Social constructionism is a general term sometimes applied to theories that emphasize the socially created nature of social life. Of course, in one sense all sociologists would argue this, so the term can easily become devoid of meaning. More specifically, however, the emphasis on social constructionism is usually traced back at least to the work of William Isaac Thomas and the Chicago sociologists, as well as the phenomenological sociologists and philosophers such as Alfred Schutz. Such approaches emphasize the idea that society is actively and creatively produced by human beings. They portray the world as made or invented—rather than merely given or taken for granted. Social worlds are interpretive nets woven by individuals and groups.
The term formally entered the sociological vocabulary through Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann 's The Social Construction of Reality (1966), which attempts an innovative synthesis of the ideas of Émile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead. For Berger and Luckmann, the basic features of social order are captured in the principle that ‘Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product’. Their major case-study of social constructionism was religion (see Berger 's The Social Reality of Religion, 1969), but at the same time the labelling theory of deviance was being developed and popularized, suggesting in parallel fashion that deviance is socially constructed. Similarly, within the sociology of education, researchers were deploying arguments derived from the work of Mary Douglas and Basil Bernstein to the effect that educational knowledge was also socially constructed. From a number of somewhat different sources, therefore, the more general phraseology of constructionism emerged—and the term lost much of its original distinctive meaning (as, for example, in G. Suttles, The Social Construction of Community, 1972).
In psychology, a linked term—constructivism—is often associated with the work of Jean Piaget, and refers to the process by which the cognitive structures that shape our knowledge of the world evolve through the interaction of environment and subject.
Social constructionism is often contrasted with so-called essentialism because it moves away from the ideas of the naturally given or taken for granted and questions the social and historical roots of phenomena. See also emotion, sociology of.