* Postmodernism and Constructivism

This is an abridged version of a section of Jordan (2004) “Theory Construction in SLA”.

Postmodernism began to make itself felt in the late 1970s, and it has since come to play an increasingly important part in discussions about scientific method and how research should best be done in the field of SLA. With the best will in the world it is difficult to give a fair account of postmodernism and constructivism, since what exactly the terms mean is highly debated, even among the postmodernists and constructivists themselves.

The term “post-modern” means “after modernity”, which in turn refers to the “modern project” that began in the 17th Century and is often referred to as The Enlightenment. At the heart of the Enlightenment project was a new paradigm, namely rationalism. Rationality took over from religion as the preferred way of understanding ourselves and the world around us. Modern science claimed to be based on reason, and the spectacular results of the so-called scientific method – the industrial revolution, the harnessing of energy, modern medicine, etc. – were taken as evidence of the tremendous efficacy and power of the rationalist approach. The idea of progress was also central to the rationalist paradigm: the history of science was seen as the story of a progressive movement towards better and more complete explanations of ourselves and the world we lived in.

In the 1950s, the relativists’ argument – that ‘reality’ has no meaning apart from what is believed to be real – began to exert its influence in the new social science departments of western European and American universities. The basic argument was that if you believe something, then it is “real”, and thus scientific knowledge is not powerful because it is true; it is true because it is powerful. The question should not be “What is true?”, but rather “How did this version of what is believed to be true come to dominate in these particular social and historical circumstances?” Truth and knowledge are culturally specific.

If we accept this argument, then we have come to the end of the modern project, and we are in a “post-modern” world. As Lois Shawver , the influential postmodernist figure, puts it: “Postmodernism begins with a loss of faith in the dreams of modernism” (Shawver, 1997: 372).

Of course, this loss of faith in the modernist project did not begin in the 1970s. Many would go back at least as far as Nietszche, who, with his famous statement “God is dead”, urged his contemporaries to scorn Christianity and its “slave morality”. With his insistence on individual will and heroism, his loathing of the democratic ideals of the French revolution, and his rejection of both the rationalists and the empiricists (he vilified both Spinoza and Mill, among many others, – see Russell 1961: 728-739), Nietszche seems to have served as an inspiration for many who were disenchanted with the “lost dream” of modernism.

And Shawver’s reference to “a new language game” must certainly hark back, wittingly or not, to the work of Wittgenstein. While Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, originally published in English in 1922, was much admired by Russell in particular, and by the Vienna school in general (see Pears, 1971:11-21), since it was an attempt to define the logical limits of language, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953) represented a dramatic change in his thinking, a change which many postmodernists see as giving credence and support to their own rejection of “modernist” thinking and their adoption of the “game” metaphor.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein argued that just as the world is composed of complex facts that can be analysed into simple facts, so language is composed of complex propositions that can be reduced to simple propositions. Wittgenstein suggested that elementary propositions picture atomic facts, and that only propositions that picture facts are meaningful. Thus metaphysics and ethics are meaningless.

In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein abandoned any attempt to accurately and uniquely associate words with their meanings and suggested instead that we should look at linguistic usage, and try to discover the functions that linguistic expressions served. Not all propositions “picture” facts; some are used to ridicule, others to apologise, others to question, and so on. According to this view, language use can be seen as a language game, with different types of groups playing different language games. Scientists, concerned with observable data and causal explanations, are playing a different language game to theologians concerned with describing sin. And, of course, whether or not a proposition is meaningful depends on its context, that is, meaning depends on the rules of the game of which that proposition is a part (see Passmore, 1968: 343-466).

Wittgenstein battled with very complex problems of logic and semantics; the summary above is hugely simplistic. It seems to me that Wittgenstein’s later work is a comment on the sterility of the logical positivists’ programme, but in any case, if my summary is of any use at all, it is to indicate one of the important sources of the now very popular idea of language games.

To return to the postmodernists, Ashley (1997) explains them this way:

“Modern, overloaded individuals, desperately trying to maintain rootedness and integrity…ultimately are pushed to the point where there is little reason not to believe that all value-orientations are equally well-founded. Therefore, increasingly, choice becomes meaningless. According to Baudrillard (1984: 38-9), we must now come to terms with the second revolution, “that of the Twentieth Century, of postmodernity, which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning equal to the earlier destruction of appearances. Whoever lives by meaning dies by meaning.” (Ashley 1997: 2)

Post-modernism, then, entails the belief that the modern project has failed, and that we should reject, among other things, its methodology. It is an extremely eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, and as already noted, there is an enormous variety of opinions within the camp. For some (Derrida, 1981, Culler, 1982, Rosenau, 1992) postmodernism is already upon us, for others (Shawver, 1997, Brinner, 1999) it is a way of thinking that is so new that it will take at least two more generations to take hold. There is often the suggestion that, since postmodernism is attempting such a radical rejection of “modernism”, it is not surprising that so many people find it difficult to make sense of the writings of its main protagonists. They are, it is claimed, still trying to work out their terms, still sorting out their new language, still basically talking to each other – which makes it rather hard for the profane! In any case, some key ideas which postmodernist theories include are:

• the decline of any absolute truths – the deliberate creation of relativity
• the lack of purpose and direction in historical change
• the fragmentation and division of all academic subjects into a variety of perspectives – with no ‘answers’, no agreement, no paradigm. (see Appignanesi and Garratt, 1995: 13-67)

According to Rosenau, postmodernists have been divided into two camps, Sceptics and Affirmatives. Sceptical Postmodernists are extremely critical of the modern subject. They consider the subject to be a “linguistic convention” (Rosenau, 1992: 43). They think that “modernists” use time to measure and control people, and they reject “Theory”, adopting Rosenau’s position that “Theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates, it is alienated, disparated, dissonant, it means to exclude, order, and control rival powers. (Rosenau, 1992: 81)

While Affirmative Postmodernists also reject Theory by denying claims of truth, they think that Theory needs not to be abolished but rather transformed. Affirmative Postmodernists are somewhat less extreme and rigid than the Sceptics, and are associated with movements organised around peace, the environment, and feminism.


