Social Constructionist Epistemology

Arthur Warmoth
Sonoma State University

copyright ©2000

Return to Home Page

At the heart of humanistic psychology is a theory of knowledge (known in the jargon of philosophy as an "epistemology"). Knowledge is "what people know." This may seem like a trivial point. But just what we actually know and how we know it has been a puzzle for philosophers since the pre-Socratic Greeks discovered that it is possible to think critically about the nature of thought itself.

Most traditional views have taken for granted that people know a world. It is assumed that knowledge lives "in the mind," and that reality exists "in the world." The philosophical questions have revolved around how the process of getting the world into the mind actually works, and how accurate it is. This approach reached its pinnacle of development in the modern philosophy of science that views "objective scientific method" as the best possible way to obtain knowledge about the world.

However, at least since Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century, we have recognized that there is no direct connection between an independent, objective world ("noumena") and our experience ("phenomena"). All we have is a set of interpretations of our perceptions and experiences that lead us to believe that a world exists "out there." If that connection is always hypothetical, what is it that actually guarantees the "truth," or in constructionist language, the "authority of knowledge"? Social constructionism, argues that the authority of knowledge ultimately derives from a "knowledge community" of people who agree about the truth. As Thomas Kuhn says, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, "knowledge is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all" (1970, p. 210).

The key to understanding the difference between the constructionist view and more traditional views is that for constructionists, knowledge is not what individuals believe, but rather what social groups, or knowledge communities, believe. This approach is compatible with the focus of some contemporary cognitive psychologists on the "ecological validity" of knowledge, but it shifts the focus from biological to social ecology. The social constructionist position does not mean that people do not have ideas. But it does mean that people's ideas are ultimately given meaning by their social context. In that sense, it is the social context of meanings that is epistemologically fundamental, not their ideational content.

It should be emphasized that this discussion is about the most fundamental meaning of "meaning," not about all of its possible meanings. Ideas, logic, experimental method, psychoanalytic free association, and dozens of other forms of knowing are acceptable justifications of knowledge in their appropriate contexts. But every recognized form of meaning is dependent on some context. Richard Rorty advocates a "pragmatic view of truth" in which "a necessary truth is just a statement such that nobody has given us any interesting alternatives which would lead us to question it" (1979, p. 175). Thus knowledge is the property of knowledge communities&endash;that is, of cultures and subcultures, including academic and professional disciplines--that use, create and maintain it in ongoing discourses or social conversations.

The proposition that knowledge is ultimately grounded in conversations among members of knowledge communities is based primarily on three lines of argument. The most fundamental is the study of the sociology of knowledge, as represented in works such as Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970) and Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966). The second is the study of the cognitive development of individuals (ontogenetic cognitive development) by psychologists such as the Russian L. S. Vygotsky, who has shown that from the very earliest stages knowing develops in a social context. The third is the study of the evolution of humanity's cognitive capabilities (phylogenetic cognitive development), as represented by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

The Sociology of Knowledge

Constructionism has been developing over several decades in the fields of philosophy, history and literary criticism. Husserl's phenomenology and the "Critical Theory" influenced by Karl Marx' interpretation of the history of ideas have been important influences. The sociology of knowledge looks at the history of ideas and the sociology of contemporary intellectual life in order to understand what knowledge is by looking at how it is actually used and how new knowledge is created.

The structure of our language tends to persuade us that knowledge must be created before it can be used. But the preeminence of new knowledge in our cultural life is a modern phenomenon dating from the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. For most of human history, most of the knowledge needed for societies to survive and thrive was embodied in traditions that were passed on over many generations through the symbols of language and the arts. In such a situation, where most knowledge was "passed on" and very little had to be "discovered," a static model of the nature of knowledge served very well.

However, the creativity of modern science, politics, and the communications and entertainment media have created cultural conditions in which much of the truth about social reality is continuously being reinvented and therefore needs to be continuously rediscovered. This has led to a need to understand more deeply how the process of knowledge creation actually works. While much of the knowledge and information we need to manage our daily lives can still be reliably obtained from competent authorities, the complexity of the world increasingly calls into question the basis of the competence of those expert authorities.

