Social Justice Usage
Source: Thompson, Sherwood (ed.). Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 668.
A consciously reclaimed view of social constructionism has four key components. First, it requires a critical stance toward “taken-for-granted” knowledge; it questions and challenges dominant, so-called normative or traditional, positivist, and/or empirical data. Second, it understands that all knowledge has historical and cultural specificity; that is, that information has differing meanings at different times and in different places. Third, it maintains that knowledge is established and sustained by social processes, meaning that humans develop and perpetuate perceptions of reality; in sum, truth, in interaction—particularly linguistic interaction—with other humans. And fourth, it asserts that in generating knowledge in social interaction with others, humans are necessarily moved to engage in social action to actualize their sense of realism in the concrete world. A reclaimed social reconstructionist approach to teaching might: (1) use supplementary instructional materials to introduce students to the idea of European explorers to the Americas as an invaders of already claimed lands; (2) ask students to individually attempt to reconcile this idea with the portrayal of these historical figures in their textbooks as discoverers; (3) engage students in discussion of their reconciliation efforts to identify which efforts were most successful and why; and, (4) facilitate student action to extend the critically conscious impact of those efforts; for example, to solicit the school board to purchase educational materials that offer broader perspectives in social studies, as well as other subject areas.
New Discourses Commentary
Social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge and related phenomena relevant to human development that takes the view that knowledge is constructed by social interactions and the terms upon which social interaction takes place (see also, blank slatism and social construction). Social constructivism posits that human beings learn this knowledge through a process of socialization, and in strict interpretation takes the position that knowledge is just one type of cultural artifact (see also, cultural relativism) and thus may not bear any correspondence to reality or truth (see also, objectivity). We hasten to acknowledge that there is a subtle difference between social constructionism and social constructivism in the philosophical literature (the former focuses on the ways social interactions produce knowledges while the latter focuses on the ways individuals learn those knowledges), but we consider this difference functionally unimportant for the purposes of this encyclopedia and use the term “social constructivism” to mean both.
The Theory of Critical Social Justice is, in pure form, wholly social constructivist in orientation, which means that it holds the aforementioned view that there is no such thing as knowledge in the sense of knowledge being that which corresponds in some way with truths about reality. Instead, it holds that there are multiple knowledges (see also, ways of knowing, multiplicities, multiple consciousness, kaleidoscopic consciousness, and racial knowledge), each of which is some claim being made about reality (or, realities) that is deemed true or false only by virtue of it being authenticated by the knowledge-producing methods of the culture making the claim. In the Theory of Critical Social Justice, power dynamics, especially as those relate to matters of identity and identity politics, and particularly the lived experience of oppression is the primary means by which authentic knowledges are constructed (see also, standpoint epistemology, intersectionality, and positionality). and willful ignorance of dominance is the primary way in which false and oppressive or marginalizing knowledges are maintained and legitimated (see also, internalized dominance, internalized oppression, and false consciousness, and also active ignorance, pernicious ignorance, white ignorance, epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence).
Social constructivism in the Theory of Critical Social Justice is the reason that they—as the meme about them accurately captures—identify everything as a “social construct.” It is important to note that only in extreme cases do advocates of Critical Social Justice erroneously believe that some aspect of physical reality, like the female menstrual cycle, is merely a social construct, as in that it doesn’t exist in reality or is merely the result of social forces and conditioning by socialization. These views do occur, but it is more common for them to focus on the phenomenon as as social construct, which means that they are primarily (and sometimes exclusively) interested in social constructions that arise around the phenomenon.
The underlying hypothesis of social constructivism is generally that anything that is ultimately a social construction can be changed if we change the social interactions (and resulting knowledges) that produce those constructions. This hypothesis is often interpreted to such an extreme in the Theory of Critical Social Justice that features of reality—like sex and sexuality, along with the secondary sex characteristics and even gender identity—are utterly arbitrary in a physical or biological sense and only possess relevance in the context of cultural assumptions and practices which are similarly assumed to be nearly infinitely malleable. This extreme view results in rampant biology denialism, especially relevant in queer Theory and gender studies, though it has appeared in radical feminism in many ways as well (see also, blank slatism, sex essentialism, biological essentialism, science, and non-binary).
The reason for this hypothesis and its often unrealistically strict adherence within those who subscribe to the Theory of Critical Social Justice (especially queer Theory and gender studies) is because of a view that is ultimately postmodern in origin. It arises from a fear that any “narrative”—even if it is a truth about reality—that can be used to justify or maintain oppressive discourses (ways things can legitimately be spoken about) cannot be allowed to be considered true because they would then maintain oppression which causes harm. Such narratives are therefore construed as forms of “violence.”
The very notion that something cannot be allowed to be considered true seems preposterous but is not within the mindset accompanying Theory, particularly its postmodern elements. Under this view, knowledge and truth are deemed to be entirely contingent cultural artifacts, and postmodern Theory holds that whether or not knowledge and truth claims correspond in any faithful way to reality misses the point (this is especially derived from the thought of Michel Foucault – see also, episteme, power-knowledge, and biopower). Indeed, under postmodernism, such views depend upon objectivity, which it rejects not just on principle but as a defining element of its entire project (see also, positivism). In the Theory of Critical Social Justice, this taken further, indicating that objectivity is neither possible nor desirable.
Thus, as Theory has it, a different culture would produce different knowledges that result in different narratives and different socialization into different social constructions. Ideally, according to the Theory of Critical Social Justice, a culture that rejects all possibility of all forms of oppression would be dominant (try not to get too involved in the inherent contradiction here, and see also, hegemony). Then, that which is immoral in that culture couldn’t possibly be considered true in that culture because it goes against the way that culture authenticates truths. Thus, “narratives” that can potentially be used to maintain oppression, even if they correspond accurately to reality, would not be considered true in a “more” moral culture that Critical Social Justice believes we must work to establish (see also, disrupt, dismantle, and revolution). As applied by activists in our own culture, however, this has the effect of believing that certain true things are not allowed to be true.
Social constructivism is a view of knowledge and human development tailor-made to cater to such Utopian dreams, which always proceed from a belief that getting culture right can solve all or most of humanity’s problems. In the case of the objectives of Critical Social Justice, the right culture is a critical culture (see also, critical consciousness and critical theory) that advances a particular kind of identity politics in pursuit of what it identifies as “Social Justice.” In fact, the epistemology—knowledge-producing method—of the Theory of Critical Social Justice has been identified as a “critical constructivist epistemology” by the critical pedagogist Joe Kincheloe. That means that at the heart of Critical Social Justice is social constructivism that’s approached in the manner of a critical theory.
Active ignorance; Authentic; Biological essentialism; Biopower; Blank slatism; Change; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical theory; Cultural relativism; Discourse; Dismantle; Disrupt; Domination; Episteme; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; False consciousness; Feminism; Foucauldian; Gender; Gender identity; Gender studies; Harm; Hegemony; Identity; Identity politics; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Intersectionality; Kaleidoscopic consciousness; Knowledge(s); Legitimate; Lived experience; Marginalization; Multiple consciousness; Multiplicities; Narrative; Non-binary; Objectivity; Oppression; Pernicious ignorance; Positionality; Positivism; Postmodern; Power-knowledge; Queer Theory; Racial knowledge; Radical; Radical feminism; Realities; Reality; Revolution; Science; Sex; Sex essentialism; Sexuality; Social construction; Social Justice; Socialization; Standpoint epistemology; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; Violence; Ways of knowing; White ignorance; Willful ignorance
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 41.
In order to understand the concept of knowledge as never purely objective, neutral, and outside of human interests, it is important to distinguish between discoverable laws of the natural world (such as the law of gravity), and knowledge, which is socially constructed. By socially constructed, we mean that all knowledge understood by humans is framed by the ideologies, language, beliefs, and customs of human societies. Even the field of science is subjective (the study of which is known as the sociology of scientific knowledge). For example, consider scientific research and how and when it is conducted. Which subjects are funded and which are not (e.g., the moon’s atmosphere, nuclear power, wind power, atmospheric pollution, or stem cells)? Who finances various types of research (private corporations, nonprofits, or the government)? Who is invested in the results of the research (e.g., for-profit pharmaceutical companies, the military, or nonprofit organizations)? How do these investments drive what is studied and how? How will the research findings be used? Who has access to the benefits of the research? As you can see, these are not neutral questions—they are always political, and they frame how knowledge is created, advanced, and circulated. Because of this, knowledge is never value-neutral.
Revision date: 5/18/20