Social Constructionism, Discourse and Realism


Edited by: Ian Parker

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  • Inquiries in Social Construction

    Series editors

    Kenneth J. Gergen and John Shotter

    Inquiries in Social Construction is designed to facilitate across disciplinary and national boundaries, a revolutionary dialogue within the social sciences and humanities. Central to this dialogue is the idea that all presumptions of the real and the good are constructed within relations among people. This dialogue gives voice to a new range of topics, including the social construction of the person, rhetoric and narrative in the construction of reality, the role of power in making meanings, postmodernist culture and thought, discursive practices, the social constitution of the mental, dialogic process, reflexivity in theory and method, and many more. The series explores the problems and prospects generated by this new relational consciousness, and its implications for science and social life.

    Also in this series

    Therapy as Social Construction

    edited by Sheila McNamee and Kenneth J. Gergen

    Psychology and Postmodernism

    edited by Steinar Kvale

    Constructing the Social

    edited by Theodore R. Sarbin and John I. Kitsuse

    Conversational Realities

    John Shotter


    edited by H. Lorraine Radtke and

    Henderikus J. Stam

    After Postmodernism

    edited by Herbert W. Simons and Michael Billig

    The Social Self

    edited by David Bakhurst and Christine Sypnowich

    Re-imagining Therapy

    Eero Riikonen and Gregory Smith


    View Copyright Page


    Steven D. Brown is a lecturer in social and organizational psychology at Keele University and a member of the Centre for Social Theory and Technology. He has published articles on critical social psychology, STS and organization studies. Research interests include the role of technics in discourse and the organization of emotion. He is currently carrying out work (around Groupware and the mediation of memory) as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's Virtual Society programme.

    Vivien Burr is Senior Lecturer in Psychology in the department of Behavioural Sciences at the University of Huddersfield. Her current areas of interest include social constructionism, personal construct psychology and gender. She is the author of An Introduction to Social Constructionism (1995), and Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology (with Trevor Butt, 1992). Her most recent book, Gender and Social Psychology, was published in 1998.

    Andrew Collier is Reader in Philosophy at the University of Southampton, and author of R.D. Laing: The Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy (1977), Scientific Realism and Socialist Thought (1989), Socialist Reasoning (1990) and Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar's Philosophy (1994). He has recently completed a book on Marxism and Christianity, and is working on realism in ethics.

    Beryl C. Curt is author of Textuality and Tectonics: Troubling Social and Psychological Science (1994). She holds numerous baccalaureate degrees in psychology and sociology as well as a number of PhDs. She has been married several times and also otherwise-related. Her work is all the more remarkable as she has congenital acorporeality, and her writings have been made possible through the efforts of a group of devoted amanuenses. One of the bases for her work is the Mount Effort Foundation in Oxfordshire, England.

    Bronwyn Davies is Professor of Education at James Cook University, Australia. Her research involves analysing the ways in which individual and collective gendered identities are constructed through text and talk. Her latest research aims to theorize the particular relations between new texts, embodied subjectivity and social action within the Asia Pacific context. In June 1996 her latest book, Power/Knowledge/Desire: Changing School Organisation and Management Practices, was published. Later this year the Encyclopedia of Language and Education will be published in which she co-edited with David Corson Volume 3 Oral Discourse and Education.

    Don Foster is Professor of Psychology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and author/editor of Detention and Torture in South Africa (1987), Perspectives on Mental Handicap (1990), Social Psychology in South Africa (1991) and Towards Peaceful Protest in South Africa (1992). His current interests are identity politics, racism, collective psychology, and mental health policy. Most recently he has completed a piece on perpetrators of gross violations of human rights for the Truth Commission.

    Kenneth Gergen is the Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, USA. He is the author of Toward Transformation in Social Knowledge (1992), The Saturated Self (1991) and Realities and Relationships (1994). He is Associate Editor of Theory and Psychology, and The American Psychologist, and co-founder of the Taos Institute, an organization working at the intersection of social construction and societal practice.

