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Social Constructionism and Its Impact on Cultural Identity in a Society Ruled by a Strong Rhetoric of Risk and Health and Safety Regulations Dissertation

The following literature review critically evaluates the existing debates central to the relevant themes and aims of this dissertation.

These include social constructionism, namely the development of this theoretical framework and how it relates to the view of the self using accountability as an example; the rise of the dominant discourse on health and safety as a socially accepted truth, and the collective impact of these theoretical and political strictures on community identity.

Social Constructionism

The theory of social constructionism perceives the self as a consequence of social influences. Experienced in context, these influences shape the individual in a largely unconscious manner and create a socialized being comprised of a number of unchallenged assumptions (Berger & Luckmann 1966; Gergen 1999; Gergen 2001).

In addition, the self is constructed and recognized as a “product of historically and culturally situated interchanges among people” (Gergen 1994, p. 49). Said interchanges engage the self, others, the social environment, and social institutions in the construction of meaning (Berger & Luckmann 1966; Gergen 1994). Gergen (1999, p. 138) labels this developing self forged through social relationships as the “relational self”.

Thus, persons in a given society produce meaning according to the quality of their social interactions. In addition, social constructionism understands that societies and societal organizations actively socialize their constituents (Berger & Luckmann 1966).

Social Constructionism Theory: Its Development

In their groundbreaking 1966 work The Social Construction of Reality, the most significant theoretical development in social constructionism took place when Berger and Luckmann demonstrated the interdependent quality of the relational self and his or her society (1966, p. 103).

The social structures and the personal consciousness of the socialized being are not mutually exclusive, but inextricably linked (Berger & Luckmann 1966, p. 103). Prior to the development of social constructionism, functionalism and Marxism provided a one-sided, distorted description of the interplay between the self and its society.

For Berger and Luckman (1966, p. 113), there are inevitable tendencies to reinforce the current social patterns, to make sure that they are regarded as real or objective in terms of moral solidarity, and the self is not so passive as the functionalist/Marxist model suggests.

Conversely, opportunities always exist to transform the current social patterns, as evidenced by significant societal growth in the areas of civil and economic rights for marginalized peoples – transformations which emanated from within one or more selves in the society.

Thus, the developing theory of social constructionism has been likened to “taking part in the development of a second Enlightenment,” since the relational self and its society have the power to impact one another equally (Gergen 1999, p. 138).

Theoretic View of Reality

Under the social constructionist theory therefore, reality is not something existing outside, independent of an individual’s people’s ideas, thoughts and feelings (Lincoln 1989, p.74). It is not an external, material reality governed by deterministic laws that can be identified and enforced empirically.

On the contrary, reality is a social agreement, a series of assumptions, ideas and beliefs joined together to form a cohesive unit of reality, and laws themselves are tacit social understandings. The theoretic view of reality, as posited by the social constructionist school, had a deeply divisive impact on the social sciences.

As Tsoukala (2008, p. 137) notes, “key questions [arose] as to whether it was possible to draw a line between the subjective and objective parts of social reality or as to whether it was possible to distinguish between subjective and…allegedly… objectified representations of social reality revealed deep divisions between positivists and constructionists”.

Durkheim (2003, p. 45) gave one of the key explanations for the ubiquity and tenacity of certain social institutions as legitimation. Legitimation refers to the function a given belief or assumption performs for a society. In a societal setting, legitimation serves to legitimise social arrangements, foster a sense of social union and provide meaning.

In pre-industrial communities however, legitimation tends to be more powerful than in mechanized societies, given that mechanized society promotes the fragmentation of the dominant community into smaller, disparate niche communities.

Socially Constructed Concepts: Accountability as an Example of a Social Concept

In any community, accountability refers, in a general sense, to the conduct of individuals and the impact of that conduct on other individuals (Young & Fitzgerald 1998, p. 93). According to Hacking (1999, p. 55), three elements affect accountability. Accountability is an external behavior, firstly, and secondly accountability is an internal cognitive process that occurs in each individual.

