Constructivism: Two Theories You Need to Know

By Daniel Harbecke

Constructivism is a popular learning theory in Training & Development, and has an abundant variety of interpretations.  Two of them, social constructionism and Personal Construct Psychology, may give you some added perspective in developing your training programs.  They balance each other very effectively, and can be used in a complimentary fashion to improve your learners’ efforts.

Social Constructionism

To interpret reality entirely free of cultural rendering is virtually impossible: resetting (or forgetting) how we perceive reality would take monumental effort, going against years of learning and habit and with little chance of success – after all, how would we know any alternative? As we become part of society, it undeniably, automatically, becomes part of us. We are, in many ways, socially engineered.

“You will find, as a general rule, that the constitutions and the habits of a people follow the nature of the land where they live.” – Hippocrates.

Created by sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, social constructionism is the idea that reality is a mutually-generated experience. Also called “consensus reality”, it’s not to say reality exists by group choice, but that a joint practice of reality becomes solidified over time and eventually assumed as reality. Enculturation not only alters the personal encounter with life in a profound way, it forms unique inventions, or constructs, which have no actual existence in nature. Social facts (like money, status or baseball) exist “only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist” [emphasis added] (Pinker, 2002), unlike brute facts, or qualities that don’t rely on cultural depiction. For example, the brute fact of a gem is a physical stone; its social fact is its selling price. Social constructs frame and interpret brute reality (like the symbol 2 indicating two items, or a nation’s borders based on natural features), or create entirely artificial concepts (like elves or insurance). From the earlier topic, how we approach our facticity – and much of our facticity itself – comes from the social construction of reality.

Berger and Luckmann explain the making of a cultural artifact in a three-stage process:

1) Externalization. A concept – say, New Year’s Eve – is seen as having existence “external” to its creators: in the West, January 1st is arbitrarily chosen, defined as a unique event on the calendar.

2) Objectivation. The idea takes an “independent” and objective reality, despite its artificial origin: New Year’s celebrations are convivial and spirited (i.e. with spirits), culminating in a glittering ball’s descent to earth.

3) Internalization. The final stage integrates the cultural product’s “factuality” into the subjective lives of its creators: our expectations of New Year’s Eve and what it means to our lives become familiar and reinforced. While usually not so orderly as these stages suggest, we absorb social constructs unconsciously through constant exposure and practice.

“The self is essentially a social product arising out of experience with people…. We learn the most significant and fundamental facts about ourselves from… ‘reflected appraisals,’ inferences about ourselves made as a consequence of the ways we perceive others behaving towards us.” – Arthur Combs & Donald Snygg (Combs & Snygg, 1959).

Though some theorists believe this is the only valid basis for interpreting reality (so-called “hard” social constructionists), others believe that it must be a combination of social and personal interpretation (“soft” social constructionists). An excellent theory for contrast can be found in Personal Construct Psychology, created and championed by George Kelly.

Personal Construct Theory

The Great Depression deeply affected every American. Particularly hard-hit was the Midwestern farmer, who had little or no access to support services. George Kelly, then an instructor at Fort Hays, Kansas, wanted to do something more for those in need. Despite having no formal training in psychoanalysis, he set up traveling clinics, often driving hours to reach patients who were unable to pay him.

Initially offering treatment in Freudian tradition, Kelly was shocked how readily Kansan farm-folk accepted diagnoses of psychosexual conflict, despite their outlandish nature. He felt reducing every issue to libido and aggression was far-fetched and inappropriate, yet his patients had implicit faith in his authority, with slow but steady rates of progress. Kelly theorized it was more a matter of how patients perceived an issue that determined its overall impact: as long as it could be seen from a new perspective, its theoretical cause didn’t matter. He began to invent his own explanations, often absurd – still, his patients showed the same rate of improvement, while diagnoses from a familiar basis had better results. “My only criteria,” he wrote, “were that the explanation account for the crucial facts as the client saw them, and that it carry implications for approaching the future in a different way” (Kelly, 1955).

Kelly wrote his two-volume opus called The Psychology of Personal Constructs based on his studies. A fusion of philosophy and psychology, its main premise is that everyone wants to reduce uncertainty in their lives. Instead of seeing people as a flawed set of innate crises, he posited that we adapt our worldviews by testing and self-correction. To do this, we develop and test our own theories to explain the world; in this, we’re exactly like scientists. It was his “fruitful metaphor” of HUMAN AS SCIENTIST that inspired the body of Kelly’s work. Kelly believed our potential, whether positive or negative, rests in how we construe reality; we’re not just looking for reliable guides to life, we want guides to help us understand ourselves in our lives. Kelly felt this “sensemaking” is an essential human undertaking: we’re all in search of a sense of order, a name to the chaos.

Similar to social constructionism, Kelly believed we interpret and predict (or “anticipate”) events by a frame of experience called a personal construct. To Kelly, personal constructs are made up of countless binary pairs, arranged as polar opposites. Some pairings are verbal (happy–sad, up–down, and light–dark); others are nonverbal forms of Is–Is Not (like the traits compiling love–not love.)

Kelly’s theories offer novel insight into the building of personal experience, but just as provocative is his underlying philosophy, which he called constructive alternativism. Like social constructivism, constructive alternativism asserts reality can’t be known directly, but we understand it better bycomparing among different perspectives, or “alternative constructions.” By opening to new ideas and systems from the collective domain, each a unique frame of vision and meaning, we enrich our personal awareness.

While some construct arrays drive us to excel, others result in malady – we must be able to recognize a construct’s failings. Stubbornly trying to fit reality into a faulty construct – like refusing to accept mistakes, or developing an eating disorder to feel “healthier” – is an attitude Kelly called hostility. Just as harmful is the inability to move from a narrow perspective: many of our problems exist only because there’s no other way to depict them. As stated in the corollaries, life is too complex for any one construct to be ideal for every situation: a doctor’s construct of illness may be more informed than that of a six-year-old, but a child’s outlook may be more resilient than that of a seasoned “realist.” Like the three blind men and the elephant, our perspectives may be limited. Yet, if we’re open to new ideas, they have a good chance of being fitting together – much like a puzzle.


How can these theories be used in your training programs?

What areas of your current programs do these theories address, and which could be improved by implementing them?

What do these theories mean in terms of how you teach, mentor or coach your learners?

Works Cited

Combs, A. W., & Snygg, D. (1959). Individual behavior; a perceptual approach to behavior. (Rev. ed.). New York: Harper.

Kelly, G. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs, volume I (1st ed.). New York: Norton.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking.

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