Social Construction in a Nutshell

Social construction is a theory of human interaction that provides a way of looking at how people build a common understanding and negotiate their way into the future. Here are five core principles:

1. The ways we come to understand the world and ourselves are created in relationships. All of our understandings spring from our interactions with others. During our lives, we develop a history of relationships—a set of traditions that come from the groups we belong to (family, professionals, jobs, and others). From this springs the ways we think about our experience and the world, including what we believe to be real, fair, and good.

2. We do not all interpret the world in the same way. Two people who observe the same event may come to different conclusions. This is normal. What is obvious to one person is not necessarily obvious to another.

3. Our shared interpretations of the world survive only if they are useful to us as individuals. If you want me to change my behavior, get involved in your idea, and take on the challenges it presents, then show me what difference it makes in my world and why I should care. Make it easy for me to see why I would get involved. Make it clear exactly how I can take action. Show me a spreadsheet that has no impact in my day-to-day life or ask me to read a report that does not change what I know or do, and there will be no additional shared understanding as a result.

4. Our understandings influence the ways we behave and possibilities for our future. For example, if we belong to a group that regularly recounts how powerless we are to influence a management decision, we will likely do little to sway it for better or worse. However, if we think we have strong influence, we are much more likely to become engaged.

5. Reflection on our assumptions—what we take for granted—is vital to improving performance. Because our view of the world is something we construct, we have the ability to change it with reflection. To maintain our self-determination, our capacity to adapt and influence, we must continuously call into question what we take for granted. This happens by listening to others who see the world differently and wrestling with the consequences of their perspectives.

Social construction is a way of thinking about how people develop their beliefs about and understanding of the world. It provides critical insights as to how people from differing backgrounds navigate their way forward together.

At the center of every good working relationship is shared understanding. Social construction puts tools in our hands to guide the development of this understanding. Most important, it shows us that different perspectives are as legitimate and valuable as they are common. It provides helpful guidance for bringing people together to build common understanding. This is fundamental to getting change right, creating engagement across different communities with different ways of understanding the world.

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