Many currently practicing counselors probably were a bit young to take part in the last paradigm shift, from the psychology of the individual to what is called “social systems theory.” That shift occurred from the 1950s through the 1980s. I was able to become involved only at the tail end of that movement (with publication of an article, “A Systemic Theory of Vocational Rehabilitation,” in 1987).
We are now in the middle of another shift of counseling philosophy that has potential to become a major theoretical movement in the field. This movement is postmodern at its foundation, meaning it is more about relationships than individuals, and it is best represented in what has been defined as the “social constructivism” paradigm of counseling and psychotherapy.
Counseling theory has matured from its early focus on individuals, represented in the classic psychology-aligned theories of counseling such as psychoanalytic psychotherapy, person-centered therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, behavior therapy and others. Next came a focus on relationship structures in classic systemic therapies such as structural family therapy or strategic family therapy. Now there is an evolving focus on the social consensualizing of problems and solutions. This appears to be occurring in emerging therapies such as solution-focused therapy and narrative therapy, which are social constructivist in their underpinnings.
The focus of each of these three movements (psychological, systemic-relational and social constructivist) is supported by a unique philosophical foundation with professional and political implications. Philosophical, professional and political factors help to establish each movement as a counseling paradigm. As I describe in my 2012 book, Paradigms of Counseling and Psychotherapy, counseling paradigms are overarching philosophical, theoretical and political structures that act to categorize counseling theories accordingly. Paradigms are “super theories,” so to speak. The paradigm framework represents a theory about theories of counseling. It is metatheoretical to the variation of theories within and across paradigm frameworks. It’s the big picture.
How does all this talk about metatheory relate to counseling practice? Well, it means that counseling has matured as a profession. Counselors now can be guided by large theoretical frameworks as they apply specific theories to practice. For example, the approach used by many counselors in a college counseling center likely will be quite different from the approach used by most counselors working at a family service agency. The college counseling center likely operates primarily from the psychological paradigm, and its counselors will accordingly apply theories that address individual problems as a focus of treatment. The family services agency likely operates primarily from the systemic-relational paradigm, and its counselors will accordingly apply theories that treat problems between and among people, following social systems theory’s emphasis on relationships. So, one’s setting and one’s practice may largely affect one’s style of practice.
Systems theory was revolutionary in redefining mental health issues as being embedded in social relationship systems — not in individuals and not specific to one person. A social relationship is between people, not inside them. Systems theory is a complex theory that helps counselors understand, label and treat interactions. So, a person’s problems are always assessed within the context of significant relationships. Relationships are viewed as real and treatable structures.
Systemic-relational counselors tend to do couples or family counseling as primary treatments. Individual counseling would be less adept at defining and addressing the myriad of interpersonal issues that influence an individual’s mental health. So, shifting one’s philosophy — from the psychology of the individual to a focus on relationships — has a major effect on one’s choice of treatment.
The problem with systems
But systems theory has had its heyday, and its limitations are now well understood. Its reliance on a circular causal model, meaning that problems are viewed as caused in cyclical patterns of interaction, and its stance that individuals are not the locus of pathology left it vulnerable to criticism by feminist theorists and social justice advocates. The reason: The circular model of causality prevents a definition of individual blame, when in some cases, individual blame is hard to deny (for example, a perpetrator’s sexual abuse of an infant).
Criticisms of systems theory addressed the concern that circular causality could be, in effect, victim blaming — meaning that victims could be implicated in their own abuse by a circular causal model of blame. Should an infant be in any way viewed as responsible for its own abuse in some circular causal framework? Should a woman be blamed if she is unable to assert her needs in the context of a male-dominated society? Obviously, the circular causal framework is unacceptable in specific and identifiable contexts, and credible criticism of systemic tenets led to a serious crisis in the field theoretically.
The social constructivism movement in counseling has emerged as a framework that addresses the limits of the prior paradigms. It also provides counselors with a new and unique framework from which to work.
Defining a new movement
First, a few terms need to be defined because confusion exists in the field about terminology related to the emergence of this new paradigm. People often use terms such as constructivism or constructionism to represent what I call the social constructivism paradigm. But there is an important difference between initial conceptualizations of constructivism and the very radical way that the term social constructivism can be defined.
The radical definition, which derives primarily from the works of Kenneth Gergen and Humberto Maturana, implies that there is no psychology of the individual. Rather, all behavior is viewed as a relationship between biological organisms in a social medium. Mind is not in the head; it is in the social matrix. All thoughts, all words and all concepts such as free will and individual choice are communicated by others and reflect one’s cultural context rather than one’s individual psychology.
As I describe in my Social Constructivism Model of Ethical Decision-Making, there is no individual choice — choice is socially constructed. There is no free will because free will is a culturally loaded term consistent with Western cultural bias toward autonomous decision-making (as pervasively portrayed in the Western ideal of the maverick, the rogue and the lone hero acting against prevailing wisdom). There is no individual moral conscience. Rather, there is a collective conscience or collective ethic (as in the ACA Code of Ethics).