During most of the modern era, the most reliable source of authoritative knowledge has been believed to be the physical sciences, and therefore methodologies derived from the physical sciences have enjoyed a privileged position in modern intellectual life. In the twentieth century, however, even the most fundamental understanding of classical Newtonian physics were undermined by quantum mechanics and Einstein's Theory of Relativity. In attempting to understand how one widely held scientific worldview could be replaced by another, Thomas Kuhn explored in considerable depth the process by which scientific "paradigms," as he called them, are both maintained and changed. The conventional view of scientific progress is that scientists add to their fund of knowledge incrementally through carefully thought out processes of experimentation and hypothesis testing. However, when the scientific community becomes increasingly uncomfortable with a growing body of findings that do not fit the existing paradigm, the situation cannot be resolved simply by accumulating more research findings. It can only be resolved by a conversation within the scientific community that renegotiates the acceptable terms of scientific discourse. (Such renegotiation may involve a generational dynamic: The speakers of the obsolete language do not necessarily convert; they may simply die out and be replaced by the more robust discourse of a new generation.) The recognition that new paradigms are created through conversations among knowledgeable peers has led to a realization that they are also maintained and applied by conversations within knowledge communities that manage the flow of information through books, professional periodicals, academic programs, and communities of professional practice.

This reexamination of the foundations of disciplinary knowledge in the natural sciences has been accompanied by extensive self-reflection about the nature and authority of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences. In all of these fields the metaphor of knowledge as communication among competent peers is receiving growing recognition. This is particularly true in these disciplines because they are more dependent upon discursive and narrative language, and less dependent on the language of mathematical quantification, than are the natural sciences.

If knowledge is fundamentally competent discourse, why has this fact been so difficult to see? Perhaps it has something to do with the politics of knowledge. There has always been a tendency for the knowledgeable to use their knowledge to exploit the ignorant. The possibility of exploitation creates an incentive for the knowledgeable to reinforce the ignorance of the ignorant by pretending that knowledge is something other than, something more mysterious than, what it actually is: the symbolic property of knowledge communities.

Individul Cognitive Psychological Development

Rather than knowledge being something that must be created before it can be communicated, it is more accurate to say that the process of creating and communicating knowledge are inextricably intertwined. This can be seen in the careful study of the origins on knowledge at both the personal (ontogenetic) and the collective or species (phylogenetic) levels.

Kenneth Bruffee (1993) cites several examples of research that show that cognitive development is essentially a reciprocal, interactive social process from the very beginning. What we call "thought" is actually in its origins internalized conversation or social communication. According to Bruffee,

L. S. Vygotsky confirmed this view by showing that reflective thought is social conversation internalized. We first experience and learn what Oakeshott calls "the skill and partnership of conversation"--what I call here the craft of interdependence--in the arena of direct social exchange. Only then, Vygotsky demonstrates, do we learn to displace that skill and partnership by dramatizing and playing out silently within ourselves the role of every participant in the conversation. (1993, p. 114)

Vygotsky's observation of a child "getting to know" a spoon vividly illustrates this point:

Vygotsky describes a scene illustrating this process of community composition and collaboration that involves . . . a six-month-old infant. The infant sees an attractive object--let's say a shiny spoon--and extends his hand to grasp it. The spoon is out of reach. For a moment, Vygotsky says, the infants "hands, stretched toward that object, remain poised in the air. His fingers make grasping movements." The infant in this scene appears to be trying, at the most elemental level, to establish contact with a bit of physical reality. Shoved around by physical reality, he shoves back. He wants a response from the object or a relationship with it that corresponds to his reaching out for it. But the object does not cooperate in the effort to be known. Objects never do. For a moment, then, the infant reaches and nothing happens.

Then something does happen. The object still doesn't cooperate, but Mommy does. The infant's mother moves the object closer, so that the infant can feel it, look at it, put it into his mouth.

In this brief, mundane scene lies a key to understanding the nonfoundational social constructionist understanding of knowledge and, not incidentally, collaborative learning. When infants reach for an object, they do not merely reach. They send a message. When Mommy or Daddy or some other caretaking person finally gets the message and responds, infants learn indelibly the importance of this seemingly irrelevant side effect. Our effort to grasp an object, Vygotsky tells us, is the first step we take in learning to point [i.e. to make a communicative gesture]. . . .

What Vygotsky's reading of this scene tells us is that knowing is not an unmediated, direct relationship between subject and object. It is a disjunctive, mediated process involving the agency of other people. (Bruffee,1993, p. 117)

An observation by Bruno Latour shows a similar process taking place at an early stage of language development:

A mother is walking in the countryside with her daughter. The little girl calls "flifli" anything that darts away very rapidly and disappears from view. A pigeon is thus a "flifli" but so is a hare fleeing in panic, or even her ball when someone kicks it hard without her seeing it. Looking down in a pond the little girls notices a gudgeon that is swimming away and she says "flifli." "No" the mother says "that is not a 'flifli,' that is a fish; there is a 'flifli' over there," and she points to a sparrow taking off. Mother and daughter are at the intersection of two chains of associations; one that ties a ball, a hare, a pigeon, and a gudgeon to the word "flifli"; the other one that. . .could indeed apply to several instances above--but not to the ball-- and [the word] "bird" that would apply only to the pigeon and the sparrow. The mother, not being a relativist, does not hesitate to name "incorrect" her daughters usage of the word "flifli.". . ."Flifli" recalls a set of instances that are not usually associated in the mother's language. The girls has to reshuffle the instances gathered so far under the word "flifli," under the new headings "bird," "fish," and "ball." (Latour, cited in Bruffee, 1993, p. 120)

