Realism and relativism

Social constructionism is at once realist and relativist.

To say that meaningful reality is socially constructed is not to say that it is not real. As we have noted earlier, constructionism in epistemology is perfecdy compatible with a realism in ontology—and in more ways than one.

Stanley Fish underlines the reality of our social constructions when commenting publicly on the so-called Sokal Affair of 1996.8 It is no contradiction, Fish points out in the New York Times (21 May 1996), to say that something is socially constructed and also real. He draws an example from baseball. ‘Balls’ and ‘strikes’ are certainly socially constructed. They exist as such because of the rules of the game. Yet they are real. Some people are paid as much as $3.5 million to produce them or prevent their production! They are constructions, and may change in their nature tomorrow if the powers-that-be decide to change the rules, but they are real, nonetheless.

Accordingly, those who contrast ‘constructionism’ and ‘realism’ are wide of the mark. Realism should be set, instead, against idealism. Idealism, we have already noted, is the philosophical view that what is real is somehow confined to what is in the mind, that is, it consists only of ‘ideas’ (to use the word employed by Descartes and his contemporaries). Social constructionism does not confine reality in this way.

Secondly, we should accept that social constructionism is relativist. What is said to be ‘the way things are’ is really just ‘the sense we make of them’. Once this standpoint is embraced, we will obviously hold our understandings much more lighdy and tentatively and far less dogmatically, seeing them as historically and culturally effected interpretations rather than eternal truths of some kind. Historical and cross-cultural comparisons should make us very aware that, at different times and in different places, there have been and are very divergent interpretations of the same phenomena.

A certain relativism is in order, therefore. We need to recognise that different people may well inhabit quite different worlds. Their different worlds constitute for them diverse ways of knowing, distinguishable sets of meanings, separate realities.

At the very least, this means that description and narration can no longer be seen as straightforwardly representational of reality. It is not a case of merely mirroring ‘what is there’. When we describe something, we are, in the normal course of events,9 reporting how something is seen and reacted to, and thereby meaningfully constructed, within a given community or set of communities. When we narrate something, even in telling our very own story, it is (again in the normal course of events) the voice of our culture—its many voices, in fact—that is heard in what we say. A consideration of central importance, surely. Yet not all approaches to social inquiry and analysis professing to be constructionist have been equally successful in keeping it in view.

It has become something of a shibboleth for qualitative researchers to claim to be constructionist or constructivist, or both. We need to ensure that this is not just a glib claim, a matter of rhetoric only. If we make such a claim, we should reflect deeply on its significance. What does it mean for our research to be constructionist and constructivist? What implications does being constructionist/constructivist hold?

Important questions these. Being constructionist/constructivist has crucial things to say to us about many dimensions of the research task. It speaks to us about the way in which we do research. It speaks to us about how we should view its data.

We will do well to listen.

Source: Michael J Crotty (1998), The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process, SAGE Publications Ltd; First edition.

1 thoughts on “Realism and relativism

  1. Hanna says:

    hey there and thank you for your info – I have definitely picked up anything new from right here.
    I did however expertise several technical issues using this
    site, since I experienced to reload the website many times previous to I could get
    it to load properly. I had been wondering if your web hosting is
    OK? Not that I’m complaining, but sluggish loading instances times will
    very frequently affect your placement in google and could damage your quality score if
    ads and marketing with Adwords. Anyway I am adding this RSS to my email and could
    look out for a lot more of your respective fascinating content.
    Make sure you update this again soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *