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Editors: Albert J. Mills , Gabrielle Durepos , and Elden Wiebe
Date: 2010
Encyclopedia of Case Study Research
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Constructivism encompasses a variety of intellectual traditions concerned with the social, subjective, cognitive, technological, and linguistic processes involved in the construction of lay and scientific knowledge. These encompass contributions in psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, and education challenging traditional approaches to learning, communication, and change, and traditions in philosophy and social studies of science questioning objectivism. Constructivism and constructionism as terms are often used interchangeably in the literature, the first term being preferred in psychology and educational studies, the second in sociology. Over the past 40 years, constructivism/constructionism has also been of continuing interest in qualitative social research, alongside increased recognition of the subjective, social, and discursive texture of human experience, practice, and artifacts.

Despite differences, several common themes outline the contours of constructivist traditions. These traditions tend to be skeptical of empiricist foundations of knowledge and of claims of the objectivity and value neutrality of scientific methods. They particularly question the existence of an external and already determined world and social reality, independent of any human knowledge, action, or activity (ontological realism). Although focusing on interactions and communication practices, most constructivist traditions question the distinction between (and independences of) a knowing subject and an object to be known. This has been argued on the one hand to conflate ontology and epistemology, or on the other to subsume ontology into epistemology, as a result. Factual and scientific knowledge are seen as problematic constructions that, depending on perspectives, are viewed as the product of mental processes, technology, and linguistic and social practices or repertoires. The purpose of both lay and scientific knowledge construction is to provide useful, adequate, coherent, stable, or meaningful representations of the world in accordance with particular sets of systemic or sociolinguistic rules and constraints in given contexts.

Conceptual Overview and Discussion

Two different traditions are distinguishable in con-structivist/constructionist thought: the biological– systemic approach (including the French School of constructivism, the work of the Palo Alto School, and radical constructivism) and the sociocultural approach (including strong constructivism and social constructionism).

The biological—systemic approach draws on Kant's questioning of the sources of knowledge and his argument that a priori categories of thought shape the impressions formed of experience (sense-data). It resonates with early 20th-century concerns of philosophers of science, historians, and ethnologists with the workings of the Mind and materializes the strong influence of evolutionary theory until the beginning of the cybernetic revolution. The biological—systemic approach is accordingly concerned with the mental operations involved in knowing and thinking that contribute to the construction of knowledge and reality in interactive situations between subjects, or subjects and objects.

Jean Piaget and Gaston Bachelard made the earliest constructivist contributions and are regarded as the founders of the French constructivist school. Piaget's genetic epistemology is an isomorph of Piaget's earlier psychological work from structures of individual thought to structures of scientific knowledge, which he considers “constructions of the human mind.” Piaget's landmark developmental approach to intelligence (psychogenesis) from the 1920s onward is a biofunctional answer to the evolutionary problem of the generation of new structures in living systems. It conceptualizes how human intelligence develops, auto-organizes, and Page 221  |  Top of Articlestructures itself through the increased differentiation and complexification of individual structures of thought (schemas). This is embedded in an adaptive and systemic view of relations of exchange between individual subjects and an ambient environment (what can be known). Knowledge is part of a system of adaptive transformations resulting from the need by individual subjects both to auto-regulate and develop, that is, explore, expand, act upon, and eventually master their environment. The gradual development of more complex, inclusive, and integrative schemes of thought (progress) results from an increased ability by the knowing subject to balance two conflicting dynamics: assimilation (a conservative tendency to preserve existing knowledge structures and shape perceptual inputs accordingly) and accommodation (which facilitates the transformation of interpretative schemes to take into account constraints of the environment). Such dynamic equilibrium (equilibration or adaptation) evolves as human thinking and intelligence progressively structure in simultaneous moves of exterior-ization (through action and sensory-motor experience) and interiorization, from an undifferen-tiated egocentric psychology to more abstract, conceptual, generalized, and objective forms of thinking (allowing causal reasoning to take place). This occurs conjointly with the development of both self-awareness of one's distinctiveness as a subject and objective ways of knowing the world (realism).

A historically oriented philosophy of science, genetic epistemology attempts to explain the progress of scientific theorizing as a system of evolving relations between forms of thought, in terms of its endogenous history and teleology. Arguing for an “objectifying form of relativism” distinct from skeptical and contingent forms of historical– critical traditions, genetic epistemology sees objectivity as the limit of a series of successive approximations, marking the transcendent progress of reason. Piaget's epistemological constructivism is therefore orthogenic in that it assumes epistemic change to be directional. Scientific thinking is conceptualized as reaching its own points of invariance (objectivity) through equilibration, thanks to the progressive integration of scientific theories into larger and more comprehensive constructions (sociogenesis) and distancing from subjectivity toward the construction of collective norms of thought (psychogenesis).

Parallel with Piaget, Bachelard considers objectivity as a difficult achieved outcome. However, whereas Piaget differentiates between individual subjects and epistemic subjects (the idealized subject of scientific thinking), Bachelard argues against the idea of an unquestionable and immediately apprehended raw material forming a foundation for scientific objectivity. For Bachelard, science never finds its objects as given or as facts—it constructs and “realizes” sets of possibilities. Accordingly, he draws a line between immediate objects (whose form is considered as given, taken for granted, unproblematic, and “recognized” as natural or real) and the objects of scientific discourses, which he formulates as projects (which are cognized, problematic, and relative to a system of conceptual relations that constitutes scientific discourse, coupled with techniques of realization). Bachelard's concept of epistemological rupture (influencing Thomas Kuhn's “paradigm shift”) embodies this difference in assuming an ontologi-cal discontinuity between science and sense perception. The process of realizing or materializing scientific objects, or phenomenotechnics, is set to embrace both a scientific “technical materialism” producing the materiality of scientific phenomena (or its objects) through techniques of realization (including experimental apparatuses and theoretical conditions of formation), and an applied rationalism, acknowledging the conditions of their application. Phenomenotechnics challenges the “false opposition” between theory and application by stressing how the creativity of scientific thinking is set to develop new possibilities and produces new realities. In 1994, Jean-Louis Le Moigne summarized the legacy of Piaget and Bachelard for constructivist epistemologies, which he importantly formalized into two hypotheses (phenomenology and teleology) and two original principles: systemic modeling and intelligent action. Le Moigne also formalized systemics into a methodological approach based around eight axioms, enabling a non-Cartesian and complex formulation of phenomena in line with constructivist epistemology.

Influenced by phenomenology and cybernetics, radical constructivism emerged as a theory of knowing in the early 1960s in relation to the Palo Alto School, itself shaped by what has been called the Bateson Project (1953–1962) and by the early work of Piaget. Developed by Ernst Von Glaserfeld, Page 222  |  Top of Articleit proceeds from the assumption that there is no way of knowing reality outside the interactive flows of subjective experience. Expanding Bateson's investigation of the construction of scientific explanation as involving the active structuration and abstraction of data, radical constructivism explores the crucial role of fundamental cognitive operations (the selection, distinction, comparison, and connection of elements into information and phenomena) and of repeated methodological procedures in the scientific construction of regularities and causal explanations. Radical constructivism conveys an instrumental and teleological view of scientific knowledge whose value is assessed in relation to its projects, and to how it contributes to organizing “phenomenological experience” into regular and stable patterns (events, rules, types or domains, theories, models, logic) to reproduce results or make viable predictions in relation to action.

Influenced by cybernetics, information theory, and thermodynamics, the Palo Alto School (Ernst Von Foerster, Gregory Bateson, and Paul Watzlawick, in particular) developed a relational view of mind and knowledge in sharp contrast to behaviorist and cognitivist approaches. Contiguous with Piaget's psychogenesis, Bateson and Von Foerster conceptualized individual mental activity as interactive and transformative, but distinctively consider mental operations as functions of differential perception and processing (based on the relative, comparative, and circular evaluation of variations, differences, or changes). Information processing is conceptualized as the continuing comparison of new inputs or events (differences), their descriptions (coded versions of past events), and their effects (transformations) on cognitive activity. Consistent with radical constructivism and Piaget's theoretical account of the irreversibility of time, Palo Alto's conceptualization of cognitive activity as a circular and complex process of illimited, relative, and time-dependent comparison of new to previous inputs (operational circularity) offers a self-referential conceptualization of individual cognition without reference to external reality. Such self-reference is also investigated in Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, and Niklas Luhmann's autopoietic conceptualizations of social systems distinguishing themselves and maintaining difference from their environment through recursive operations and a paradoxical form of “closure.”

