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Author: Dr Simon Moss


Constructionism is a paradigm or philosophy of research in which knowledge is not regarded as an insight into some objective reality, but instead constructed by humans, partly through social interactions. Proponents of constructionism do not strive to uncover a universal set of laws that underpin reality. Instead, they attempt to understand the intangible constructions or perspectives that individuals form about local, specific places, events, and issues. They do not evaluate whether constructions are true or false but strive to facilitate informed and sophisticated perspectives, an ontology that is referred as to relativism.

In addition, according to proponents of constructionism, the researchers and participants together create the observations. That is, the observations and findings emerge from the interaction between the researchers and participants, called transactional epistemology (Guba & Lincoln, 2004). Indeed, constructionists feel that constructions can be uncovered only through interactions beteen or among researchers and participants. These constructionists, therefore, embrace dialectical discussions, in which disagreements are resolved through careful rational discussion. Generally, constructions apply qualitative, not quantitative, research methods to investigate some issue or event.

Evolution of constructionism


Constructionism largely evolved as a response to the limitations of positivism and post-positivism. Positivism represents the assumption that some reality does underpin all our of experiences, and this reality is governed by universal laws, an ontology that is sometimes called naive realism. In addition, positivists assume that researchers do not influence these universal laws, and hence these laws can indeed be discovered, called an objectivist epistemology. Finally, positivists assume that empirical studies can verify hypotheses about these laws, provided any contaminating factors are suitably controlled.


Post-positivism represents a variant of positivism, intended to overcome some of the criticisms that were directed towards positivist principles. Proponents of post-positivism agree that some reality does underpin all our of experiences, but humans cannot entirely apprehend the underlying laws, partly because of our limited intellectual capacities--an ontology that is sometimes called critical realism. Furthermore, proponents of this movement recognize that researchers might affect the objects they study, but nevertheless strive to remain as objective as possible, through mechanisms such as peer review. These scholars primarily strive to falsify, rather than verify, hypotheses about reality. They are not as concerned with absolute control of contaminating factors, and accept emic or subjective perspectives as well as conduct studies in natural settings.

Post-positivism was partly a reaction to the problem of induction. Specifically, an infinite number of theories can, in principle, explain any set of observations. As a consequence, no theory can ever be verified, because an alternative can always explain the results. Nevertheless, as Popper highlighted, theories can be falsified. Theories that withstand many tests are not regarded as verified, but merely more probable.

Limitations of positivism and post-positivism

Positivist and, to a lesser extent, post-positivist perspectives embrace the benefits of quantitative research, involving numbers and frequencies rather than words and texts. Nevetheless, quantitative methods, and hence the positivist orientation that underpinned these methods, have received criticisms on various grounds.

First, positivists attempt to eradicate all contaminating factors, striving to control as many variables as possible, to more closely represent the underling laws that govern reality. As a consequence, this approach cannot uncover how these variables are related when contaminating factors operate. The role of context, hence, is disregarded, and knowledge is thus appallingly limited in application.

Second, any neglect of qualitative data disregards the importance of meaning and intention in understanding humans. That is, research must explore and characterize meaning to understand humanity.

Third, because of the obsessive pursuit of universal laws, positivists do not uncover any information about individual cases. Evidence that 90% of individuals with red hair are susceptible to skin cancer affords limited information about a specific person with red hair. To understand a specific person, approximations of universal laws are not as informative as a thorough analysis of this individual, highlighting the limitations of positivist generalizations.

Fourth, contrary to the assumptions of positivist principles, many studies have shown how researchers affect the objects they study. The mere observation of some issue shapes and refines the apparent objects they are investigating.

Fifth, the theories or values that researchers have adopted affect the findings that emerge. That is, scientific findings are actually laden with theory or values. As a consequence, findings are not objective, but quintessentially subjective. Constructionism largely evolved as a reaction against all of these issues,

Properties of constructionism

Hallmarks of exemplary research--objectives and criteria

Researchers who follow the positivist tradition seek to explain, predict, and control phenomena with universal laws. The aim of research and inquiry, however, is different when scholars adopt a constructivist perspective. From this perspective, the aim of inquiry is to understand the constructions of other individuals, striving to reach consensus. Awareness of conflicts, progress in constructions, and sophisticated perspectives are the hallmarks of exemplary inquiry.

Knowledge does not comprise a series of hypotheses that have been verified or, at least, not falsified--as positivists and post-positivists might contend. Instead, knowledge comprises of the constructions that have reached some consensus. Progress in knowledge, therefore, is not equated with a growing body of hypotheses or generalizations, but relates to an increase in sophistication that arises when juxtposing constructions are reconciled through dialectical discussions.

The criteria to judge research is also different when a constructionist perspective is adopted (see Guba & Lincoln, 2004).

  • First, the knowledge that is generated should be credible--in that constructions should represent the subjective experiences of participants, parallel to internal validity in quantitative research (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Checking with participants is one means to ensure credibility as are discussions with peers.
  • Second, knowledge should be transferable and thus germane outside the specific instances of data that were collected, analagous to external validity. That is, other researchers should be motivated to consider and apply this knowledge, which is partly dependent upon the extent to which the description is rich
  • Third, knowledge should be dependable, rather than unstable, paralleling the criteria of reliablity.
  • Fourth, knowledge should be confirmable in some sense.
  • Fifth, the knowledge should demonstrate ontological authenticity, in which personal constructions are extended and broadened.
  • Sixth, the knowledge should demonstrate educative authenticity, in which the constructions of individuals is understood by another person
  • Seventh, the knowledge should demonstrate catalytic authenticity, by stimulating action and change
  • Finally, the knowledge should demonstrate tactical authenticity, providing means, such as the credibility or motivation, to empower other individuals.

    Dependability and Confirmability

    According to Lincoln and Guba (1985), both dependability and confirmability can be determined through one "properly managed" audit. To establish dependability, the auditor examines the process by which the various stages of the study, including analytic techniques, were conducted. The auditor determines whether this process was applicable to the research undertaken and whether it was applied consistently (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). To illustrate confirmability, a record of the inquiry process, as well as copies of all taped interviews and discussions, notes from interviews and discussions, and hard copies of all transcriptions have been maintained. These records are available upon request from the researcher. Stepahnie Lake, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Virginia, served as the auditor for this study. As such, she reviewed the data, methodology and analysis processes for consistency and applicability, and reported suggestions. Suggested reconsiderations were negotiated until we agreed to the consistency and applicability of the processes.


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    Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.) (1998). Strategies of qualitative inquiry. London: Sage.

    Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.) (1998). Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials. London: Sage.

    Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1981). Effective evaluation (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

    Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1989) Fourth generation evaluation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

    Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2004). Competing paradigms in qualitative research: Theories and issues. In S. N. Hesse-Biber & P Leavy (Eds.), Approaches to qualitative research: A reader on theory and practice (pp. 17-38). New York: Oxford University Press

    Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

    Searle, J. (1995). The construction of social reality. New York: Free Press.

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    Last Update: 6/1/2016