IWU Ed.D. Organizational Leadership Study Guide/Research
Defining Characteristics of Constructionism
Adherents to the Constructionist tradition argue that, while some objective reality may exist, what we humans know as reality is actually our socially constructed perception of reality. This construction is, necessarily, filtered by the lenses of perception and culture. Shadish (as cited in Patton, 2002) makes an important point as he emphasizes that it is not reality itself that is constructed but our knowledge about reality that is socially constructed.
Burr’s volume on Social Constructionism (Burr, 2003) provides a useful definition as well as an overview of the major tenets of this tradition. He tells us:
1. Constructionism embodies a critical stance toward that knowledge that is most typically taken for granted. This tradition challenges the assumption that knowledge is amassed through the unbiased and critical observation of the world around us. Constructionists argue that the true nature of reality cannot be understood by simple observation.
2. Constructionism questions reality. This tradition allows no such thing as an objective fact. All knowledge, it maintains, is derived from the observation of the world through some perspective and serves some interests rather than others.
3. Historical and cultural specificity impinge upon our observation of the world. All of our observations are relative, then, and depend on the particular cultural biases and historical perspectives that observers possess.
4. Knowledge is not developed through neutral observation but through the interaction of individuals who, between them, construct a mutually agreed upon perception of reality. Social processes, then, sustain knowledge.
5. These constructed perceptions are tied to power relations. The perceptions serve some interests rather than others and have implications for what is permissible for some people to do and for how they may treat others.
6. Finally, Burr asserts that Constructionism embodies anti-essentialism. Because the social world is the product of social processes, there cannot be a given, determined nature to the world or people.
The Foundations of this Tradition
Blumer, Kitsuse and Spector (as cited in Holstein & Miller, 1993) appear to have laid the foundations for this tradition of analysis as they sought to encourage the serious study of social problems. Blumer, in particular, (as cited in Holstein & Miller, 1993) argued that many malignant social conditions have existed over time but did not automatically become social problems, saying,
"It is a gross mistake to assume that any kind of malignant or harmful social condition or arrangement in a society becomes automatically a social problem for that society. The pages of history are replete with instances of dire social conditions unnoticed and unattended in the societies in which they occurred."
Thus, he argued that these conditions did not become problems until a group of individuals perceived them to be a problem. This collective definition of the problematic nature of a condition, or definition of perceived reality, was what social problems had in common. There was no objective definition of what constituted a problem. This realization shifted the focus of research away from social conditions themselves and onto the process of collective definition and perception of reality developed by those experiencing the conditions. Thus, the social process of collectively defining a condition as problematic, that is defining the reality of the observers and participants, became the focus of study rather than the particular condition itself. Pursuing this line of reasoning, social scientists began to focus less on some theoretical, objective reality and more on the reality that was defined by a collective perception of the situation and how it was experienced by the observers.
Thus, researchers began to understand that the reality of a phenomenon, say a treatment program, was really defined by the perceptions and experiences of those engaged in the program. The real issue to be studied became the way the participants viewed the program through the lenses of context and their personal histories and, therefore, how they engaged with the program. The specific objective realities of the program structure and methods became secondary to an understanding of this interaction and these perceptions. The use of qualitative research methods supported this realization as researchers realized that interview responses, document surveys, and the like, reflected the collective perceptions, or constructions, of those participating in the research.
Research Benefits of this Tradition
The use of the Constructionist approach recognizes that the true worth of any phenomenon under study, be it, for example, a treatment program or set of leadership activities is best reflected by the perceptions of those engaged in it. Indeed, we can argue that the effectiveness of such a program or set of activities is more directly correlated to the perceptions of the participants and their evaluation of the experience than to some more objective measures that are used to evaluate specific criteria of the program or activity. An example is in order here. Using the Organizational Leadership Assessment (Laub, 2004) in a traditional Asian organization would likely tell us that the organization is Autocratic or Paternalistic. Absent other information, we would be tempted to conclude that the organization suffers from leadership issues and an inability to change. However, if we were to explore the organization using qualitative methods in the Constructionist tradition, we would endeavor to understand how the members of the organization viewed the leadership situation, that is, what their consensus of reality is when viewed through the lenses of context, culture and history. Given what we know of Asian cultural values and the tradition of paternalistic, family led organizations; we might very well evaluate the situation quite differently. The members may view the leadership as quite effective and acceptable. Which evaluation represents reality? Both do. However, the reality that gives us the best understanding of organizational effectiveness is likely to be that described by the qualitative/Constructionist methods. Leadership is effective when the led believe it is effective and it is this belief that can only be captured in Constructionist evaluations.
Thus, when we use the Constructionist tradition to research a situation and gather the perceptions of participants, we benefit from a richer understanding of the consensual evaluation of a situation and this evaluation may be a better indicator of effectiveness.
Research Hindrances of this Tradition
As valuable as the Constructionist tradition is for its ability to assist in the understanding of consensus and social reality, it is not without problems. First, on a practical level, it is more difficult to carry out research in this tradition than using, for example, a quantitative approach. The interview, research, and analytic skills of the researcher must be more highly developed. The time and resources required are greater than those required to administer, for example, a survey instrument. Analysis of the data is likely to be more difficult and time consuming. On a theoretical level, other problems exist. While a properly conducted quantitative study can give us some objective evidence of the ability to generalize the results to other situations, this is absent from qualitative research carried out in the Constructionist tradition. The agreed upon reality discovered in a particular study may apply only to the situation under analysis. We are also faced with the difficulty of determining when the research is complete. Using Patton’s (2002) metaphor, a quantitative study is done when the snapshot is taken and the statistics tell us we have an adequate sample size. Research undertaken in the Constructionist tradition, like all qualitative research, suffers from an inability to discern when the film is over. How does the researcher know that enough information has been collected? When has the observation continued for long enough to justify its discontinuance? Finally, and most importantly, we have seen that a reality constructed by consensus can serve the interests of some and disregard the interests of others. Research that does not adequately seek out and include all the participants and stakeholders may be tainted by the agenda of one particular group at the expense of others and, therefore, may draw incomplete or inaccurate conclusions.
Critical Considerations When Reading Constructionist Research.
When reviewing Constructionist research, the scholar must be cognizant of the potential deficiencies and disadvantages of this tradition of enquiry in particular and qualitative research in general. The scholar must:
1. Determine to his satisfaction that all constituent groups acted upon by the treatment or other such situations are represented in the construction of the perceived reality.
2. Be vigilant for specific agendas and interests that may be over-represented in the construction of reality that is presented.
3. Gain an understanding of the duration of the research and satisfy himself that it is sufficiently long to record generalized and long-standing perceptions rather than perceptions that are influenced by transitory events.
4. Understand and critically evaluate any claims of the ability to generalize the conclusions made by the author of the research, remembering that the constructed reality is the result of the perceptions of those specific individuals participating in the study. Only after the work is replicated with other constituent groups in other different but analogous situations should any consideration be given to assertions of generalizeability.
5. Understand and evaluate any alterations to the described consensual reality that may arise as a result of the researcher’s own lenses of culture and history. The researcher will not be a detached individual observer and will, in virtually every case, apply her own perceptions to the “reality” being observed.