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Social construction is about asking questions (Bartesaghi & Castor, 2009). Before we explain what we mean by this, we will describe social construction as both a framework and a process in communication and illustrate its importance to your everyday ways of acting within social reality.
James Carey (1989) identifies two views of communication that are prevalent in our culture: transmission and ritual. According to the first, to communicate is to exchange information; so we speak of getting a point across, of mismatches between intentions and the actual messages received, of changing minds, and of message content. When we see communication as having to do with building relationships and really talking to each other (Katriel & Philipsen, 1981), with sharing stories about who we are as a culture, with gatherings as a way to keep us together, then we are thinking in terms of what Carey calls the ritual view.
Transmission and ritual views are not mutually exclusive; both are historically tied to the quest for travel and carrying messages across great distances and to the religious desire to pass on God’s word. But in our culture, talking about communication in terms of transmission has become so natural that we cannot even tell that it is only one way of making meaning about and within communication (Krippendorff, 1993).According to the transmission way of thinking, language is merely a conduit for communication (Reddy, 1979), a way to transport meanings, feelings, and so-called contents that can be extracted at will at their destination. But if this is so, and if meaning is just a matter of transporting content, how can we explain the following conversation?
Driving back from a visit out of town, a married couple is chatting in the car, when the wife turns to the husband and says, “How about we stop for coffee?” “No, thanks,” he responds and, as he is driving, does not stop the car. “Well, that’s not very nice!” exclaims the wife, who proceeds to seethe for the rest of the drive home. The husband, seeing that his wife is upset, knows that he has done something wrong and wishes that he had stopped. Why, they both think, can’t the other one just grow up and be a considerate, reasonable partner?
And consider the role played by communication in our social world when we say that a person going through legal proceedings is innocent until proven guilty. This is not simply a matter of legal judgment but of speaking making it so. Before the jury is asked to pronounce the verdict, the life of someone standing trial hangs in the balance, his or her fate depending on the uttering of one word: guilty or innocent.
Inasmuch as these examples are about communication involving something other than messages being exchanged or information reaching a destination, the transmission metaphor so prevalent in our talk about communication is not an adequate construction for capturing what is occurring. The entailments of the transmission metaphor— where language is an empty vessel and there is one and only one message, independent of the relational word that creates and is created by it (Krippendorff, 1993; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980)—belie the experience of the married couple and the accused whose fate 12 peers must decide. The communication events in the two examples illustrate communication as social construction: continuously emergent in relationships, constitutive of social reality, consequential to communicators, experienced through the bodily senses, and afforded by their material circumstances. Moreover, questioning the taken-for-granted transmission metaphor in communication, as we have done, is something encouraged by a social construction stance.
In the following sections, we first reconstruct communication by means of an intellectual collage of social construction as a framework for communication study and then present and discuss five propositions that illustrate a social construction position for communication. In the final section of this research paper, we encourage reflection on what social construction has brought to the field of communication and the challenges that lie ahead.
Social Construction: An Intellectual Conversation
We invite you to conceive of social construction in communication (hereafter communication social construction, to distinguish it from social construction in other fields; see Bartesaghi & Castor, 2008, p. 5) as one voice in an intellectual conversation, itself carrying the overtones and timbre of many other voices. Social construction is not a form of knowledge but a way to think about and ask research questions in communication. It is a perspective, a possibility, itself made possible by a virtual joining of conversational threads among scholars in philosophy, sociology, psychology, and, of course, communication. Our account is by no means exhaustive, and we invite you to consult the list of further readings at the end of this research paper.
The phrase social construction comes from Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) groundbreaking sociological treatise, The Social Construction of Reality. Central to its argument is that human beings, unlike any other species on earth, make their own environment real through “languaging.” Though we are born into a world of institutions that we experience as objectively there, Berger and Luckmann detail how our reality is (re)produced in social practices and everyday encounters, involving a circular, three-step process: externalization, objectification, and internalization. Together, these steps allow us to construct the social world (externalization), experience it not as a construction at all but as very much real (objectification), and then believe in it so much that we think it within ourselves (internalization).
