7 key assumptions in social constructionism
Social constructionism is a distinctly different epistemology, which abandons the idea of being able to arrive at an unambiguous and correct description of any objective reality. Our work in Haslebo & Partners is based on the following seven key assumptions in social constructionism:
1. Organizational members construct their reality by means of the language they use.
From a social constructionist perspective it is not possible to describe an organization as it truly "is". There are no unambiguous answers as to the characteristics of a particular organization. From a social constructionist point of view conclusions about the organizational ‘reality' are not merely sober observations but powerful conceptions that are created and intensified by the language that the organizational members choose to use. Thus, the key question is not what characterizes the organization, the situation or the problem but how organizational members manage to form the understandings that guide their actions.
2. An organization can be understood as an arena for varying communities of practice.
The individual manager or employee is a member of multiple communities of practice in and outside the organization. In this book we are mainly interested in communities of practice within organizations, but we are well aware that the full range is far wider. Each community can be seen as a relational network consisting of agents who communicate with each other and thus build a common understanding of the organization. Instead of viewing an organization as an object that has a stable character and can be described by means of numbers, organizational charts, business strategies, HR policies, etc., a social constructionist perspective involves seeing a dynamic and continually changing organizing of varying communities of practice that organizational members join and leave in somewhat chaotic and unpredictable ways over time, and which deal with varying themes over time.
3. Discourses and narratives incorporate organizational members' experiences into a holistic understanding.
From a social constructionist perspective, our self-conception in relation to others is essentially organized as a narrative, that is, a story. Fragments of impressions, experiences and our own and others' utterances are not meaningful in themselves but are attributed meaning depending on the narratives they are incorporated into. Many fragments fail to find a place in an ongoing narrative and are thus neither noticed nor remembered. That means that by structuring experiences into narratives we create a holistic understanding of the events that unfold over time.
4. The individual organizational members' selves are shaped in the relationships and communities of practice in which the members participate.
In organizations managers and employees construct meaning in their work life and relationships with other organization members through the stories they tell. The stories that are told include embedded narratives about the narrator's self. The individual organizational members have a certain number of stories available about themselves. Which stories can be told where, and when, depends in part on which communities of practice the organizational member belongs to. The acts we perform as members of an organization not only affect our own and others' work situation; they are involved in shaping our own and others' self-conception and identity.
5. Ethics and morality is embedded in language, discourses and narratives.
A narrative or story deals both with the way reality "is" and with how it "should be". Communities of practice in organizations are held together by more or less compatible versions of reality and a shared morality. In a social constructionist light, for example, consultants should be wary of allowing lengthy and recurring retellings of stories that are saturated with problems and conflict and where certain actors are attributed negative personality traits or sinister intentions. Simply by lending an ear to these stories, consultants may cement negative images of self and others. In this sense, listening is never "free". Both the stories we tell and the stories we listen to are involved in creating the social world of which we are a part.
6. Power means the opportunity to determine the "truth" and define the scope of possible actions.
Power in a social constructionist perspective is seen as the opportunity to define reality and determine what constitutes "true" knowledge. These opportunities are not evenly distributed - neither in societal debates nor in the ongoing discourses and narratives in organizations. The uneven distribution of power in society reflects differences in the opportunity to produce knowledge which we use to define reality and each other.
7. Appreciative Inquiry is a path to new realizations about a desirable future.
Since we create reality through our choice of focus and the topics we talk about, then let us concentrate on learning about the thoughts, actions, events and interaction patterns that help us move toward a desirable future. This means that an appreciative inquiry into events in organizations should focus on noticing, describing and understanding all those small or large facets of thoughts and actions that generate life and energy, and which bring out managers' and employees' competences and dedication.