Constructivist Theory

The influence of postmodernism’s challenge of the “objectivist” position in psychology has been central in the evolution of constructivist therapies. The abandonment of the certainty of modernist positions for the tentative, constructed meanings in the postmodern world has given rise to a number of therapeutic approaches that eschew well-established, contemporary icons in psychology. Objective assessment of personality, abilities, and psychopathology has given way to a more interpretive, hermeneutic approach to understanding the world in which we live. The spirit of uncertainty that pervades postmodern discourse is evident when trying to provide a fundamental definition of constructivism.

Robert A. Neimeyer noted that there are numerous positions in postmodernism and that they are sometimes discordant with each other. He and Donald E. Polkinghorne, among others, have argued that the constructivist movement in psychotherapy is characterized by a truly postmodern lack of foundationalism, a lack of agreement on many of the particulars of how individuals construct reality. In general, constructivist theorists have an intellectual allergy to the metaphysical realist position that sets forth an understanding of the world that is independent of our own, human experiences of the world. According to the 2007 APA Dictionary of Psychology, constructionism is

the theoretical perspective, central to the work of Jean Piaget, that people actively build their perception of the world and interpret objects and events that surround them in terms of what they already know. Thus their current state of knowledge guides processing, substantially influencing how (and what) new information is acquired. (p. 221)

There are several points of view that are based on constructivist ideas; two of the best known are radical constructivism and social constructionism. Radical constructivists such as philosopher Ernst von Glaserfeld and psychotherapy pioneer Paul Watzlawick of the Mental Research Institute hold that all we can know of the world are the products of sensory/perceptual processes that take place within our bodies. The radical constructivists do not deny, in a solipsistic way, the existence of reality outside. Rather, they argue that there is no eidetic correspondence between what is “out there” and our internal perceptual constructions. Paul Watzlawick’s well-known metaphor invites the reader to imagine he or she is piloting a large ocean liner through an impenetrable fog at night. In such circumstances, the ship’s captain has no direct visual representations of the rocks or icebergs that might lurk in the darkness. The captain must rely on the iconic representations given by radar and sonar and other electronic sensing devices, to make interpretations about what is “out there.” Successful adaptation, under these circumstances, is not measured by how accurately the captain was able to describe what was “out there,” but by whether or not the ship crashed into the rocks. So, for the radical constructivist, sensory/perceptual habits that endure are regarded as reality.

Another constructivist approach is that of social constructionism. It owes an intellectual heritage to Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman’s early work, The Social Construction of Reality. There are several more recent extensions of that early work by Kenneth J. Gergen, Theodore R. Sarbin, Donald E. Polkinghorne, John Shotter, and others. Sarbin and John I. Kitsuse open their collection of essays on social constructionism with the story of three baseball umpires reflecting on their professional practice of calling balls and strikes.

The first, a self-confident realist, says, “I call ’em the way they are,” to which the second who leans toward phenomenological analysis says, “I call ’em as I see ’em,” and the third closes the discussion with “They ain’t nothin’ until I call ’em.” (p. 1)

The third umpire illustrates the central premise in constructionism—that human beings are active agents in processing information and creating knowledge rather than passive organisms who simply respond to the environment. Although most constructivists acknowledge there is a “real world” outside of human consciousness, they are more interested in people’s constructions of their worlds than how close those constructions are to any objective “truth.” Social constructionism moves the interpretive act of reality construction away from people’s interior constructions to a social endeavor heavily reliant on language, customs, culture, and other contextual factors. The social constructionists move beyond the constructivism of von Glaserfeld, Watzlawick, and George Kelly by invoking the social nature of human meaning making. Social constructionism, then, adds a layer to the radical constructivist’s formulation by including the social nature of reality construction.

The social constructionist view owes its early intellectual heritage to the work of Lev Vygotsky and others. Gergen is perhaps the most well-known American psychologist writing about social constructionism. The essential feature of social constructionism is the notion that reality construction is the result of meaning-making activities that take place in relationships with other people and in cultural/environmental/linguistic contexts. Although language is frequently seen as the primary constituent of social constructionism, language is but one aspect of the cultural/biological context that influences meaning construction. Social constructionists are interested in epistemological understandings of how we come to adapt to the varieties of realities we construct.

