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Commments on Social Constructionism and Postmodernism

Realities and Relationships

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Reflections on the conference on a conference on Realities and Relationships (Taos NM, April 1993) [PDF original]


The conference (of some 150 people) presented social constructionism from various perspectives in response to the concerns of therapy, organization development, and academic disciplines. The points made were all quite appropriate and called for little comment. In fact most had been made by many authors from a wide range of disciplines over recent decades. The presentations and conference were however extremely irritating for the following reasons:

(a) the total contradiction between what was said and the organization of the conference;

(b) the seeming smugness and self-righteousness of the presenters in claiming some form of proprietary or monopoly control of a new truth;

(c) the degree to which the valuable insights were effectively embodied as a new religion or belief system -- with a need to demonise all that went before it or that was opposed to it;

(d) the skill with which any challenge to the perspective or presentation was avoided -- or labelled as thinking antithetical to the new truth.

Specific comments

In more detail, the following interrelated points could be noted:

Multiple realities: The conference was about multiple realities and yet the organizers and presenters exhibited a complete intolerance of all but their own new-found reality -- effectively a single reality excluding any other perspective or nuance.

Good guy/Bad guy image: Presenters projected themselves as the "good guys" with all who held alternative views as the "bad guys" (or simply obsolete). This simplistic perspective way be naturally appealing in cowboy country but it fails to respond to the complexities of life elsewhere which effectively gave birth to postmodernism.

Problems: Most presenters chose to condemn the "problem-solving mentality" as being the source of all modern ills and the reason for the failure to engender more effective remedial responses. This was taken to such extremes that it was implied that no "problem" in effect existed -- other than in the minds of the beholders entangled in inappropriate thinking. At a time of the rape and slaughter in Bosnia and the starvation in Somalia, it is totally irresponsible and insensitive to deny such suffering. As such social constructionism becomes an armchair philosophy.

Contractual blinkers: Presenters were unable to recognize that therapists, consultants and researchers all operate out of a contractual or client-oriented mode -- within which somebody wants (and has commissioned) them to do something. They each deal with well-defined concerns which have been deliberately chosen (possibly by superiors or those awarding the contract) such as not to be beyond their capacity, their skills or their resources. In this sense they are not exposed to the problematic complexities of the real world. As researchers they are free to "appreciatively inquire" into the concerns of an organization -- without having to deal with any real world "problems", such as starvation, with which the organization may be concerned. As therapists they deal only with isolated cases passed to them through an institutionalized pipeline, and are then free to juggle with the "realities" of those individuals before passing them back to deprivation in which they may live -- however effectively such deprivation can be redefined in a positive light. As consultants, they are primarily concerned with the internal problems of organizations, and not the real world problems (like starvation) with which such organization may deal. Within such contractual framework, it may indeed be quite legitimate to deny the existence of problems.

Demonising: Presenters devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to demonising all views which had preceded those of postmodernism in general and social constructionism in particular. Whilst making the point that the problem-solving mentality was inappropriate, they derived the legitimacy for their perspective through a process of converting all that came before into problems for which social constructionism was a solution.

Polarization: As a feature of the demonising approach, much energy was devoted to the enunciation of polarities: one pole (of the past) was bad, with the other (of postmodernism) was good. In other settings however, a major concern of those labelled postmodernists has been to move beyond such facile polarizations and dichotomies.

Positive feedback: Social constructionism was skillfully associated with the need to avoid any form of negative feedback (viewed as part of the problem-solving mentality). This is a very neat way of ensuring the "survival" of a school of thought, namely by labelling any negative feedback as part of the thinking that it seeks to supersede. Only those who agree with presentations then need to participate in social constructionist debates.

Dialogue and control: The conference was characterized by a total absence of dialogue -resembling that of conferences in totalitarian countries. It could even be said that the organizers demonstrated a pathological fear of dialogue. With the exception of one presenter, questions were neither permitted nor sought at any time. Periodically people were allocated to small groups to perform imposed experiential "tasks" -- a perfect example of divide and rule. Following some behind the scenes protest, a final session was turned into a panel format -supposedly open to floor interventions. Again the presenters occupied the maximum amount of time, anxiously reiterating their positions, before opening the meeting to the floor. This behaviour was in total contradiction to the stress on dialogue emphasized by all the speakers to reflect the multiple realities represented -- a classic example of a discipline having most to learn from its own area of expertise.

Learning and co-creation: Such themes quite natural to social constructionist presentations, were totally absent from the conference design. In no way could the conference co-create. Participants were "taught" what the presenters chose to teach them. The presenters did not define themselves as having anything to learn and as a result would appear to have learnt nothing. It is questionable whether they could be said to be capable of "hearing" anything with which they did not already agree.

Challenge: From the previous points follows the fact that the presenters were not in any way challenged. The only challenge the conference faced was how to assimilate the new truth.

Self-reflexiveness: In a pattern of multiple realities, how should the reality of social constructionists be perceived? Is it simply one more reality amongst many others -- as the use of "ism" and "ist" implies? Is it saying something about the relationship between realities? If so, what are the special challenges of institutionalizing it -- or is it to be understood as transcendental to the mundane world in some special way -- as certain religions claim? The presenters exhibited no self-consciousness or humility in the face of such dilemmas.

Participant list: Unusually for a small conference (with an adequate budget and immediate access to a photocopy machine), requests were made to confirm names/addresses in anticipation of distributing a participant list. The list was not distributed before a significant number of participants had to leave. The absence of a participant list is common to meetings in totalitarian regimes and those with low budgets. In this context it is suggestive of further need to control access to potential members of the new movement -- and to control communication between participants at the meeting.

Manipulative process: The conference could be experienced as extremely manipulative. Whether the presenters consciously intended to manipulate the process is another matter.

Caricature of Characteristic Modes of Response to Feedback
Caricature of Characteristic Modes of Response to Feedback
Each of the four modes has its function
-- the challenge being to know when and how to use which


It could be argued that the presenters needed to control the environment and establish boundaries because they hoped to give form to a new movement. They therefore indulged in practices considered necessary to consensus and boundary formation important to the creation of a distinct identity.

Was such a defensive posture really necessary? It is surely designed to give social constructionism a bad name and to mark it as an immature initiative.

Within the terms of social constructionism, it is indeed questionable to what extent potential adherents should be exposed to any criticism or challenges. To the extent that it wishes to define itself as a new religion, it should be treated with all the respect that new religions are accorded. Potential critics should simply back off and accept that the new religion should be allowed to practice whatever strange rites they find significant -- as their contribution to multiple realities. The dialogue between self-elected priesthoods as potential adherents should not be disturbed.

Perhaps most annoying following exposure to such dynamics was the the dilemma of how or whether to respond appropriately. Getting into the above critical mode is not especially fruitful and does not move things forward. But as with steering an automobile, if the wheel is jerked far to one side (as the presenters did), the vehicle drifts off the road and energy has to be put into pulling it in the other direction -- to an exaggerated degree. However it would be better to be using a light touch, one way or the other, and to focus on where the road is leading. The polarization of the meeting could have been better dealt with through such metaphors. The conference made little if any use of metaphor as a way out of such messiness.

From these perspectives "social constructionism" has no more claim to universal relevance than other belief systems. The ideas that "postmodernists" and "social constructionists" seek to label as "theirs" will however continue to thrive -- as have the best of many religions. But they will not be confined to "ism" and "ist" labels or to simplistic attempts at institutionalizing them.

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