and that things gain their meaning from interpretation. Whereas these ideas had existed before Piaget’s work (for example, in the work of James Mark Baldwin), Piaget couched these ideas in terms amenable to empirical study. Lev Vygotsky, whose work would not be discovered by mainstream psychology in the US and Western Europe until some 30 years after his death, also viewed knowledge as constructed but emphasized the social context. Contemporary Vygotskian approaches emphasize how socially constructed knowledge mediates action. Systems theories of development – such as those of motor skills, family, peers, schools, attachment, intimacy, identity, coping, delinquency, and addiction – emerged throughout the latter portion of last century, all pointing to self-organizing systems of knowledge that emerge and adapt over time.
Constructivism has also greatly influenced theories and research in the areas of personality, social, developmental, cognitive, and clinical psychology. Alfred Adler adopted Vaihinger’s idea of fictions in his individual psychology. George Kelly’s theory of personal constructs is explicitly constructivist. Humanistic and existentialist theorists like Rollo May, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow encouraged therapists and researchers to study how individuals construct meaning in their interpersonal and cultural contexts. Erik Erikson outlined how personalities develop according to the ways that individuals adapt to their own interpretations of their roles in interpersonal, cultural, and even historical contexts.
Empirical research over the past century has increasingly focused on cultural and other contextual differences as well as on the individual’s subjective interpretations of and adaptation to life events. On these fronts, constructivism has found a home in narrative psychology, and notably the scientific study of personal narratives. The cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner distinguished narrative thinking from paradigmatic thinking. He said people use narratives, rather than formal logic, to construct meaning in everyday life. Donald Spence differentiated narrative truth from historical truth, noting that therapists need to distinguish a historically accurate narrative from a functionally accurate, adaptive narrative. Dan McAdams has championed the notion that one’s narrative life story is one’s personal identity – the venue through which one constructs a sense of purpose, unity, and meaning in life. He and a growing number of others have outlined frameworks for the scientific study of personal narratives as a key facet of the individual’s overall personality. Whereas some narrative research aims to show how people’s interpretations are biased compared to objective criteria, most narrative research is currently more constructivist in nature. This research examines how meaning-making is shaped by social context and is related to phenomena like personality characteristics, well-being, adaptation to trauma, and development over the life span. This research is increasingly showing that psychosocial meaning-making plays a unique role in people’s lives: The relations between interpretative processes and other phenomena cannot be explained more parsimoniously by so-called objective factors such as demographics and broad personality traits.
Constructivism can be found across psychological disciplines, but positivism and physicalism are at least equally prevalent. Positivism, which has roots in essentialism, is the perspective or assumption that truth is known through the scientific method of inquiry. Also popular in contemporary psychology is physicalism, also known as materialism, physical essentialism, and physical monism. This position states that the nature of all things is ultimately reducible to something physical, apart from interpretation. As mentioned, constructivism does not generally take a stand on the absolute nature of things, but adherence to physicalism and especially positivism seems to make it difficult to acknowledge the validity and utility of constructivism.
Some critics of positive psychology argue that it is overly positivistic in its attempt to investigate human strengths, virtues, well-being, and growth processes. Constructivists with strong rationalist, humanistic, and/or postmodern roots often contend that the scientific method is inappropriate for studying a topic so inherently subjective and contextual as psychology. For example, Kenneth Gergen has argued that the self – the subject of so much research criticized as positivistic in social and personality psychology – is scarcely an entity at all, “saturated” as it is by a hyperrelativistic sea of ever-changing cultural values.
Yet many postmodernists, including Gergen, have argued that postmodernism does not necessarily dismiss scientific psychology but rather poses steep challenges for it. One promising path, proposed by Dan McAdams and colleagues, is that of psychosocial constructivism. The view here is that, while the individual is indeed bombarded by changing social values and myriad models for interpreting and planning one’s life, the empirical fact is that people do develop and maintain relatively stable (though modifiable) value systems over time. These value systems are constructed in changing social contexts but are filtered through the mind of an individual who can and does construct a sense of continuity and enduring purposes. Still, a question that remains is whether or to what degree it will be possible to reconcile scientific psychology’s need for generalized knowledge with constructivism’s need for context sensitivity, especially given the field’s rapid differentiation of contextual factors and the seemingly rapid changes in cultures worldwide.
Constructivism and positive psychology have much to offer each other. Positive psychology is currently charting courses for the study of many constructivist ideas and methods, such as psychosocial perspective-taking, meaning-making, how subjective interpretations affect happiness, spirituality, the social construction of (notably prosocial) emotions and values, intentional self-development, advanced stages of cognitive and social-cognitive development in adulthood, therapeutic adjustment and transformation, organizational behavior and leadership, political and other ideologies from inside the minds of those who hold the beliefs, and much more. This work is aiming to create neither a true model of the world nor a simplistic model of happiness and flourishing. Instead this work seems focused on models of happiness and flourishing that target interpretations within dynamic human contexts.
SEE ALSO: ▸ Cognitive appraisal ▸ Existential psychology ▸ Humanistic psychology ▸ Narrative identity
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