Let us now examine two of the leading figures of postmodernism, starting with Derrida. The concern with the interpretation of texts is central to postmodernists, and the key idea of “deconstructing” texts is a term that is most closely associated with Derrida.

Deconstruction emphasises negative critical capacity. Deconstruction involves demystifying a text to reveal internal arbitrary hierarchies and presuppositions. By examining the margins of a text, the effort of deconstruction examines what it represses, what it does not say, and its incongruities. It does not solely unmask error, but redefines the text by undoing and reversing polar opposites. Deconstruction does not resolve inconsistencies, but rather exposes hierarchies involved for the distillation of information. (Rosenau, 1992: 134)

Derrida’s famous saying “There is nothing beyond the text.” (sometimes translated as “There is nothing outside the text.”) has become an icon of postmodernism, and his theory of “deconstruction” is at the heart of postmodernist thought. According to Stanford University’s Presidential Lectures web page (http://prelectur.stanford.edu/ lecturers/derrida/), Derrida’s work has been the subject of more than four hundred books and five hundred dissertations. In the 1960s Derrida published a series of articles in Tel Quel, a French magazine dedicated to left-wing avant-garde theory, where other important figures in the post-modernist and constructivist movement, such as Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Kristeva were also featured. Since then he has published books and articles which cover literary criticism, psychology and philosophy, he has made many appearances at US, Australian and British universities, and the legions of his followers continue to grow.

Deconstruction is, typically, very difficult to define. My own understanding of the term is that it is a method of enquiry, and more specifically, a set of methods for analysing texts. The aim is to undermine “logocentrism”, by which is meant the concern with truth, rationality, logic and “the word”, the hallmarks of the Western philosophical tradition. I should say immediately that Derrida specifically denies that deconstruction can be reduced to a method, but nevertheless, that is what it seems to be to me. One of Derrida’s most faithful and influential followers, Jonathan Culler, says this:

To deconstruct a discourse is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies, by identifying in the text the rhetorical operations on which it relies, by identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed ground of argument, the key concept or premise. (Culler, 1982: 86)

The most important strategy for deconstructing a text is to identify binary hierarchical “oppositions” like speech/writing, male/female, truth/fiction, signified/signifier, reality/appearance. In such binary oppositions, Derrida claims, the first or left-hand term is given a superior status over the right-hand term, which is regarded by the logocentric as a negation of the first. Derrida suggests that we reverse the hierarchy – so that speech becomes a form of writing, understanding a form of misunderstanding, appearance a form of reality, etc. Derrida is well known for his assertion that writing is prior to speech, that speech is really a form of writing. Derrida argues that writing has been “repressed”, and he suggests that the “privileging” of oral speech at the expense of writing is the “fundamental operation” of logocentricism. It is the job of the post-modernist to reveal such operations.

A second strategy is to uncover those key words, motifs and characters in a text that reveal its hidden agenda. Certain key words can be seen as belonging to oppositions (referred to above) that are essential to the text, but they can also be used by the alert postmodernist to subvert the text. Derrida gives the example of Rousseau’s use of the word “supplement”. In different texts Rousseau uses the word with reference to writing, and with reference to sex: writing, Rousseau says, is a supplement to speech, and masturbation is a supplement to sex. Derrida concludes “within the chain of supplements it was difficult to separate writing from onanism.” (Derrida 1976: 165)

If the central arguments in a text can be identified by “oppositions” and key words, then it is by scrutinising the rest of the text, looking at marginal features, paying attention to such things as the kind of metaphors used, that one finds important clues as to what is important.

These strategies, combined with a general questioning of any items that are claimed to be original, natural, or self-evident, and a general eye for the “instabilities” within a text, allow the perceptive postmodernist reader to rip away the veils that hide the real meaning of texts, which is, if I understand the argument correctly, that they have no meaning other than that which is attributed to them by those that engage them. Deconstructing texts consists of re-interpreting them, so as to move beyond the restrictions of a logocentric view. There is very often a “savant” quality to Derrida’s writing, as there is in that of many postmodernists: they give the impression of having dealt a definitive blow to ignorance and finally seen the light. They are full of insights; they can turn their hands to literary and art criticism, sociology, psychology, philosophy, science, and, whatever the field, by adopting a radically critical approach so as to discover the variable wonders of complex ontology which lie outside the confines of the blinkers of rationality, they see through, behind, and beyond the limitations of the mainstream western intellectual tradition.

Derrida’s declared objective is to undermine the Western concept of rationality and all the presuppositions that underlie our ideas of science, common sense, reality, etc. This is obviously a very politically-influenced objective, and in general the postmodernists are clearly associated with left-wing politics, although, of course, they would claim to have gone beyond such a clearly logocentric polarity as left and right. While Derrida began as a literary critic, he is now equally, if not more, influential as a philosopher and his ideas have since been adopted by the new relativists in many academic departments, including those of the philosophy of science, sociology, anthropology, and of course, some branches of linguistics.

Another way to see Derrida is as a successor to the structuralists. It was, after all, Levi-Strauss (1978) who saw the basic structures of myth as binary oppositions, pairs of ideas that gave each other value, like male/female, culture/nature, universal/specific, mind/body, and that were, by definition, always separate. Derrida suggested that structuralism had stopped too soon, and that we had to take the extra step of destroying these binary oppositions whose function is to lock us inside the confines of a particular myth – rationality being the dominant Public Enemy Number One. Thus we must look for these binary pairs of oppositions and then look for examples where the division between them breaks down. In a broader context, structuralism sees all philosophical systems in terms of the features they share, and in terms of the historical circumstances that produced them. Structuralism also identifies a central element in different philosophical systems: from the early Christian era until the eighteenth century God was at the centre, the Enlightenment replaced God with rational thought, and in the 1960s, rationality was, so the argument runs, replaced by irrationality or desire. In 1966 Derrida published Structure, Sign, and Play and deconstructed the idea of a centre: there is no centre, no God, no rationality, no desire, there is only the text.

Derrida thinks that scientific texts should be treated like any others, and that it is important to reject the special privileged status of scientific discourse. Not surprisingly, then, he also thinks that literary scholars trained in deconstruction are capable of a more profound understanding of scientific texts than scientists themselves, an understanding that uncovers the “real” meaning and the unconscious intentions of the writers. At the same time, Derrida, like many postmodernists, claims to be quite familiar with science, and is not averse to using some of its findings to support his own point of view. For example, Derrida is one of many postmodernists who claim that Godel’s proof supports their claims that “language is indeterminate”. Gross and Levitt give another example of Derrida’s pronouncements on scientific matters:

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, not a center. It is the very concept of variability – it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of some thing – of a center from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game. (Derrida, 1981, cited in Gross and Levitt, 1998: 79)

Gross and Levitt comment: “The “Einsteinian constant” is, of course c, the speed of light in vacuo, roughly 300 million meters per second. Physicists, we can say with confidence, are not likely to be impressed by such verbiage, and are hardly apt to revise their thinking about the constancy of c” (Gross and Levitt, 1998: 79).



Let us now move on to Foucault, another key figure in the postmodernist movement, often credited with having invented the term. Although, in keeping with the postmodern tradition, Foucault denied that he was a structuralist, he shared many of the structuralist concerns. A typical example of this structuralist approach is seen in this statement:

“The analysis of statements is a historical analysis, but one that avoids all interpretations: it does not question things said as to what they are hiding, what they were “really” saying in spite of themselves, the unspoken element they contain, … but, on the contrary, it questions them as to the mode of existence, what it means for them to have appeared when and where they did – they and no others” Foucault, 1980: 109).

This is in many ways the exact antithesis of Derrida: Foucault saw himself as an archaeologist and often criticised those who claimed to be re-interpreting texts. While sharing much of Derrida’s epistemological relativism, Foucault is, in my opinion., an altogether more approachable and interesting thinker. Foucault attacked the idea of subjectivity, and preferred to regard the basic ideas that people normally take to be permanent truths about human nature and society as changing myths influenced by social factors in the course of history. According to Foucault we understand society and ourselves by investigating the rules governing the construction of these myths, and the way claims about the truth and falsity of myths, their status, change. Foucault suggests that we should investigate how people’s everyday practices enable them to define themselves and to systematise knowledge; how they use concepts of nature, human agency or God to explain things. What is so characteristic of this approach is that the various types of explanations are never judged in terms of their correspondence to the facts; they are simply different ways of talking about the world that have their own advantages and disadvantages. Foucault rejected any talk of human nature, he even rejected cultural anthropology since, in his opinion, this was just another product of Western Being, as reconstituted around 1789.

For Foucault, the revolution that took place in France in 1789 is a crucial turning point in our history because it introduced the political mentality of totalization that led to a new conceptualisation of science and the emergence of a new historical mode of Being. This idea of Being owes much to the work of Heidegger. Heidegger’s philosophy of “phenomenological existentialism” attempted to describe (not explain) the structure of human consciousness, which, Heidegger argued, only comes into existence as experience is generated. Heidegger claimed that modern man’s experience is “totally” bound up with technology: the “technologization” of man’s experience, including his experience of himself and other people, is total. Technology is a “total” world for modern man because he has turned his back on God, and without any recognition of, or dependence on, God, there is nothing outside technology. Foucault argued that in the era of the French revolution, Western man’s world became transformed, so that man became the object of scientific study and technological manipulation, in turn treating himself and others as objects.

Foucault is particularly well known for his investigation of patterns of power within a society and the ways in which power relates to the self. Foucault argues that Western society has developed a new kind of power which he calls bio-power (Foucault, 1980), that is, a new system of control that traditional concepts of authority are unable to understand and criticise. Foucault sees his task as uncovering the real nature of these power relationships, avoiding all the trappings, and indeed the traps, of modern science, its labels, and its methods.

Thus, Foucault’s critique is at base political and his agenda is also political. Any attempt to bring down the modern project must reject its paradigm, including its de-humanising scientific paradigm based on rationalism. Once again we see the familiar argument that theories of physics, society and the individual are no more than historically-determined myths, and, once again, we see the attempt to avoid the discredited language and ideology of modernism, and to forge new constructs and approaches.

Perhaps Pennycook is the most striking example of the influence of Foucault in applied linguistics. Pennycook takes a very socio-political view of developments in his field, which extends to his view of research and theory-building in SLA In one article (1989) Pennycook examines Krashen’s theories (see below) and argues that while the Natural Approach is a reaction to structuralism, it nevertheless reflects the “positivist”, “scientific” underpinnings which language teachers should challenge. According to Pennycook, although Krashen’s and Terrell’s method initially helped liberate teachers from the old methods and encouraged them to share authority with their students, it now represents the status quo, it legitimises the power and authority of an elite, and should consequently be submitted to critical analysis so that its biases are revealed. In a reply to a comment on his article (1991) Pennycook says that his attempt to “deconstruct the applied linguistics canon” has a number of aims. Having listed three of these aims, Pennycook continues:

Fourth, I want to ask with respect to applied linguistics a question similar to Foucault’s (1980) “What types of knowledge do you want to disqualify in the very instant of your demand ‘Is it science?’(p. 85); finally, and following from this last question, I want to explore the possibilities of Foucault’s phrase “the insurrection of subjugated knowledges” (p. 81) and thus to look not only at the construction of applied linguistics as a scientist discourse but also at what knowledges have been left out, submerged, and what, therefore, a new, broader, and more open applied linguistics might look like. (Pennycook, 1991: 749-750)

It is interesting that Pennycook uses the word “positivist” to typify a “scientific” approach. I have already explained why I think that this is a gross misrepresentation of a scientific approach), but nevertheless, it is clear that, like Markee (1993), Lantolf (1996), Block (1996) and others in the field, Pennycook wants to challenge what he sees as a restrictive paradigm and to encourage a wider, more pluralistic approach. My point in mentioning Pennycook is to illustrate the influence of Foucault, but I nevertheless endorse Pennycook’s concerns, which properly separate political issues from methodological ones. I completely agree with Pennycook that it behoves us all to challenge orthodoxy and to broaden our particular field of enquiry. The important proviso being, of course, to establish ground rules for how, once an area of investigation has been defined, that investigation is carried out and evaluated.


Returning to the main narrative (!) a few more short quotations from or about some of the leading figures of the postmodernist movement might do more than further exposition to help convey their particular point of view.

• Postmodern would be that which in the modern invokes the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which refuses the consolation of correct forms, refuses the consensus of taste permitting a common experience of nostalgia for the impossible, and inquires into new presentations–not to take pleasure in them, but to better produce the feeling that there is something unpresentable. (Lyotard, 1984: 76)

• Everything has already happened….nothing new can occur. There is no real world. (Baudrillard, cited in Rosenau, 1992: 64)

• Derrida tries to problematize the grounds of reason, truth, and knowledge…he questions the highest point by demanding reasoning for reasoning itself. (Norris 1990: 199)

• Foucault’s study of power and its shifting patterns is a fundamental concept of postmodernism. Foucault is considered a post-modern theorist because his work upsets the conventional understanding of history as a chronology of inevitable facts and replaces it with underlayers of suppressed and unconscious knowledge in and throughout history. These underlayers are the codes and assumptions of order, the structures of exclusion that legitimate the epistemes, by which societies achieve identities. (Appignanesi, 1995: 45)

• Post-modern methodology is post-positivist or anti-positivist. As substitutes for the scientific method the affirmatives look to feelings and personal experience…..the sceptical post modernists look for substitutes for method because they argue we can never really know anything. (Rosenau 1993: 117)

• Postmodern interpretation is introspective and anti-objectivist which is a form of individualized understanding. It is more a vision than data observation. (Rosenau 1993: 119)

• There is no final meaning for any particular sign, no notion of unitary sense of text, no interpretation can be regarded as superior to any other. (Latour 1988: 182).



Constructivism can claim a long and prestigious heritage: Dewey, Piaget, Bruner, and, perhaps most importantly today, Vygotsky, are all taken to endorse the constructivist cause. While the influence of postmodernism and constructivism on the field of applied linguistics in general and SLA research in particular are hard to separate, one can easily appreciate how much more strongly the latter impinges on theories of learning. Constructivist learning is based on students’ active participation in problem-solving and critical thinking regarding a learning activity which they find relevant and engaging. They are “constructing” their own knowledge by testing ideas and approaches based on their prior knowledge and experience, applying these to a new situation, and integrating the new knowledge gained with pre-existing intellectual constructs” (Brinner, 1999: 1).

There is nothing particularly worrying about that, one might well think, and indeed I would not challenge the considerable contribution that such a humanistic, liberal, approach to education has made in the past. It is when we come to the epistemological underpinnings of modern constructivist thinkers that we are back in radically relativist territory. Again, it is difficult to generalise, but the modern constructivists, or at least, some of them, adopt a rather more traditional style of academic writing and seem to be more interested in talking to those who take a realist view of things than some of the postmodernists. Once again, there is an enormous range of views about what constructivism is, and what the implications of a constructivist approach are, among the constructivists themselves.

One thing constructivists seem to have in common is their total opposition to the idea of objective truth. Denzin and Lincoln (1998) explain:

“Constructivists are deeply committed to the view that what we take to be objective knowledge and truth is the result of perspective. Knowledge and truth are created, not discovered by mind. They emphasise the pluralistic and plastic character of reality – pluralistic in the sense that reality is expressible in a variety of symbol and language systems; plastic in the sense that reality is stretched and shaped to fit purposeful acts of intentional human agents. They endorse the view that “contrary to common sense, there is no unique “real world” that pre-exists and is independent of human mental activity and human symbolic language.” (Bruner, 1986) In place of a realist view of theories and knowledge, constructivists emphasise the instrumental and practical function of theory construction and knowing” (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998: 7).

Lincoln and Guba (1985) have proposed a “Constructivist paradigm” as a replacement for what they label the “conventional, scientific, or positivist paradigm of enquiry”. Their constructivist philosophy is idealist (they assume that “what is real is a construction in the minds of individuals”), pluralist and relativist: “There are multiple, often conflicting, constructions and all (at least potentially) are meaningful. The question of which or whether constructions are true is sociohistorically relative” (Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 85).
Lincoln and Guba assume that the observer cannot (should not) be neatly disentangled from the observed in the activity of inquiring into constructions. Constructions in turn are resident in the minds of individuals: “They do not exist outside of the persons who created and hold them; they are not part of some “objective” world that exists apart from their constructors” (Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 143).

Thus constructivism is based on the principle of interaction. ·The results of an enquiry are always shaped by the interaction of inquirer and inquired into which renders the distinction between ontology and epistemology obsolete: what can be known and the individual who comes to know it are fused into a coherent whole” (Guba: 1990: 19).

Brinner (1999) develops her idea of constructivism from an educational perspective. She says that constructivists reject the realist view of epistemology because it sees knowledge as a passive reflection of the external, objective reality and implies a process of “instruction”: the subject receives information from the environment, it is “instructed”. She continues: “The naive view is that our senses work like a camera that just projects an image of how the world “really” is onto our brain, and use that image as a kind of map, an encoding in a slightly different format of the objective structure “out there”. Such a view runs quickly into a host of conceptual problems, mainly because it ignores the infinite complexity of the world. Moreover, detailed observation reveals that in all practical cases, cognition does not work like that. It rather turns out that the subject is actively generating plenty of potential models, and that the role of the outside world is merely limited to reinforcing some of these models while eliminating others (selection).

