I was discussing social constructionism with a friend recently and, holding up a fork, he commented on how that particular object is immediately identified as a 'fork' in our cultural environment. We recognise it based on previous experiences of similar objects and associate it with the particular function it's used for in this context, in this case for eating food.
However, it's quite easy to imagine how the same object could be identified as something very different in a different cultural context, e.g. as a hair comb or garden implement. It's clear from this example, I think, that the meaning we attribute to an object is socially or culturally constructed rather than something necessarily inherent to the object itself.
I've noticed how, in contrast to me, when doing DIY this same friend is able to look at tools and tasks in fluid rather than fixed ways. e.g. I think of a spanner as a 'spanner', whereas he views the same object simply as something of a certain shape, size and strength that could be used for multiple different purposes. Needless to say, he is far more successful at DIY than I am.
I was reflecting in this same conversation on how fixed perceptions and constructs can apply to non-physical examples too. Our assumptions, presuppositions, preconditioned ideas, associations and the labels we use can prevent us seeing alternative perspectives and possibilities in ourselves, other people, relationships or an opportunity or problem we hope to address.
Take for example a leadership team seeking to redesign an organisation in such a way that enables efficient and effective cross-team working. An exploration of what constructs the leaders already hold in mind (e.g. what their picture of the 'organisation' is, what the perceived 'role' of each team is, which teams 'lead' and which 'support') may reveal assumptions that could be tested and re-formed.
This ability to surface, recognise, challenge and reframe social and psychological constructs has powerful potential in other disciplines too such as coaching, counselling and community work. It has the possibility to release people to discover new ideas and solutions, to create and innovate in fresh and exciting ways and to live a life that feels so much more enching and liberating.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.