Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Constructivism is a philosophical view that says all knowledge is contructed from human experience as opposed to discovered self-evident knowledge.

explanatory context

Contructivism includes perspectives ranging from from post-positivism to relativism.


Lincoln and Guba (1986) for example argue that knowledge cannot be separated from the knower and that reality cannot be 'studied in pieces' by identifying variables but must be analysed holistically. They also doubt the possibility of generalisation.

Types of Constructivism
Epistemological Constructivism is the philosophical view, as described above, that our knowledge is "constructed" in that it is contingent on convention, human perception and social experience.
Social Constructivism (or Social Constructionism) is the theory in Sociology and Learning Theory that categories of knowledge and reality are actively created by social relationships and interactions. A social construction (or social construct) is a concept or practice which may appear to be natural and obvious to those who accept it, but in reality is an invention or artifact of a particular culture or society. Ludwig Wittgenstein's later philosophy can be seen as a foundation for Social Constructivism, with its key theoretical concepts of language games embedded in forms of life.
Psychological Constructivism theorizes about and investigates how human beings create systems for meaningfully understanding their worlds and experiences. Personal Construct Psychology is a theory of personality developed by the American psychologist George Kelly in the 1950's that a person's unique psychological processes are channelled by the way he or she anticipates events.
Genetic Epistemology is a type of Constructivism established by Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980) which studies of the origins (genesis) of knowledge. It purports to show that the method by which the knowledge was obtained or created affects the validity of that knowledge. For example, our direct experience of gravity makes our knowledge of it more valid than our indirect experience of black holes. If holds that change only occurs if the subject engages with experiences from outside its worldview. The theory also attempts to explain the process of how a human being develops cognitively from birth throughout his or her life, through four primary stages of development.
Mathematical Constructivism is the view in Philosophy of Mathematics that it is necessary to find (or "construct") a mathematical object to prove that it exists. Intuitionism is a kind of Mathematical Constructivism, which maintains that the foundations of mathematics lie in the individual mathematician's intuition, thereby making mathematics into an intrinsically subjective activity.
Constructivism is also the name of a movement in 20th Century Russian art and architecture, as well as a discipline of international relations and world affairs.

analytical review

Mastin (2008) explained constructivism as follows:

Constructivism (also known as Constructionism) is a relatively recent perspective in Epistemology that views all of our knowledge as "constructed" in that it is contingent on convention, human perception and social experience. Therefore, our knowledge does not necessarily reflect any external or "transcendent" realities.

It is considered by its proponents to be an alternative to classical Rationalism and Empiricism. The constructivist point of view is both pragmatic and relativistic in nature. It opposes Positivism and Scientism in that it maintains that scientific knowledge is constructed by scientists, and not discovered from the world through strict scientific method, and it holds that there is no single valid methodology, and that other methodologies may be more appropriate for social science.

The common thread between all forms of Constructivism is that they do not focus on an ontological reality ("reality-as-it-is-in-itself", which constructivists regard as is utterly incoherent and unverifiable), but instead on constructed reality. Thus, they reject out of hand any claims to universalism, realism or objective truth, and admit that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines constructivist perspective as:

The view that schemes of perception, thought, and interactions create structures. (Bourdieu)


Tate Gallery (undated (a)) referring to art:

Constructivism was a particularly austere branch of abstract art founded by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko in Russia around 1915.

The constructivists believed art should directly reflect the modern industrial world. Vladimir Tatlin was crucially influenced by Pablo Picasso's cubist constructions (Construction 1914) which he saw in Picasso's studio in Paris in 1913. These were three-dimensional still lifes made of scrap materials. Tatlin began to make his own but they were completely abstract and made of industrial materials.

By 1921 Russian artists who followed Tatlin's ideas were calling themselves constructivists and in 1923 a manifesto was published in their magazine Lef:

The material formation of the object is to be substituted for its aesthetic combination. The object is to be treated as a whole and thus will be of no discernible 'style' but simply a product of an industrial order like a car, an aeroplane and such like. Constructivism is a purely technical mastery and organisation of materials.

Constructivism was suppressed in Russia in the 1920s but was brought to the West by Naum Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner and has been a major influence on modern sculpture.


associated issues

Constructivism and Constructionism in art:

According to the Tate Gallery (undated (b)):

Constructionism was an extension of constructivism in Britain from about 1950, with artists using naturally occurring proportional systems and rhythms to underpin their geometrical art.

Victor Pasmore, Kenneth Martin, Mary Martin and Anthony Hill are the key figures associated with the movement. They were inspired by the theories of the American artist Charles Biederman and explored the legacy of the 'constructive art' made in the 1930s by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, whose contribution to the Russian constructivism was exemplary.

Anthony Hill insisted on using the term constructionism for the British phenomenon, but constructivism is more commonly used.


Artists in the Tate Gallery collection can be looked up here (accessed 10 June 2019)

related areas

See also



Mastin, L., 2008, 'Constructivism', available at, accessed 9 March 2013, still available 1 June 2019.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 14 December 2016.

Tate Gallery, nd (a), 'Constructivism', available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

Tate Gallery, nd (b), 'Constructionism', available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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