Since Constructivism rejects any direct verification of knowledge by comparing the constructed model with the outside world, its most important issue is how the subject can choose between different constructions to select the “right one”. Without such a selection criterion, Constructivism would lapse into absolute relativism: the assumption that any model is as adequate as any other. The two most often used criteria are coherence, agreement between the different cognitive patterns within an individual’s brain, and consensus, agreement between the different cognitive patterns of different individuals. The latter position leads to “social Constructivism”, which sees knowledge solely as the product of social processes of communication and negotiation (the “social construction of reality”).

We reject these positions are unduly restrictive, and take a much more pragmatic stance, where we note that the adequacy of knowledge depends on many different criteria, none of which has an absolute priority over the others. People can very well use incoherent models, over which there is no agreement with others, but which still are valuable for adaptation to a complex world. These criteria will include at least subjective coherence, intersubjective consensus, and (indirect) comparison with the “objective” environment” Brinner 1999: 2).

At least here, Brinner acknowledges that the central issue raised by such a relativist methodology is how one chooses between rival constructions. Her answer, unfortunately, does not take things very far, although by saying that she does not accept the position of social constructivism she indicates the breadth of views within the camp.

Lincoln has this to say:

“Although all constructions must be considered meaningful, some are rightly labelled “malconstruction” because they are incomplete, simplistic, uninformed, internally inconsistent, or derived by an inadequate methodology. The judgement of whether a given construction is malformed can only be made with reference to the paradigm out of which the construction operates; in other words, criteria or standards are framework-specific, so, for instance, a religious construction can only be judged adequate or inadequate utilizing the particular theological paradigm from which it is derived” (Lincoln, 1990: 144).

There is in constructivism, as in postmodernism, an obvious attempt to throw off the paradigmatic blinkers of modernist rationality, in order to grasp a more complex, subjective reality. Perhaps it has led to new insights into human imagination, perhaps poetry or novels or works of art have been created under its influence, almost certainly constructivists feel they know something that those adhering to a rationalist epistemology do not. Nevertheless, I confess that I can find nothing in constructivist writings to persuade me that it is a fruitful attitude to adopt as far as constructing a theory of SLA is concerned; the constructivists’ attempts at developing a coherent epistemology strike me as hopelessly muddled.


What is to be made of the postmodernists and constructivists? To the extent that, like Feyerabend, they are making a political point, one may sympathise. In many ways the modern project has indeed failed. There is a great deal of injustice in the world, and there are good grounds for thinking that a ruling minority who benefit from the way economic activity is organised are responsible for manipulating information in general, and research programmes in particular, in extremely sophisticated ways, so as to bolster and increase their power and control. To the extent that postmodernists and constructivists feel that science and its discourse are riddled with a repressive ideology, and to the extent that they feel it necessary to develop their own language and discourse to combat that ideology, they are making a political statement, as they are when they say that “Theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates, it is alienated, disparated, dissonant, it means to exclude, order, and control rival powers” (Culler, 1982: 67). They have every right to express such views, and it is surely a good idea to encourage people to scrutinise texts, to try to uncover their “hidden agendas”. Likewise the constructivist educational programme can be welcomed as an attempt to follow the tradition of humanistic liberal education.

Where the postmodernists are mistaken is in their assumption that their political analysis has necessary implications for the veracity or otherwise of any particular theory. And where they seem to fail miserably is in the alternative they offer to a rationalist research programme. When one adopts a radical version of post-modernism, when one looks at the world from Derrida’s perspective, what are the results for theory construction? What are the results of all this analysis? No causal explanations, or theories, are allowed, it seems. All attempts to explain, refute, establish, confirm, etc., must be deconstructed and exposed as the logocentric-serving myths that they are; the task is to undermine, and overcome not just science but language and common sense. To what end? Culler, a committed postmodernist, claims that “The effect of deconstructive analyses, as numerous readers can attest, is one of knowledge and feelings of mastery” (Culler, 1992, cited in Searle 1993: 179). Searle comments: “The trouble with this claim is that it requires us to have some way of distinguishing genuine knowledge from its counterfeits, and justified feelings of mastery from mere enthusiasms generated by a lot of pretentious verbosity” (Searle, 1993: 179).

In short, if I may play the game for a moment, constructivism does not seem very constructive.

The constructivists obviously have a point when they say (not that they said it first) that science is a social construct. Science is certainly a social institution, and, as has already been indicated, scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced. And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction. Of course. But, and here is the crux, this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it. Popper, in reply to criticisms of his naïve falsification position, defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual short-comings of its members are largely cancelled out.

As Bunge (1996) points out “The only genuine social constructions are the exceedingly uncommon scientific forgeries committed by a team.” (Bunge, 1996: 104) Bunge gives the example of the Piltdown man that was “discovered” by two pranksters in 1912, authenticated by many experts, and unmasked as a fake in 1950. According to the existence criterion of constructivism-relativism we should admit that the Piltdown man did exist – at least between 1912 and 1950 – just because the scientific community believed in it.

And here, perhaps, is the heart of the confusion for all those who take a radically relativist position, whether they be proponents of the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge, social constructivists, or postmodernists: the deliberate confusion of two separate issues: claims about the existence or non-existence of particular things, facts and events, and claims about how one arrives at beliefs and opinions. Whether or not the Piltdown man is a million years old is a question of fact. What the scientific community thought about the skull it examined in 1912 is also a question of fact. When we ask what led that community to believe in the hoax, we are looking for an explanation of a social phenomena, and that is a separate issue. Just because for forty years the Piltdown man was supposed to be a million years old does not make him so, however interesting the fact that so many people believed it might be.

As Paul Boghossian points out, the class of things that can be labelled social constructions is enormous: nation states, the dollar, university education and the BBC are random examples. Anything that could not have existed without societies actually defines the class, and likewise, anything that actually does or did exist independently of societies cannot be a social construction, dinosaurs, giraffes and proteins are examples. “How could they have been socially constructed, if they existed before societies did?” (Boghossian, 2001: 7) Yet it is precisely this obvious distinction that is ignored in many of the constructivist texts, which claim that our beliefs are all we have, and that there is nothing “out there” that exists independently of them. Latour and Woolgar’s study (1979) referred to above is a good example. While it might very well be the case that we believe that dinosaurs existed, and that DNA exists today, because the scientists tell us so, it remains, for those of us who want to take a realist, rationalist view of the world at least, an independent question of fact as to whether or not such things exist, i.e. whether or not our beliefs are true or false.

When one examines the constructivist methodology as outlined above, there are many suggestions that seem perfectly acceptable. When Guba and Lincoln say “There are multiple, often conflicting, constructions and all (at least potentially) are meaningful. The question of which or whether constructions are true is sociohistorically relative.”, this is a perfectly acceptable comment, as far as it goes. If Guba and Lincoln argue that the observer cannot be neatly disentangled from the observed in the activity of inquiry, then again the point can be well taken. But when they insist that constructions are exclusively in the minds of individuals, that “they do not exist outside of the persons who created and hold them; they are not part of some “objective” world that exists apart from their constructors”, and that “what can be known and the individual who comes to know it are fused into a coherent whole”, then they have disappeared into a Humpty Dumpty world where anything can mean whatever anybody wants it to mean.

It is when constructivists and postmodernists insist on a radically relativist epistemology, when they rule out the possibility of data collection, of empirical tests, of any rational criterion for judging between rival explanations that I believe those of us interested in doing research and building theories should part company with them. Solipsism and science, like solipsism and anything else of course, do not go well together. If postmodernists reject any understanding of time because “the modern understanding of time controls and measures individuals”, if they argue that no theory is more correct than any other, if they believe that “everything has already happened”, that “there is no real world”, that “we can never really know anything” (see Section 3.3.3. above), then I think they should continue their “game”, as they call it, in their own way, and let those of us who prefer to work with more rationalist assumptions get on with scientific research.

There is also the question of what seems to me to be a deliberate attempt by some postmodernists to make their arguments obscure and difficult to follow. There is, I suggest, a lot of similarity here with the publications of the Vienna Circle: most people thought it was extremely difficult to understand the writings of the Vienna Circle, and this finds an echo today in the difficulty many experience when confronting the texts of those who adopt a post-modernist approach.

Those without a sound mathematical training (and indeed, many with such a training, too) who have attempted to read any of the Vienna Circle’s work are usually struck by the enormous difficulty of following the arguments. Russell and Whitehead claimed that there were fewer than ten people in the world capable of understanding Principia Matematica, Carnap is almost as taxing, and those unfortunate students of Wittgenstein who are unwise enough to try and articulate the master’s thoughts end up talking as enigmatically as the man himself. (4) The question is, are the texts difficult because of the nature of the subject, or because the language is deliberately obscure and more complicated than necessary?

Sokal and Bricmont, whose book attempts, in their words, to “unmask” the postmodernist writings of Lacan, Irigaray and others, suggest some criteria for distinguishing between these two types of difficulty. The crucial criterion is this one: “When the difficulty is genuine, it is usually possible to explain in simple terms, at some rudimentary level, what phenomena the theory is examining, what are its main results and what are the strongest arguments in its favour. By contrast, some obscure discourses give the impression that the reader is being asked to make a qualitative jump, or to undergo an experience similar to a revelation, in order to understand them. Again, one cannot help being reminded of the emperor’s new clothes” (Sokal and Bricmont, 1998: 177).

Godel’s theorem is, I am told, an enormously elegant argument, but the original is far too technical, too difficult, for me to follow. Thanks, however, to Nagel and Newman’s extraordinarily clear account of the theorem in their short, lucid book (1958), I can appreciate the argument, and its importance. Thus, Godel’s Proof is genuinely difficult, and Nagel and Newman have managed to help a wider audience appreciate the main arguments. On the other hand, the writings of Derrida, Lyotard, and other postmodernists, are extremely difficult to read, and attempts to make them more accessible have largely failed. There are, of course, a plethora of introductory texts, but these are usually disowned, in true postmodernist style, by the original authors. Perhaps the authors feel that to be understood is to betray the cause. There is also the more mundane matter of wanting to sound profound. Either way, my feeling is that many postmodernist texts are difficult because the writer deliberately makes them obscure and because, as Sokal and Bricmont (1998: 177) put it, “the reader is asked to make a qualitative jump” – leaving his reason behind.

I would stress the broadness of the rationalist definition of research and theory construction; the relativists often seem unaware of what science, and rational enquiry in general, involves. It seems necessary to point out that science is not the same as positivism, or empiricism, it does not exclude certain types of relativism, it does not prescribe any fixed methodology.

For references, see the Suggested Readings page in this website under SLA.

15 thoughts on “* Postmodernism and Constructivism

  1. Hi again Geoff – this is a really, really interesting read. From my point of view (not a fan of Postmodernism or radical deconstruction, definitely a fan of Popper) having ‘faith’ in rationalism, the scientific method and the concept of objective reality convinces me that postmodernism is not simply misguided, but in many cases actively harmful to social/cultural cohesion. It is after all essentially a large group of solipsists who devote their entire intellectual energies to destroying (or deconstructing) ideas and systems that others built, while making no attempt to replace it with anything better – or with anything at all. In that sense, I think of them as an example of pathology – they take the regular human characteristic that most healthy adults have of scepticism towards the powerful, and then grotesquely exaggerate it’s importance to the exclusion of all other viewpoints – long past the point where it serves any purpose at all. And I would argue that the main motivation is simple envy/egotism – since the Enlightenment, secular society has less and less respect for poets, intellectuals and mystics babbling incomprehensible catechisms – which is what these guys would have been in previous centuries. Stripped of their power and station in society, they respond by devoting themselves to ‘deconstructing’ everything – kind of like the kid who smashes up all the other kids’ toys, because he’s not allowed to play with the best one. For all their scepticism of objective reality, the truth is that they reject it not because it doesn’t exist – it’s self-evident existence is the foundation of our entire consciousness – but because it stubbornly and steadfastly can’t be whipped into the shape they feel they should be able to whip it into, with their massive intellects – a shape which would leave them at the top of the pile. Science is a particular target, precisely because, as you point out – it’s really, really difficult to do – and more importantly, really, really successful at meeting many of the needs of ordinary people – in a way that ‘intellectuals’, poets and mystics have never been able to. Apologies if this comes across a bit ranty – I don’t get many chances to think about or discuss this stuff in daily life.


  2. Hi Dan,
    Nice rant 🙂 Please don’t apologise, I enjoyed reading it and I’m sure others will.

    While I can get very hot under the collar about what seems to motivate some of the stars in the post-modernist camp, and while I’ve often stooped to personal attacks, I think we should try to attack their ideas not them as people – idiots though many of them undoubtedly are. Woops! Seriously, what particular upsets me about their writing is the preposterous, obscurantist style which characterises so much of it, and, like you I think, what most upsets me about their arguments is the ignorance of the history of science that they reveal.

    Have a good day, Dan.


    1. Hi, its a great article. Is there a difference between social constructivism and post modernism? I’m a student and I was trying to figure out the difference between them both. And there seems to be no good sources comparing them. Thanks!


      1. Hi Matt,

        I recommend Ian Hacking’s 2001 book “The Social Construction of What?” which I have open in front of me as I write this. He says early on “don’t first define, ask for the point” and he says that one dominant point of Social constructivism (SC) is to raise consciousness; by stressing that our experience of the world is best seen as socially constructed.

        I suppose SC is an approach while post modernism is a movement, but they’re united in their rejection of “positivism” and their embrace of relativism.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t properly express how grateful I am for this piece, which is among the clearest, most succinct and most illuminating explanations I have read of the nature of post-modernism and the claims that post-modernists make about the nature of reality. I spent much of the the last year engaged in a detailed study of modernism and post-modernism, from Descartes to the present day. Although I am not, myself, an academic philosopher, I am the son of two of them. My father, Hilary Putnam (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilary_Putnam) , was a dominant figure in many areas of 20th century American philosophy, including philosophy philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics. He also made significant contributions to applied mathematics, computer science. My mother, Ruth Anna Putnam (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Anna_Putnam), who is still alive and is a German-Jewish survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, spent the bulk of her career as an academic philosopher working on ethical issue and, in later years, Jewish philosophy. Both of my parents began their study of philosophy as students of Carnap, who you mention in your essay (and who I do not think was guilty of being deliberately obscure, as Derrida others may have been).

    A primary motivation for my studies this past year has been my ever-present awareness that the time when I can still discuss issues like post-modernism, objective reality and cultural bias with mother is limited, as she 89 years old and frail. As I expected, my readings thus far have led to many lively and informative conversations and I fully expect that your piece will add further depth and clarity to these conversations.

    Personally, my own investigations in the field of machine learning (I am a computer science professional) lead me to believe that what we have already proven with mathematics and computer science refutes the claim that theories (models) and “knowledge” are social constructs. Software-based AI systems, including feed-forward neural networks, Hidden Markov Models and Bayesian anomaly detection systems, use statistical methods and algorithms to create models of whatever data they are presented with. These systems have been proven to be extremely good an creating correct models even when they are presented with somewhat unreliable data (i.e faulty sensors, occasional lies, etc.). These systems have been used to solve incredibly complex problems more quickly and efficiently than humans (https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/16/ai-learns-and-recreates-nobel-winning-physics-experiment/). The only basis for the success of these systems in modelling and interacting with the objective physical world is the feedback they receive from their environment (sensors). These sensors, like our human senses and the qualia that they elicit, are physical objects, not social constructs.

    It may be that the world at all levels is, as the post-modernists and constructionists suggest, less binary than we have been led to believe. In many cases, the model provided by quantum superposition may be more applicable. Certainly, many statements due contain various superposed admixtures of truth and falsehood, coherence and incoherence, etc. Also, from a subjective point of view, most statements are more or less likely to be true. Definitely, a binary world is enhanced by the introduction of shading and a black and white world is transformed by the introduction of color. But even in a world where God does “play dice with the Universe” there are rules to the game. Even when two-dimensional maps with fixed points and lines become irrelevant, statistical methods still yield outcomes that approximate the older, binary forms. Thus, quantum computers can solve classical equations and quantum states, when observed, always collapse into macroscopic realities.

    – Joshua Putnam


    1. Hi Joshua,

      Thanks for your kind comments at the start. I have, of course, read your father’s main works (up until about 1990 anyway, and he might well have changed his mind again since then 🙂 ) and I was aware of his very active fights on campus against right wingers in general and the Vietnam war in particular. He was an impressive – and extremely influential scholar. I need to read your comments more carefully than I have time to do now before saying anything, but just wanted to say hello.


  4. Hi Geoff,

    I enjoyed your article, thanks. My wife teaches French as a second language. I’m interested in social constructionism and we have sometimes discussed potential implications for teaching.

    Postmodernism seems too broad of a concept to reach actionable conclusions. One can imagine postmodern perspectives as being members of a family, there are overlapping truths but no particular common truth.

    I prefer social constructionism to social constructivism, but there are a lot of similarities in these views.

    You seem to have an open mind and pragmatic ambitions. I’m sensitive to similar concerns.

    A relativistic world view is extremely threatening to a grounded world view. It is also perhaps impossible to understand without having some personal experience which allows this leap. A difference between “knowing that” there is a different world view and “knowing how” to go on within it.

    One thing is for sure, a postmodern world view does not make much sense from a modern perspective. Much like a modern view cannot make sense from a pre-modern perspective.

    However there is some work that one might call positive postmodernism and this does produce some methods that fit within a modern worldview. A good example would be Appreciative Inquiry.

    For teaching, ideas from social constructivism seem potentially very useful. Modernity has given us two primary worldviews, individualism and communitarianism. Communitarianism has been disastrous (communism and nazism come to mind). Individualism also has fundamental issues – consumer society and environmental concerns being two. An alternative that comes out of social constructionism is relationalism (Kenneth Gergen wrote a book Relational Being about this). The implications for education are profound and positive.

