This essay focuses on the social perspective of psychology referring Language and Meaning and Gender and Sex. It deals with the relationship between psychological theory and method in a range of material in both chapters, with particular attention to how social influences shape human development and behaviour.
Language and Meaning
‘Language and meaning’, is used to describe a social constructionist approach to language. There are several ways in which the social perspective has promoted understanding in this area. There are primarily two different psychological perspectives on language: cognitive and social. These approaches take evidence from different research bodies, each of which have a different focus As social beings, we continuously interact with other people, thinking about our use of language and how it may best serve us. The social constructionist perspective sees language as a way of creating meaning between individuals as they interact. The social psychological perspective defines the human world as being created through language, making it one of its most powerful and important features. This approach to language sees people using language to take action and achieve objectives. Language is seen as a means by which goals might be achieved. The social psychological approaches to language therefore focuses on understanding language and its meanings as a social process. It sees language as an interactive process between people. It is seen as social because it involves this very interaction, and it is through this social interaction that meaning is created. Social psychology argues that there is more to language than the knowledge of syntax, semantics, phonics and coding and other rules of language, even if these are described as being interactive within a cognitive approach. This argument helps define the contrast between social psychological and cognitive approaches to language. In social psychological perspectives, the purpose of language is not to reflect thoughts and emotions and convey them neutrally to someone else. Instead, the motivation for language is defined by the desired action brought about by the use of language. Social psychological approaches to language do not place meaning inherently in the constructions of language such as lexicon, grammar or semantics in the same way as cognitive approaches do. One of the methodological complexities involved in researching language is that we must use language itself as the means by which we research it as a subject in its own right. This issue is at the centre of the tension that exists between cognitive and social approaches to language. The paradox here is that the necessity of responding in language may predetermine what is said about language. The cognitive perspective assumes that there are separate cognitive processes that language can represent in communication to others, or in dialogue with the self. The accuracy of this depends upon how closely language communicates the cognition behind it. Cognitive psychologists believe that the thinking that underlies language can be studied accurately and in social isolation. However, discursive psychology argues that, when people use language, they do so in a social context, with an audience and for a reason. The social constructionist approach views language as the means for the socially produced meaning. It is the means by which people construct their world, interact with others and set out to achieve their objectives. The cognitive approach sees language as the part of the cerebral information processing. It can be argued that meaning is generated by people as they communicate. There is therefore a tension between the social constructionist and cognitive perspectives with respect to meaning and whether it is communicated between people or constructed between them. The social constructionist perspective on language is that it is a tool for social interaction. These different views of language have different implications – the cognitive perspective is that language underpins human thought. The social constructionist approach has no particular implication for the relationship of language to thought as it places language firmly within a socially constructed context.
Sex and Gender
‘The psychology of sex and gender’, is used to refer to the social constructionist approach to sex and gender. There are several ways in which the social perspective has promoted understanding this area. With respect to the two terms (sex and gender), there is a distinction between the biological and the social. However, biological sex may also be expressed in behaviour that is influenced by social factors and psychological meanings. Therefore, as labels, sex and gender may only be useful as theoretical constructs. However, gender is usually taken to refer to social constructs that pertain to biological differences. These sex differences can be the result of interactions between biological, psychological and social processes. Social constructionist psychology looks at how sex and gender have been constructed within particular social contexts. It examines these social constructions and their influences. The social constructionist perspective is based upon the theory that the construction of meaning through language and social practices as discussed in the section above has produced patterns of behaviour, cognition and emotions that are gender-differentiated. Social constructionism argues that behaviour cannot be directly explained solely by biological, reproductive sex. It also argues that the world is constructed to have two biological types (male and female) who have many diverse social and behavioural manifestations. This suggests that the many discourses of masculinity and femininity are socially produced. Social constructionism sees reproductive sex as being the visible difference between the sexes that provides the basis for a range of socially constructed gender differences. According to this perspective, biological sex is not central to explaining gender identity, but is a visible indicator to which a range of socially constructed gender differences are attached. Discourses about masculinity and femininity are therefore used by individuals to create their own gendered positionality. Gender is seen as being constructed throughout life, as behaviour and experience is defined through cultural manifestations of gender. Evolutionary psychologists also acknowledge social influences on sexual behaviour. However, they provide no systematic way explaining this in their experimental approach. The strength of the social constructionist approach to gender is its ability to take into account the social and cultural contexts of individuals. Evolutionary psychology however does offer some explanation of the origins of gender difference. The social constructionist perspective argues that sex is not central to explaining gender differences. Evolutionary and social constructionist perspectives have contrasting ideas about the relationship between sex and gender. Psychoanalytic psychology takes a different approach to social constructionism’s emphasis on external influences in determining people’s behaviour. However, both social constructionism and psychoanalysis are based upon the interpretation of meaning. Unlike evolutionary psychology, psychoanalysis, in common with social constructionist psychology, believe that the researcher’s positionality and subjectivity is inevitably involved in research. The onset of puberty is an example of the convergence of biological, psychoanalytic and social constructionist perspectives. The psychoanalytic and social constructionist approaches use methods that consider people’s beliefs and experiences, and focus on the interpretation of meaning by relying on the interpretation of symbolic data. The social constructionist perspective examines the importance of culture in the construction of gender. The psychoanalytic perspective acknowledges both the importance of biological difference and the social and cultural meanings inherent in this difference. The social constructionist and psychodynamic perspectives may be seen as complementary to each other in terms of methodology, as both use approaches are based on a hermeneutic theory to understand the meanings of gender.
The social constructionist perspective underpins discursive psychological theories of meaning as emerging from context and interaction. Although the social perspective goes some way to addressing the influences of language and gender issues, there are some aspects which are also given a different perspective by other approaches. This can be seen in the sometimes useful linguistics frameworks of syntax, phonics, semantics etc. which is adopted by cognitive psychologists. In some instances the social perspective complements other perspectives. Such an example is psychoanalysis in the area of sex and gender. However, in other instances it more commonly just co-exists, for example in the case of social constructivism and evolutionary psychology. Social constructivism is in clear conflict with the cognitive perspective in the area of language as illustrated and argued above. Cognitive and social constructionist perspectives make conflicting assumptions about communication. The cognitive perspective sees language as an exchange of individually created meanings between people. Social constructionism sees language as creating meaning between people as they communicate. Although a clear tension exists between the two approaches, they both have a role in describing language and meaning from different perspectives.