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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review of the Handbook of Constructionist Research

Review of the Handbook of Constructionist Research
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1741

A version of this review will appear in Personnel Psychology some time in the next year.

Holstein, J. A., & Gubrium, J. F. Handbook of Constructionist Research. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2008, 822, $125.00, Hardcover.


Review

Yes, 822 pages, which is also 3.44 pounds, of scholarly reference book intended for academicians, researchers, and graduate students. Two editors and 51 contributors produced a compendium of 40 chapters in six sections that seek to define constructionist research as it currently stands. They have succeeded.

Physically, the book is imposing, and I have yet to meet someone who found the cover art attractive. The authors selected the cover art because they found it telling and congruent with something they call the constructionist mosaic. However, one does not purchase such a book for the pretty pictures. Such books are purchased because they provide a substantially complete description of the field at a given time, and this handbook is no exception.

The physical layout of the Handbook presented no surprise. I opened it quickly to get away from the cover art, and found myself facing a substantial amount of text, black, on white, not glossy, paper. The chapters are presented in double columns per page, and I found the column width in conjunction with the font, pitch, and leading working quite well with my eye scan as I read along. A very few tables and graphs appear in the text, and I found no color used anywhere.

The Handbook is not available in electronic (e.g., Kindle) format. Given the imposing size of the book, I see merit in an electronic version. However, I suspect electronic books have not yet penetrated constructionist research sufficiently to be economically viable, though other academic titles are appearing in electronic form. Regardless, this title is a natural for a reader such as the Kindle because of the paucity of pictures, graphs, charts, and tables. However, I suspect a single column format would be better on a ebook. (My understanding is that the publisher is moving rapidly to make electronic versions of traditional publications available.)

The tone of the writing is academic, which comes as no surprise. Chapter endnotes and references to previous works abound. Having a ready source of already aggregated underlying references should make the Handbook an important reference in your library.

The Handbook presents constructionist research in a developmental framework. Following a brief overview by the editors, we have two chapters regarding philosophical foundations, historical development, and defining issues. The following nine chapters review the use of constructionism across disciplines. The disciplines are wide ranging. Not only do we have education, sociology, and anthropology represented, but we also have nursing research, management and organization, and science and technology, along with several other fields. It is apparent that the editors spent much time and effort to present the use of constructionist methods in many areas, some perhaps unexpected.

The third section of the Handbook presents the scope of constructionist inquiry. The topics of the six chapters include Foucauldian, discursive, narrative, and interactional constructionism among several other topics. One chapter involved claimsmaking, culture, and the media with on-going references to social networking on the internet. I was intrigued to find a reference to YouTube on page 335 with a discussion of viral video web sites. The speed with which information spreads now is astounding. I receive tweets from the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly. By the time the evening news arrives, there is little news for me in the broadcast, leaving me to consider the reconstructionism of the televised news.

Similarly when bad weather is in our area, my network of weather geeks sends tweets that keep me ahead of the local weather news with all it's radar. Am I any better off? That's a hard call. However, I am better informed, though some might question the importance of that information. (I would point out that local weather news now uses those tweets as unsubstantiated sources of information during the broadcasts. The times they are a'changing.)

A common criticism of handbooks such as this one is that the writing, if not the subject matter, is too far removed from human existence to be particularly applicable to anyone or anything outside the small cadre of academic researchers who study and work in that rarefied setting. That criticism is not valid in this instance. In addition to the aforementioned viral video, consider pages 256 and 257 of chapter 13, Foucauldian Constructionism, in which we find a discussion of recent research in surveillance and how such surveillance promotes docility in the population. Now consider how many times you were recorded on a video surveillance camera during the last 24 hours. How many times did you object? Have you flown lately? What do you see in the TSA screening line? Docility.

The editors and authors have defined constructionist research as it stands now, and they have done so using not only the tried and staid examples we would expect but also with examples drawn from today's world. I found these examples valuable as I worked to apply what the authors were describing and teaching to the world in which I live.

