Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol.

, 13: 409–416 (2003)

Book Reviews
Social Construction in Context
GERGEN, K. J. (2001) Sage, London, 240 pp, £18.99 ISBN 0-7619-6545-9 (paperback), £55.00 ISBN 0-7619-6544-0 (hardback) Kenneth Gergen has been a prominent voice in social constructionism in the field of psychology for two decades, privileging, in his terms, ‘historical and social accounts of knowledge’ over ‘foundationalist’ accounts. Where positivism assumes a given world of objects and phenomena to be described, social constructionism is concerned primarily with the meanings ascribed to such objects and phenomena. Meanings differ across cultures and historical periods, and these are reflected in changes in social practices. ‘Constructionism’ differs from ‘constructivism’. The former is concerned with social processes in the production and legitimization of truth claims; the latter refers to individual constructions of meaning. This volume of essays represents a watershed for the author, who now recognizes the paradoxical position that, in certain academic quarters, ‘a constructionist sensibility is now so fully engrained that it even ceases to require a specific denotation’ and is in danger of ‘comfort and decay’. This recognition of the recent naturalization of social constructionism confirms Gergen’s reflexive sensibility. He is fully aware of the epistemological conundrum that social constructionism raises in its claim to offer a theory about theories, within Nietzsche’s (1956) legacy of the ‘transvaluation of values’. The book has three sections. The first is concerned with the impact of constructionist ideas on the human science disciplines. This section investigates tensions between social activists and constructionists, the demise of traditional experimental psychology under constructionist critique, polyvocality in the human sciences, and the historicizing of psychological discourses. The second section deals with social practices in therapy, education and organizations. The third section uses social construction as a method to examine identity politics and information and communication technologies. The overall aim of the essays is ‘to incite dialogue on our contemporary condition, to generate discursive resources with which we can critically and appreciatively reflect’. For those who stereotype social constructionism as a sterile intellectual position promoting moral relativism, Gergen’s book is refreshing in its generosity of ideas and plea for a humane social science realized through collaborative action based on tolerance of difference. His brand of ‘social construction’ can be characterized as a radical pluralism. He prefers ‘construction’ to ‘constructionism’ to remind us that his outlook should not be reduced to a unitary school of thought, inviting ‘foundationalism’. Gergen’s approach to social constructionism offers both strength and weakness that I will explore here through focus upon the chapter that may be of most interest to readers—‘Therapy as Social Construction’. Gergen’s strength rests with the generosity of his view. His project of ‘plurivocality’ is an invitation not only to tolerate differences in ideas and practices, but also to create plural practices through ‘new forms of coordinated action’, derived from choosing amongst the best, or most appropriate, aspects of a wide range of therapeutic approaches. Gergen’s pluralism is based upon a consensus model and not upon a language and practice of dissension (recognizing and tolerating incommensurability of views), such as that modelled in the work of Jean Francois Lyotard (1988). In the current global climate of seemingly incommensurable ideological positions (for example, agnostic capitalism versus Islamic fundamentalism), Gergen’s macropolitics, however, is exposed as less robust than Lyotard’s. In the micropolitics of therapeutic practice, Gergen argues for an approach that draws on the best of otherwise competing practices according to need and

Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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Book reviews