Garfinkel (1967) brought Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) theoretical ideas into the field with his Studies in Ethnomethodology. Conducting interviews and taperecording conversation data from everyday and institutional encounters, Garfinkel and his student Harvey Sacks showed how individuals made sense of their own social worlds and each other in interaction. Sacks (1995) later developed Garfinkel’s insights into conversation analysis, an approach within language and social interaction (Fitch & Sanders, 2005) that reveals how social reality is both patterned and emergent, constructed in the utterance-byutterance dynamic of the ongoing exchange.
The important move, shared by the various voices speaking within social construction and certainly by its most widely published scholar, the psychologist Kenneth Gergen (e.g., 1994, 1999), is what became known (in a phrase coined in anthropology) as a “crisis in representation,” or the disavowal of the idea that language should serve, as the philosopher Rorty (1979) put it so well, as a “mirror of nature.” In 1973, Gergen’s paper “Social Psychology as History” made the case that there is no universal knowledge but only knowledge that is culturally and historically contextualized. By deconstructing knowledge, Gergen’s argument reconstructed language as making knowledge rather than mirroring it. The critique of language as purely representational, something that could more or less accurately “reflect,” “portray,” or “transmit” reality, involved no less than a critique of traditional social science dictates that there is a truth out there and that it is the business of research to find it. Positivism was an important system of belief about the reality “out there” that alternative thinkers tackled in powerful ways.
Drawing from psychological theory and cybernetics, respectively, constructivists such as Rom Harré (1983) and Ernst von Glasersfeld (1988) focused on the individual’s role in the construction of knowledge, for anything that is putatively “out there” must first be processed by the individual’s sensory, emotional, and psychological makeup. In this respect, von Glaserfeld is particularly radical in his belief that “knowledge is not passively received either by the senses or by way of communication, but is actively built up by the cognizing subject” (p. 83). Inasmuch as they run counter to the idea of an objective reality that can be perceived in the “mind” through observation, constructivist accounts bolster social construction’s critique of positivism.There is a big difference between constructivism and social construction, however, and that has to do with the role of social interaction, rather than the individual, as the locus of reality construction.
Discursive psychologists such as Edwards and Potter (1993) are a case in point; by tracking how we respond to each other in conversation, they aim to demonstrate that language does not represent but indeed constitutes the very objective truths that positivism seeks outside it. Edwards and Potter locate mental predicates such as “thinking,” “remembering,” and so on in everyday communication exchanges, arguing that their meaning is situated and contingent: It depends on what participants are trying to do. Discursive approaches such as discursive psychology, conversation analysis, and discourse analysis (e.g., Tracy, 2002) are all central to social construction arguments about the constitutive and performative nature of language and how social members do things with words (Austin, 1962).
By the 1960s, other voices joined the intellectual conversation that became the phenomenon we call social construction, as part of a movement known as postmodernism. These were voices that the academy had marginalized or silenced for not speaking the language of traditional social science. Feminist voices provide one good example of this, such as Carol Gilligan in psychology (e.g., 1982) and Dorothy Smith in sociology (e.g., 1978). Gilligan’s rewriting of psychology In a Different Voice (1982), for example, demonstrates how women’s reality has been silenced by mainstream psychological theory, in favor of men’s. By revoicing psychology, Gilligan (1982) demonstrates that one of its major theories of moral development is, in fact, based on faulty interpretation.
In communication, scholars broke away from empirical studies concerned with linear, causal relationships and favored social approaches (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1995). An important approach to communication social construction is Pearce and Cronen’s (e.g., 1980) coordinated management of meaning theory, which foregrounds conversation and the ongoing negotiation of meaning (see Bartesaghi & Castor, 2008, pp. 9–10). The work of John Shotter (1984, 1993a, 1993b, 2000; Shotter & Gergen, 1994) in social accountability, joint action, and dialogical knowledge is also central to communication social construction.A unique and original thinker, Shotter developed the ideas of Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, and Garfinkel, among others, into relationally responsive social construction, where conversation is the key to understanding social life. In turn, Shotter (1993a) constructs conversation as a place for the unexpected, for unintended consequences and in-the-moment occurrences. Relationally responsive social construction understands communication as a moment-to-moment interaction in which participants continuously respond to the past, the present, and an anticipated future, and to each other.
