I was attracted towards social constructivist theory because of its theoretical resonance with identity and disability, and also because of my own values and beliefs which are closely aligned with it. Social constructivist approaches are concerned with language and discourse. Unlike other theories, such as psychosocial theory or Social Identity Theory, there is no one original theorist behind social constructionist ideas. This observation is consistent with the theory itself, which proposes that all ideas are socially constructed. In fact, it can be argued that all knowledge is constructed through social interaction including language and our use of it. It becomes axiomatic therefore that the engagement of society with groups of people such as those with disabilities (assuming, probably erroneously, for the moment that this is a definable and homogeneous group) is socially constructed rather than being ‘natural’ (however that may be defined). Social constructionist theories share some common assumptions with the theories of postmodernism (including the ideas of Foucault) that the same events, interactions or states of being may be subject to different ontological interpretations. Social constructionists Potter and Wetherell (1987) discuss the power relationships that exist between people or groups of people and again this has a resonance with the power/knowledge constructs of Foucault (Foucault, 1965). Social construction theory makes no claim that identities are predisposed, inevitable or are gradually emergent in response to predefined variables. Rather it claims that identities are fluid, mutable constructs that are perpetually emergent and are formed through social interaction and relationships. Social constructionist Gergen (1999) illustrates the construction of his identity through anecdotes that are drawn from social relationships. His examples, which are illustrated from various phases of his life also illuminate the cultural and historical context in which identities are (or become) constructed. There are several key ways in which social constructivist theories help to explain the identities of people with disabilities. Mackelprang and Salsgiver argue that “Unfortunately, persons with disabilities are also susceptible to internalising stereotypes and negative beliefs” (Mackelprang and Salsgiver, p. 9). Especially in the case of an acquired disability or the movement of a person with disabilities from one social context to another we can see that identities are changeable and therefore are always provisional, evolving and mutating. Both internal and external stereotyping will inevitably change the (internally and externally) perceived identity/identities of the person. In this way it may be claimed that the distinction between internal or personal identity and external or social identity is erroneous and that all identities are social. This clearly shows the major difference between social constructionist theory and other theories such as psychosocial theory or Social Identity Theory. This could be seen as a limitation of the social constructionist theory, as one interpretation may be that this disempowers the person with the disability, not enabling them to change their identity except within a social context and implicitly with the consensus of society. Conversely however, it can be alternatively seen to be an empowering theory as it firmly locates identities as resources with which to negotiate social and practical interactions. Social constructionist theory can therefore be seen to make a potentially positive contribution to the explanation of the identity of those people with disabilities. Shakespeare speaks of how “Disability identity is about stories, having the space to tell them, and an audience which will listen. It is also about recognising differences, and isolating the significant attributes and experiences which constitute disability.” This builds clearly upon Gergen’s ideas and places language firmly at the centre of socially constructed identity. The term ‘disability’ is itself something defined by language and is therefore a social construct encompassing many physical, emotional, mental and psychological attributes (as if these could all be usefully grouped as if they were one phenomenon). The term itself is so obviously socially constructed that there is almost no avoiding the social constructionist theory in understanding disability and identity. Linton acknowledges this by pointing out that “Whilst retaining the term disability, despite its medical origins, a premise of most of the literature in disability studies is best understood as a marker of identity” (Linton, 1999,p. 12). Social constructionist theorists recognise that there may be (and indeed probably inevitably are) differences in the identity of those people who belong to the same groups (as if any category or sub-category of ‘disability’ can be usefully described as a group). As Miell, Phoenix and Thomas state, theories are only useful when applied in a practical context (Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, p. 82). Although all the identity theories considered so far regard the embodiment of identities as crucial, social constructionist theory is particularly concerned with the building and negotiation of individual identity constructs. This is important in the context of disability where authors such as Swan (Swan, p. 84) dispute through example the existence of either a ‘disabled identity’ or a shared identity amongst people with particular forms of disability. As social constructionist theories allow for changes to and multiple incarnations of identity, they provide a potentially useful framework for those campaigning for change in social views of impairment or disability. However, one example where social constructionist theory may lay itself open to criticism is in the area of mental health, where acceptance of multiple identities in some people may be perceived as mental illness. One of the attractions of online worlds such as Second Life is that they provide alternative or supplementary spaces for people to explore and create identities. For people with an ambulatory disability for instance, the opportunity to travel virtually may provide additional affordances in term of socialisation,education, creativity and self-expression.
Reference List Foucault, M (1965). Madness and civilization: a history of insanity in the Age of Reason. New York, Vintage.
Gergen, K. (1999) An Invitation to Social Construction, London, Sage.
Linton, S (1999). Claiming Disability; knowledge and identity. New York, New York University Press.
Mackelprang, RW and Salsgiver, RO (1998). Disability: A Diversity Model Approach in Human Service Practice.Washington, Lyceum.
Miell, D, Phoenix, A and Thomas, T (2006) Mapping Psychology. Milton Keynes, Open University.
Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1987) Discourse and Social Psychology, London, Sage. Shakespeare, T. (1996) Disability, Identity and Difference in ‘Exploring the Divide’, edited by Colin Barnes and Geof Mercer. Leeds, The Disability Press, pp. 94-113.
Swan, J. (1981) Statement in Exley, H. (ed.) What It’s Like To Be Me, Watford, Exley Publications.