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Concept of Social Construction in terms of its Development in Sociology

This essay attempts to outline the concept of social construction in terms of its development in sociology while considering in what ways the concept may be critiqued.  In order to do so, the essay will be divided into three main parts, the first of which will be an exploration of the concept of social construction, so that a clear understanding of it is achieved at the outset. The second part traces the concept of 'social construction', as a sociological perspective, historically within the development of the discipline, and accounts for the reasons that gave its birth as an influential 'player' in modern social theory. The third and final part of the essay attempts, by means of conclusion, to re-address 'social construction' critically, by assessing its merits and outlining its possible limitations as a theoretical mode of sociological inquiry.

Starting with the unavoidable task of definition and clarification of the conceptual apparatus we shall be using throughout the essay, we may describe social construction in a broad sense as the particular sociological viewpoint which suggests that reality is socially constructed by means of a process through which facts, knowledge and truth are discovered, made known, reaffirmed and altered by members of society (Newman 1997, Restivo 1991, Jenkins 2002). Borrowing heavily from the interactionist perspective which suggests that social reality is symbolically constructed though people's actions and interactions with each other, the constructionist view envisages social reality as the product of people's actions intended or inherited. Constructionists claim that it is we who shape our own destiny by means of identification and it is equally we who are so susceptible to the power of socialization (inheritance and reproduction of cultural norms we have 'learned' from our background, culture and society). Particular emphasis is placed on the notions of identity and difference in shaping the social contexts we enter and/or create by making the claim that 'what we are like' and 'what we unlike' as Jenkins (2002:69) puts it, is crucial in producing a sense of place in the social world we inhabit. According such a perspective, the dyad of identity and difference is seen as deriving from social and cultural processes. These processes create systems of ideas and practices about social phenomena (such as gender or race) that vary across time and space and morph into ideologies and myths that set out (as biased symbolic cultural representations) to describe people and social groupings. It is the dialogic relationship between identity and difference that creates social divisions and gives rise to notions of social diversity and identity for describing the social space we live in. As can be seen from above, constructionism is generally characterized by its critical stance towards 'taken for granted' knowledge adopting the view that knowledge is sustained by social processes and thus is socially constructed. In its effort to reach such a conclusion and establish itself as a viable sociological perspective, social constructionism has attacked two particular ideas (namely essentialism and biological determinism) and has emerged as their theoretical and ideological rival in explaining social evolution, action and change. As a means of understanding what makes social construction a distinct theoretical perspective it seems incumbent upon the scope of this essay to define it in opposition to these two approaches given that such logic is inherent in the constructionist argument; if identity is defined by means of opposition then surely the social construction approach should be defined by its opposition to essentialism and biological determinism which we shall address in turn. Essentialism assumes some essential, innate and universal feature that identifies the phenomenon under study. Essentialist approaches to gender for example assume that all women share traits in common, as do all men. Essentialism could alternatively be defined as faith in certainties, 'grand narratives' and common standards as these are shaped and channelled by mainstream society. Biological determinism on the other hand stresses the importance of biology in explaining gender difference. Biological determinists highlight similarities in male behaviour across different environments. They argue that male traits (whether a preference for competitive sport, or a lack of 'maternal' feeling) have their roots in chromosomal differences (XY rather than XX chromosomes), hormonal differences (for example, testosterone) or some other natural characteristic that distinguishes men from women.

Lastly, it criticises essentialism but moves on to create another form of essentialism based on the 'grand narrative' that 'everything is socially constructed' which in itself is as totalitarian and abusive assumption as is essentialism and biological determinism although rendered in constructionist terms.

Having traced its intellectual journey within sociology and assessed its theoretical contributions, we shall conclude with a plea to envisage social construction as a critical perspective which has offered sensational disclosures on one hand but has not been able to escape the confines of single-minded faithfulness to its propositions leading often to the isolation of the public that constructionists wish to address and enlighten.  

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