Finally, accountability develops before, during and after a social interaction between individuals in a certain context. This process unites the internal perceptions with the external influences (Hacking 1999, p. 55). However, as a social concept, accountability applies on a societal scale to the impact that the conduct of a large group has on a smaller group, particularly in developed countries.

As a social concept, accountability is constructed via “social interpretation and the inter-subjective influences of language, culture, and family” (Hoffman 1990, p.3). Johnson-Cartee (2005, p. 24) describes accountability in terms of social norms and expectations.

It is the expression of the interaction between the social norms and legislative systems, and as such accountability describes the methods people employ to achieve stable social relations. Roberts (1996, p. 355) defines accountability as a social construct created by a community to produce answerability.

It is more than compliance with the law; accountability involves negotiation with stakeholders, clients, and interest groups (Roberts 1996, p. 355). Accountability is administrative advocacy; agencies must communicate the needs of the citizens to higher authorities and ensure they are met (Roberts 1996, p. 355).

On a societal scale therefore, though deemed a public instrument, accountability often translates as protection of private property; in some cases the protection of property will trump any real or perceived duty of care. In developed countries, accountability is perceived as a mandate and government responsibility, and herein lies the issue for communities.

When accountability, as Maze (2001, p. 401) notes, refers to something that must be achieved instead of an informal thing done informally but consistently, then the larger private and institutional bodies will increasingly play a regulatory role within the smaller communities under the auspices of accountability, safety, and security.

Thus, the social concept of accountability as the rightful domain of large private and institutional bodies, namely that these bodies are responsible for the care and safety of the citizenry as whole, regularly equates to infringement of the rights of community groups to assemble publicly.

Theoretical Arguments

Rise of the Dominant Discourse of Health and Safety

Due to the fragmentation of the sovereign power of a state into smaller self-governing units, modern power has shifted from traditional institutions deemed punitive and political, to more localized authorities, which manipulate an individual’s behaviour and social conduct in accordance with existing societal norms. Gergen (2001, p. 82) contends that the mechanisms involving “exclusion” are fundamental aspects of social control.

Gergen (1999, p. 82) identifies the “neo-liberal governance through risk prevention coupled by alliance with entities or communities of interest, the quest to eliminate danger, risk and disorder” as an embodiment of this social control.

Similar ideas were echoed by Ulrich Beck in his seminal work Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity Beck (1992, p. 28) notes that “in modernization risks…things which are substantively-objectively, spatially and temporally disparate are drawn together causally and thus brought into a social and legal context of responsibility”.

Under the guise of accountability for safety and security, many social constructionist scholars aptly demonstrate, societal authorities often ride roughshod not only over civil liberties, but also self concept as a function of community identity.

History of Rise: Emphasis of Health and Safety in the UK Government

Health and safety rhetoric emerged as an important metaphor in the government of the United Kingdom particularly for its use in assuring the community of safety. Highly publicized social events that have gone terribly awry, most notably the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, have fueled the power of the health and safety discourse and mainstreamed the function of this rhetoric in the UK’s social interaction processes.

Lock and Strong (2010, p. 89) note this ideological and epistemological shift has important challenges for the UK’s community values, culture and traditions, community practices, actions, and interpretation of events and circumstances.

The social constructionist approach to this discourse seeks connections between health and safety practices and the underlying power structures in the community via discursive practices (Thompson 2002). Mackley (2008, p. 43) argues that is imperative that this power structure exists, as it sets health and safety guidelines to which the community will adhere and maintains societal norms despite the absence of police.

However, some critics have argued against the exercise of health and safety rhetoric power to gain social control over a crowd, particularly in the social constructionist camp, and point to the power structures inherent in these practices. Burr (2003, p. 12) maintains that “the public should be responsible for their own safety and individuals should not be compelled to ensure safety”.

