Nowadays in a rapidly developing society it is extremely important to understand the role the individual plays in it. As a result there appeared different theories and approaches aiming at explanation of the individual and interpersonal relations within the society as a social phenomenon which had to be studied for better understanding of inner processes which may be observed in any social community. It should be noticed that from the very beginning different social sciences tended to reveal internal relations within the human society, paying particular attention to an individual as a member of the society. Naturally, the variety of approaches to the question of understanding the individual in the society resulted in a number of different points of view which could vary greatly, including those which practically deny the role of individual and to a certain extent exaggerate the role of the community, to extremely individualistic, which, on the contrary, exaggerate the role of the individual and underestimate the role of the community in the process of formation of the individual.
However, relatively not long time ago in the modern science appeared the trend to find the compromise between these two radical views. Among such approaches the social constructionist approach may be name. This approach may help us in the understanding of the individual as a member of the society as well as it contributes to the understanding of interpersonal relations existing in the society. That is why this paper will be focused on the brief analysis of this approach and its contribution to the understanding of the individual in the society.
From the very beginning, it is necessary to analyze the general contribution made by the social constructionist approach to the understanding of the individual in the society. Obviously, this approach may seem quite different from others for this approach suggests relatively new view on the treatment of the individual. Actually, the social constructionist approach implies that an individual should be regarded at as not only social being but also as a culturally rich personality.
According to this approach, and it seems quite innovative, the most important beliefs, views of an individual, his moral and social categories are shaped under the influence of cultural surrounding and cultural traditions and are basically defined by them and not, as it is traditionally thought, by individual’s biological or psychological peculiarities. It means that, according to this approach, for the understanding of the individual cultural aspect is much more important than any other which were traditionally put on the first place by other, probably more conservative approaches and theories. That is what makes the social constructionist approach’s understanding of an individual so different from others.
One more important thing that should be underlined, and which would be analyzed in details later, is the way the individual’s views, and personality at large, are formed. According to social constructionists’ beliefs it is done through interaction of individuals within the society, through communication and cultural mutual influence. What is particularly important here is the fact that this approach interprets an individual as a subject of societal influence, in other words a person will treat himself according to traditional, cultural views dominating in this or that society that consequently makes individual’s psychology less significant. Though this point, being quite innovative, still seems to have some inner contradictions because it is not so easy to underestimate those factors which were traditionally if not defining then significant and were responsible for the formation of an individual. What is meant here is the idea that according to the social constructionist approach an individual may be treated as the product of the societal culture while such factors as psychology, genes, heredity, physical form, etc. are not so important.
Now, it is necessary to dwell upon the details which may enlarge the understanding of the social constructionist approach and its contribution to the understanding of the individual in the society.
First of all, it should be underlined that the social constructionist approach pays great attention to the fact that such notions as self, knowledge and social activity, which are obviously extremely important for the understanding of the individual as an essential part of the community, originate from socio-cultural and linguistic patterns that exist in the society. The followers of the social constructionist approach estimate that all aspects of reality, including personal identity – self, gender, sexual orientation, and points of view – are constructed under the influence of interpersonal communication and exchange of cultural and social views. As the result of such understanding of the individual some followers of the social constructionist approach estimate that the main emphasis in this approach is made on the relational aspects of the construction, not on the concomitant internal mechanisms that are coordinating the bodily affairs. That is why, one of the main partisans of the social constructionist approach, Boland estimates: “Society is the product of human interaction and therefore the externalization of subjective meanings, but society is also an objective reality which must be confronted. Through socialization, man internalizes the objective reality and becomes himself a social product. Man creates the world through social interaction, and is created by it in the same process. He produces his social reality, and he is confronted by and moulds himself to it” (1996, p. 695). So, from this statement we see to what extent social cooperation and individual interrelations are important to the social constructionist approach and it also makes us think that an individual is an essential part of the society but at the same time he remains a separate individual with his own perception, which however, is influenced by his surrounding through the direct or indirect communication. At this point a researcher should also pay a lot of attention to such aspect of societal culture as human language which plays an important role in the development of an individual for Berger and Luckmann, who were one of the founders of the social constructionist approach in their researches made in the late 1960s, estimated that “our inter-personal linguistic interactions construct our perceptions of our social environment and our responses to that environment” (1966:127). It is also possible to conclude that, being social by nature, an individual should be understood as a part of the society that can be free to a certain extent but at the same time cannot remain absolutely independent from other members of the society. Consequently, according to the social constructionist approach, such significant notions as the category of gender, for instance, are constructed within social groups through those cultural and traditional moral norms existing in the society which are regarded at as the means of the individual’s socialization. The partisans of the social constructionist approach to a certain extent diminish the independence of an individual from the society he lives in for Gergen underlines that “the emphasis is not on the individual but on the meanings of people as the collectively generate descriptions and explanations in language” (1994:135). It means that approach interprets individual as a part of the common entity that is united, in the first turn, culturally, and it became particularly obvious on analyzing the language existing in the society.
Another important factor, which should be pointed out and emphasized in the social constructionist approach and which can be named as a particular social constructionist understanding of the individual, is the idea concerning the importance of social relations at larger sense. It means that for the followers of the constructionist theory interpersonal relations are not limited by relations between a limited circle of people, such as a family, on the contrary, the whole society is particularly important and each individual, playing his own role in the social interaction, influences and is influenced in response not only by his nearest surrounding but by the whole society. Taking into account this point of view Shotter states that “within this theoretical approach is the invitation to construct the individual identities – the ‘I’ who speaks – subjectivities, and personal experiences as both outgrowths of relational process, and in a reflexive manner, as the producers of relational processes” (1993, p.227). Thus, from this point of view an individual seems to be influenced by the society its cultural norms and traditions which produce a great impact not only on the individual’s social behavior but on his personal way of thinking, on his perception of the surrounding reality. It means that according to the social constructionist approach an individual is a being whose views and beliefs are formed by different social groups, which should be united and treated as the whole and solid society producing the general impact on his personality. On the other hand, an individual is, in his turn, as it has already been mentioned above, an important factor for the construction of social relations and, consequently, social views and beliefs though at the same time the social constructionist approach tends to persuade that an individual is formed by societal norms, its culture and traditions though he seems to have a chance to make his own contribution into the development of the society in the same way.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the social constructionist approach is very important for our understanding of the individual in the society.
Despite the fact that this theory may find a number of opponents it is quite natural and normal. Moreover, it rather proves that the theory conveys ideas that at least make specialists evaluate and treat them seriously. On the other hand, this approach should not be idealized but what should be done, regardless all personal ideas and beliefs that one may have, is to analyze critically this theory and find what may be accepted and what should be criticize in the context of the assessment of the social constructionist contribution to the understanding of the individual in the society. In all probability, this theory implies that every individual, being to a certain degree free in his views, still remains under the influence of the surrounding community and the society at large. The theory also emphasizes that interpersonal communication is extremely important for the individual and that the existing culture and norms shape the individual’s basic ideas concerning not only the surrounding world but his own, individual, perception within it. Finally, it is necessary to say that the social constructionist approach should not be treated as the absolute true but it has to be studied and developed in order to make progress in the seek of our knowledge about the individual and his role in the society for only in such a way it would be possible to achieve this goal while a complete rejection of such theories would retardate the development of scientific views and ideas because the progress itself is the permanent argument which leads to clarifying and understanding of the society and an individual’s place in it.
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