Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

What Do Social Constructionists Want?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

What Do Social Constructionists Want?

Article excerpt

As a feminist demographer by trade, I am not personally comfortable with writing self-reflexive sociology. Like anyone, I love a good story; I just lack the facility for applying this colorful, searching skill in the texts of my research. I am caught between worlds. Unlike my positivist friends who strive admirably to strip their research vision of what they see as personal or collective prejudice, I believe that my political and social agendas actively shape my research choices. On the other hand, unlike my social-constructionist friends, I flail when I try to explain how my personal experiences, insights, and connections to the participants in my studies inform my research choices. I am the perfect audience for Knapp's message to the objectivists.

I consider the art of sociology one of the surest ways to say something meaningful about human lives and to reveal valuable stories about conditions on earth and people's choices and problems. I tell my students often that being a student is a sacred calling. I adhere strongly to a sense of responsibility about the quality and utility of my work. I have a visceral (sometimes nauseated) sense of knowing that my words are in libraries. I know that I am responsible for those words. I am their author.

I still have the occasional anxiety attack in which I awake fitfully in the middle of the night, sure that I have said something wrong in the text of my articles, sure that I have acquitted myself poorly as a scholar. I am thankful that this midnight despondency is more intermittent than it was in the long distant days of the writing of my dissertation. When forced to read my published work, however, I often cringe, wondering how I could have gone so far astray from my intended goal of saying something illuminating and intense about family lives.

Thus, I am ready for Knapp's advice about how to practice my craft.


Knapp offers solid advice. His advice comes from an ample, although fairly recent, lineage that includes many family scholars. In imparting his advice about improving academic writing, he explains not only how poor writing is turgid and boring to read, but also how technically faddish, muddled text obscures ideas, undermines knowledge, dulls our senses, and crushes the possibility of scientific breakthroughs. Knapp uses Journal of Marriage and Family research articles on emotional transmission within families to illustrate how our scientific-like writing forecloses the chance of informing citizenry in useful ways or opening productive dialogue among researchers. He could have chosen any other sampling of articles from recent volumes of Journal of Marriage and Family, because his point is that eviscerated, flat, method-driven writing pervades our mainstream academic journals.

To use Knapp's own jargon, scholars who engage in objectivist objectifying practices are selling an appearance of scientific authority but are far from portraying rich facets or interpretations of people's family lives. He thinks that our writing sometimes miseducates.

I know very little about social constructionism and even less about the influence of postmodernism and poststructuralism on family sociology. However, I do care a great deal about my writing and my work, as does any scholar worth a grain of salt. Moreover, I do not feel confident of my ability to write for any audience beyond the handful of colleagues in my subspecialty. I have much to learn about the power of the writing enterprise.

However, even with this apprentice's mindset, I first read Knapp's essay with resistance because I found his use of the term objectivist objectifying practices off-putting. I wondered who he meant by "the objectivists" and why he felt so confident that their writing was bereft of noteworthiness and their research was weak, mostly atheoretical. and uncritically accepting of unexamined assumptions. …

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