In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Construction

  • Introduction
  • Founding Text
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Edited Volumes

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Communication Social Construction
Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0106


Briefly, social construction (SC) assumes that people construct (i.e., create, make, invent) their understandings of the world and the meanings they give to encounters with others, or various products they or others create; SC also assumes that they do this jointly, in coordination with others, rather than individually. After several decades of varying usage (often constructionism and constructivism, with or without the adjective social, discursive construction, co-construction, joint construction; overlapping terms include interpretive approaches, social approaches, constitutive, and constructive), social construction is the term of choice in the 21st century. SC is a theoretical approach used not only in communication but also in psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and education. As scholars in each of these disciplines tend to go in different directions, and as there have been far more publications on this topic than could be included here (if all disciplines were considered), those within the discipline of communication are emphasized (i.e., either a publication by a scholar based in a communication department, or one published in a communication journal). Although clearly within the communication field, SC studies of media form a separate strand not included here. Two conferences helped substantially in expanding the use of the concept within communication. The first was “Inquiries in Social Construction,” held in Durham, New Hampshire, in June 1993 and organized by Sheila McNamee, John Shotter, John Lannamann, and Kenneth Gergen, leading to the book series of the same title at Sage, co-edited by Gergen and Shotter. The second was a National Communication Association Summer Institute, “Catching Ourselves in the Act: A Collaborative Planning Session to Enrich our Discipline through Social Constructionist Approaches,” held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in August 2006, which was organized primarily by Barnett and Kim Pearce, Shawn Spano, Karen Foss, and Kris Kirschbaum, leading to the establishment of the Communication as Social Construction Division (CSC) within the National Communication Association, now the focal point of work on the topic. CSC organized a panel in 2009 evaluating the contribution of SC to the discipline, which was videotaped and analyzed in Robles 2012 (cited under General Overviews). Two nonprofit organizations have been established to pursue SC goals: the Taos Institute and the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) Institute for Personal and Social Evolution. There have been several other relevant book series: Social Construction in Practice and Social Approaches to Interaction, both at Hampton, as well as Focus Books (brief introductions), Tempo Series (contemporary practices), and WorldShare Books, all of which have an SC emphasis and published by Taos Institute.

Founding Text

The origin of SC in modern times is usually dated either to 1966 in the United States or 1967 in the UK, with the publication of Berger and Luckmann 1966. As the combined product of a sociologist (Berger) and philosopher (Luckmann), this book set the stage early for the relevance of an SC approach to multiple disciplines and for the emphasis on the role of language in shaping human understanding of the world. However, second-generation publications frequently take Berger and Luckmann for granted and no longer even cite them. Their ideas were obviously grounded in earlier work, and many authors have found it helpful to return to those sources. In 2013 a short reflection upon the joint book, Luckmann 2013, was published, which discusses the earlier publication’s origins and influence and provides a bit of context not otherwise readily available.

  • Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

    The obvious starting point for those who wish to begin at the beginning, although grounded in even earlier work (such as that by Alfred Schütz and Max Weber). Still a good introduction, though the prose is dense; other overviews and introductions are typically deemed more accessible. (Note that anyone citing the nonexistent “Luckman” has likely not read the original source.)

  • Luckmann, Thomas. 2013. The communicative construction of reality and sequential analysis: A personal reminiscence. Qualitative Sociology Review 9.2: 40–46.

    Reflection by one of the authors on the development of SC theory and a summary of basic assumptions. Although he describes the work as a shift to the “communicative paradigm” (p. 42), which is footnoted as including work by Goffman, Gumperz and Hymes, Garfinkel, Sacks, and Schegloff, he seems unaware even at that late date of communication being a distinct field of study.

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