The Palo Alto School also systematized and enriched Bateson's anthropological analyses of human interactions into systemic models of communication that redefined psychology, psychotherapy, and understandings of social order, adaptation, and normality. Presented in Naven in 1936, Bateson's theory of schismogenesis (progressive change in behavior through cumulative symmetrical or complementary patterns of interaction between individuals and groups) anticipates the cybernetic concepts of positive versus negative feedback. Palo Alto scholars later used concepts of feedback, circular causality, hierarchy, and redundancy to study the microdynamics and patterns of interaction at work in the structuring of interpersonal relations and social reality, whether in maintaining existing norms, rules (homeostasis), and beliefs system (self-fulfilling prophecies) or in generating conflicts and change. The structuring of interpretive processes through interaction and communication, giving meaning, significance, and value to information is conceptualized in terms of coding variety, levels of communication (indices of a message), and sequencing (punctuation). In 1936, Bateson also began an epistemological and methodological reflection on the role of observers and conceptual forms of thinking in the delimitation of phenomena and the creation of objective orders of reality. This became part of second-order cybernetics and radical constructivism. Doubting the validity of his own explanatory categories, he showed skepticism toward human consciousness, always purposive, and the “suspect reifications” characterizing most explanatory methods in social science. Influenced by Russell's theory of logical types, he later developed a four-tier model of learning and the concept of the double-bind, the latter characterizing and explaining the communication paradoxes and conflicting injunctions relating to schizophrenia.

Engaging more widely with the construction of cultural artifacts and social objects, the socio-cultural approach emerged as part of the post-Kuhnian sociological turn in philosophy of science and incorporates two main traditions: strong constructivism as developed in sociology of scientific knowledge, and social constructionism more generally. Both tend to be influenced by the later Wittgenstein on “language-games” and Berger and Luckmann on the social construction of reality.

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Published in 1966, Berger and Luckmann's agentic approach to social order introduced the “social construction” metaphor to consider the constitutive role of microsocial patterns of relations in creating and maintaining social structure. Here, social reality is conceptualized as an ongoing human production involving the repetitive ordering of human conduct into patterns and routines (habitualization) and their reciprocal and socially controlled typification by legitimate actors (institu-tionalization). A historical and externalized product of institutionalized agency, the objectivity, facticity, and taken-for-grantedness of social structure is legitimized and controlled through socialization. Knowledge about society conveys the ontological objectivity of institutions as social facts. This legitimates their existence to a significant portion of society while, at the same time, obscuring the intersubjective origins of these facts. Social actors then reinforce these institutions through acting in accordance with their objectified character. Berger and Luckmann consequently claim that social processes influence individual perceptions and beliefs about the world (subjective “reality”) that themselves play an important role in the (re)construction of institutions and persons (objective reality).

Berger and Luckmann's thesis made way for the development of constructivist approaches to the sociology of scientific intellectual subcultures and practices. From the 1970s, strong constructivism (Karin Knorr-Cetina, Bruno Latour, and Steve Woolgar, and Michael Lynch) offered a detailed, microfocused, context-sensitive and case-based approach to contemporary scientific laboratory activity emphasizing its local, contingent, and situated character. The role of discursive practices, inscription devices, human agency, and processes of negotiation in the production of scientific facts and phenomena were scrutinized. Ethnographic observation of scientific methods, procedures of practical reasoning, and inference use to generate data, knowledge claims, and factual knowledge (hypotheses, laws, theories, models, or other kinds of representations) showed their creative, negotiated, and interpretive character. The ambiguity of standard procedures left room for differences in their interpretation, application, and evaluation. This led constructivists to reformulate scientific activity as the artful production and development of discursive resources and the transactional product of mundane negotiation between different interests in specific scientific subcultures, challenging rationalist and falsificationist conceptions of science. Expanding on Bachelard's phenomenotechnics and emphasizing the “artificiality of the laboratory itself,” constructivists also identified how researchers materially produce phenomena and transform them using technology or inscription devices, anticipating results and “making things work” as part of the “machinery of science.”

