Social Constructionism

Social ConstructionismSocial constructionism is a postmodern perspective that emphasizes the socially constructed nature of knowledge. Underscoring the linguistic and relational nature of all knowledge, it emphasizes personal, social, and cultural processes that inform, and limit, the development of knowledge. In contrast to modernist notions of reality as singular, stable, universal, and nonhistorical, social constructionists emphasize that what is taken to be real represents consensually agreed-upon knowledge that results from coordinated, relationally contingent discourses. What is taken as knowledge or truth is therefore contextually and temporary bound; what is true in one time context or culture may not be true in other times, contexts, or cultures.

Social constructionists place a premium on understanding processes of knowledge construction because they emphasize that what is known is inseparable from the processes of inquiry that give rise to knowledge. The role of dialogue, broadly understood as coordinated actions among people, is central to the construction of knowledge. Given the relational embeddedness of knowledge, social constructionists blur the boundary between the personal and social domains, challenging traditional notions of individuality or the self.

The Self And Career Construction

A social constructionist position carries significant implications for transforming traditional notions of vocational and career psychology. Career choices, for example, are understood as coordinated forms of discourse and relational enactment, rather than as products of rational, cognitive, or individual decision making. The traditional supremacy of rational processes, as reflected in concepts such as “career decision making,” “self-efficacy,” or “career interests,” cede to relational and contextual processes that are understood as informing, scaffolding, or facilitating the emergence of given careers or career enactments, rather

than as determining or causing the choice or selection of a given career by a given person. Because career discourses are viewed as relationally, culturally, and temporally bound, career choice is viewed more as an artifact of communal interchange than as a reflection of a “correct,” “preferred,” or “effective” decision or selection on the part of the individual. From a social constructionist perspective, the “I” does not exist outside of language or discourse; it is in and through language that the “self” is constructed, together with his or her vocational options and career possibilities.

Career Development And Narrative

The concept of the career narrative reflects many of the central tenets of social constructionism as applied to the area of career choice and vocational development. Individuals’ stories, their ongoing narrative accounts of their lives and experiences, play a central role in a constructionist account. Individual stories have crucial constructive roles in creating and maintaining relational dialogues at individual, social, and cultural levels. Within the context of these narrative constructions, individual accounts are no longer seen as personal instantiations of self-concepts, self-efficacy, vocational dispositions, decidedness, or development. Instead, the person is understood as drawing from and being constituted by the broader culture in which he or she operates. An exclusive privileging of self-agency is counterbalanced by attention to issues of social, institutional, and cultural context. An individual’s career narrative is understood as emerging from, and being supported by, broader narratives that are available from within the culture and society. The interplay between personal and institutional and cultural contexts necessarily introduces the role of political, social, and cultural forces in forging individual career choices and vocational development. The “choices” that individuals make are therefore bounded by the broader social and cultural metanarratives available in any given time and place, which situate career decision making more as an act of social and relational negotiation than as an act of personal choice and rational decision making.

As a result, social constructionism would position the career narrative that an individual tells about his or her vocational interests, experiences, decisions, and developments within a broader context. As such, it does not represent the career account so much as one possible account, a single voice abstracted from a chorus of voices that jointly constitute the overall and ongoing performance of a career over time. The individual’s narrative is nested within a family system that operates within a given culture, within a particular society, economy, time, and place. An individual’s narrative regarding the pursuit of a career in medicine, for example, is understood as being developed in relation to the narrative accounts of his or her family (e.g., grandparents, parents, siblings, children), as well as accounts that follow from forces acting on global and local economies, developing technologies, and a range of cultural discourses regarding health care, social justice, and the meaning of a career itself.

Constructive Processes

Social constructionism highlights the constructed nature of knowledge, including the construction of such traditional concepts as vocational interests, traits, factors, career decidedness, self-efficacy, or self-concept. In each case these concepts are viewed as constructions that reflect emergent processes of coordinated action, consensually agreed-upon concepts that have no reality, truth, or value outside of themselves or the context that gives rise to them. Attention is turned from characteristics that a person has,to what a person does; in short, from traits to processes. Career itself is viewed not as a static entity, but as a dynamic, ongoing, and necessarily relational process. And it is the continuing coordination of relational action that supports the very existence of a career, as well as an individual’s participation within that career. Both the emergence of new careers and the disappearance of old ones underscore the dynamic nature of what can be called careers. Broader social, cultural, and historical forces continually work their influence on the world of work, supporting an ongoing fluidity in the nature of careers and the accounts that are forged in relation to them.

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  1. Cohen, L., Duberley, J. and Mallon, M. 2004. “Social Constructionism in the Study of Career: Accessing the Parts that Other Approaches Cannot Reach.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 64:407-422.
  2. Gergen, K. J. 1985. “The Social Constructionist Movement in Modern Psychology.” American Psychologist 40:255-275.
  3. Savickas, M. L. 2002. “Career Construction: A Developmental Theory of Vocational Behavior.” Pp. 149-205 in Career Choice and Development. 4th ed., edited by D. Brown and Associates. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Stead, G. B. 2004. “Culture and Career in Psychology: A Social Constructionist Perspective.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 64:389-406.