Therapeutic Approaches Based on Constructivist Theory

Constructionism has found expression in a variety of psychotherapeutic approaches. Kelly is usually identified as an early example of the application of constructivist theories to therapy. He developed personal construct theory and elaborated the idea that people approach their phenomenological world much like scientists: generating theories, testing hypotheses, and revising their expectations of the world based on these experiences. Kelly did deny the existence of a reality “out there”; he thought that we all construct a different “out there” based on our experiences and expectations. Kelly called his particular philosophy constructive alternativism to reflect that everyone constructs an alternate reality based on his or her unique experiences. The Repertory Grid interview he developed allows clinicians to understand the unique constructs of their clients and how those constructs influenced their perceptions and behaviors.

At the same time that Kelly was developing his personal construct theory, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson was developing an approach to treatment of disorders based on radical constructivism. Bateson’s team originated the seminal idea in American psychology that the origin of psychological difficulties was in the interactions between people. The well-known double-bind theory of schizophrenia was an early attempt to explain the effect of interpersonal communication on psychological development.

The solution-focused therapies of Steven de Shazer’s group and the solution-oriented variations of William H. O’Hanlon and Michele Weiner-Davis arose in the 1980s and represented a move away from radical constructivism to a more pragmatic focus on problem resolution. The rising influence of social constructionism has enabled therapists to develop approaches based on contextual formulations of problems and their resolutions.

The most dramatic example of this trend is seen in the work of therapists who employ a narrative metaphor in their work. Although there is a group of therapists that refer to themselves as narrative therapists, there is a strong narrative tradition in psychoanalysis as well. Narrative therapists, for the most part, derive their working metaphors from literary criticism and hermeneutics. The influence of narrative therapists can be seen in their influence on more conventional therapies. Recently, some cognitive-behavioral therapists have begun to describe their work as having a basis in constructionism.

Research Support for Constructivist Theory

A body of research support for constructivist therapies is growing. Practitioners of constructivist theories are generally unsympathetic to positivist approaches to research. Accordingly, the tradition of empirical studies involving carefully constructed experimental controls on treatment is sparse for constructivist therapies. Empirical support for constructivist therapies has come largely from case studies and anecdotal reports.

Solution-focused brief therapies (SFBT) have been more widely researched in recent years than any other approach. A recent review of15 controlled studies of the effectiveness of SFBT found that SFBT provided significant benefits. Solution-focused brief therapy has been demonstrated to be effective in working with at-risk junior high school students, high school bullies, juvenile offenders, older adults, adolescent substance abusers, and university counseling center clients.

Empirical evidence for narrative approaches also exists. Narrative therapy has been reported to be successful in treating abuse, older adults, and athletes. Robert G. Malgady and Giuseppe Constanino and their colleagues have demonstrated the usefulness of narrative therapy in working with Hispanic children and adolescents.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2007). APA dictionary of psychology (G. R. VandenBos, Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
  2. Costantino, G., Dana, R. H., & Malgady, R. G. (2007). TEMAS (Tell-Me-A-Story) Assessment in multicultural societies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Gergen, K. J. (2001). Social construction in context. London: Sage.
  4. Kelly, G. A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.
  5. Neimeyer, R. A. (1995). Constructivist psychotherapies: Features, foundations, and future directions. In R. A. Neimeyer & M. J. Mahoney (Eds.), Constructivism in psychotherapy (pp. 11-38). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  6. O’Hanlon, W. H., & Weiner-Davis, M. (1989). In search of solutions: A new direction in psychotherapy. New York: Norton.
  7. Polkinghorne, D. E. (1992). Postmodern epistemology of practice. In S. Kvale (Ed.), Psychology and postmodernism. Inquiries in social construction (pp. 146-165). London: Sage.
  8. Sarbin, T. R., & Kitsuse, J. I. (Eds.). (1994). Constructing the social. London: Sage.
  9. Shotter, J. (1992). Social constructionism and realism: Adequacy or accuracy? Theory and Psychology, 2(2), 175-182.
  10. Watzlawick, P. (1984). The invented reality: How do we know what we believe we know?: Contributions to constructivism. New York: Norton.

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