Social Acceptance of Health and Safety Rhetoric as a Truth: Normalization and Realization of Risk

Communities interpret the practice of certain values or beliefs present in a larger social context based on their own experiences, norms and mental creations of acceptable conduct (Fairclough 2002, p.56). An intricate set of power relations is described in this discourse, however. Still other scholars point to the obvious power rackets which are served via the social acceptance of the health and safety discourse itself.

Tsoukala (2008, p. 139) notes, what “qualifies as a social problem for a given society at a given moment is the outcome of long-standing and day-to-day constructions made by persons and groups” in charge.

Social problems and social events that cause harm show us “who has the power to define these values and to impose punishment on their potential adversaries; they uncover whose interests are advanced when social problems are brought to public awareness” Tsoukala (2008, p. 139).

Thus a once-size-fits-all right interpretation does not exist; rather, a more or less reasonable interpretation is acceptable based on the specific social location and context of the beholder (Wodak & Ludwig, 1999, p.67).

Community Identity

What it is-Community Identity Theory: Self Concept

Williams and Velody (1998, p. 96), affirm that culture is evident through rituals, dress and artifacts.

Cultural celebrations in the British calendar, while deemed essential by many for their cultural function, tend to be marred be health and safety risks, a tension which has spawned a prejudice toward some social and cultural classes as being problematic or prone to health hazards and safety risks, such as the “hooligans” at the centre of the Hillsborough disaster (Picard & Robinson 2006, p. 61; Tsoukala 2008, p. 137).

While the right to health and safety remains the focus of most community bodies, this inherent prejudice serves as an instrument of exclusion, which in turn taints cultural celebrations and in many cases initiates their demise. This is tantamount, many scholars argue, to using the health and safety rhetoric to target a community deemed undesirable (Picard & Robinson 2006, p. 61; Tsoukala 2008, p. 137).

What is the value of tradition participation to community identity to individuals?

The concept of social role is critical from a sociological perspective as far as the community identity is concerned (Hyman et al., 2000, p. 281). The processes of socializing, adapting, defining, role-making and developing self-concept are the main subjects for study (Hyman et al., 2000, p. 281).

The socialization process is decidedly mutual where people affect one another’s self-concepts. The reciprocity characteristic of community socialization features prominently in current sociological research (Hequembourg & Farrell, 1999, p. 545; Hyman et al., 2000, p. 281).

Belonging to a community, and participating in the rituals associated with this community, reinforced the self concept. According to proponents of the Community Identity Theory, Self Concept is solidified and maintained through Perceived Membership of Social Groups (Tajfel and Turner 1986, p. 121).

Tajfel and Turner (1986, p. 121) assert that in community identity theory, a person does not have a comparative personal self but rather, he or she has numerous selves that correspond to the increased circles of group membership. A difference in social context could trigger a person to feel, think and act differently based on community influence.

Similarly, a person can have multiple social identities, where social identity is defined as a person’s self-concept developed from his or her perceived membership in a certain community (Hogg & Vaughan, 2002, p. 78).

If a community loses its important features of living heritage, commonly referred to as intangible cultural heritage, then the distinctiveness of the community diminishes and it loses essential resources that can sustain the community’s cultural, economic and social sphere (Seitel 2001, p. 22).

Different people across the world, therefore, depend on the intangible cultural heritage as the emblem for spiritual culture and an important legacy to their survival (Walker, & Moloney 2007, p.123).

A number of social constructionist scholars point to the strong rhetoric of risk and health and safety regulations currently at play in the United Kingdom as a veiled attack on intangible cultural heritage (Hequembourg & Farrell 1999; Hyman et al., 2000; Picard & Robinson 2006; Tsoukala 2008).

Under the guise of making the community safer, these scholars argue, key cultural and community bonds are being actively targeted and dissolved in an attempt to create a monochromatic society that reflects the dominant culture. Thus the social acceptance of health and safety rhetoric as beneficial to the communities it purports to protect must be critically and immediately reexamined.

Reference List

Beck, U 1992, Risk society: towards a new modernity, London, Sage.

Berger, P & Luckmann, T 1966, The social construction of reality: a treatise on the sociology of knowledge, London, Penguin University Books.

