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On being a social constructionist in a more than human world.

Human and nonhuman agents are associated with one another in networks, and evolve together within those networks.

(Pickering, 1995, p. 11)

Constructivists increasingly acknowledge a social dimension to how humans construct understandings that help them anticipate and navigate physical and social reality. Social constructionists (part of the constructivist family in this author's view) regard such constructing to also involve negotiating meanings with others. In other words, in relationships humans tend to interact using taken for granted meanings or those they work out and share as acceptably familiar. Taken for granted meanings beg constructive alternatives when they stop working, for both constructivists and constructionists. This contribution adds to a constructivist and social constructionist view by considering how interwoven human meaning has become with aspects of a more than human world. Humans, through their responses to emerging developments within more than human environments, can be seen to co-construct (i.e., through interacting with these developments) meanings and realities in a "posthuman" world.


A centuries' old human conceit has been catching up with us. It took Enlightenment science to help us recognize that the earth was not central in the cosmos. Embedded in Enlightenment science was a conviction that humans could scientifically attain God's omniscience and engineer experience as they wished (Dolnick, 2012). Obscured or perhaps advanced by that conviction was the assumption that we could use basic human constructions--language, for example--to acquire this omniscience. By the mid twentieth century, insights from contextually and linguistically oriented philosophers like Heidegger (1962) and Wittgenstein (1953) were pointing to how human realities were construed and constructed by and through our use of language. In these early years of the twenty-first century, a further humbling insight has become increasingly clear: any human constructing of meaning tends to draw on and play out in our social relationships. However, our constructing efforts now occur in ways and with consequences some deem "posthuman" (e.g., Hekman, 2010). By "posthuman" I refer to a growing literature that aims to decenter humans as actors and meaning-makers, while making evident how humans need to be responsive to emergent features in their environments. Ours is a dynamically changing world that shapes us as much as we shape it, and our constructions not only help us to adapt to this world; they shape that world, in ways to which we need to be constructively responsive.

To write of socially constructed understanding as I have in the past (Lock & Strong, 2010) is to leave the conceit mentioned above unchallenged. It also privileges a view of humans and reality that now seems inadequate to me. So, when Jon Raskin, invited me to contribute to Studies in Meaning 5 on advances in social constructionist thought and practice, I was in flux with posthuman ideas beyond those which had informed my hybrid (phenomenology, hermeneutics, and communicative interaction) version of social constructionism (Strong, 2014a). These posthuman ideas implicate humans in what Karen Barad (2007) refers to as a "material-discursive" reality and point to how human interactions with features of a more than human world extend constructivist and social constructionist thinking. The conceptual convergence draws from Andrew Pickering's historical studies of "mangles" in science (1995, 2009) and Bruno Latour's (e.g., 2005) actor network theory or what has alternatively come to be known as science and technology studies. It also draws from feminist thinkers concerned with how people reflexively engage with and are affected by material reality, becoming internationally interwoven with it (Barad, 2003, 2007; Hekman, 2010; Manning, 2013). As an example, our interactions with technology, as well as with social and physical reality, are not just constructive, they are reciprocally transformative--we shape and are shaped by these interactions. Finally, and from related ideas, the convergence I highlight draws on practice theory (Nicolini, 2013; Schatzki, 2002, 2010), which contextualizes familiar human understandings and experiences in recurring interactions between human and non-human "actors." Our interactions with each other and with the material world, for practice and post-human theorists, construct what we experience as recognizably real when these interactions stabilize. Social constructionists are used to what Ken Gergen (2009) has referred to "relational being", a pithy phrase emphasizing that our constructs come from and play out in our relationships. By supplementing this view of social constructionism with posthuman and practice theory ideas I invite consideration of a further dimension to constructivist or constructionist thinking and practice.

The notion of non-human "actors" can be most jarring for readers new to the "posthuman" convergence I will elaborate. Our alternative constructs (for social constructionists, typically forms of language like words or stories) offer ways to enhance our effectiveness in social and physical reality. "Change the name and you change the game" (Efran & Heffner, 1991, p. 50) went a therapeutic version of this notion. But consider how interwoven our lives have become with technology or developments possibly pertaining to the fate of our planet. Inside such "interweaves" are realities we shape and are shaped by, making it increasingly difficult to separate humans from their influential constructions and the material realities into which they are interwoven. Consider our lives without prescription glasses, electricity, laptops, or a 24-hour clock--all transformative constructions that shape human lives and potentials. Considering how such human constructions come to shape our lives can be challenging if one is committed to a view that individual human actors can act and know in fully independent ways. Yet, yes, we can retain aspects of our independence by giving such constructions up.

Where my social constructionist approach intersects with the posthuman views I have been relating is around two challenging notions central to George Kelly's (1963) modern theorizing: anticipation and "constructive alternativism." For Kelly and constructivists after him, what matters are constructions of reality that enable us to effectively anticipate how our understandings and the actions premised on them will play out. In the physical world our anticipations more easily stabilize and become predictable than they do in the social world, though we tend to navigate both spheres of life based on how we sense our understandings and actions will be "received" in either world. Social reality, however, tends to be as much navigated as it is negotiated. People don't just learn to anticipate each other, they negotiate how they will go forward together, based on how they interpret and respond to each other's meaning. This view was at the heart of Bakhtin's (1981) dialogic view that life emerges out of people's responsive and influential interactions with each other. By contrast, monologic relationships are those we can only navigate or seemingly command. By the social constructionist views I am sharing (Gergen, 2009; Lock & Strong, 2010), negotiated or dialogic ways of relating involve more than anticipating how we may be received, they require a critical and generative responsiveness to what cannot be anticipated in our interactions with physical and social reality.

Increasingly humans are transforming physical and social reality with their technology, and the effects of population growth. We need to learn to become effectively responsive to (i.e., negotiate with) physical and social realities we are playing a role in transforming, otherwise we are back to the kinds of relations with those realities that Bakhtin referred to as monological. Global warming has made the nearby glaciers that provide my city's (Calgary) water supply a source of concern. This is but one example of how we want our constructs to help us anticipate and address social and physical realities that have become, in effect, moving targets. Whether anticipating familiar circumstances, or constructively responding to unanticipated circumstances, how we construct reality and use our constructions matters. Why "posthuman" ideas may potentially interest constructivists relates to their interests in how human beings not only make sense of their experience, but in how such sense-making helps in constructing, navigating, and negotiating experience.

Herein, I bring together constructivist and social constructionist ideas, along with insights from posthuman and practice theorists, to account for realities that humans responsively negotiate as much as they construct. I situate humans in a dynamic world that as much makes them, as they make it. I focus on negotiated meanings and actions as these develop in and from consequential human interactions with other humans, and with aspects of the more than human world. The more than human (i.e., posthuman) world is the physical, biological and technological world humans interact and become interwoven with. My clinical concern relates to the unintended and unwanted consequences of these interactions, what I will refer to as "capture", and the human-human / human-material world practices that can stabilize us in, or extricate us from, being captured.


"Ours is an anticipatory system rather than a reactive system," asserted George Kelly (1963, p. 170). Kelly suggests a view of constructed meaning that I share, to a point. We are challenged when our meanings come up short for us, so we learn to find new effective meanings to help us anticipate what reactively catches us off guard. Heidegger (1962) suggested that we are "thrown into" a human world already engaged in meaningful yet largely taken for granted interactions--a world in which we learn to go from reacting to responding in ways Kelly describes as anticipatory. This is neither a world in which we act from fully independent personal meaning systems (as if a discrete system could exist apart from people we could share it with), nor is it a world we could ever fully anticipate with already developed meanings, whether borrowed from others, or from personal constructs alone. Instead it is a world where we pit our best constructions against the challenges life poses, challenging interactions within our social lives included. Sometimes we need to find new meanings or constructions (Kelly's constructive alternativism) when our best constructions need to better help us anticipate experience stop being effective. However, it is in explicating how and where people find these better, or more effective, meanings or constructions that I turn to social constructionist theory (Gergen, 2009; Lock & Strong, 2010).

When most people consider social constructionism they tend to do so in constructivist and cognitive ways that see human understandings as stand-ins for reality. Meaningful constructions or understandings, by this view, are equivalent to maps or schemas of experience, to be evaluated like scientific theories for how well they help humans anticipate experience. Both constructivists and social constructionists forego any sense that constructs, schemas, words, stories, theories, and so on could ever fully and correctly represent experience. Instead human constructions or forms of meaning offer linguistic or symbolic ways we prosthetically (cf., Shorter, 1993) navigate a reality we can never fully or correctly know. Constructivists, following Kelly (1963), tend to point to these meaningful prostheses as personally constructed, while social constructionists portray these constructs as social or cultural in origin. For both constructivists and social constructionists, what matters is that we use meanings or constructs that are effective for us, that help us anticipate and navigate the social and physical circumstances in which we find ourselves.

For many social constructionists (e.g., Burr, 2003), when meaning is discussed, linguistic resources (e.g., words or stories) or discourses and how these are used in human interaction, are the focus. Cultural or institutional discourses carve up realms of experience in much the way that Kelly referred to earlier as "anticipatory systems." Each distinctive discourse requires an "insider's" logic or sense of talking and acting in ways appropriate to others sharing the discourse or system of meaning (Pare, 2012). So, for example, speaking of Jung's collective unconscious among a group of rational-emotive therapists might get you a raised eyebrow or an outright dismissal, but those responding to such a notion as "irrational" would be well received. Users of discourse develop and act from particular understandings and actions they deem meaningful, while demarcating and negatively responding to meanings and actions incompatible with the discourse. It is in the latter sense that we can discursively be "out of bounds" or "inappropriate" with the discourse of others. Psychologists often relate such differences to individual attributes, like personality variables or schemas, whereas constructionists identify cultural discourses and discursive interactions (e.g., Edwards & Potter, 1992) when locating such differences in meaning. Discourses, however systematized, are partial meaning systems reflective of human values and circumstances. Kelly's (1963) related notion, that we develop anticipatory systems of meaning, points to a similar inevitability: our meanings for new experiences are bound to be incomplete, and require revising when they fail to help us anticipate and navigate experience.

People are neither determined by discourses (as "cultural dopes" in Garfinkel's, 1967, terms) nor are they unresponsive, like autistic libertarians, to their relational circumstances. They have physical and social worlds to navigate as well as negotiate, using the meanings and meaningful behaviors acquired through social and cultural interactions. Much of the navigating occurs in taken-for-granted ways; a blessing provided that things stay acceptably familiar, but a challenge when taken for granted meanings and actions come up short in addressing new challenges, or in getting beyond circumstances that are unacceptably familiar (Strong, 2014b). The kinds of challenges I refer to cannot always be anticipated in either the sense Kelly (1963) has referred to, or with existing discourses. Sometimes new realities need new languages or discourses (or negotiate our use of these with others), according with what Vico (2005/1744) referred to as "poetic wisdom" in facing "linguistic poverty." The other side of poetic wisdom comes when we become constrained in our uses of language, or by other constructions like computers, being on large shared power grids, and driving cars in rush hour traffic.

Constructivists may consider or refer to constructs beyond those which are cognitive. I have become increasingly interested in constructs that posthumanists refer to as material features of a more than human world (Barad, 2003, 2007; Hekman, 2010; Pickering, 1995; Pickering & Guzik, 2009; Sloterdijk, 2013). For example, the Internet influences us, much as we influence its technological developments. Pickering (1995; Pickering & Guzik, 2009) has chronicled what he has referred to as "mangles of practice", circumstances where human actions encounter unexpected forms of natural, institutional, or technical resistance, to which humans find themselves responding in ways that see them depart from their initial actions. Humans, who find themselves in mangles, often need to constructively respond to unintended and unanticipated consequences arising from prior constructive responses.

In relationships of all kinds we face challenges with how our constructs are, or are not, taken up in interactions with others. Constructivists tend to focus on the cognitive constructs of individuals, and less so on how such individuals coordinate use or reference to their constructs with each other. Our meanings and constructs do not function like shared cartoon character thought bubbles; yet despite considerable differences with other individuals, institutions, and cultures, we negotiate ways to understand and go forward together. Technology added to our abilities to coordinate meanings and lives with others, while creating unanticipated consequences which also now feature in how we negotiate and coordinate our lives. And, this is not just about meaning, it is about meaningful and hopefully agreeable interactions and coordinations of interactions. How our meanings and actions are negotiated, and become part of these bigger coordinations has me curious.

Each human construction may be an intended response to an actual or desired circumstance, but how such a construction plays out in interactions with other humans, nature, or cultural institutions--seems beyond intention. Inventors of the cellphone could likely not have predicted its use for "sexting", for example. Pickering's mangles show how unintended consequences set up new circumstances calling for new, unanticipated responses. The purportedly foolproof algorithms that guided decision-making in financial institutions "too big to fail" encountered unanticipated lending circumstances and crashed (Steiner, 2012), leaving almost everyone with "constructed" realities of major consequence. Such interweaving of human constructs, meaning, action, and our interactive engagement with technology, nature and cultural institutions constructs what others mean by a posthuman world.

By now, it is hopefully clear that the kind of constructionism I am describing refers to more than individuals living by optimal linguistic constructions to anticipate their experience. Navigating and negotiating emerging social, physical, technological and institutional realities occurs in ways people find understandably challenging to disengage from and alternatively navigate and negotiate. Being engaged in navigating and negotiating these realities occurs in ways that have stakes for us, and for others similarly engaged. Sure, we bring our constructed meanings and actions to navigating these realities; but it is the negotiated part of these engagements that in my view goes underemphasized in most constructivist writing.


Negotiating reality sounds odd when contrasted with a more common constructivist view that our job is to anticipate and navigate reality (i.e., as it is) with our best constructions. Reality portrayed as a negotiator seems to anthropomorphize it into having human-like agency (making it, too, a "negotiator"). The term feminist quantum theorist Karen Barad (2003, 2007) has been using is "agential realism", to denote how humans shape and are shaped by their interactions with features of reality. In social reality, we see this all the time as we negotiate our interactions with others. In the immediacies of our relationships, we do transformational things like commit to each other, create what was not possible for one of us alone, and so on. And, political action, taken up culturally and institutionally, can, over time bring about incremental transformation, as has been shown in gains made by feminists and civil rights activists. However, the material world has also been changing us, as we change it. For example, how might we better navigate and negotiate technology and Internet-enabled social lives now that our every interaction there can be hacked or be under government surveillance? Our human constructions too often morph, through unanticipated interactions with different "agents", into unintended consequences to which we must constructively respond.

To talk of human constructions, when these play out in ways beyond intended meaning or action is to privilege humans as actors in a more than human world. Our meanings and discourses offer us means to participate in social and cultural interactions, but our meanings and discourses do not determine the outcomes of those interactions. To navigate and negotiate social, physical, technological and institutional realities we face challenges not only in terms of how our meanings and actions fare for us; we also need to resourcefully respond to responses to our meanings and actions that we could not intend or anticipate. We also need to find ways of recognizing and escaping forms of "capture" that result from the mangles to which we contribute.

This notion of "capture" (cf., Massumi, 2011) in webs or mangles to which we humans contribute merits consideration in constructivist practice. The Y2K scare (when many thought that the world's computer programs were improperly calculated without reference to a changing millennium) offered an example of how our linguistic and technological constructs almost captured us--in that case by a calendar and clock, wired into global technology that had not been calibrated for a millennial change. One can point to similar webs or mangles that, while perhaps not fully capturing us, add stress or deficits to our lives: rush hour road rage, depleted fish stocks, or online hacking. These are complex and changing human constructions (or consequences of them) to consider so let's start where constructivist and constructionist practitioners share a focus: on changes to meaning, or Kelly's "constructive alternativism." The shared view is that humans cannot perceive and respond to the world as it is since such perceptions are constructed out of human experience and then are used to help us navigate our world. Our best constructions are those which work so well that we can take their use for granted, though this is precisely where Deleuze (2013) was concerned that our constructions go from being testable propositions to becoming presumed assertions about how things actually are. This is precisely where problems and shortcomings with our constructions can arise, and for several reasons:

1. Our use of the construct/symbol/story (proposition), etc. stops working for us.

2. There may be alternative constructions accessible that can work better for us.

3. We learn we can respond to a circumstance with a number of constructs where formerly we thought only one could work for us (exemplified by either/or binary thinking).

These will seem like fitting ways to consider how we deal with relatively static physical and social realities where our existing constructions are not serving us as well as we need them to. Wittgenstein (1953), saw this as a case of needing to come up with our most perspicuous representations (i.e., constructs, language) for experience--a view consistent with Vico's (2005/1744) "poetic wisdom." Testing out our constructive alternatives in somewhat static physical reality is a different proposition, however, than seeing how they fare in our relationships with each other, or within our developing, technologically-shaped circumstances. We do more than adjust to such realities or circumstances, with the aid of our alternative constructs; we are in dynamic and emerging relationships with these realities and circumstances. Through using our constructs to guide us in these relationships, we often shape what shapes us, though this typically happens in almost imperceptible ways.

In coming to the view of social constructionist practice I previously wrote about (e.g., Lock & Strong, 2010; Strong, 2014a), I became interested in the approaches to meaning and social interaction taken up by ethnomethodologists (e.g., Garfinkel, 1967; Heritage, 1984) and social practice theorists (e.g., Nicolini, 2013; Schatzki, 2002, 2010). The interactional view these theorists take up focus on how people stabilize their interactions with each other, and with their physical/technological circumstances, so as to keep meanings and interactions familiar. John Shorter (personal communication, March 30, 2011) refers to these as "dynamic stabilities", ways we interact so as to create orderly and familiar relationships with social and physical reality. Being able to put a name or meaning so as to make an experience recognizable is only one aspect of constructing dynamic stabilities; our return to such names or meanings with each subsequent encounter with what seems recognizable is another aspect. For Deleuze (1994), this can be where we use our concepts or constructs to impose similarity on experiences that are not exactly the same as those we originally constructed. While we can talk about graduation as a commonly shared construct, invariably aspects of my experience of graduation will not index the same experiences you may have constructed from your experience of graduation. Deleuze was concerned with how our repeated use of such constructs reduced to similarities later developments featuring unique experiences where our prior constructs "capture" them in old, already experienced, meanings.

This detour through Deleuze and practice theorists is important for recognizing the limitations of our constructions. We often straddle a tension between finding constructive ways to keep things familiar, while not over-committing to our constructions in ways that might later capture us or cause problems. Our use of language in physical and social reality is but one example of this tension. Language offers sense-making resources, as "handles" for our experience. When our use of language is shared, it enables us to collectively navigate common experiences and act upon common aims. Constitutions, business agreements, laws, and mission statements are examples of what humans can accomplish by finding shared language to go forward together. However, these social constructions often are negotiated into existence in ways that involve limits to be worked out between the negotiators. How people later interpret and interact based on these common constructions is another matter as politics and interpersonal disagreements highlight.

Constructive uses of language are ways individuals and larger social groups respond to circumstance. Technological innovations are also constructive responses to actual or desired circumstances. How such innovations may get taken up, with intended or unintended consequences, increasingly features in the circumstances humans find themselves constructively responding to. Thus, people find themselves responding to issues with their internet service providers, problems with the new app on their smartphones, and how to use their car's GPS to find a shortcut to a friend's home. Such innovations--Google glass or high-powered microscopes, for example--are increasingly becoming interwoven with our constructive ways of sense-making. The same can be said for how we construct innovations that might later "capture" us.

Responding to the inadequacies of our language or constructs is a different proposition than escaping from captures akin to Pickering's "mangles." Mangles are those circumstances where meanings and interactions come together, then stabilize, in unintended and recurring ways. Disagreements are one such circumstance where not only can there be a failure to coordinate intended meanings and actions; a new and unintended form of recurring social interaction can emerge between parties over the course of their disagreeing. In other words, the issue moves on to how disagreements over such meanings and actions become performed between people. Such mangles are familiar to systemic or relational therapists who focus on recurring patterns of interaction. In Gregory Bateson's (1980) language, "the pattern's the thing." The constructed meanings and interactions inside these patterns--whether with other people or in our interactions with technology--are our next consideration.


By a Kantian view of constructivism, our constructs systematize (a la Kelly's anticipatory system) into a relatively stable worldview from which we engage with reality (social and physical reality), though the map needs careful and selective updating. Accordingly, constructive alternativism is needed when constructs within such a worldview need updating or revising. Posthuman and practice theorists (e.g., Hekman, 2010; Pickering, 1995; Pickering & Guzik, 2009; Schatzki, 2002, 2010) view understanding and action in less global and more situated or "local" ways than do most Kantian constructivists. For posthuman and practice theorists, constructed actions and understandings become "bundled up" (Schatzki, 2002) in situated nodes of recurring or patterned interactions between humans, or between humans and responsive aspects of material reality (e.g., humans responding to traffic lights). Inside these nodes particular realities engage humans in particular ways, in understandings and forms of reason particular to what occurs inside such situated realities. For constructivists, this kind of therapeutic and pedagogical challenge is familiar--but for a more dynamic world than the norm: finding our best constructions to responsively adapt to these changing realities that we reflexively shape, and that shape us.

Reflexive is a word that can confuse, particularly given centuries of Cartesian thought and practice that emphasizes a separation between knower and what can be purportedly known. Reflexivity (e.g., Finlay & Gough, 2003) is a term emphasizing how our constructs feature in not only shaping our understandings of reality, but in altering what we try to understand. Objective, "correct" knowledge is the idealized version of what can be known, as knowledge apparently separate from us. Constructivists, since Kelly, embrace a more pragmatic view of knowledge that highlights such things as the fit and effectiveness of our constructions of what we aim to know, or anticipate. While being clear that there are no ways to ultimately evaluate the TRUTH of our constructions, constructivists tend to treat reality as given and separate from our constructions of it. What has primarily mattered to constructivists and social constructionists have been effective constructs for negotiating or making our way about reality. Posthuman and practice theorists go a step further, focusing on how realities are reflexively shaped by us, and shaping of us.

Language or mathematics offer two humanly constructed ways we not only represent realities, but enable means by which we alter realities as well. Temperature, a human construction that developed over years of scientific innovation (Chang, 2004)--when adapted to our thermostats, furnaces, and air conditioners--enables a taken-for-grated degree of comfort indoors unavailable to our predecessors. The energy requirements to enable such comfort have reflexively brought other challenges to which we must respond. As much of the workforce adapts to more sedentary activities than was the case in our grandparents' work lives, the bodies of many contemporary workers have become more sizably proportioned, accompanied by related health concerns. With the internet came a new way to conduct the "oldest profession" and with that new means came new kinds of crime requiring new methods of investigation (Kolker, 2013). My point with these examples is to highlight how our technological constructions reflexively shape new realities we must find new ways to constructively respond to. Years ago, in chronicling developments of this kind of emerging "postmodern" era, Walter Truett Anderson (1992) titled a book Reality Isn't What it Used Uo Be. The modern view of reality had been that it was ultimately knowable and thus could be placed under human technological control. As reflexive as humans might be in shaping postmodern realities they live by, such realities will not fully submit to human control. Instead, the realities we have been shaping seem to spawn new circumstantial challenges to respond to, with some developing into clinical concerns.


Somewhat unique to my training as a social constructionist practitioner was an immersion in ethnomethodology (EM; Garfinkel, 1967; Heritage, 1984). One focus of interest in EM is on how situated social (i.e., insider) realities are produced and sustained through members' anticipated interactions; via the kinds of dynamic stabilities described earlier. Such anticipated interactions, in the later writings of Wittgenstein (e.g., 1953) acquire a normative and grammatical (i.e., rule-like) status within broader social interactions he referred to as "language games." The language game of doing greetings in one's extended family is typically different from the language of doing greetings in unfamiliar professional circles, as are the normative grammars which shape one's sense of appropriate action within either language game. Dreyfus (1990), drawing from Heidegger, approaches this sense of doing what is appropriate in established social orders from a different angle. Specifically, his interest was with how such anticipated or expected social behaviors of this kind become tacitly performed, in expected yet taken for granted ways. Practice theorists, such as Schatzki (2002, 2010), take this view of human interaction a step further, embedding human interactions with nonhuman "actors" (technology, features of physical reality) into "practices" that simultaneously engage our thinking, acting, and feeling. Where the ideas above converge is on the arbitrariness of human interactions that come to be anticipated and taken-for-granted. Our lives become organized around how we and the human/nonhuman world interact in situated ways. Family therapy researcher, Ole Dreier (2008), pointed out such situated practices in families outside of therapy.

The arbitrariness of humans interacting and understanding in anticipated and situated ways (cf., Forster, 2005) that can "capture" us, yet are still open to constructive alternatives, is familiar to constructivist practitioners. The stretch for some readers may relate to the dynamic ways such interacting and understanding play out in the responses of the people and nonhuman actors--responses begging possible new forms of understanding and responsiveness from us. Such dynamism, new realities to respond to as we shape them and they shape us, seems akin to the kind of postmodern "hyperrealism" described by Baudrillard (1995). In the last generation, most humans have accepted more technology into their lives, and have altered their physical environments in life-changing ways than has ever been the case. The effects have not been benign and we have done more than just adapt to these changes; our adaptations constructively modify the changing features we thought we were adapting to, changing us in the process. Except when we fail to recognize the need for constructive alternatives and find ourselves captured, not just by our understandings, but the ways of interacting conjoined with them.

For years, John Shorter has been asking readers to look inside our "conversational realities" (1984, 1993), for the particular meanings and ways of interacting we come to share with others. Cultural and institutional discourses offer examples of these socially constructed "realities" because inside them one finds understandings and actions particular to those sharing them. These are larger patterns of interaction than what I had wanted to make my focus here. For theorists like Karen Barad, Susan Hekman, and Andrew Pickering, when we find ourselves interactionally responsive to aspects of material reality, our interactions with those aspects can shape us as much as we shape them. While we might have and use what we think are our individual constructs in our interactions with aspects of physical, technological, and social reality; inside these responsive interactions, new enabling or constraining "realities" emerge particular to those interactions.

Dynamic stabilities develop in and from human interactions with other humans or responsive nonhuman elements, such as technology, or aspects of material reality that respond to our actions in initially unanticipated ways (J. Shorter, personal communication, March 30, 2011). For example, we develop relational habits through how we become predictably responsive to human and nonhuman "agents". Dogs and their owners work such things out in their walks together; over what things dog and owner negotiate as worth sniffing, where and when the dog will pee, and so on. Similarly, we might develop predictable routines around starting up the office computer, or dealing with e-mail. In developing and recurring interactional routines our lives become interwoven with how relevant features of our social and material world respond to us, and how we respond to their responses--in often complex dynamic stabilities. While it is true that humans have exerted considerable dominance over the material world, it is also true that they have had to do so relationally--in ways over which they did not have full dominion (Tuan, 2004).

Posthuman theorists assert that interactions like those described above with aspects of the material world can come to exert a form of agency in human lives. While intent cannot be ascribed to nonhuman "actors", we need to be mindful, to paraphrase Bruno Latour (2005) of how the objects of our interactions with the material and technological world "object" to our interactions. These latter "objections" often seemingly (and agentively) compel responses to unanticipated developments: try being a single character off in entering a computer password, for example. Different kinds of technological agency can also affect us: a Blackberry becomes a "crackberry" to its user, new intimacy problems develop associated with internet romance, and concerns emerge about surveillance into aspects of our formerly private lives. What clinically interests me about these new (posthuman) kinds of problems is less about how they develop (there are always new developments in life to constructively navigate or negotiate) and more about how they stabilize through recurring, responsive, interactions between humans and aspects of their material/technological world.

Looking beyond the individual client and her or his perceptions of these concerns, to larger interactions in which these concerns play out, and sometimes stabilize, offers a different unit of analysis from which to make sense of clinical concerns. Thus, couple and family therapists are interested in problematic patterns of social interaction inside which individual concerns and upsets develop and stabilize in ways that are in effect interactionally anchored. This sense of socially anchored behavior (conversational reality) is often initially counter-intuitive to individually-focused therapists who may separate a parent's nagging about a child's behavior from the child's reaction to the nagging (i.e., focus on the individual constructions, losing sight of how these develop inside what occurs between parent and child). The systemic or relationally focused therapist sees such behaviors as interactionally anchored; the problem requires the patterned ways of interacting (Strong, 2014b). On a more technological front, how else might we explain cursing at our computer screen after accidentally losing or deleting something important? Posthuman clinical thinking offers another assessment and intervention dimension enabling consideration of how "individual" behaviors can become not only interwoven within problematic patterns of responses with other humans; but how problems can stabilize in interactions involving aspects of the material and technological worlds with which clients responsively interact. For therapists, posthuman ideas can add another dimension to their clinical conceptualization and intervention skills. This added dimension is not unlike that which many therapists experience when they expand their considerations of client concerns to include systemic interactions in which these concerns are often embedded.


In my practice as a family therapist I recently consulted in a circumstance in which a 14-year-old daughter of devout Muslim parents had been caught "sexting" (sending naked pictures of herself by cellphone to an older boy). In response, the parents had taken away the daughter's cellphone and discontinued her Internet use then relations broke down between parents and the daughter. The girl was distraught since cell phone use was a key aspect of her social life, as had been her Internet communications. Her parents were shocked, ashamed, and disgusted by their daughter's behavior, and had little sense of the online and cell phone-enabled social life that so engaged a girl they were struggling to accept was becoming a teenager. "Sexting", like online bullying, is a concern that one might associate with forms of pre-internet behavior, but to respond to it as if it was like a pre-internet version (flashing?) would likely fail to address what is different about such a behavior as it was conducted in a very different context and era. The parents' reaction was understandable, while for the daughter, her parents' reaction was tantamount to being banished or jailed, and so she rebelled further.

In the therapy which followed, some improvements to family relations came with better communications and contrition on the daughter's part, and this is as much as I know about any therapeutic outcomes. However, the presenting concern flagged for me how interwoven our human concerns and conflicts can become with aspects of a more-than-human world. No one inventing the cell phone or the camera embedded in the cell phone could likely have predicted "sexting", or perhaps even the degree to which the daughter's social life could become so interwoven with the use of cell phone and internet technology. Sure enough, the daughter and parents were presented with challenges for constructive alternatives that would better serve their relations. The sexting incident had opened up just how different the realities had been living by were from those which were central to their daughter. In reflecting back on this family, I hope that, as jarring as the parents' experience might have been, they may have come to better understand the daughter's technologically-enabled social life and how it had come to so matter to her. Similarly, I would hope that the girl could have been open to learning more from her parents about their distress and the bases for it. When they were initially in therapy their relations had been the casualty--as much from the incident, as from their hurt responses to each other thereafter.


Social constructionist thinking (e.g., Gergen, 2009) ushered in new practices that focused on how humans, through their interactions, could construct preferred outcomes. Many constructionists adopted Lyotard's (1984) postmodern credo that it was time to abandon the quest for metanarratives (ultimate truth of any kind) while correspondingly feeling that too great an emphasis had been placed on particular therapeutic methods or models (e.g., Hoffman, 1998). Solution-focused, narrative, and collaborative approaches were premised on social constructionist ideas regarding language and how it is used in human interactions and sense-making matter, but these therapeutic models are now a generation old. The initial excitement associated with solution-focused talk, more preferred stories, and not-knowing dialogue highlighted potentials that might come from therapeutic changes to language and how it was used in preferred ways to navigate social and materials worlds.

Perhaps the greatest innovation associated with the social constructionist therapeutic approaches was the view that therapy itself could be socially constructive (McNamee & Gergen, 1992). Specifically, for social constructionist therapists, therapeutic dialogue is portrayed as intentionally reflexive in dialogic ways focused on negotiating preferred linguistic realities clients can take forward in their lives. In my own writing, I have referred to such therapies as "discursive" for reflexively incorporating the insights of discourse theorists and analysts (e.g., Lock & Strong, 2012; Strong & Pyle, 2009; Strong & Pare, 2004). Incorporating discursive insights occurs through how therapists use questions and their ways of responding to invite further questions about unpreferred discourse (its use is often uncritically taken for granted) while talking more preferred realities into significance and action. Discursive, in this sense, refers to talk as a means to both represent and reflexively intervene into experience, to escape discursive capture and live by preferred or accepted meanings. There is a related notion from early social constructionists, Berger and Luckmann (1967) that I have also found helpful: talk is our primary means of sustaining realities, to stabilize such realities through the practices we use to anticipate them. This relates to Anderson and Goolishian's (1988) view that problems organize people in particular forms of conversing and interacting. Similarly, solution-focused therapists differentiate solution-focused conversations from problem-focused conversations (deShazer, 1994). How constructionist therapists join clients necessitates different conversations from those which stabilize clients' understandings and actions in accustomed ways.

These latter points about the organization of talk--about how people interact around problem realities--relate to concerns I have been raising about how nonhuman "actors" (Barad, 2007) feature in client concerns that might have become interwoven with technological and other aspects of material reality. There are many ways humans can be captured by their constructions. Discursive capture (Massumi, 2011) can develop and stabilize according to ways in which language or how we become accustomed to using it come up short for us, constraining other, more effective or helpful, linguistic constructions. One day's constructive solution can become a later day's form of capture. We come to interact partly based on how we anticipate the material (including the technological) world will respond to our interacting with it. Sometimes unintended consequences arise from how we organize such interactions. NASA needed a different way of organizing its institutional interactions after one of its space shuttles exploded after takeoff (i.e., it wasn't just a technological issue). Sometimes our clients need more than a constructive alternative given how any constructive alternative might be responded to in social or material world interactions where clients make use of it.

If this view I have been relating seems plausible a different unit of clinically relevant assessment emerges: not constructs alone, but the interactive practices which engage clients in using the constructs central to clinical concerns they present. What are the component and anticipated interactional features which responsively anchor these concerns and their related constructs? Seen as patterned interactions, by what sequence and grammatical "rules" give the concern's interacting components their dynamic stability? How can clients negotiate new forms of responsiveness to enable changes to practices they previously felt captured by? The units of analysis involved are clearly relational and interactive in their scope and inclusivity, with clients being but one of the actors. This is why negotiating new forms of responsiveness, as opposed to simply navigating one's way forward anew with alternative constructs, is proposed. Clients tell us these sorts of things: if I did "X", "Y" will likely happen; the "Y" typically being a response from someone or something else relevant to the perpetuation of the concerning practice as is. Introducing a new X, in the face of possible Y's clients anticipate (we cannot anticipate or evaluate these for clients) can guide a negotiated process of constructive alternativism, a search for a viable or testable X. More negotiations of this kind may be required until a more client-preferred and stable practices can evolve from such negotiations (therapist-client, client/other relevant "actors").

I long ago worked with 11-year old who had developed obsessive fears about germs, and so he washed his hands incessantly, to the point of skin damage. He had learned of this apparent need to be excessively cleanly from experts on television. His parents had done the normal reassuring things to indicate that the boy's hand washing was adequate to kill the germs, but that only galvanized the boy's conviction that the parent didn't understand the severity of these germs. In the course of my negotiating with the family, we worked out a compromise, that sure enough the parents were insufficiently expert on germs, but that there was a toxicologist the family could consult, given the toxicologist's expertise, acknowledged by parents and son. The toxicologist consultations occurred twice and then the former interactional pattern ran its therapeutic course. The initial clinical concern developed in response to a science show on TV, got ensnared in a more than human mangle of involving technologically enabled concerns about germs, parents and son. This required a negotiated process of meaning and action, involving a scientist beyond our therapy, who helped new family interactions to emerge.


I have offered an update of a social constructionist approach to constructivist practice based on the notion that humans reflexively interact with (or respond to) each other, and with aspects of their material environment. Humans engage with material reality in constructive as well as limiting ways, of course. However, when such engagements become of clinical concern, their responsive and emerging circumstances may call for a different kind of constructive alternativism than one targeting somewhat stable circumstances. Typically, the focus in constructivist clinical practice (Neimeyer, 2009) has been on identifying and applying constructive alternatives that enable clients to better navigate their circumstances or concerns. In social and posthuman circumstances we reflexively shape and that shape us so more may be required than how we might alternatively navigate our changing circumstances. We may need metaphors (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) to help us consider how alternative constructed meanings and actions help us reflexively negotiate (i.e., influence and alter, but not in ways we can unilaterally control) these changing circumstances. Negotiating with the other "actors" in our circumstances requires different relationships from those which follow from seeing ourselves navigate such actors/circumstances with constructive alternatives that are ours alone. The relationships conducive to negotiating constructive alternatives in a more than human world suggest a new kind of meaningful and responsive frontier.


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Author:Strong, Tom
Publication:Studies in Meaning
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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