Social-Constructionism and identity

identity-badgeIn my literature review I explore new movements in entrepreneurship research which has led me to investigate social constructionism. The work of Chell and Karatas-Ozkan in particular but also researchers exploring gender and entrepreneurship have made use of social constructionism. To help me understand the theory I have drawn on the work of Vivien Burr.

For Burr, social constructionism theories invite us to look critically at the world around us and challenge conventional knowledge based on an objective and unbiased view of the world.  Burr argues that from a social constructivist perspective, knowledge is constructed between people and within a historical and cultural context.

While many traditional psychology and sociology have explored personality traits, economic structures, models of memory and so on, the explanations offered by social constructionists are more often in terms of the dynamics of social interaction. The emphasis is thus more on processes than structures.

Burr explains that the social construction of personality is not a personality which exists from within but between relationships with other people or one’s environment. This moves us away from the idea of personality traits, so dominant in theories of the entrepreneur.

Furthermore, by investigating the environmentalist position, Burr refers to the ‘nature / nurture’ debate which rejects the idea of pre-determined characteristics. According to Burr, environmentalists favour ‘a multiplicity of potential selves which are not necessarily consistent with each other’ (p.29). However, Burr also cautions against the idea of having no personality due the multiplicity of different selves. And here she introduces the notion of ‘identity’ as offering an alternative to an understanding of personality based on ‘nature’. Burr explains that the term identity is often found in social constructinist research because it deals with ascribed attributes such as working class / middle class found in social contexts.

According to Chell and Karatas-Ozkan, sociology establishes the notion that human beings are social and they influence the social world in which they are active.

…social objects are not given in the world, but constructed, negotiated, reformed and fashioned and organised by human beings in their efforts to make sense of happenings in the world. (Chell and Karatas-Ozkan, p.62)

This commitment to the multiplicity of actively constructed personalities or realities in social constructionism, counteracts preceding positivist theories. In entrepreneurship research, this creates the opportunity to explore the lived experience of individuals who negotiate and manipulate their reality. In contrast, a positivist paradigm, does not focus on individual experience but believes in external rules and structures which determine the truth about the world. Burr explains that postmodernism encapsualates a desire to move away from ‘metanarratives’ by a ‘rejection of both the idea that there can be an ultimate truth and of structuralism, the idea that the world as we see it is the result of hidden structures.’ (Burr, p.13)

Social constructionism shares my interest in wanting to illuminate the lived experience of cultural entrepreneurs from different perspectives: their wider environment, themselves and the specifics of the industry they work in. In my research, I am collecting the narratives which describe and create the cultural entrepreneur’s identity.

I still have some work to do before I fully understand how to make the most of theories of social constructionism both as part of the literature review and for my methodology theory. More on this topic soon…

Paul du Gay writes critically of social construtionism and this will be discussed in my next blog post.

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  1. I like the idea of environment and experience shaping behaviour around entrepreneurship. I think we need a discourse away from pre-determined personality traits. Coincidentally I’ve just been contacting colleagues from the organisational learning days such as Mike Kelleher, Hulya Oztel and Pedro das Neves

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