In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Constructivist Approaches to Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Philosophical Foundations of Constructivist Research
  • Constructivism in the Social Sciences
  • Constructivism in Childhood Studies
  • Methods in Constructivist Research
  • Criticisms and Limitations of Constructivist Approaches

Childhood Studies Constructivist Approaches to Childhood
Leena Alanen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0190


Constructivism is one of the most influential 20th-century philosophies of science. It has a long history, but it emerged and gained its popularity as a metatheory for today’s social sciences and humanities from the postmodern critique of positivist science. Scientific constructivism has been advocated, especially since the 1970s, and strongly debated. Social scientists—sociologists and historians of science—have been in the forefront in generating a literature on constructivism, much of it since the publication of Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Constructivism exists today in widely diverse forms, making it far from a unitary paradigm. Constructivists generally maintain that reality is not something outside the discourse of science, and that the empirical world of reality can only be known by our cognitive structures. Therefore, what are taken as facts and as truth are to be considered as results of historical and social processes. Accordingly, constructivist social research is premised on the acknowledgment that our understandings and knowledge of the social world, both scientific and everyday knowledge, vary with history and are dependent on social contexts. The implied position is one of relativism: in the case of “weaker” constructivism, a relativist epistemology; in the “stronger” (or “radical”) case, also an ontological relativism. The basic analytic task in constructivist inquiry is to discover the way social phenomena are invented, become known, are disseminated and institutionalized, and (may) come to constitute a tradition. Constructivism is frequently put into research practice, particularly in the social sciences, under the title of (social) constructionism. Particularly in Anglophone social science and psychology, constructionism is the more prevalent term of the two. It has been suggested that this usage originates from the title of Berger and Luckmann’s book The Social Construction of Reality (Berger and Luckmann 1966, cited under Constructivism in the Social Sciences). In Anglophone scientific literature, except for philosophy and the specific field of social studies of knowledge (SSK), the two terms are frequently used synonymously, if also inconsistently. In contrast, in Continental Europe, “constructivism” continues to be used as the appropriate reference to this metatheory also in social science. As the “new” social studies of childhood emerged in the 1980s, first in the Anglophone area, researchers grounding their work on constructivist ideas have tended to identify themselves as (social) constructionists. In this article, “constructivism” is used as the general term, whereas “(social) constructionism,” or a composite of the two, is used when the reference is to studies in Anglophone social science and childhood studies. There is a voluminous literature, with a long history, on constructivism in psychology and in education, where constructivism refers to the active construction of knowledge by the learner and is often linked to Piaget’s work; this literature will not be considered here.

Philosophical Foundations of Constructivist Research

Constructivism as a philosophy of science has not been easy to define, as there are both ontological and epistemological (and ethical) components to it, and thus there are several varieties of constructivism. The nature of each, and what they entail as paradigmatic foundations for constructivist scholarship, has made constructivism one of the most controversial positions in late-20th-century social science. Hacking 1999 examines, from a philosophy of science position, the validity of a range of constructivist claims of the form “the social construction of x.” Kukla 2000 is a critical discussion of various brands of social constructivism, aiming to bring conceptual order into the debate. Haslanger 2012, by a philosopher, clarifies the connection of constructionism(s) to philosophy by drawing on analytic metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of language to show how gender and race can be understood as social constructions. Constructivism and (scientific) realism—the latter position claiming that the reality which scientific theories describe is largely independent of our thoughts or theoretical commitments—are often regarded as opposing traditions and even mutually contradictory. Delanty 1997 and Elder-Vass 2012 argue that the constructivist-realist divide is a false one, and that there are ways to integrate constructivism and realism.

  • Delanty, Gerard. Social Science: Beyond Constructivism and Realism. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1997.

    The book gives an overview of philosophical debates on the methodology of the social sciences, and critically evaluates versions of constructionism from a (critical) realist position.

  • Elder-Vass, Dave. The Reality of Social Construction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139169202

    Grounded in the tradition of critical realism, the book develops and substantiates the argument that social science should be both realist and social constructionist.

  • Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

    This collection of essays, by a philosopher of science, examines the wide-ranging confusions and ambiguities in social constructionist studies. According to Hacking, the metaphor of social construction has become both trendy and “tired,” and the field is in need of critically examining the different “kinds”—the “what”—that are claimed to be socially constructed. He subjects the social constructions of mental illness and child abuse to an in-depth examination.

  • Haslanger, Sally. Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199892631.001.0001

    It is argued that, in spite of consensus that the idea of social construction is an important tool in contemporary social theory, the diversity of ways of using the term and what it is taken to imply has reduced its value in discussion. The chapters of the book draw on work in analytic metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language to clarify and defend the proposal of race and gender being socially constructed.

  • Kukla, André. Social Construction and the Philosophy of Science. London: Routledge, 2000.

    A number of philosophical issues are discussed that arise out of debates on constructivism, and the strengths and weaknesses of various constructivist arguments are analyzed.

  • Weinberg, Darin. “The Philosophical Foundations of Constructionist Research.” In Handbook of Constructionist Research. Edited by James A. Holstein and Jaber F. Gubrium, 13–39. New York: Guilford, 2008.

    The chapter argues that despite social constructionism’s often anti-philosophical stance and its very rejection of any philosophical foundations, social constructionist research has always been heavily influenced by philosophers and philosophical debates. To explain this, Weinberg gives an overview of the “rise and implosion” of philosophical foundationalism, from Plato onward to analytical philosophy, critical theory, and the hermeneutic tradition up to post-structuralism and postmodernism, and explains constructionism’s embeddedness in these traditions of thought.

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