Though social construction shook the takenfor-granted narratives of positivism, it may appear that it is itself taken for granted and may even be old news (Bartesaghi & Castor, 2008). We believe that this is just an appearance. In 2007, the Communication as Social Construction Division was added to the National Communication Association as a result of a summer institute on social construction that was held the previous year in Albuquerque, showing that the conversation is far from over and only just beginning. Indeed, two new books relevant to this research paper are available, Socially Constructing Communication (Leeds-Hurwitz & Galanes, 2009) and The Handbook of Constructionist Research, which includes a chapter on communication social construction by communication scholars Elissa Foster and Arthur Bochner (2008).
Social Construction in Communication: Five Propositions
As a response to the all-encompassing metanarrative of positivism, social construction is not a theory. Rather, it exists in the empirical dialogues among the proponents in our discipline, as well as in the practices of those who apply it in their everyday activities. In the following five propositions, we outline the principal beliefs of a social construction perspective in communication (Bartesaghi & Castor, 2008; Bartesaghi & Castor, 2009).
1. Questions the Taken for Granted
This first proposition invites you to ask questions, think critically, and take nothing for granted. Once you adopt a social construction stance, you will find questioning a natural way to approach the world. We recommend three ways for you to ask questions. A good place to start is with definitions and classifications. Take gender, for instance. Most of us assume that the categories “male” and “female” are natural, assigned at birth, and have nothing to do with the social process. But hundreds of gender reassignment surgeries are performed each year in the United States alone, many of these on adults who wish to choose a different gender for themselves. This suggests that masculinity and femininity are bound up with gender (Burr, 2003, p. 3) and with how we talk it into embodied being (Bartesaghi & Castor, 2008, pp. 16–19).
A second way we encourage you to ask questions from a social construction perspective is in your own work. Our students often ask us whether they are allowed to write in the first person. As social construction scholars, we encourage students to do so because we do not treat research from an objectivist position, viewing the endeavor as a way of knowing the reality “out there.” Social construction thinkers recognize the researcher’s role (and think of students as researchers) in shaping the context that we are studying (e.g., Briggs, 1986). How you write up your own work is crucial to this recognition, and writing styles that make explicit the role of the researcher in the research process are in direct contrast to the passive, third-person voice of traditional social science (e.g., Kondo, 1990). In communication, autoethnographic narratives (Ellis, 2004; Ellis & Bochner, 1996) that evoke emotions and reflection in the reader are fascinating ways to question the constraints of the organization and representational language of social science articles, which, by and large, purge narrative and firstperson elements.
Finally, we invite you to see questioning as an interesting topic of study. A communication social construction thinker sees questions as connected to shaping identities (e.g., Antaki, 2001; Bilmes, 2001) and defining situations (e.g., Agne & Tracy, 1998). In political and news interactions, especially, questions are active and strategic attempts to control situations by defining social reality (Bilmes, 2001; Clayman & Heritage, 2002). Because they are powerful conversational acts (Sacks, 1995; Wang, 2006), and destabilize the taken for granted, questions are a great place to start to see social construction in action.
2. Positions Meaning in the Everyday Dynamic of Relationships
With this proposition, we resonate with Bakhtin’s (1984) relational understanding of meaning making and his assertion that “truth is not to be found inside the head of an individual person [but] between people collectively searching for the truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (p. 110). To see truth, in the sense of knowledge and meaning, as a process of relationship is to challenge notions of knowledge as individual property as well as of mind and cognition (Antaki, 2006; Maynard, 2006). It is also to place social construction within the competencies of communication scholarship (Pearce, 1995).
As early as 1929, the philosopher John Dewey raised doubt about the individual as a psychological creation, a cognizing subject engaging in activities such as perception, memory, and information processing. For the “self-sufficing individual”—the same psychological creation that Edward Sampson (1977) addresses in terms of the “self-contained individual”—communication is no more than a mechanical connection between “inner” mental states and “outer” expression (Dewey, 1929/1958, p. 169; Radford, 1994). But as work in discourse studies has shown, the idea that meaning making is radically hidden (Shotter, 2000) within individual minds is no more than a picture that, as Wittgenstein would say, is holding us captive.
