Social Innovation Practices Through the Lens of Social Construction – Sheila McNamee, Ph.D. and Celiane Carmago-Borges, Ph.D.
This is the introductory episode of season 5 of Positivity Strategist Podcast. This season of ten episodes explores social innovation practices in the field of social construction. We are collaborating with the Taos Institute and supporting a significant publication, The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice. My guests in this introductory episode are two of the four editors. Our conversation focuses on three points: the work of the Taos Institute, the practice of social construction and the publication.
Shout-outs and Gratitudes
Sheila McNamee, Ph.D. and Celiane Carmago-Borges, Ph.D. are two of the four editors of The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice. Both are university professors and board members of the Taos Institute. They have been collaborators in the design of this season. We have two other collaborators in bringing this podcast season to life: Dawn Dole, Executive Director of the Taos Institute and Alex Arnold, Taos Institute Program Co-ordinator. It’s been a wonderful team to get this podcast season launched. Our mutual appreciation is overflowing.
Before addressing the specific topic of social innovation practices and the Sage publication, I invite Sheila and Celiane to share their own stories of being associated with the Taos Institute and what it means to them.
Sheila: I am a co-founder of the Taos Institute. We founded the Institute in 1993. It's a nonprofit educational institute. The purpose is to spread social constructionist theory and practice in a variety of different domains: healthcare, education, politics, communities, and organizations. We started as a very humble, small group of co-founders just more or less playing with each other, having opportunities to come together. We hosted a conference. That's what really kickstarted the Taos Institute. After our first conference, we decided to become an institute and continue to gather people who were interested in social constructionist ideas in looking at the world. We explored how we operate in the world from a relational perspective as opposed to what the default has been for us, which is looking at ourselves as self-contained individuals, just looking out for ourselves and trying to climb the ladder and be successful and so forth.
Much of what we do as an institute is captured in this forthcoming book.
The Taos Institute is a community of people who are caring and collaborative, interested and interesting and extremely welcoming. I don't think I've ever been part of a group that has been as welcoming, as warm, and as creatively productive as the Taos Institute. It's really a playground where our colleagues can explore, be creative, innovative, and try to do things differently.
Celiane: I'm hearing the story of the Taos Institute from Sheila's perspective and I never get tired of listening to those stories. I came in a bit later around 2005. I was in Brazil doing my master’s research at the university of San Paolo and in our research group in the psychology faculty, we were searching for relational approaches and of course we found Sheila McNamee. That was the beginning of a love story I would say. The Taos communities are very engaging and welcoming. So the day we wrote Sheila – it's very funny because we were so surprised that she replied to us, I think the very same day! And we were talking about possibilities to go and study with her. And she was just saying: “Yeah, sure, why don't you come?” Here we are a group of students in South America. She has no clue who we are and she's already so open to and engaging with us. So I think this is the signature of of the Taos Institute.
Ways of Explaining Social Construction
How do we explain social construction to the curious? Sheila offers, there are a number of ways into this conversation and one way is to see social construction in the context of communication. Social construction in the realm of human communication says that we create our world, we create our values, our beliefs, our truths, our rights, our wrongs in interaction with other people. Therefore, our identity actually emerges through the interchange of conversation, interaction with others, as opposed to believing our identity is fixed from birth. We are different people in different relationships. We aren't singular beings. We're multi beings. Once we realize that relational quality – that it's from our relationships – everything we take to be true, everything we value, emerges. Through our social connections we shape our realities.
There isn’t a singular way
When we take on that perspective, we recognize that we have so many different relationships, and therefore, we must also have so many different resources for action, so many different values and beliefs and truths. We're not singular people and there isn't just one right way to be in the world.
What a constructionist recognizes is that when we confront a challenge, we have other resources. We don't have to do things in the way in which we've become accustomed to doing it. We can draw from another relational context to interact.
The easy way of appreciating social construction is to say that everything that makes us who we are: our intelligence, our emotions, our personality, is thanks to our relations with others and our environment as well. This is contrary to saying that everything we are is inside of us, without acknowledging the role of culture, influence of others, history and so on.
A powerful insight is that instead of following a specific theory, one can construct possibilities and realities that emerge from relational attributes from many theories. It’s possible to construct something that comes from us with others. We can change our realities. In this way, social construction becomes part of our life. We embody the constructions we co-create. We can embrace it in our daily life when we realize that the way we are relating, and the way we talk, and love, and hate, and deal with our problems are all performances that are shaping and creating our lives. And by changing them we can really change our reality. This is one of the most powerful things about social construction.
Once people have the epiphany of the power of social construction in determining our lives, they ask why didn’t we learn this in schools and how can we teach this to others? A social constructionists response is:
Don't try to teach it to anybody, just be it, just live this way. It really is in the way that we position ourselves towards each other and towards our environment that really makes the difference.
Social construction is an invitation to look at the world in a more relational, connected and systemic way. This invitation also is to look more critically at what is presented while at the same time be more empathic and responsive to all others and other perspectives in life.
Social Innovation Practices Emerging From Social Construction
The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice focuses on innovations that are emerging in the different areas where social constructionist ideas are being practiced: research and education, health, mental health, organization development, community development and so much more. When social construction was first introduced, people were talking about it as if it were the truth. The study of relational theory and social construction was an academic study.
This book takes us outside the walls of academia. It offers readers a comprehensive body of work, authored by social constructionists who show their own social innovation practices in a variety of domains.
Over the years, more and more people have been embracing these ideas and using them in all sorts of practical domains. This has produced a blossoming of constructionist ideas and practices which in turn has pushed forward our ways of thinking about social construction itself. It serves to demonstrate that there is no static theory of social construction, but that it's continually evolving.
A mindset rather than a body of content
You can find all sorts of approaches to innovation: social innovation, inclusive innovation, transformative innovation. Usually what this implies is access to a variety of methods, tools and techniques for professionals to apply in their organizations or communities. But what we don't see much of is innovation as something that is an outcome of people engaging together in its co-creation. The social constructionist approach is more a way of looking at the world and a mindset rather than a body of content. So there's no right way of doing social construction or working with social constructs. To quote Celiane:
There is no such thing as a technique that is a social constructionist technique. So, by having no techniques, you encourage creativity and imagination. People get inspired to experiment with new things. What we have been seeing in the Taos community with all our associates and people connected to us is how they are experimenting in so many areas and creating these new ways of working. It’s these new practices and areas of research that we want to share beyond our community and share with the world. This book [Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice] is the opportunity to have a collection of innovators sharing their practices and inspiring us with what they are doing.
It's a book for everyone interested in learning more about social constructionist ideas and the social innovation practices coming from these ideas and collaborations. By sharing so many stories of all the different practices, we move beyond abstraction. Our eyes and hearts are open to see the multiple ways we can engage with others to solve very complex problems we face as humanity. Hopefully, these episodes and the book will make social construction more tangible, easier to understand, and inspire people to start their own projects.
Connect to Sheila and Celiane
These links will provide you with a plethora of resources – books, articles, videos – that both guests have created and co-created related to social constructionist ideas.
- Sheila on the Taos Institute Website
- Sheila on Wikipedia
- Sheila on Twitter
- Sheila on LinkedIn
- Celiane on the Taos Institute Website
- Celiane’s Consulting Site: DesigningConversations.us
- Celiane on LinkedIn
The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice