Entering the world of social constructionism

This post is the first in a series of posts, which I will write as I prepare a paper on the use of Foucauldian Discourse Analysis in Religious Education. I will present my paper at the International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society at the Arizona State University in March, 2013.

So, what is social constructionism and what does it have to do with Foucauldian Discourse Analysis (FDA) – and what does all this have to do with teaching Religious Education in a Catholic secondary school?

Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge. Social constructionists claim that the authority of knowledge is found in social groups or knowledge communities of people who agree on what is the truth. Arthur Warmoth (2000) has written about SC. He quotes Thomas Kuhn, who wrote: “knowledge is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all.”

Faith communities can be described as examples of SC. take, for instance, the opening verses of St Luke’s Gospel:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Lk 1:1-4)

Luke describes a knowledge community made up of “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” who handed on knowledge of God’s actions in the world through the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. He places himself in that knowledge community and shares their knowledge with his own social group of Christians in the early Church.

In one sense, it can be said that knowledge is one outcome of relationships. This idea has been developed extensively by Ken and Mary Gergen. In their very readable book on social constructionism, they write: “… as we communicate with each other we construct the world in which we live”.

This view interests me, not just because I believe it to true that we acquire knowledge through relating with others, but also because as a teacher, I am challenged to examine my assumptions about teaching and learning in the light of social constructionism. The context of my teaching provides the parameters for considering what impact of SC on teaching and learning.

I teach Religious Education to students in Years 10, 11 and 12 in a Catholic secondary school in Western Australia. In the senior years, the course is known as Religion and Life, which is an accredited course – each student’s results appear on the certificate of secondary education, which is received on the completion of Year 12. There is a body of knowledge which is shared with my students through this course. At present, this knowledge is created in the context and confines of Catholic education. These are some of the factors I will consider in the posts that follow, but first, let me deal with Foucauldian Discourse Analysis (FDA).



About patbranson

I am a secondary school teacher employed to teach at Kolbe Catholic College, in Rockingham, Western Australia.
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