First, let us tackle the very idea of the mind and mental processes. Perhaps the most striking insight of the pioneering interaction scholar Harvey Sacks is how thought is made visible in conversation. By studying transcripts of tape recordings, the conversation analyst can see how thinking is constructed by the way conversants respond and orient to each other’s contributions in the moment-bymoment shifts required by the exchange. In the turn-byturn dynamic of talk-in-interaction, terms such as think, remember, and know become meaningful relationally, according to what the participants can do with them pragmatically within the conversation: argue a point, tell a story, or dispute one another’s knowledge.
For example, consider Ochs and Capps’s (1997) examination of how “I remember” functions as a device in the construction of a story (rather than as a verbal avowal of a cognitive process). Based on a transcribed exchange among family members, Ochs and Capps show how “I remember” is used as an assertion by both the parent and the child to engage in a tug-of-war with respect to who remembers best and, therefore, who is entitled to tell a particular family story. Authentic memory, the authors argue, is a narrative told or authored by the person who is granted author-ity to do so.
In another example, Antaki (2006) shows how cognition is visibly constructed in a relationship between two people engaged in everyday talk by analyzing a diagnostic interview between a (cognitively) disabled person and his institutional interviewer. By choosing which of the interviewee’s answers actually counts as valid evidence of a cognition, the interviewer not only produces cognition (in the sense that he constitutes it in interaction) but reproduces institutional order and the relational manifestations of that order.
What we particularly like aboutAntaki’s (2006) essay is that it is a great empirical example of an aspect of Wittgenstein’s (1953) philosophy. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote that
since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us (p. 126). . . . How do sentences do it [manage to represent]? Don’t you know? For nothing is hidden [italics added]. (p. 435)
Understanding meaning as a relational accomplishment, which is what Wittgenstein exhorts us to do, rather than as a hidden property to be extracted from individuals by cognitive measurements, frees us from (to borrow a phrase of Paul Ricoeur, 1970) a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (p. 33). Once we understand that we share in making memory, thought, and meaning, we need not suspect what others remember, think, and mean.
Scholars thinking about relationships in terms of communication social construction have developed Bakhtin’s (1984) ideas on identity in dialogue into a notion of relational identity: “Through dialoguing with the other, we get a sense of who we are” (Sullivan & McCarthy, 2004, p. 307). The idea that identity is constructed in talk is now well entrenched (e.g., Tracy, 2002), and work in discourse approaches has endeavored to show how the concept of personhood can be an everyday relational accomplishment, as well as a topic of talk itself (Antaki &Widdicombe, 1998).We are all ongoing, emergent creations in the dynamic of claiming and being granted our identities, which, as Eisenberg (1998) tells us, exist in the ambiguity of the space between self and other.
In a communication social construction perspective, relational meaning making also comes with relational responsibility (McNamee & Gergen, 1999). This means resituating the burden of responsibility in the relationship to the relationship rather than the individual, who presently bears responsibility in our legal, educational, and psychiatric institutions, to name a few.What would that mean, exactly? How would we feel differently if we could see ourselves connected to and accountable for each other’s actions rather than choosing psychological explanations that make others solely responsible for their thoughts and choices?
3. Realizes Communication as Constitutive and Consequential
Anderson (1997, p. 111) says it best: Each conversation is embedded within, will become a part of, will be influenced by, and will influence myriad other past and future conversations. By locating meaning in a dynamic of relationships, social construction makes us realize how the acts, and the choices we make within them, reflexively make the very relationships that we realize together. In turn, this perspective is grounded in a view of communication as constitutive: something created in its very practices (Craig, 1999; Deetz, 1994). Because our participation makes it what it is, with our “past activities point[ing] in the direction of our present ones,” communication is both self-generating and self-specifying (Penman, 2000). In other words, your actions and words matter. They are not the isolated events of one individual but connected to relational and social matrices of actions and words that have the real power to reconstitute, or reconstruct, the events of your life and the world through communication.
