Appreciating the Past

What Can Social Constructionist Practice Offer in Times of Uncertainty?

Our purpose of the last 11 shows has been to highlight the innovations of social constructionist practice around the world. Our podcast guests have been Taos Institute associates who are contributors to a significant book that brings social constructionist practice to public awareness. Chapters in the book include contributions from researchers, educators, therapists, organization development consultants, healthcare professionals, and community development organizers. The book, The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice is available October, 2020.

Four guests join me in this conversation: Professor Sheila McNamee and Professor Celiane Camargo-Borges, both of whom are editors and contributors to the Sage Handbook. Sheila and Celiane joined me for our opening episode, Social Innovation Practices Through the Lens of Social Construction, when they offered a comprehensive overview of the book and this entire season of our podcast collaboration. Dawn Dole, Executive Director of the Taos Institute and Alex Arnold, Program Director who have both been instrumental in our collaboration join me also.

Reflective Conversation

social constructionist practice, three women talking
Photographer: Gradikaa Aggi | Source: Unsplash

Together we reflect how social constructionism as an orientation is relevant and meaningful in all times, places and communities, especially in this most unusual year, 2020 with COVID-19 and increasing social unrest impacting our lives. The way we engage has changed, keeping us physically distant, yet it has offered us possibilities to find new innovations and reinvent ourselves in unprecedented ways.

Given that backdrop of 2020, we talk about how the ideas and social constructionist practice and the content of this handbook are even more relevant. Some of questions we reflected on include:

  • Why is this orientation of social construction even more relevant and urgent today?
  • What are the most striking common themes that the authors have made us aware of?
  • What do the six sections in the book have as a unifying thread – across sectors and professions, countries etc?
  • What are we observing about the blurring of boundaries between research and practice?
  • With physical distancing, our connections and collaborations and relationships have taken on new forms, how is that working? What's uplifting about this new form? What are we learning?
  • What’s the simplest social constructionist practice that we can embody or model?

Beyond COVID, we are also living with increasing unrest, tensions and protests across the world. We are calling for social justice, black lives matter, climate change, democracy and governance, political reforms, systems reforms, economic equity, compassion and help for suffering migrants, refugees, the homeless and more.

The confluence of these tragedies across the world highlights the significance and the importance of the work that we are doing as social constructionists. The professionals, researchers and authors in this podcast season talk about their specific social constructionist practice in a pre COVID world. As constructionists, their practice has always embraced uncertainty, the value of community and working collaboratively. Constructionist approaches, therefore, are invaluable at all times. The stories in the podcast and the book can offer many perspectives to help address the life we are living right now in times of COVID.

Rethinking Structures, Roles and Relationships

Social constructionist practice - man watching sunset

In challenging times, we have to rethink, reimagine and restructure many of our “business-as-usual” practices in the most established institutions. Education, for example, is an obvious system where we are finally shifting from the centuries-old model to more apt models that fit with new technologies and societal values. Gro Lund, PhD. spoke clearly of this in the episode, Creating School Harmony with Social Constructionist Practices. Scherto Gill, PhD. in her episode, Approaching Educational Evaluation from a Relational Perspective spoke of the the need to shift from the old assessment models in schools to collaborative, relational models that include children’s voices in the design of schools and curricula.

Alex Arnold reflects on how her relationship with her 10 year old son, Tomas has shifted as he continues his schooling online at home:

I had to rethink what is really important. Is it to build collaboration and understanding between him and me, and to discover and be curious about what interests him and what motivates him? … And the social-we're-living-together-skills that we needed to develop motivated me to shift my focus and to think, what do I want him to remember from this time – not next week and not in an academic way – but next summer, or a few years from now when he looks back? What will he remember from his day at school, but also from our interactions together and from his mom? And what kind of mom do I want to be during this time?

Moving outside our own bubbles

In order to move toward understanding to bridge differences, or live respectfully with difference, we spoke about the need to move outside our own bubbles. As professionals, we learn and strengthen our disciplines by engaging with those who share our interests – our own supportive, professional bubbles. For example, John Winslade in his episode, How Narrative Mediation Promotes Respectful Relationships, recommended that to develop one’s capacity as a narrative mediator, we hang out with other narrative mediators.

