Social Constructionism and Identity Concepts of Disabled People

This essays outlines social constructionism’s main ideas focusing on its concept of identities as socially constructed and negotiated by everyday, power-influenced social interactions. Subsequently, it is argued that social constructionism explains the complex realities of disabled people’s multiple identities and challenges the stereotypical, prevailing discourse of a unitary disabled identity.

Social constructionism is part of the growing field of constructive psychologies (e. g. Gergen, 1985, 1994, Hall, 1992, Mahoney, 1988, Sampson, 1989, von Glaserfeld, 1984, Potter & Wetherell, 1987, Burr, 2003) that explore how humans actively, fluidly and meaningfully construct their everyday life as well as their experiences and selves (Phoenix, 2007, Raskin, 2002). Social constructionism’s emphasis lies on social processes. It assumes that our knowledge is linked to the constructions we make, sustained by social processes (Burr, 2003). Hence, social contexts construct our perception of ourselves (Phoenix at Ioannou, 2007).

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Social constructionism’s hermeneutic approach (Phoenix, 2007, Gergen, 1985, 1994, Hruby, 2001) outlines that contextual, linguistic and relational social factors create identities as our “own theories of ourselves” (Phoenix, 2007, p. 47). Personal and social identity are inseparable and all identities are social (Phoenix, 2007). Different from Psychosocial Identity Theory (Erikson, 1968) or Social Identity Theory (SIT, Tafjel 1981), no stable core identity exists (Burr, 2003).

Identities are fluid, changing and unstable due to shifting social surroundings or interpersonal relations (Giddens, 1991, Phoenix & Thomas, 2007). Identities constitute resources to negotiate our everyday interactions (Widdicombe, cited in Phoenix, 2007, p. 76) and are shaped by social contexts that include relationships of power (Phoenix, 2007). Various identity positions exist from which humans actively create multiple, de-centred, provisional, dynamical, and sometimes contradictory identities (Phoenix, 2007, Burr, 2003).

There are as many realities and identities as there are cultures, historical periods, new technologies, frameworks, relationships and ways of interaction, especially language (Gergen, 1991, Phoenix 2007). Language is vital because narrative accounts and discourses – our way of thinking and talking (Phoenix, 2007) – construct identities in everyday-life (Phoenix, 2007, Burr, 2003, Bartky, 1990). Processes of distinctions in language contribute to the making and validation of reality (Phoenix, 2007, Chiari & Nuzzo, 1996, Raskin, 2002).

Moreover, language creates power-relations through discourses (Phoenix, 2007, Burr, 2003, Hall, 1992, Potter and Wetherell, 1987, Foucault, 1983, de Beauvoir, 1972). Groups of people, with similarities and differences in their identities, but who belong to the same social category, are often powerful enough to make others accept their constructs and can therefore negotiate their “reality” (e. g. masculinity, see Conell, 1995). Yet, among social categories, intragroup differences, based on different power-positions, nevertheless do exist (e. g. onflicting ethnical and political positions, Hall, 1992, or, among feminists, Bartky, 1990). In the hermeneutic tradition, social constructionists use qualitative methods to collect subjective data to explore participants’ diversities of meanings, values and experiences (DSE212 Course team, 2007). Common methods that emphasize subjectivity, interpretation and reflexivity are discourse analyses (e. g. those of Hall, 1992 or Potter ; Ewards, 1990), semi- or unstructured interviews (such as the 20-Statement-Test developed by Kuhn and MacPartland, 1954, or Kelly, 2005) or participant, unstructured observations (Banyard ; Grayson, 2000).

Critics admonish social constructionism’s over-emphasized relativity, its confusion of realities and its lack of a stable core identity (Phoenix, 2007, Burr, 2003, Matthews, 1998, Gillett cited at Raskin, 2002). However, people tend to construct a consistent identity by cohesive autobiographical narratives (Bruner, cited at Phoenix, 2007 p. 73). Furthermore, relativism is an asset allowing a more flexible view of social life (Gergen, 1994).

Social constructionism’s flexibility is crucial when dealing with multifaceted contexts such as disability, a “complex dialectic of biological, psychological and socio-political factors” (Shakespeare and Watson, 2002, p. 24). Multiple identity positions provide a comprehensive approach to explore the identities of persons with disabilities, which aren’t solely based on their impairment. Qualitative research indicates that disabled people view their own limited embodiment as just one part of their shifting identities (Begum, cited at Phoenix, 2007, p. 87, Keith, 1994, cited at Phoenix, p. 85, Swan cited at Phoenix, 2007, p. 3, Schaller, 2008, Islam, 2008, Olney and Kim, 2001, Turner, 2001).

Social constructionism’s concept of permanent identity-change from setting to setting throughout a lifetime elucidates a lifelong process, allowing disabilities to be integrated into everyday-life step by step (Sidel, 2007). People who suddenly become disabled first experience a profound consciousness of embodiment (Morris, cited at Phoenix, 2007, p. 85) and then develop a sense of continuity and meaning regarding their life-history by autobiographical narratives (Peet, 2007, Gracey, Palmer, Rous, Psaila, O’Dell, Cope, & Mohamed, 2008).