We found a powerful example of communication as constitutive on the Web site of Rape Victim Advocates, a Chicago-based organization that mobilizes for those who have been targets of sexual assault. Their homepage reads as follows: “Through our presence in Chicago area emergency rooms, we provide nonjudgmental emotional support to victims of sexual violence, enabling them to become survivors [italics added]” (About RVA, n.d.).
In this excerpt, Rape Victim Advocates is distinguishing between what is constituted by the terms victim and survivor and is endeavoring to bring about a transformation from one state of being to the other for those who experienced rape. Realize that the terms victim and survivor refer to the same person but constitute and embody very different social realities. In altering the way the experience of rape is called, Rape Victim Advocates subscribes to a constitutive view of communication, proposing that the rape experience itself can be reconstructed in a different, more enabling way.
John Stewart’s Language as Articulate Contact (1995) exemplifies an eloquent theoretical argument on the constitutive nature of communication. Urging us to abandon the epistemological notion of communication encouraged by scholarship in fields such as semiotics, which focuses on representation (and, much like in the transmission view, constitutes communication in terms of signs, messages, and codes), Stewart encourages an ontological view of communication. For this purpose, he develops the ideas of the philosophers Heidegger (1962) and Gadamer (1989) and proposes communication as dasein, the human condition of everyday coping and being-in-the-world. According to the ontological view of communication, there is no need for language to bridge the gap between subject and object by means of representation (which can be more or less good). Language, in this sense, is not something we possess to represent, as in the epistemological view, but something we inhabit (Stewart, 1995). Language is experience, as the work of Rape Victim Advocates suggests.
Because communication constitutes our social world, it is also consequential to it (Sigman, 1995). Consider Krippendorff’s (1996) reflection on communication as a consequential activity among the scholars and teachers of our discipline:
Although social scientists communicate in numerous ways— interviewing their subjects, engaging discursively with colleagues, publishing their work [–] self-applications of communication theories are surprisingly rare if not totally absent from the literature. It is as if the communicative involvements of scientists were immune to critical examination or so perfectly obvious as to be not worthy of attention. This schism easily leads to theories that people find hard to live by. I know of no communication scholar who could communicate by the protocols of the classical theories they tend to perfect with their colleagues, for example, of communication as attitude change, as information transmission, as prediction and control, as management of meanings, or as institutionalized mass-production of messages. (p. 311)
In this extract, Krippendorff (1996) underscores consequentiality. He takes communication scholars to task for the social realities implied by the theories they put forth and asks whether these are theories that you would choose to describe you and descriptions you would choose to abide by? And is it not interesting that Krippendorff chooses information transmission as one taken-for-granted theory in communication whose consequences we are unwittingly re-creating in our everyday communication?
4. Understands the World as Very Much Real for Those Who Live in It
We often find ourselves entangled in one of the great misunderstandings of social construction. This seemingly no-win quandary, also known as the realism-relativism debate, usually goes something like this: “So you believe that reality is socially constructed? This must mean that if you say that this dirty plastic bottle is actually a valuable treasure, then it must be so, right?” (Bartesaghi & Castor, 2009; Phillips & Jørgensen, 2002). Because social construction understands the world as very much real for those who live in it, this fourth proposition suggests how communication social construction thinkers may step out of this argument altogether.
The speaker in the example is committing two fallacies. The first is that he or she does not understand the very idea of social construction. Martin Buber (1965) put it this way: “We do not find meaning lying in things nor do we put it into things, but between us and things it can happen” (p. 36). In this case, it involves the way a community talks something into being, such as the value we place on something (and yes, it is possible that an empty plastic bottle could one day be sold on EBay for a good deal of money, if it were once the bottle of a rock star, right?). The second fallacy is misunderstanding social construction as representation rather than materiality and embodiment. Once experience and language are separated, the trouble starts. In a controversial and influential paper, Edwards, Ashmore, and Potter (1995) call this sort of trouble the “death and furniture” arguments. The material reality of tables (see this? bang!) and victims (what about Hurricane Katrina? and the bodies that come back from Iraq!) is brought up as evidence of how social construction is nothing more than a new recipe for relativism.