The Cognitive Development of the Human Species

These careful observations of the emergence of what we call 'knowledge' out of the process of social communication at the individual level is confirmed by what we are coming to know about the evolution of human intelligence as an aspect of the evolution of the human species. Biologists tell us that we share more than 90 per cent of our genes with our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees. We differ from chimps in size, posture, and hair distribution, but we share a large repertoire of behavioral characteristics, particularly social behaviors. The evolution of physical differences appears to be a process clearly apparent as long as four million years ago, as seen in the paleontological reconstructions of our anthropoid ancestors from southern Africa. The evolution of a uniquely human intelligence, however, is more recent.

It is generally accepted that humans are a uniquely cultural species. Interesting precursors of human communication, social organization, and tool use have been found in other species. But humans are the only species that has developed the capacity for complex symbolic communication about the world, as well as the capacity to create tools and institutions based on that complex symbolic understanding.

According to Clifford Geertz, in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), human intelligence evolved during the last Ice Age. The culminating phase of human biological evolution was intimately intertwined with the development of language and other basic forms of culture. This is based on the evidence of the rapid development of human brain capacity as well as the beginnings of evidence of human symbolic activity such as ritual burials. This impetus for this rapid evolution appears to be the development of the capacity for symbolic communication. We evolved our large cerebral cortex in order to communicate.

The Pleistocene period, with its rapid and radical variations in climate, land formations, and vegetation, has long been recognized to be a period in which conditions were ideal for the speedy and efficient evolutionary development of man; now it seems also to have been a period in which a cultural environment increasingly supplemented the natural environment in the selection process so as to further accelerate the rate of hominid evolution to an unprecedented speed. The Ice Age appears not to have been merely a time of receding brow ridges and shrinking jaws, but a time in which were forged early all those characteristics of man's existence which are most graphically human: his thoroughly encephelated nervous system, his incest-taboo-based social structure, and his capacity to create and use symbols. The fact that these distinctive features of humanity emerged together in complex interaction with one another rather than serially as so long supposed is of exceptional importance in the interpretation of human mentality, because it suggests that man's nervous system does not merely enable him to acquire culture, it positively demands that he do so if it is going to function at all. . . .A cultureless human being would probably turn out to be not an intrinsically talented though unfulfilled ape, but a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity. (Geertz, 1973, pp. 67-68.)

Culture as a symbolic medium of communication is neither static nor homogeneous. But it is shared, that is to say, it is intersubjective in character (Ortega y Gasset, 1957). On other words is is culture is a function of social interaction. Knowledge is a function of the coordinated activity of multiple nervous systems or subjectivities, not the the private property of the individual nervous system or subjectivity. Thinking came along as a necessary element of the communication process. For this reason Geertz affirms that "Human thought is consummately social: social in its origins, social in its functions, social in its form, social in its applications" (p. 114).

This intersubjectivity must be understood from two perspectives: the anthropological and the psychological. From an anthropological perspective, culture is the sum total of society's symbolic operating systems and the basis for its ecological adaptation to the environment. This includes both its social institutions that are responsible for its emotional and aesthetic quality of life, and its technological tools and institutions for solving ecological problems. From a developmental psychological point of view, culture begins with the deep programming of the psyche in the areas of language, assumptions and expectations about the structure and dynamics of human relationships (including assumptions about the nature and about the self), moral and aesthetic values, and iconographic allegiances. It continues as our shared, intersubjective matrix of symbolic systems of which we become increasingly self-aware and capable of manipulating with maturation and education.

Knowledge Communities

Knowledge (knowing) is, in its most fundamental character, a social process. In other words, knowledge is always the "common property" of a culture or subculture. Human societies are made up of many overlapping knowledge communities, all based on the unique human capacity for symbolic human communication. These knowledge communities range from cultures and subcultures to groups and organizations that perform particular social functions to the constellation of relationships found in extended families. These knowledge communities or cultures and subcultures, are not static or rigidly defined systems. They are constantly change and evolving. They overlap and compete with one another. They embody varying degrees of complexity and sophistication. And they embody different types of organizing principles based on different purposes and historical circumstances.

From this point of view, learning begins as an initiation into the culture that is represented by the child's parents (or primary caregivers), and education is a process of reacculturation into an ever expanding web of knowledge communities. Growing up is a series of acculturations and reacculturations into a series of increasingly sophisticated knowledge communities, beginning with the family and culminating in one or more of the world's human societies. 