The fourth section, Strategies and Techniques, is six chapters involving strategies and techniques of constructionist research. The intersections of constructionism and fields such as ethnographic fieldwork, grounded theory, discourse analysis, the research interview, autoethnography, and documents, texts, and archives form the nexus for each chapter.

In particular, chapter 24 discusses documents, texts, and archives. How do we locate the documents we need? How do we decid which documents we need? Are the documents accurate? How do we thread together the many viewpoints represented in the documents we have? These are all important questions. What I found missing from this chapter was the discussion of these questions in the context of today's availability of electronic information. Google seeks to provide an electronic copy of every book on the planet. Amazon seeks to sell electronic versions of every book it sells in paper. FaceBook, Bebo, MySpace, and Twitter provide searchable information, sorted by keywords, on every topic under public discussion.

For example, I just now (5:35 PM EDT on 25 May 2009) searched the twitterverse for uses of “constructionism,” and I found some two dozen recent tweets applicable to the discussions in this handbook. I am without doubt that the public availability of information by electronic means is going to affect constructionist research, and it will do so much sooner than later. It probably already has, and while the omission is certainly not a deal breaker in the positioning of this handbook, the omission does represent something with which someone in constructionism will contend, and do so shortly.

The fifth section is eight chapters in which the object of social construction is defined and reviewed. In particular, we have the construction of body, emotion, gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, medical knowledge, therapy, and national history. What is of interest to me here is the discussion that reveals that the ostensibly simplest of concepts is often the product of social construction, and what we see as simplicity is really nothing more than a thin veneer that precludes us from seeing the underlying complexity, if not the elements of underlying constructions.

Chapter 27, Constructing Gender, begins with a wonderful quote from W. B. Yeats (1951), “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” I've always defined art as the interaction of the viewer and the painting, which is how I respond to Yeats regarding dance. I don't make the distinction between the dancer and the dance, and it's not dance until I see it. Yes, I really shouldn't offer to start another world war here. Regardless, this chapter makes it very clear that so many overtly simple concepts are anything but simple.

I manage many surveys in the run of a year. A very common demographic question to ask on these surveys is “What is your gender?” Sometimes, we use sex instead of gender. It's at this point that I turn to my focus group to ask what would be the acceptable responses. I get a puzzled look, and we invariably find ourselves using male and female, but in that brief moment, we have on the table that gender, or sex if you will, is not so simple as we generally think, and very few things are.

Chapter 28 exchanges gender for sex and sexuality, heading directly to the social construction of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) sexualities. (Later in the chapter, the acronym becomes LGBTQ, where the Q indicates Queer.) What I like in the framing of this chapter is the insistence that the study of a focal group is also the study of the reference group, and the chapter left me with additional framework for a question that has bothered me for a very long time, that question being why an expression of love in the one group produces an expression of hate in the other group.

As if sex, gender, and sexuality were not complicated enough, chapter 29 takes on race and ethnicity. If you've ever built a survey that included a question about race or ethnicity, you are likely aware of just how complicated the question is, especially once you penetrate the superficial veneer of skin color. Of course, the study of this chapter is not going to resolve your problems regarding how to ask the question and how to construct the responses, but it will leave you with a greater understanding of why people can become so hot and bothered once in a while. Yet again, our simple constructs fail to reflect rich diversity that is the human population.

The Handbook concludes with eight chapters regarding continuing challenges. (Think recommendations for further research in a journal article.) These chapters involve authors looking forward with particular questions in mind. Can constructionism be critical? Feminism and constructionism. You get the drift. I found these chapters interesting but not compelling. Be that as it may, I did find a certain comfort in the glide path provided by the final chapters. This handbook ends in a calm manner that is respectful to the reader. Again, it is readily apparent that the editors crafted this text from the beginning to the end with a definite design in mind.

References

Yeats, W.B. (1951). Among school children. In The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (p. 214). New York: Macmillan.

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