context. He is aware that this can be read as mere eclecticism but makes a claim for going beyond eclecticism to a more ‘radical’ position. However, the claim for ‘a new and different role for therapists’ does not appear to move beyond the less radical position of ‘bringing disparate groups into coordination’—again, a project for consensual pluralism. The title of chapter six—‘Therapy as Social Construction’—could have been ‘Social Construction as Therapy’, where social constructionism itself is offered as a form of therapy, a societal practice rather than a meta-theory. Here, Gergen fails to draw on a history of similar projects, such as Alfred Adler’s (1912) notion of relative ‘guiding fictions’. Application of this notion to psychotherapy by James Hillman (1983) in Healing Fiction shows how each therapeutic ‘story’ is relative to all other stories, so that it is perhaps the telling of a story itself which is ‘healing’, rather than the genre of the story or its idiosyncratic claims. Gergen argues that if we map the value perspectives informing a range of therapies, and their consequent methods, we should be able to generate a more holistic practice. One therapy could learn from another, incorporating the values and best practice of the other. Thus, ‘each school possesses transformation potential for some population. Each offers an opening to a new form of life.’ However, where such pluralism ultimately leads to embrace of ‘all existing forms of therapeutic discourse’ to ‘radically expand the arena of usable meanings’ Gergen’s project is itself in danger of offering symptom rather than cure. Thus, ‘the complete therapist should not shun the discourses of romance, New Age, Marxism, Zen Buddhism, and more’. In this case, we lose one of the most important educational goals of therapy—that of positive discrimination. This is a critically reflexive outlook of the very sort that Gergen himself models where he recognizes the epistemological conundrum that social constructionism offers as a theory that considers the relative truth claims of all other theories. At what point is this cacophony of voice no longer ‘therapeutic’ discourse, but merely pick-and-mix ‘lifestyle’? For example, to what extent can New Age discourse, that as yet has no developed form of internal critique, be compared with a tradition such as Zen Buddhism, that has a healthy internal contestation of views based on a long history of reflection on practice? Gergen’s claim that shifting from a hierarchical structure (monologue to dialogue, dominant view to pluralism, individualism to collaboration) necessarily enriches our world through increasing ‘volume’ (expanding ‘the arena of usable meanings’) adds to, rather than challenges, our consumerist behaviour. First, an increase in volume (often called development) in itself may not be a good thing—tumours grow, economies inflate and obesity is typically a consequence of over-consumption. The world population problem and growth of pollution are not volume developments that we would welcome. Quantity is not a substitute for quality, where, again, the ability for positive discrimination, or critical discernment, is an outcome of therapy. Gergen’s pluralism also misses the point of how some therapies (particularly Freudian, Lacanian and Jungian psychoanalysis, some feminist approaches and systemic family therapies) claim to ‘work’ only as one is fully socialized into their worldview. The socialization is the cure, as reconstitution of identity within the ideals of the model. To borrow bits and pieces from other therapies may democratize psychotherapy on the surface but unfortunately serves to reduce the precise potency of an individual therapy’s deep structure, or informing grammar. How would Freudian approaches work without the discourse of the transference, which is impossible to apply as a ‘best practice’ to cognitive-behavioural approaches, for example? How would Jungian psychoanalysis work if one were not fully socialized into both its myths and ethos, its tradition and value structure, which is anathema to cognitive problem-solving approaches? Socialization into the method is also the basis for recruitment into the practice, as a training analysis. Where Freud described psychoanalysis as interminable, we might now describe it as ‘lifelong learning’, or ongoing socialization and identity construction, in the sense that Michel Foucault (1990) describes ‘technologies’ of aesthetic and ethical self-forming. I recognize as I write this that I may be misleading the reader into thinking that broad schools of therapy can be stereotyped as having clear-cut theory and practice agendas. This, of course, is not the case. Schools such as Freudian and Jungian psychotherapies show healthy internal debate, where socialization into a school of practice also involves socialization into differing readings of each school’s ‘founding’ texts (for example, consider the radically different readings of Freud by the orthodox Object-Relations and Lacanian schools). Where reconstructive views, such as Gergen’s, call for differing practices to learn from each other in a synthetic project, they also lose their critical power. In contrast, deconstructive views look at particular practices and ask ‘what is the fault line in the practice? What is internally inconsistent or

Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 13: 409–416 (2003)

Book reviews

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contradictory about its claims or methods? And what is both the absent or excluded voice that arises as a consequences of the claims of this practice and the ‘surplus’ that the practice will never grasp?’ Such an approach is then explicitly critical. There are occasions where Gergen does not focus on a reconstructive desire to bring different therapeutic perspectives into alignment, but recognizes what they all miss, and here his perceptions are powerful. For example, where therapies in general tend to construct mental illness through deficit terminology (mental illness always described in terms of absence of some ‘normal’ faculty), Gergen suggests, appropriately, that there could be more promising, alternative constructions. However, where ‘Effective therapy does not require ontological crisis and, indeed, is more likely to leave most of the client’s understandings intact’, from the psychoanalytic and feminist perspectives in particular, this claim does not make sense. The effect of such therapies rests precisely with enabling ontological crisis and then providing support in the context of emergent meanings and shifts in values. I would not, however, like to see Gergen’s reconstructive generosity displaced by a more mean-spirited deconstructive alternative. My main criticism is that his project misses the point that the most potent aspects of differing therapeutic perspectives arise because minds are focused through sharp contestation with other views. Collaborative consensual pluralism may well serve to dull such keen differences, where tolerance of dissension offers another, albeit rockier, road to pluralism modelled in the deconstructive post-modernism of commentators such as Lyotard.

REFERENCES
Adler, A. (1912, 1956). The neurotic character. In H. L. Ansbacher, & R. R. Ansbacher (Eds.), The individual psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Harper. Foucault, M. (1990). The care of the self. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Hillman, J. (1983). Healing fiction. New York: Station Hill. Lyotard, J.-F. (1988). The differend. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Nietzsche, F. (1956). The genealogy of morals. London: Anchor Books/Doubleday. ALAN BLEAKLEY Senior Lecturer in Medical Education Royal Cornwall Hospital Truro, UK E-mail: alan.bleakley@rcht.swest.nhs.uk Alan Bleakley is a senior lecturer in medical education, teaches in clinical psychology and has worked as a psychotherapist. He is currently researching clinical judgement in interprofessional team settings. His most recent book is The Animalizing Imagination (Macmillan, 2001). Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/casp.731

Critique and Commitment in the Therapeutic Context—A Reply to Alan Bleakley by Kenneth Gergen
I wish to express my appreciation to Alan Bleakley for his thoughtful and caring reading of my book. It is a discerning review, an achievement that seems increasingly rare in these days of discourse deluge. At the same time, two of its points are especially deserving of further dialogue. One of Bleakley’s major misgivings, particularly in my treatment of therapy as social construction, concerns my emphasis on what he sees as a ‘radical pluralism’. As I argue, constructionism

Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 13: 409–416 (2003)

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