    Rom Harré graduated in mathematics and physics and then in philosophy and anthropology at the University of Auckland. He did postgraduate work in Oxford under J.L. Austin. His published work includes studies in the philosophy of both the natural and human sciences, such as Varieties of Realism (1986) and the trilogy Social Being (1979), Personal Being (1983) and Physical Being (1991). His current research interests have concerned the ways that language enters into all aspects of human life, including the sense of self (reported in Pronouns and People, 1990, with P. Muhlhausler) and the emotions. His most recent book in this area is The Discursive Mind, with G. Gillett (1994). He has also been involved in theoretical studies of the computational model of mind popularized as Artificial Intelligence. He is currently Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, and Emeritus Fellow, Linacre College, Oxford, UK.

    Ruth Merttens is currently a professor of primary education at the University of North London. She is the director of the IMPACT Project, a research centre which coordinates a programme of research in the areas of parents in education, early numeracy/literacy, parenting practices and pedagogies. Ruth teaches one morning a week in a local primary school and is the mother of six children. Her current interests include the relations between ideology, pedagogy and psychoanalytic concepts.

    Maritza Montero is a professor of social psychology at Universidad Central de Venezuela, where she is also a member of the Psychology Doctorate Academic Council. She is Vice-President for South America of the Interamerican Society of Psychology, as well as a member of the Radical Psychology Group. Her main interests are community social psychology and politics. She has published several books about these subjects in Spanish (of which Psicologia de la accion politica, co-edited with O. D'Adamo and V. Garcia-Beaudoux, 1995, is the most recent), and has published widely in Spanish, French, English and Portuguese journals.

    Ian Parker is Professor of Psychology at Bolton Institute, and co-director of the Discourse Unit. His recent work has been on the intersection of Marxism and psychology (Psychology and Society: Radical Theory and Practice, co-edited with Russell Spears, 1996), the production and circulation of psychoanalytic explanation (Psychoanalytic Culture: Psychoanalytic Discourse in Western Society, Sage, 1997), and critical exploration of therapeutic practices (Deconstructing Psychotherapy, forthcoming). He is a member of Psychology Politics Resistance.

    Jonathan Potter has researched science, riots/uprisings, current affairs television, racism and relationship counselling. He is the third author of the (constructed as) notorious paper ‘Death and furniture’ (History of the Human Sciences, 1995) which is a celebratory reformulation of relativism. His most recent book (Representing Reality, 1996) is a rigorous, analytically grounded study of the rhetoric of grounding. He is also Professor of Discourse Analysis at Loughborough University.

    Joan Pujol is Lecturer of Psychology at the Universitat Antònoma de Barcelona. His main interest has been the analysis of the techno-scientific discourse, and his present area of concern combines discursive and material perspectives in the analysis of social issues. His recent work has been on the perception of negatively defined social categories (The Non-Delinquent: How Citizens Understand Criminality, with P. García-Borés, M. Cagigós, J.C. Medina and J. Sánchez, 1995), the technological discourse applied to Reproductive Technologies (‘Assisted reproductive technologies as techno-scientific phenomena’, in A. Gordo López, J.L. Linaza Iglesias, Psicologías, Discursos y Poder (PDP), 1995), and the analysis of techno-scientific discourse (‘Understanding the rhetoric of techno-scientific discourse’, Anthropos, forthcoming).

    Carla Willig is Lecturer in Psychology at Middlesex University. Her research is concerned with the relationship between discourse and practice. She has published papers and book chapters exploring the ways in which discursive constructions can facilitate the practice of unsafe sex within the context of HIV/AIDS. She has also published, with Martin Roiser, on the history of the Authoritarian Personality research and working-class psychology. She is currently editing a book on the relationship between deconstruction and application, and the possibility of an applied discourse analysis.



