Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving The Life of Facts I: Their Nature and Construction

The Life of Facts I: Their Nature and Construction

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Social Construction of Facts

As we look at the long history of facts, we find that the objectivist perspective has dominated Western culture (and particularly Western science) for many centuries. However, the constructivist perspective has begun to hold sway—particularly in what is often referred to as a postmodern frame of reference in both the sciences and humanities (Bergquist, 1993). Two social scientists, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, led the way in this emphasis on constructivism by identifying the “social constructions of reality.” (Berger and Luckmann, 1967). They proposed that social systems are particularly effective (and important) in the creation and reinforcement of specific constructions in any society. Considerable reinforcement of this social constructivist framework has come from other social scientists and observers since Berger and Luckmann first offered their thesis in 1966. (cf. Searle, 1997)

Recently, we find that there is expanded support for the constructivist perspective in the field of economics from those who have championed the inter-disciplinary initiative called behavioral economics. Kahneman, Tversky and Thaler have received Nobel Prizes in recognition of their success in taking on the task of documenting how specific heuristics (what Berger and Luchmann might call social constructions) influence daily decision making as well as the formulation of public policy and commercial marketing. The behavioral economists offer a particularly important question regarding social construction regarding our topic (the nature and classification of psychopathology): who is sitting at the table? Who influences social constructions and what is the agenda being held by and inserted into the conversations by these highly influential participants? It is in the establishment of criteria for judgement and, even more fundamentally, the topic(s) to be addressed that powerful social constructions are formed and reinforced.

Linguistic Content and Structure

To gain some sense of what is occurring in the social constructive act, we turn first to a basis foundation (linguistics) and specifically the distinction to be made between semantics and syntax. Put all too simply, semantics concerns the content being conveyed through use of language, whereas syntax refers to the structure of the language being used. We propose that the basis (in part) of social construction resides in both domains of language.


When addressing the meaning and impact of words, we can focus on individual words or on the clustering of words. Jim Fingal focused on both individual words and sequence of word when offering his critique of D’Agata’s essay. Beyond the narrative offered by D’Agata and Fingal are the many instances we all encounter regarding the power of words and their us, misuse or non-used. We are all aware of the current “revolution” occurring in the use of words that reference a specific gender (usually favoring the male gender). The predominant (or even exclusive) use of male pronouns (he and his) is now being challenged and often replaced by “their”) or an intermixing of male and female pronouns. This challenge is predicated on the widely held and justified opinion that the use of gender-related words matters.

There is even a more precise critique of words in which gender is embedded (such as “chair-man”, “his-tory” and “man-kind”). Do these words convey something important and often unacknowledged assumption regarding the role played by and position of power and authority assumed by women and men in our society over many centuries. We can even point to the recent efforts (once again justifiable) to abandon (or at least diminish) the use of gender-differentiating words all together.

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