I will attempt to outline precisely what a Social Constructionist Approach is, and apply the idea of Social Construction to social inequalities therefore describe what it brings to the study of inequalities. Social Constructionism is difficult to define but as a general definition, a Social Constructionist is a view that our perspectives, opinion, and knowledge – the way of knowing and seeing the world – is relative to our Society. If we had been brought up in another society or culture with different values, morals, then our knowledge and understanding as a whole, would be also be different.
Burr suggests that there is no single definition which would be adequate for a Social Constructionist approach (Burr, 1995). However, also Burr suggests that Social Constructionism does have its foundations on some assumptions and he describes these as “things you absolutely have to believe in order to be a social constructionist” (Burr, 1995). Firstly he states how knowledge that is taken for granted in our society should always be met with a critical stance by a Social Constructionist, and how they challenge the idea that conventional knowledge is based on unbiased observation of the world. It is the view that we should acknowledge how “what exists is what we perceive to exist” (Burr, 1995), meaning that our concept of what is real is based on what we perceive, rather than it being the ultimate truth.
Burr also suggests, that the way one understands the world is historically and culturally defined. For example, what has been thought of as “natural” has been different throughout history, and varying cultures (Burr, 1995). He claims that knowledge is bound by the culture they have been derived from, and so one should not assume that their particular perspective is the correct one. This is why some Social Constructionists argue that even scientists discoveries surround the idea that their knowledge and discoveries in science could be determined by our society. Therefore, Social Constructionism brings an unconventional way of looking at social inequalities, away from generic forms of analysing knowledge and understanding.
It is also made clear in Burr’s analysis of what one has to believe in order to be a Social Constructionist, that knowledge is constructed by people and between people, through language, and interaction in the duration of their lives (Burr, 1995). This stresses the importance of studying social interaction between individuals, and bringing that to the study of social inequalities to understand where the “knowledge” comes from that one group is better than the other which clearly leads on to inequality. Social interaction is seen as the practices during which our shared versions of knowledge are constructed (Burr, 1995).Having this view means one would claim that there is a variety of what people considers as knowledge, and therefore it becomes fabricated (Burr, 1995)and could be a reason why inequality may start to flourish.
Burr then goes on to claim that social constructionism denies that our knowledge is a direct observation of reality, that all forms of knowledge are historically and culturally specific and this includes knowledge created by the social sciences (Burr, 1995). He stresses how theories and explanations become time and culture bound and how as Social Constructionists; they accept the historical and cultural relativism of all forms of knowledge (Burr, 1995). However, it means that the notion of “truth” becomes rather problematic. Within social constructionism there can be no such thing as an objective fact (Burr, 1995). The search for truth has been at the foundation of social science from the start. Therefore social constructionism is a radically different model of what it could mean to do social science (Burr 1995). What we consider the accepted answer to questions on understanding our world – for example the “truth” – is a product of the social processes and interactions in which people are constantly engaged with each other, and therefore certainly not a product of objective observation. (Burr, 1995). This means it brings a radically different stance to the study of social inequalities. If one challenges what we consider as “truth”, it has the potential to bring a whole new intellectual level to the study of social inequalities.
Some argue that gender differences and therefore gender between inequalities are normal because of the quite obvious difference in the sexual organs men and women have. However, Burr argues that although there is differences in reproductive organs, and this is the case in many species, and we should ask ourselves why the difference in reproductive organs have been given such importance and attention, that whole categories of personhood have been created on it (Burr, 1995). Why do we consider particular things as feminine, such as the colour pink, or flowers, simply because of our sexual organs, when the only thing that has created these concepts of femininity is society and culture?
Language is a huge part of spreading a concept or an idea of something created by societies. Our ways of understanding the world come not from objective reality but from other people, both past and present (Burr, 1995). We are born into a world where the conceptual frameworks and categories used by the people in our cultures already exist (Burr, 1995). These concepts and categories are acquired by all people as they develop the use of language and are thus reproduced every day by everyone who shares a culture and a language. (Burr, 1995) In terms of this approach towards Language, knowledge and Social Inequalities, Bell hooks states that the belief that a group is naturally superior to another is not just reflected in western philosophy, language and knowledge, that they are created there. This statement clearly shows the link between the creations of knowledge, language, and so on happens in similar cultures, for example Western society, which in turn shows how this approach can be useful for the study of social inequalities, for example that one group is superior to another.
In western societies, in our language we use a lot of dichotomy patterns in our language, The physiology that a lot of societies have been brought up with in the West, is a way of looking at things in a dichotomy which is basically dividing things into two classifications Dichotomy means either, or. You’re either one thing, or another thing, for example if you’re not a man, you are a woman. We refer to this as “Othering”. In terms of social inequalities, heterosexuals are presented in our society as “normal, healthy, mature” and they are awarded material privileges as well as social and political privileges (Wilton, 1995, 2000). Homosexuals however, are presented almost in the opposite light, unnatural. This shows how, as stated earlier, what is considered as “natural” changes throughout history and in different cultures. This is something that has been created in our culture through our language by “Othering” and dichotomy, which brings a different perspective to social inequalities. In the USA High Court Judge described lesbians as ‘immoral, detestable and a crime against nature’ (Robinson, 1996 to 2009). With each dichotomy there is a group which benefits from the others expense, in this case it clearly shows that homosexuals are the oppressed and heterosexuals benefit from this, and therefore shows a superior group benefitting from the inferior group.
If we then apply the Social Constructionist approach, this idea that men are better than women has been “knowledge” that some have been brought up to consider as the truth, reproducing this idea in their language and well as how they interact with others. Referring to women who have a rather sexual active life in derogatory terms, whilst a man in the same situation with his sex life does not get referred to in such a negative way, is a stark reminder of how prominent the idea of gender supremacy still exists and reproduces in language. Unless we changed our culture and completely, these stereotypes and inequalities will still perpetuate. This is how we can see that a Social Constructionist approach highlights why there are social inequalities and how we can potentially change them.
In conclusion, a Social Constructionist approach brings a variety of things to the study of Social Inequalities. Firstly, the idea of “truth”, is contested, as it is argued that knowledge is bound by culture, and what is considered as “truth” is dependable on ones culture. It has also been shown in this essay how language helps to reproduce these inequalities based on apparent “knowledge” which we reproduce through communication, language, and general social interaction. A social constructionist approach highlights how we most likely need to change our culture and society to eradicate inequalities, otherwise stereotypes and inequalities will continue to co-exist, highlighting why there are social inequalities and how we can potentially change them. Finally, a Social Constructionist approach also brings an unconventional way of looking at social inequalities, away from generic forms of analysing knowledge and understanding.