Similarly, Pave Nepustil, in his episode, Recovering from Addiction by Mobilizing
Relational Processes
spoke about the strength that is found when one speaks to and hears stories of others who are also living with and recovering from addiction. These relational processes help to build connection and a much needed sense of belonging.

Building community amid difference

When it comes to building relationships with others not like us – ideologically, generationally, physically, or otherwise – if we reach across and out of our bubbles we can attempt to connect in ways that create appreciation for difference. We know from the constructionist perspective that meaning arises in what people do together. We know that through our language and our relationships we create our realities. It is appropriate, therefore, to assume that everybody has a coherent rationale for their beliefs. When we approach others who are different with curiosity and inquiry we open up to the possibility of understanding multiplicity of perspectives.

Professor Mary Gergen in her episode, Positive Aging through the Lens of Social
in her wisdom as a constructionist offers the perspective :

It could be otherwise.

Social constructionist practice is both a helpful and hopeful way of engaging in life. It reminded Mary to always be a little insecure about her opinions . Mary also reminds us that social construction is a close friend of storytelling. We may never know a truth, but we can build many stories of ourselves that can help us move forward.

Storytelling and performance

Community building practices are all about storytelling. David Hooker PhD. talks of digging deeply into the narratives that underpin stories of identity. In his episode, Transformative Community Conferencing – A Constructionist Approach to a More Hopeful Future, David describes how he also creates performance as a way to surface narratives that inform our identity, which is usually a factor of acculturation.

Lois Holzman, in her episode, Social Therapeutics as Play, Performance and Becoming stresses the social process of therapy. She brings it home that many of us live in our heads – we're very good at ideas and concepts and theories – and, there is also the visceral aspect. When we perform it and feel it in our bodies we awaken to ourselves and each other in an embodied sense. Janet Newbury, in Community Building Practices that Attend to Difference shares a most beautiful story of embodiment. Her work pays deep attention to how we physically come together, how we live our cultural traditions through shared experiences. It goes beyond just talking, it means breathing, moving, singing, drumming, sensing together.

To demonstrate the breadth and depth of social constructionist practices, Gail Simon and Leah Salter, in their episode, What is Transmaterial Worlding and Why Pay Attention? bring a perspective of social constructionist expanding our view to include relationship with non-humans. For example, we have relationships with our digital devices, with our pets, with trees and rocks. We humans, under the illusion of controlling the planet, are a blink in geological time, yet have caused great pain and trauma to peoples and planet. As systems and relational inquirers, we have capacity and capability to reexamine our role as humans on this planet and what we have constructed, we can reconstruct to what else is possible when we include the perspectives of all matter.

Curiosity, compassion and comfort with not-knowing

Among the topics of our conversation, we talked about the responsibility we have as constructionists to continue to develop ourselves and our skills to be ever inclusive, curious and compassionate, appreciating our interdependence. We identified that the advent of COVID required many of us to adapt more readily to technology to facilitate connection and support. In fact, growing our relationship with technology offered a form of celebration in many instances.

We enjoyed our stories of willingness to experience novelty and be accepting of failing together, along with a growing tolerance to experiment without feeling awkward. Because we were all in the same boat trying out new things, there was no pressure to be the all-knowing expert of bygone days. Instead of living with certainty, which is what an individualist worldview supports, we are now living with uncertainty. This is the way of the world. We never can predict what's going to happen next. The more comfort we have accepting this is how it is, the more we can learn how to deal with this not-knowingness and get on with it.

Spreading social constructionist practice

In summary of our reflective conversation, I share closing comments from Sheila:

Social construction is not a fact, it's not a truth, but it is a choice of how we live our lives. And it's a very powerful one because we don't feel impotent to make change. We feel that we can make a change, even if it's a small one, even if it's only in our little bubble.

[Using] the virus as a metaphor here, you have your little bubble and one person leaves that bubble. And all of a sudden it's spreading elsewhere. Let's think about these ideas about collaboration and being relationally responsible as being like that virus. You do it where you can do it, knowing that some people in that little bubble are going to move out and bring these ideas to others.

Thank you all for making season 5 of Positivity Strategist Podcast possible!