Social constructionist traditions, developed by John Shotter, Kenneth Gergen, and Jonathan Potter, following Berger and Luckmann, challenge individualistic and neo-Kantian categories of experience, cognition, or mind (what Gergen calls “the impasse of individual knowledge”). They attempt to move beyond the duality of subject—object and the subjectivist—realist views associated with each of them (which Gergen labels endogenic and exo-genic). Social constructionism reconsiders the problem of meaning-making and theorizing from an intersubjective, social, and discursive point of view, focusing on conversational, rhetorical, and representational activities. Language, discourse, and interpretive repertoires are primary devices for the construction of social reality, with words taking meaning in the context of ongoing social relationships. For Wittgenstein, language does not represent the world but represents the “form-of-life” through which we engage with the world, as social relations are formed and reformed within language. As habitual, structured, and institutionalized as is social life, language becomes a series of “language-games.” Social life then inevitably reflects the collective negotiation of multiple realities and their often conflicting interpretations. Potter's work on discourse (talk and text) as social practice examines the rhetorics at play in account and fact construction and explores epistemological implications for objectivation that Berger and Luckmann neglect. He first investigates how descriptions are produced in ways that will enable them to be treated as factual, appearing to be neutral and independent of the speaker, and how they might be challenged or undermined. Second, he considers how descriptions may be involved in action and performance. Like Shotter, Potter is skeptical of theorizing as reified and abstracted narrative construction based on literary conventions and encourages its resistance. Page 224  |  Top of ArticleShotter's rhetorical—responsive version of social constructionism, however, mostly emphasizes the situated, relational, dialogical, and embodied character of conversational activities and is more concerned with practical conduct. He utilizes Wittgenstein's ordinary language philosophy and Bakhtin's dialogism to place the emphasis of social construction on the quality of betweenness or joint action in the dialectical movement of relationships. Unlike Potter and Shotter, Gergen embraces both a relativist and a metatheoretical position. His thinking is eclectic, incorporating Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. He furthers a critique of the post-Enlightenment impetus toward monologic, asocial, and ahistori-cal systems of thought and referential, founda-tional, and representationalist treatments of knowledge. Gergen emphasizes the free-floating semantic character of linguistic predicates in relation to events external to language. He conjointly asserts the communal aspects of language whose meaning is situated in and indexical to historically formed “living traditions” (contextual conventions of interpretation, established norms, or usage resulting from socially negotiated agreements). Drawing on developments in poststructural philosophy, Gergen's social constructionism has both a critical and a transformational intent, acknowledging the changing historical discursive character of accounts of self and identity, particularly within psychology, and the ideological texture of scientific production more generally.


Constructivist/constructionist traditions focus on human social processes and activities that are considered both reflexively transformative and self-sustaining, rather than objective artifacts,things, or substances, as phenomena of interest. Like post-structuralism, constructivism dramatically emphasizes the nonobjective dimensions of scientific investigation (e.g., concept generation, definitional work, explanation, claim-making, argumentation, conflict resolution, interpretation of results, evaluation, and establishment of consensus). It makes the unreflexive use of traditional methodological designs problematic as a result. Researchers engaging with constructivism/constructionism should face the following methodological issues: the problematic status of empirical data and delimitation of phenomena; the problematic status of the researcher resulting from subject—object interdependency or inbetweenness; methodological relativism; the emergence and contingency of research design; and the problematic ethics of results evaluation. There is no distinctive constructivist/constructionist methodology, however, and, from a qualitative methodological point of view, it can still be difficult to differentiate from interpretivist and eth-nomethodological research. Indeed, most constructivist social research was called “naturalistic” before 1990. In spite of their claim of adopting a new paradigm, Yvonna Lincoln and Egon Guba's naturalistic methodological principles for qualitative research hardly stand apart from inter-pretivism. Contradictions due to selective relativism in assuming constancy in the definition of phenomena to facilitate comparison of cases (what Steve Woolgar and Dorothy Pawluch term onto-logical gerrymandering) have also been identified.

