Margaret's dishwasher is broken. While at lunch with friends, she's complaining about her situation. Margaret's dishwasher is a top model, and the part to fix it must be special ordered. Margaret will have to hand wash her dishes for the next week or two.
Abby is one of the friends listening to Margaret's story. She is trying to be friendly, but Abby has never had a dishwasher. Abby has lived in other countries where dishwashers are rare. She currently lives in a small apartment. Abby's family has always hand washed their dishes. Abby likes Margaret, but she thinks Margaret sounds like a spoiled brat.
Margaret and Abby have different realities. Margaret believes her dishwasher is a necessity, where Abby views it as a luxury. Their differences are a result of social constructionism. This sociological theory examines the development of jointly constructed understandings. By 'jointly constructed,' we mean that one person's understanding shapes another person's understanding. Understandings aren't developed separately within a person. Instead, a person develops understandings by using experiences and interactions with other people. This makes each person's reality unique.
Margaret's experiences and interactions lead her to believe that everyone has a dishwasher. She therefore expects to have a working dishwasher in her home. When she doesn't have a working dishwasher, that's viewed as a significant inconvenience. This is Margaret's reality.
Abby's experiences and interactions lead her to believe that most people don't have dishwashers. Dishwashers are an expensive appliance and a luxury. If you have a dishwasher, it is an added convenience and not a necessity. It's a reasonable assumption that most people wash their dishes by hand. This is Abby's reality. Each woman constructs and rationalizes her reality through her social experiences with others.
There are a few sociological theories that stem from social constructionism. Let's take a brief look at these.
First, let's explore the Thomas theorem. This theory says that a person's reality will bring matching consequences. In other words, when Margaret perceives the dishwasher as a necessity, the dishwasher becomes a necessity to her. Her label makes it real. Her behavior doesn't depend on an objective interpretation of the situation. Her behavior depends only on her subjective interpretation of reality. Her interpretation dictates her response.
This theory is used in the modern juvenile justice system. The juvenile justice system focuses on rehabilitating offenders and returning them to society as productive citizens. The system is careful not to label young offenders as 'criminals' because sociological research shows that people often live up to their labels. Those labeled 'criminal' are more likely to display future criminal behavior than those labeled 'rehabilitated.' People act according to their perceptions.
This is also explored through ethnomethodology. This theory looks at how background assumptions affect people's perceptions. We make certain assumptions based on background information, or information we've gathered from past experiences. These assumptions shape our perceptions.
For example, let's say I've posted a job opening for a financial analyst at a large corporation. Bob comes in for an interview. I'm surprised, because Bob is wearing torn up jeans and a t-shirt. Bob has messy hair, an earring, and tattoos on his arms. Bob doesn't look like a corporate office worker to me. That's my subjective perception based on my past experience with corporate office workers. However, perhaps the objective reality is that Bob is an excellent financial analyst and will perform well in the corporate setting.
That brings us to symbolic interactionism. This sociological perspective says people assign symbols and create meaning based on their interactions with one another. This theory is closely related to social constructionism.
Symbolic interactionism is based on three tenets:
- People act toward things based on the meanings they assign to those things.
- The meanings come from the social interactions people have with other people.
- We interpret and modify the meanings by using the things.
For example, we know that the flashing red lights at a railroad crossing mean a train is coming and we should stop. We attach the meaning 'stop' because others in our society told us and showed us that's what the flashing lights mean. We learned the behavior from our interactions with others in our society.
However, symbolic interactionism tells us that our meanings are often subjective. We behave based on what we believe to be true rather than what is objectively true. We behave according to the reality we've constructed. Doesn't that sound familiar? Social constructionism!
Let's look at our dishwasher example again. Objectively, research shows that at least 25% of American households don't have a dishwasher. Only a third of homes in the United Kingdom have one, and only one in every ten homes in Hong Kong has one. However, Margaret subjectively attaches a symbol that a dishwasher is a necessity. She believes she needs a dishwasher based on the subjective belief that dishwashers are a standard item rather than on the objective worldview evidence that dishwashers are an uncommon, luxury item.
Let's review. Social constructionism is a sociological theory that examines the development of jointly constructed understandings. Generally, it means that people develop understandings by using experiences and interactions with other people.
The Thomas theorem is a sociological theory that says a person's reality will bring matching consequences. Generally, it means that people act according to their perceptions and their actions then make the perceptions real.
Ethnomethodology is a sociological theory that looks at how background assumptions affect people's perceptions. Generally, it says people make assumptions based on background information and those assumptions shape their perceptions.
Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective that says people assign symbols and create meaning based on their interactions with one another.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define social constructionism
- Identify three sociological theories that stem from social constructionism
- Analyze symbolic interactionism's connection to social constructionism and its three tenets
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Writing Prompts About Social Constructionism
Poster Prompt 1:
Create a poster that lists and defines all the key terms from this lesson. They are highlighted in bold, so they are easy to find. Tip: Since it helps to have examples to go along with each definition, it can be useful to illustrate an example beside each key term. This works especially well for those who are artistically skilled.
For symbolic interactionism, you could draw caution tape around an area or object and illustrate a person (could even be a stick figure!) seeing the caution tape and realizing the need to avoid that area. This illustration would show how symbols have created meaning for people.
Essay Prompt 1:
Write an essay of at least three to five paragraphs in which you describe a situation where you have encountered ethnomethodology. Tip: Refer back to the example provided in the lesson.
Essay Prompt 2:
Write an essay that describes an example of social constructionism and how it is formed.
The essay could use a feature in a car to explain social constructionism. For instance, one person might consider heated seats or four-wheel-drive to be a necessity, while another person might view these items as frivolous.
Essay Prompt 3:
Write an essay that explains how and why the Thomas theorem is used in the juvenile justice system. Tip: Be sure to include in your essay a broader explanation of how labels in general can be harmful to people. It may help to recall a personal experience in which you have been labeled.
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