Education as Reacculturation

Social constructionism offers a new understanding of what knowledge is and how it is maintained and developed. This view of knowledge has implications for the practice of education, including a new understanding of the roles of both teachers and learners.

In order to understand higher education as a process of reacculturation, it is useful to recognize that the goals of a liberal education typically involve reacculturation in two distinct types of knowledge communities. The first of these is the community of educated citizens, of well-rounded, productive, self-aware human beings. This is the professed goal of most general education programs, as well as being the primary goal of the minority of schools that define themselves as "liberal arts colleges."

The second type of knowledge community is represented by the major, which offers initiation into an academic and/or professional knowledge community that typically fulfills some useful social function in the context of the larger society. In the case of academic disciplines, this function is usually research and the maintenance and development of a particular body of knowledge. In the case of professional majors, one becomes a member of a profession with a specifically defined social function, such as medicine, law, engineering, teaching, or management.

Collaborative learning is a useful approach to higher education because it gives college students an experience of the way knowledge professionals actually live and work. In generating texts&endash;in writing&endash;scientists do what all writers do who write in an active, engaged community of knowledgeable peers. They carry on a "meticulous sorting of weak connections between existing ideas" by willingly subjecting themselves to mutual criticism. They read and reread, check and recheck, revise and re-revise their own and each other's written material. It goes without saying that social scientists and humanists, lawyers, doctors, and accountants construct knowledge in much the same way, writing to one another in an active, engaged community of knowledgeable peers. (Bruffee, 1953, p. 53; internal quote from Latour & Woolgar.)

The information revolution, at its core, is about automating our ability to process and communicate data, or bits of information. As such, it is rendering obsolete the number crunching skills that have been at the core of most of the growth of middle class professionalism&endash; accountants, engineers, technicians, middle managers, and bureaucrats&endash;for most of the twentieth century. At bottom, this is what "corporate downsizing" and "reinventing government" are all about. The alternative is to create careers based on information management that use information processing technology creatively and effectively. It turns out that information management is most effectively carried out by teams, or small knowledge communities.

Globalizing Culture

Berger and Luckmann (1966) speak of "primary" and "secondary acculturation." Primary acculturation occurs in infancy as the child learns to communicate, and especially to speak. Secondary acculturation occurs in the context of formal education as the individual learns the formalized body of cultural tools that have been developed by a particular society. Primary acculturation leads to a sense of personal and cultural (ethnic) identity. Secondary identity equips individuals to participate, to a greater or lesser extent, in the formal economic and political activities of their society. (Warmoth, 2000-01) We are now entering a period in which the global integration of trade, finance, and communication is creating a new level of global cultural interconnection and evolution. The evolution of global culture is more rapid, more transparent, and more freighted with irony than the historical patterns of cultural evolution of the past. This can be seen in the following anecdote from Walter Truett Anderson's excellent summary of constructionist philosophy in the postmodern world, Reality Isn't What It Use To Be (1990):

Consider, for example, the image of a young Palestinian soldier that a reporter I know saw standing guard in the hills of Lebanon. He was fighting to preserve his ancient culture and identity. He wore sneakers, blue jeans, and a Grateful Dead T-shirt. He carried an Uzi. (p. 20)

The creation of a third global level of rapidly evolving culture invites us to participate in a "tertiary acculturation" that is more self-reflective and more consciously collaborative than the developmental and educational processes we are accustomed to.


Most students of psychology are interested in both self-knowledge and in solving social-problems. Effective leadership in solving the social problems of the 21st century will require both individual and collective self-knowledge. They will also require individual and collective political will grounded in this self-knowledge. Dealing with pressing issues such as poverty, violence, and ecological degradation requires more than problem-solving skills. It requires the ability to consciously and collaboratively create new social institutions. Much of this effort must take place in local communities. But it requires both a deep understanding of the motivations and values of individuals and a broad and sophisticated understanding of the structure and dynamics of social and ecological systems.



Anderson, W. T. (1990). Reality isn't what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. New York: Doubleday

Bruffee, K. A. (1993). Collaborative Learning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago.

Ortega y Gasset, J. (1957). Man and people. New York: W. W. Norton.

Rorty, R. (1979). Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ.

Warmoth, A. (2000-01). Culture, Somas, and Human Development. Somatics, XIII (1), pp. 16-21.

References cited in Bruffee (1993):

Bruffee, K. A. (1992). A short course in writing, 3rd. ed. New York: HarperCollins.

Knorr-Cetina, K. D. (1981). The manufacture of knowledge: An essay on the contructivist and contextual nature of science. Oxford: Pergamon.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society; The development of higher psychological processes. (Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner & Ellen Souberman, Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ.