Social Constructionist Perspective on Environmental Problems
Social constructionism originated as an attempt to come to terms with the nature of reality. It emerged over thirty years ago and has its origins rooted in sociology and has been associated with qualitative research. Social constructionism is essentially an anti-realist, relativist stance. The influence of social constructionism is a very current issue and an understanding of its core concepts is important in evaluating its impact on the methodology (Robbins, Hintz, & Moore 118). Given its current and profound influence, constructionism needs to be understood so that one can better evaluate the nature and validity of the arguments surrounding its use. The terms constructivism and social constructionism tend to be used interchangeably and assumed under the generic term ‘constructivism’. Constructivism proposes that each individual mentally constructs the world of experience through cognitive processes while social constructionism has more of a social focus rather than an individual one. It is less interested, if at all, in the cognitive processes that accompanies its knowledge (Robbins, Hintz, & Moore 119). Constructionists view truth and knowledge as created, not discovered, by the mind and support the view that being a realist is indeed consistent with being a constructionist.
One can believe that concepts are constructed rather than discovered, yet maintain that they correspond to something real in this world. This is not inconsistent with some ideas of scholars and simply those who are environmentally aware. In that reality, it is socially defined. However, this reality refers to the subjective experience of daily life and how the world is understood rather than how it is perceived to the objective reality of the natural world. Most of what is known and most of the knowing that occurs is concerned with trying to make sense of what it means to be human, as opposed to scientific knowledge. Individuals or groups of individuals define this reality. This branch of constructionism is unconcerned with questions regarding ontology or questions of causation. It is worth noting this because a lot of the criticisms of constructionism arise from ascribing claims to it made beyond this social understanding of the world we think we know (Robbins, Hintz, & Moore 119).
The main criticisms leveled against social constructionism can be summarized by its perceived conceptualization of realism and relativism. It is generally accused of being ‘anti-realist’ in denying that knowledge is a direct perception of reality. Social constructionism challenges reality and questions apparently self-evident and stable realities. If it is accepted that researchers themselves construct a social world, rather than merely representing some independent reality, then this therefore creates tension between realism and relativism. There is an increasing tendency to adopt the relativist position which leads to question the usefulness of its findings generated from studies using this method, given that the multiplicity of accounts produced can each have legitimate claims. If they all are legitimate and given the logical conclusion of relativism, then there is no reason to prefer one to the other.
That is, the conclusions of research themselves constitute just another account and cannot claim to have precedence over any other account. The relevancy of such research can then be questioned. In short, if research is not contributing to knowledge in any type of meaningful way, then its usefulness may be questioned (Robbins, Hintz, & Moore 130). Human’s ideas regarding nature and the environment in general are reflected in their actions on a daily basis. By driving a car, listening to an iPod, or even living in a house all contribute to the ideologies that suggest that humans have the right to overtake anything they desire. Sometimes humans even believe that they are improving the environment by building and constructing and changing the landscape they inhabit. The irony involved in these ideologies is that the very material resources and products that are deemed as necessities are causing the environment to decline and even deteriorate before our eyes. In the Ideology of Environmental Domination, the author describes man’s motivation in acquiring material possessions: A man does not ‘by nature’ wish to earn more and more money.”
Weber wrote, in the gendered phrasing of an earlier time, “but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.” So why do we work so hard to make more money than we need? A desire to maintain a place on the treadmills of consumption and production is part of it. But to leave the matter there does not answer the question of why we are on these treadmills to begin with. (p. 151) The author’s comparison of human consumption and capitalism to running on a treadmill illustrates the cycle that humans experience accumulating and spending and the affect it has. However, this is looking at human and environmental interaction on a very small-scale. A much more widely known problem that mankind is a part of, whether they claim to be or not, are the effects of global warming. Global warming is the gradual increase in the overall temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, generally attributed to the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and other pollutants (David, Burns, & Bender). With An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President Al Gore attempted to educate and launch a movement to end climate change associated with global warming.
He did indeed inform the public on human activities that cause global warming by guiding the audience through the science of how the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by these human activities results in the warming of the earth, impacting all facets of our lives including ocean and agriculture productivity, droughts, flooding of major cities, and storm frequency. In the film, Gore shows pictures taken fifteen to thirty years ago of glaciers that have existed for the last ten thousand years or more and compares them to pictures taken in the last year or two. It is shocking to see the rate at which the glaciers are disappearing. The film also shows the famous “snows of Kilimanjaro” in 1970. Then shows a picture from 2005 and only a tiny sliver of ice appear to be remaining (David, Burns, & Bender). The documentary describes how many new scientific studies are confirming that warmer water in the top layer of the ocean, due to global warming, is producing more powerful hurricanes.
While it is not possible to attribute any specific storm, like Katrina, to the effects of global warming, major storms spinning in both the Atlantic and the Pacific since the 1970s have increased in duration and intensity about fifty percent. Global warming has also contributed to a 20 percent increase in rain over the last 100 years. However this increase in precipitation is not uniform and some areas of the world have suffered from drought. It was striking to see the role this drought plays in the horrors now going on in Africa, which is generally written off in the imperialist press as the inevitable nightmares of “uncivilized” people that the West has no responsibility for. Famine is killing many children and putting millions of lives at risk in the Niger area. In Darfur, a horrific genocide is being carried out. While the causes leading to the genocide and famine are complex, a contributing factor to these horrific situations is changes brought on by global warming. Lake Chad, which was once the sixth largest lake in the world, has shrunk to one-twentieth of its former size, with sand dunes covering its bed.
The disappearance of the lake has led to collapsed fisheries, lack of irrigation and crop failures, and millions displaced by hunger (David, Burns, & Bender). While the climate changes produced by global warming are beginning to show themselves today in shocking ways, these are just a glimmer of the changes that scientists predict may come about due to global warming. Mass extinction of species, flooding in coastal areas due to melting polar ice, spread of infectious diseases, and the destruction of coral reefs caused by rising CO2 in the ocean’s water are all potential consequences of global warming.
References Robbins, Paul, Hintz, John, Moore, S. A. Social Construction of Nature. Environment & Society, 117-133. The Ideology of Environmental Domination. The Ideal, 149-168. Hannigan, J. A. Social Construction of Environmental Issues and Problems. Environmental Sociology, 63-78. David, L., Burns, S. Z., Bender, L. Guggenheim, D. (Director). (2006). An inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning. Hollywood: Paramount.