    From a grounded modernist perspective a debate is focused on “either/or”. From a relative postmodern perspective the dialogue can be about “and”. It is hard to see this because postmodern views seem to be challenging modern views, this is in part because this is the only way to engage with modernism (if modernity holds the Truth then it is threatened by any alternative). From a social constructionist perspective modernism has it’s truths and can be a very effective perspective for advancing those truths. At the same time modernism has it’s limitations, but is not aware of all of them. Social constructionism is not a new claim to Truth but a new way of “going on”, a way of exploring other possibilities.

    If we can discuss this more it would be fun, I’m trying to understand many of the issues you raise.



    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for this. The text is from my book “Theory Construction in SLA” and was part of the background to a defence of a critical rationalist epistemology.


      1. Hi Geoff,

        In an attempt to make my comment more relevant:

        One perspective on Social Constructionism is as an epistemology that is ontologically mute i.e. whatever is introduced as an ontology (e.g. scientific theories in the case of critical rationalism) will be socially constructed. This is not to say scientific debate is a waste of time, just that any meaning/knowledge is by definition a social construct. I think of it this way: 10,000 years ago there was no gravity because the concept had not been socially constructed, in a future 10,000 years from now our current situation will be understood using concepts that for us (right now) do not exist.

        For me, critical rationalism is missing an awareness that a theory and potential criticisms are not starting points but are already themselves social constructs (and inevitably vehicles for promoting/demoting values). By limiting the discussion to rational scientific claims the morality/ethics of research programs go unquestioned, which probably helps many scientists get a good night’s rest 🙂

        In the article above you highlight deconstructionism is not offering an alternative, but people did pick up those ideas (along with others) and run with them, e.g. Gergen’s Social Constructionism, which uses deconstruction with an intention of reconstructing a better future. (It would be a misunderstanding to think that relativism does not allow for values).


      2. Hi Mark,

        “any meaning/knowledge is by definition a social construct. I think of it this way: 10,000 years ago there was no gravity because the concept had not been socially constructed”. That’s where we part company. Gravity is, for rational science, a theoretical construct. For Newton it’s a force that attracts all objects to all other objects, for Einstein it’s a result of the curvature of space-time. These theories partly explain gravity and they do so for all time past and future until they’re refuted. Just because human beings invented the 2 theories doesn’t mean that the theories themselves are subjective.

        In “Objective Knowledge” Popper distinguishes between “subjective knowledge” – knowledge held in an individual’s mind – and “objective knowledge”. Objective knowledge exists in the “logical contents of books, libraries, computer memories, and such like.” It is information that can be accessed by an individual, yet is stored outside his memory. Moreover, such knowledge is not just the sum total of many people’s memory, even though it originates there: new problems can arise from the structure of objective knowledge that were there before any person actually became aware of them. For example, Popper cites the discovery of prime numbers – “we discover prime numbers, and Euclid’s problem of whether the sequence of prime numbers is infinite arises as a consequence.” So there is a sense in which objective knowledge is autonomous – a world in which we can make voyages of discovery just as we can make geographical discoveries on our planet. As Matthew Shepard says:

        “Popper argues that objective knowledge is much more important than has been realised; this has been obscured by the emphasis given by so many philosophers (such as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant and Russell) on the importance of our subjective beliefs, and the origin and basis of subjective knowledge. Although these theories originated with philosophers, such assumptions are now widespread and have been assimilated into popular thought. As an example, consider the high value that is placed upon intelligence, and the consequent attempts to quantify this. No consideration seems to have been given in testing intelligence to objective knowledge, yet tests are clearly dependent upon the assumption of a common basis of objective knowledge (grammar, logic, arithmetic, semantics). It is assumed that the “background learning” required to solve test problems (understanding of language etc.) is static, and underlying this assumption is the idea that the “background learning” – subjective knowledge – is the only kind of knowledge.

        To demonstrate the existence and significance of objective knowledge, Popper considers two thought experiments. Firstly, he asks us to imagine that “all our machines and tools are destroyed and all our subjective learning, including our subjective knowledge of machines and tools, and how to use them. But libraries and our capacity to learn from them survive. Clearly, after much suffering, our world may get going again.” Secondly, he asks us to imagine the same situation, except that “this time, all our libraries are destroyed also, so that our capacity to learn from books becomes useless.” It can be seen that the existence of information in books makes a crucial difference. This is a clever and beautifully simple argument on the distinction between subjective and objective knowledge, and the singular importance of the latter.”

        The ethics of scientific research programmes has nothing to do with the question of whether or not the universal laws that some scientific theories articulate can be rationally regarded as objective knowledge. On the other hand, scientists who cause pain to animals or work on the developement of weapons like napalm, for example, can’t duck the ethical issues involved.

        I’m afraid I don’t understand the final paragraph of your comment.


      3. Hi Geoff,

        I’d like to highlight that “meaning” is only possible within a society – it is socially constructed. That is not making any claim about what exists independently of society. Social constructionism does not claim that there is nothing except society (it is not solipsism). It claims that meaning is socially constructed e.g. we need a community that understands mathematics if Newton is going to understand gravity in those terms.

        This does not seem to be such an extreme claim, or maybe you consider it to be nonsense?

        Popper’s example is perhaps illustrating the same point. The libraries and the information within them only has meaning when used by a human within a particular tradition. If we lost the knowledge of what books are, they are likely to be used as a fuel for heating well before society develops to a point where the books could again have meaning given to them (or we could say, they would mean cheap heating first!).

        It would be great to see if we can reach a common understanding of this before I try touching on the topic of universal objective Truth.

        My last paragraph in the previous message was trying to highlight that Derrida and deconstructionism is not an end game, those ideas have been developed in directions that are more generative (in the original text you mention that deconstructionism seems to offer no useful alternatives).

        All the best.


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