Because when you are trapped in a box the solution is to step out of it, we find the death and furniture arguments deceptive, for they position social construction in opposition to material realities, which social construction does not deny. In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann (1966) offered a solution. Tables and taxes acquire their ontological status through the circular process we described earlier, by which we, as social members, create together our social world through our coordinated work, and then we respond to them as objective truths: things that are there and that are part of our human experience. This is why we experience institutions as already “out there” material entities not of our own making. Reality may be a relative product of our interactional choices, but it is a very real experience once those choices have been made (Bartesaghi & Castor, 2009). But Berger and Luckmann (1966) can take us only so far in understanding social construction in material terms (Potter, 1996). They provide a phenomenological account, concerned with individual experiences and how they are internalized; thus, we need to seek further.
Edwards and colleagues (1995) offer their own counterproposition to realists who argue the brute physical reality of tables and the like. Just like anyone else, realists have to make the argument, for the argument cannot make itself: It has to be spoken by someone, from a particular position, and with a particular stake and entitlement. And relativists have a similar problem: “While realists shoot themselves in the foot as soon as they represent, relativists do so as soon as they argue. To argue for something is to care . . . which is immediately not relativist” (Edwards et al., 1995, p. 39). The social construction position sees both realist and relativist as ultimately trapped in a dilemma, and it does not side with either. To do so is to understand “reality” in objectivist terms (Pearce, 1995) as the opposite pole to “falsehood.” This means misusing construction to be synonymous with made up (as the challenger in the example of the plastic bottle was doing) or, as Burr (1998) notes, “merely [italics added] constructed” (p. 101).
Social construction’s view on reality is nothing if not realistic (Pearce, 1995; see also Bartesaghi & Castor, 2009). Once constituted, our social reality is very real and consequential to us. This is particularly visible in cases where a particular reality is selected as factual from an ambiguous set of differently interpretable acts. The construction of child abuse as a social problem is a good example (see Johnson, 1989). Child abuse, as we understand it today, is, in fact, a historical and social contingency, born of the large postwar child population, access to medical specialists with improved diagnostic techniques, and laws that required child beatings to be reported to the authorities. Before these historically traceable changes, beating children was not considered abuse. In addition to this, media reporting of horror stories in the 1960s to 1980s raised child abuse to the level of a social crisis. As Johnson (1989) explains, the media’s construction of child abuse as a social problem was based on, among other things, linguistic presentation. Specifically, acts of child abuse were presented in the news as irrational and the acts of one individual; they provided no relational or social context, such as a family altercation, divorce, poverty, joblessness, or family strife. As such, the media (for ratings, readership, and a “good story”) constructed child abuse as pure evil against the innocent.
For another example, consider The Construction of an LD Student (Mehan, 1996), which explores how Shane, a fourth grader who sometimes stops in the middle of a math problem and says “no way” (but later completes it) ends up being declared learning disabled. Different parties are involved in defining Shane’s status as a learner: the mother (who does not think her child has special needs), the teacher, and the psychologist. By leading us through a transcription of the exchange among them, Mehan shows how the psychologist prevails over the others, by speaking in ways that are more authoritative and using complicated terms that the mother and teacher cannot challenge or question. Shane, who is not present, must, however, be subjected to the consequences of this meeting and of his newly constructed diagnosis. Mehan’s (1996) study, which is about how some have more say in defining what is real than others do, is also relevant to the following proposition that has to do with how power exists as a relationship, which we construct in communication.
5. Tackles Power as a Material and Embodied Relationship in Communication
With this final proposition, we argue that power is not something that exists “outside of” our talk, as institutions or abstract social structures. Rather, we propose that power is a material and embodied consequence of relationships, constituted in communication (Lannamann, 1998; Shotter & Lannamann, 2002).