    Catch-all terms like ‘realism’, ‘constructionism’ and so on, invite endless and distracting debates, most of which can be resolved just by attending to the varieties obscured by excessive generality. How can one who espouses social (linguistic) constructionism avoid slipping into relativism? How can a realist avoid slipping into essentialism? Surely the answer is ‘By making enough distinctions’! The authors of the chapters in this book are hard at work in just this enterprise. There will be no resolutions to the big questions posed above, good in all circumstances and for all occasions. Context by context the balance between constructionism and essentialism and between realism and relativism, and how each pair maps on to the other, will be decided in different ways in different contexts.

    If anything is a hard fact about human beings it is their embodiment. But how many people ought there to be per body, and how many bodies might there be needed to sustain a person? Reflection on this question in the light of glimpses into other cultures than our own, makes this question exemplary. Universally humanity is embodied, yet how bodies and persons are mapped on to one another is provided for discursively, not least in the grammars of pronoun systems. The mappings are matters of how things ought to be rather than how they are.

    Again, while we all have natural and acquired powers, ‘agency’ is a defeasible claim, manifested in accounts and positions. To ask ‘Is every human being an agent? Answer Yes or No!’ invites the riposte ‘What's the story-line on this occasion?’

    How to combat the relativism that these social constructionist ripostes seem to imply? ‘Agency’ cannot be a non-relative category if the question of whether I am one or not is answered in different ways depending on which story the events in question are embedded in, and even whether there are any story-free ‘events in question’. I think there are two ways of resisting relativism, both of which are represented in and also challenged by discussions in this collection. The move implicit in Collier's critical realism is to invoke the concept of practice and its correlative, project, in response to the shifting focus of the various discourses available at some moment. Not all projects can be brought to fruition. Partly because of the intransigence of the material substrate of life, and partly because the reach of discourse extends beyond the individual speaker/actor in indeterminate ways. True, there are no atomic psychological individuals, and true, most psychological phenomena are attributes of the flow of semantically significant interactions, yet individuals are fenced in by material forces and barriers of incomprehension. Try getting an early morning cup of coffee in Budapest! Potter's observation that material nature enters life only as it is described is close to the fallacy of actualism. Undertaking a project on the basis of some such description depends on a material exploitation of what nature affords.

    We must separate the world from our knowledge of it. We live in an Umwelt, beyond which there are currently unimagined material possibilities. We must assume that the world is richer than we know. And, I would argue, the same should be our attitude to people. Why should we assume that the possibilities of the human world are exhausted by our current discursive resources? But to think that we must break with the strict claims of hard-line social constructionists. Something exists outside the reach of symbolic systems. Language must be reaching beyond itself. Systems of metaphor are mentioned but metaphor as a topic ought to be high on the list of topics that interest those of us who try to strike the balance between the paired dichotomies that we have tried to put in place of the positivism from which we all dissent. How can symbolic systems reach beyond themselves?

    But there is a second line of argument, one which we owe at least as much to Holiday as to Habermas. If any of the texts collected here are to come to life, the conditions for the possibility of language must be met. And this must be a non-relativist truth about non-relativist matters. Some of these necessary conditions are material, that print should have some temporal stability. Some are social, that we share, ceteris paribus, a common language. Some are moral, that not all occasions of speech and writing are deceptive. It is here, I believe, that the tie to a political dimension can be tied quite tightly. Modes of action, forms of discourse and so on, that are addressed to other members of our species and yet undercut the conditions of their own intelligibility, violate the only categorical imperative, the preservation of persons.

    As one who has personally faced the challenge: ‘How can you be a social constructionist in psychology and a realist in physics?’ I welcome these chapters. Yet, I would like to add another pair of ‘positions’ to the double dichotomy explored here. It seems to me that the way forward opens up by introducing the ontological distinction between a dynamical, potentialist, account of the world and a static, actualist view. This dichotomy plays a subsidiary role in some of the chapters that follow. I would hope that it would come to the fore as at least as important a contribution to all the good things the authors of this volume hope for.

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