Burr, V 2003, Social constructionism, New York, Routledge.

Durkheim, E & Emirbaye, M 2003, Émile Durkheim: sociologist of modernity, Malde, Wiley Blackwell.

Fairclough, N 2002, Language and power, 2nd edn, New York, Longman.

Gergen, K 1994, Realities and relationships: soundings in social construction, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Gergen, K 1999, An invitation to social construction, London, Sage.

Gergen, J 2001, Social construction in context, London, Sage.

Hacking, I 1999, The social construction of what? Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press.

Hequembourg, A & Farrell, M 1999, ‘Lesbian motherhood: negotiating marginal-mainstream identities’, Gender & Society, vol. 13, pp. 540–557.

Hoffman, L 1990, ‘Constructing realities: an art of lenses’, Family Process, vol. 29 no. 1, pp. 1-12.

Hogg, A & Vaughan, M 2002, Social psychology, 3rd edn, London, Prentice Hall.

Hyman, I, Vu, N, & Beiser, M 2000, ‘Post-migration stresses among southeast Asian refugee youth in Canada: a research note’, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol. 31, pp. 281–293.

Johnson-Cartee, S 2005, News narratives and news framing: constructing political reality, Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield.

Lincoln, B 1989, Discourse and the construction of society: comparative studies of myth, ritual, and classification, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Lock, A & Strong, T 2010, Social constructionism: sources and stirrings in theory and practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Mackley, J 2008, Exploring celebrations: how and why are religious festivals important? Birmingham, Christian Education.

Maze, J 2001, ‘Social constructionism, deconstructionism and some requirements of discourse’, Theory & Psychology, vol. 11 no. 1, pp.393–417.

Roberts, J 1996, From discipline to dialogue: individualizing and socializing forms of accountability, Boston, International Thomson Business Press.

Seitel, P 2001, Safeguarding traditional cultures: a global assessment, Washington, D.C., Centre for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution.

Tajfel, H & Turner, C 1986, “The social identity theory of inter-group behavior”, in S Worchel & W Austin (eds), Psychology of intergroup relations, Chicago, Nelson-Hall.

Thompson, P 2002, “ICT, power, and developmental discourse: a critical analysis”, in W Wynn, E Whitley, M Myers & J DeGross (eds), Proceedings of the global and organizational discourse about information technology conference, New York, Kluwer Publishing.

Tsoukala, A 2008, ‘Boundary-creating processes and the social construction of threat’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, vol. 33 no.2, pp. 137-145.

Walker, L & Moloney, B 2007, Social representations and identity: content, process, and power, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Williams, R & Velody, I 1998, The politics of constructionism, London, Sage.

Wodak, R & Ludwig, C 1999, Challenges in a changing world: issues in critical discourse analysis, Vienna, Passagenverlag.

Young, L & Fitzgerald, B 1998, The power of language: how discourse influences society, London, Equinox.

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Parker, Ayanna. "Social Constructionism and Its Impact on Cultural Identity in a Society Ruled by a Strong Rhetoric of Risk and Health and Safety Regulations." IvyPanda, 17 May 2019, Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.

1. Ayanna Parker. "Social Constructionism and Its Impact on Cultural Identity in a Society Ruled by a Strong Rhetoric of Risk and Health and Safety Regulations." IvyPanda (blog), May 17, 2019.


Parker, Ayanna. "Social Constructionism and Its Impact on Cultural Identity in a Society Ruled by a Strong Rhetoric of Risk and Health and Safety Regulations." IvyPanda (blog), May 17, 2019.


Parker, Ayanna. 2019. "Social Constructionism and Its Impact on Cultural Identity in a Society Ruled by a Strong Rhetoric of Risk and Health and Safety Regulations." IvyPanda (blog), May 17, 2019.


Parker, A. (2019) 'Social Constructionism and Its Impact on Cultural Identity in a Society Ruled by a Strong Rhetoric of Risk and Health and Safety Regulations'. IvyPanda, 17 May. (Accessed: 5 December 2019).

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