Foucault (1980) has told us that power is everywhere around us. It is ironic, therefore, that in doing so, he abstracted it rather than materialized it (Krippendorff, 1995), for if it is everywhere, where exactly is it, and how do we know we have found it? Discourse scholars such as Thornborrow (2002) offer an empirical answer to Foucault by grounding power in everyday talk and linking talk to larger discursive frameworks. For example, by analyzing institutional talk, Thornborrow reveals how police work is accomplished in the everyday orderliness of conversational turn taking, showing how power is visibly co-constructed in the constantly shifting asymmetry between officers and a woman in a rape interview. Although the woman tells the two male officers that she has been raped, the officers’ questioning works to cast doubt not only on her story but also, gradually, on the woman’s moral fitness to tell it. As the exchange progresses, it is obvious that the woman has been placed, by a process of conversation, under police suspicion. As a result of the interview, the bodily experience of her rape is disclaimed by the male officers. The consequences of this are very real: The woman will not receive the care and attention she needs; she is treated poorly; and, with their questioning, the officers officially categorize the woman as whom they believe her to be—someone who does not merit police protection. This is an embodied shift in her material circumstances, affected through a process of communication that is institutionally sanctioned. This is the social construction of power.
In her book Talking Power (1990), Robin Lakoff presents the following exchange between a therapist (T) and a client (C) as an example of a power imbalance. We invite you to consider how the therapist and the client engage in the construction of an asymmetrical relationship:
C: Why can’t you see me on Monday?
T: That seems to disturb you, doesn’t it? (p. 69)
As Lakoff (1990) points out, what is interesting about the therapist’s response is what it tells us about the presuppositions it embeds about power distribution in therapy. There are, as we see it, three. The first is that the therapist is not bound by the same rules of conversation as the client (Bartesaghi, 2008) and may respond to a question with another question rather than give an answer. Second, the therapist constructs the client’s question as information about the client’s anxiety rather than as a genuine request for information (Lakoff, 1990, p. 69), thus claiming a relational reality in which words signify mental states. Finally, the conversation reflects on the tacit claim that therapy works by virtue of one person’s ability to read the true meaning of the words of the other and to interpret that rather than what the other is actually saying. This ability is granted to therapists, and not clients, and in this brief exchange, we see this therapist claiming that right. That the exchange has to do with access to help (therapy) really brings home the fact that power is socially co-constructed in discourse, where one person is able to coordinate the material placement of the other’s body (Lannamann, 1998).
Something remains to be said here: The client does have the option to respond to the therapist. As joint action, action that people intentionally engage in together but whose results are indeterminate and often unintentional (Shotter, 1993b), power in therapy (as elsewhere) is a relational accomplishment, a co-construction (Buttny, 1996). We do it together by claiming it and granting it. As such, through acts of communication and re-embodiment, it can also be undone (Krippendorff, 1995). The client could call the therapist’s bluff, laugh, or find a new therapist. We are not suggesting that this is easy, as we do recognize that relationships are embedded in larger institutional and social frames. Rather, we are suggesting that power is locatable in our communication exchanges and that a social construction perspective allows us to see that it is not beyond our reach.
We have endeavored to offer a definition of social construction by reconstructing communication according to the perspective afforded to us as social construction communication thinkers. We have, first, questioned the very languaging of “communication” in transmission terms and instead positioned communication in the ongoing exchanges of our relational activities. Because social construction is not a unified theory but a response to theory’s discontents, our second move was to offer a collage of thinkers and scholars who have contributed to our thinking and doing as communication scholars within the intellectual heritage of social construction. In the third section, we put forth five propositions for our readers to consider as key tenets for social construction scholarship in communication. We encourage you to use these propositions as starting points for your own conversations about communication and social construction; may they lead you to many more ideas than we ever thought possible.
Doing communication social construction work has its challenges. An important disciplinary challenge concerns the extent to which communication scholarship should involve critically, politically engaged work. Some scholars have convincingly argued for an ontological version of communication, where research can address material circumstances, illuminate issues of asymmetry, and make a difference in practice (Craig & Tracy, 1995). Inasmuch as communication social construction tackles power as material and embodied, working within its framework means that we cannot eschew doing critical work and work that may ask difficult questions (Phillips & Jørgensen, 2002).
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