Constructivism and social constructionism are more distinctive as perspectives on methodological issues than methods in themselves. However, typical methods adopted include action-research, conversation and discourse analysis, ethnography, clinical studies and group-based methodologies, reflexive interviewing, and visual and auditory elicitation techniques. The types of cases that they look for result from what they consider to be researchable phenomena.

Biological—systemic constructivists stress the intellectual activity of conscious subjects in their constructive and projective mode. Case studies in psychology and education have investigated learning as problem-solving, and the role of sensory experience, individual reflection, and abstraction in understanding and the construction of causal explanation, conceptual artifacts, and theories. Novice– expert interactions, contexts favoring collaborative work between pairs, and the uses of artifacts have been researched as opportunities for creativity. Systemic and cybernetic modeling offer original case descriptions or simulations of transformative (e.g., invention and design) or regulatory processes in complex environments. Cognitive change or aspects of subjective experience have been studied in cases exploring the dynamics and framing of relations between doctors/nurses and patients in Page 225  |  Top of Articletraditional or transformative therapeutic contexts. Action-research interventions include enlightening cases of co-constructed dynamics of change. Here, the role of the researcher's, teacher's, or therapist's subjectivity and personal creativity in the active constructing of scientific realities, and how this subjectivity should be taken into account from a methodological point of view, are considered.

Sociocultural traditions are concerned with local, conversational, and discursive practices constituting the construction and maintenance of social norms, concepts, and categories (e.g., subjectivity, gender, culture, identity, institutions, deviance) as well as scientific factual knowledge, explanation, and argumentation. Ethnographic research in sociology of scientific knowledge produced case studies of scientific knowledge production in laboratories, while conversation and discourse analyses investigated the rhetorics of factual writing or the politics of scientific consensus and authority. In psychology, social construc-tionist approaches demonstrated the cultural situatedness and discursive texture of traditionally universal concepts like emotions or perception. More generally, experimental writing incorporating co- and practical authorship, self-reflexive deconstruction of narrative traditions, and a diversity of styles and forms of representation have been encouraged.

Critical Summary

Constructivism eschews belief in an absolute foundation of human knowledge and ascription of truth-value independent of the determining effects of human social activity. Human action is understood as occasioned in accordance with systemic constraints or sociolinguistic rules rather than determined by scientific laws. Through its investigation of cognitive and sociolinguistic practices, constructivism/constructionism shows the problematic, socially negotiated, culturally, and linguistically bounded status of factual knowledge and explanatory systems of thought, challenging traditional views of the relations between the particular and the universal. However, debates are ongoing about the extent of the relativism practiced (ontological, epistemological, or methodological). Proponents and critics of constructivist approaches raise the issue of the self-refuting character of linguistically oriented constructivist approaches due to the circularity of language and problems of unbounded reflexivity. Beyond knowledge production, the broad consideration of formative processes can make the construction metaphor difficult to distinguish from other perspectives with which it shares affinities (interpretivism, poststructuralism, critical qualitative inquiry). For instance, social construc-tionists influenced by critical developments in anthropology have increasingly recognized the politics of field work relations—between researcher and subjects, subjects and other subjects, between researchers, and in wider social contexts because of the inseparability of power and knowledge.

Garance Maréchal

Further Readings

Delanty, G. (2005). Social science: Philosophical and methodological foundations. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Friedman, L. (1999). Why is reality a troubling concept? Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, 47(2), 410–425.

Gaukroger, S. W. (1976). Bachelard and the problem of epistemological analysis. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 7(3), 189–244.

Miller, G., & Fox, K. J. (1999). Learning from sociological practice: The case of applied constructionism. American Sociologist, 30(1), 54–73.

Shotter, J. (1995). In dialogue: Social constructionism and radical constructionism. In L. P. Steffe & J. Gale (Eds.), Constructivism in education (pp. 41–56).

Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Sismondo, S. (1993). Some social constructions. Social Studies of Science, 23(3), 515–553.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1562500095