In Defense of Radical Social Constructivism

By Cottone, R. Rocco | Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, October 2017 | Go to article overview

In Defense of Radical Social Constructivism


Cottone, R. Rocco, Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD


In 2016, North published a critique of radical social constructivism (RSC) and claimed that it was a "millennial mistake" (p. 114), meaning that it was a movement in counseling that would be monumentally problematic in its future application to counseling theory. North argued that RSC "leads to logically impossible conclusions, violates counseling's moral convictions, and denies secure scholarship in related fields" (p. 114).

RSC represents a paradigm of mental health services unique to, and even exclusive to, other mental health paradigms (Cottone, 2007, 2012). In its early phases, the term constructivism was used to represent a postmodern offshoot of cognitive psychology (Mahoney & Lyddon, 1988). Subsequently, there were variable interpretations of the term constructivism. Neimeyer (1995) stated, "In a sense, speaking of 'constructivism' as a singular noun is more rhetorical than realistic, in that any close listening to the postmodern chorus reveals a polyphony of voices--not all of which are singing in the same key" (p. 30). Over the years, constructivist theorists began to downplay the influence of the psychology of the individual, as a more extreme form of social constructivism emerged (cf. Gergen's [1985] social constructionism and Cottone's [2013] RSC). This article will serve to defend social constructivism's most radical form. RSC is a purely social philosophy, holding to the primacy of relationships. Although RSC derives from an ontological assumption of relational realism (where relationships are viewed as the focus of study and the "stuff of the universe"; see Cottone, 2012), in practice no further reality claims are stated within this theory. RSC is not about constructing a reality; rather, it is about "deriving meaning of experiences through interaction with others" (Cottone, 2011, p. 26). It is about socially constructing an understanding of shared experience and acting according to what is understood. Thus, people cannot socially construct reality, but they can construct understanding of what they experience and define together. For example, a group of people might observe the behavior of an individual and define it as pathological; the observers have defined their shared experience in a way that is meaningful. As to whether pathology actually exists as a thing unto itself is not the purview of RSC. Although RSC derives from relational realism (where relationships are the essence), it purports no other subsequent conclusions about the nature of reality. RSC focuses on how shared experiences are defined and understood.

The radical form of social constructivism (which is defended in this article) is very similar to Gergen's (1985, 2009) social constructionism. In fact, RSC embraces many of Gergen's ideas, and Gergen's work is cited as foundational to RSC. There are a few differences, however. First, as mentioned earlier, RSC is grounded in relational realism, whereas Gergen avoids any realist claims; Gergen's position takes no ontological position. Gergen (2009) stated, "Constructionism doesn't try to rule on what is or is not fundamentally real. Whatever is, simply is" (p. 161). Second, RSC is grounded in the biology of cognition and Maturana's (1978) structure determinism; Gergen's approach is not linked in a similar way to biological theory. Otherwise, the two approaches are similar as applied to counseling: They focus on the social understanding of experience and the actions that result from the social understanding of experience.

As a movement in counseling, RSC encourages counselors to look at the social understanding of the experiences of clients as paramount to the behaviors they exhibit. The theory is beginning to be referenced as foundational by authors addressing several contemporary counseling approaches, including solution-focused therapy (Berg, 1993; O'Connell, 2012), narrative therapy (Freedman & Combs, 1996), and cognitive consensual therapy (Cottone, 1992, 2017). …

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