Also, those growing up stigmatised by their disability accept to embrace their otherness and learn to define themselves within a range of identities (Phoenix, 2007, Begum cited at Phoenix, 2001, p. 87, Schaller, 2008, Murphy, 1992). A qualitative research conducted with a group of “cognitive disabled,” which clarifies the importance of a subjective, explorative research-design, highlights: “Once people felt that they had permission to freely discuss the things they did well, they generated a startling array and range of special skills and gifts (…. people were able to make the connection between their ‘problem’ and these special gifts” (Onley and Kim, 2001, p. 575) Disabled people carry equally important identities such as black, woman, disabled, book-lover simultaneously (Schaller, 2008).

They also construct identities drawing on religious, sociocultural and historical differences, according to Islam’s (2008) semi-structured interviews with young Pakistani and Bangladeshi disabled people (see also Begum cited at Phoenix, 2001, p. 87). Embracing this diversity, social constructionism allows disabled people to define themselves through so-called “normal” identities.

Many of them learn to resist other people’s constructions of themselves as being abnormal by an active process of identity-construction (e. g. Keith, cited at Phoenix, 2007, p. 85, Swan, cited at Phoenix, 2007, p. 83, Rabiee, Sloper & Beresford, 2005). Furthermore, disabled people, including children, apply their “disabled identities” differently in different settings, sometimes strategically, flexibly and ironically or for their own advantage (Watson et al. 2000), which contributes to self-consciousness and normality (Islam, 2008, Schaller, 2008). However, the “slippery” (Olney and Kim, 2001, p. 65) social group of “the disabled” constitutes massive intragroup-differences (Peet, 2007, Deal, 2003). Although some findings suggest that disability represents a meaningful group membership (Phoenix, 2007, Rohmer & Louvet, 2009, Noonan, Gallor, Hensler-McGinnis, Fassinger, Wang & Goodman, 2004), a collective “disabled identity” is nonexistent (Phoenix, 2007, Taylor & Bogdan, 1991, Higgins, 1992). Contrarily, a “hierarchy of impairment” might develop, for example between wheelchair-users and blind people or those with physical impairments and people with brain-damage or learning disabilities (Peet, 2007, Olney and Kim, 2001).

Another pivotal factor is language, expressed in narratives and discourses, that creates the identity of disabled people (Keith, cited at Phoenix, 2007, p. 85, Shakespeare & Watson, 2003, Kelly, 2005, Hughes, 2007). Whereas disability’s social understanding changes, society actively negotiates disabled people’s identities (Phoenix, 2007). According to actual social paradigms and power-relations, barricades are built up and dividing practices are being used to exclude individuals who are considered “different” by socially more powerful categories (Fine & Asch, 1988, Hughes, 2007, Foucault, 1983, 1997).

This socially constructed dichotomy between “able” and “disabled” is crucial because “ability”, equal to productivity, determines the social perception of a person as fully functional, while differences diminish his/her status (Luborsky, 1994). Expressions like “disability/impairment” involve insufficiency and inferiority. Hughes (2007) exemplifies that debates about selective abortion, pre-natal screening or euthanasia even question disabled people’s right to live. Contrariwise, language constructs alternative realities, such as there is no qualitative difference between disabled people and non-disabled people, because we are all impaired” (Shakespeare and Watson, 2002, p. 27). Others define disability as a social problem caused by an exclusive society (DSE212 Course team, 2007, Hughes, 2007). Critics might argue that disabled people who claim multiple identities might be regarded as mentally ill (Phoenix, 2007) and experience further exclusion. Yet, a subjective sense of continuity through autobiographical narratives prevents such fragmentation.

Another counter-argument is that group identity exists and can be encouraging to adapt disabilities as a positive self-aspect (Phoenix, 2007, Onley and Kim, 2001, Oyserman, 2004), which supports SIT (Tajfel, 1981). However, this exclusive “minority group status” (Turner cited at Hughes, 2007, p. 675) is neither desirable nor is disability in its diversity a solid basis for togetherness (Hughes, 2007). Conclusion Social constructionism’s hermeneutic approach, focusing on the construction of multiple identities in everyday social interactions and embedded in language-based power-relations, explains the multiple identities of disabled people.

It challenges stereotypes and respects the complex social reality, especially people’s lived experience of disability. Its concept of diverse, dynamic and flexible identities overcomes disability’s social mark as “inability” by including a range of “normal” identities. That people are disabled both by their impairment and by social barriers due to power-relations stresses social constructionism’s importance as it clarifies disabled bodies’ potential and possibility. A unitary-concept would anticipate those multifaceted, equally significant identities and is therefore not only inadequate and inaccurate, but also dangerous.