Some people will label (mistakenly in my view) classical psychological theories as constructivist. For instance, some say Adlerian theory is constructivist, and Albert Ellis labeled his own theory as constructivist at the end of his career. A radical social constructivist would argue that those theories are highly cognitively based psychological theories that address social issues. If a theory purports that there is a mind in the head weighing social data, it is not a social constructivism theory in its radical sense. Mind is redefined as the relationship between the neurological system and the social-linguistic system within which it is enmeshed. Mind is not a thing — it is a relationship.
With a radical social constructivist perspective, the psychology of the individual disappears. This perspective cannot be reconciled with an individual psychology. We recognize, for example, Alfred Adler’s place in the history of psychotherapy. His historical place is well preserved, as he was the first to acknowledge the very powerful effect of social factors on the individual psyche. The name of his approach — individual psychology — makes his theory’s paradigm alignment very clear (the psychological paradigm). And Ellis was a cognitive theorist, bar none, who never fully reconciled the idea of a relational worldview to an individual worldview, as he maintained the idea of the primacy of cognition.
The radical social constructivism perspective purports that everything that is understood is understood through relationships. People are wired (literally physically constructed) to come to agreement about their shared experience. This is what I defined as consensualizing, which is a foundational concept to the social constructivism paradigm as I described it in Paradigms of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Truths are known only through sharing experiences in a language medium that represents a cultural context. (This idea comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher who argued that there is no private language; rather, language is a social convention.) Accordingly, truths are “absolute” only within a community of believers.
Consensualities [also known as bracketed absolute truths]
Absolute truth emerging from relationships was a concept that became clear to me only after I applied it to the study of religion, which led to my 2011 book, Toward a Positive Psychology of Religion: Belief Science in the Postmodern Era. Each religion represents a consensuality, a socially constructed truth that is held as absolute by believers. Ironically, such a truth looks relative to outsiders. So, Christians believe Jesus is God, Buddhists believe Buddha’s teachings represent truth, Muslims believe Muhammad’s prophecies hold weight, and Jews hold fast to the teachings of the Jewish prophets. But people outside of these traditions may have different ways of understanding or explaining religious experience.
Some might argue (I think mistakenly) that this philosophy represents a sort of moral relativism, but within a group, the beliefs of members are not relative at all — they are viewed as indisputable moral standards. One must leave the group to see beliefs as relative, and then only from another absolutist perspective. So, social constructivism takes philosophy off of the absolute-relative continuum and places understanding in a third or triadic position called bracketed absolute truth — where absolute truth is housed among communities of believers.
What looks real to individuals in a community may hold less weight with people outside of that community. So, essentially, people in relationships are faced with sometimes mutually exclusive truths — and this is where counseling is important. The social constructivism paradigm proposes that problems reside in conflicting consensualities — competitive truths — that affect relationship systems.
To provide an example, for a teenager and his buddies who smoke marijuana, smoking pot is fun, exciting, stimulating and, arguably, not that harmful. But to his drug prohibitionist family, marijuana is dangerous, has the potential of connecting the teenager to the illegal drug culture and will negatively affect his physiology and motivation. There is a clash of truths bracketed by the consensus of the competing communities (consensualities), and a counselor is faced with helping involved parties navigate through this clash.
Accordingly, competing or mutually exclusive consensualities (bracketed absolute truths) are at the root of problems. Understanding the concept of consensualities is the key to understanding the radical social constructivist approach that is representative of a paradigm shift in the counseling field.
Counselors aligned with the social constructivism paradigm will act quite differently from counselors aligned with other paradigms of counseling and psychotherapy. Rather than treating individuals (as a psychological paradigm adherent would likely do) or treating defined and bounded social systems (as a systemic-relational paradigm adherent would likely do), a social constructivist counselor would first identify relationships of influence around an issue defined as pertinent to counseling. Levels of agreement or disagreement around the issue would be explored. Stakeholders would be identified. Any disagreement would be representative of a potential clash of consensualities, which would then become the target for intervention. Social constructivist counselors would be adept at building new common experiences around which agreement could be reached, leading to healthier interaction.
For example, a young adult has found a home in a college art department and is choosing a degree in art. This goes against the wishes of beloved family members, who are steadfast in arguing for a career in a medical field. Thus, the young adult is faced with a clash of consensualities. The counselor involved with treating the young adult in the context of family counseling could attempt to build on the common experiences of family members, or help to create common experiences, which could lead to some reconciliation.
Collaboratively defined solutions might be involved in defining acceptable options. For instance, perhaps a career in medical illustration could be explored. This might mean that the counselor educates all parties and attempts to define new possibilities with the involvement of all parties. This style of therapy is evident in some contemporary counseling approaches, most notably solution-focused therapy and narrative therapy, that in practice use techniques consistent with social constructivist ideals.
Social constructivism: A nice fit for counseling
Social constructivism ideals address the limitations of the other paradigms. Counselors are no longer bound to the concept of individual responsibility and blame (as in the psychological paradigm) or the conception of circular cause (as in the systemic-relational paradigm). Rather, the cause of problems can be consensualized to be either linear and individual or circular and relational. Treatment would differ depending on the understanding of participants about the nature of a problem and the collaboratively and consensually defined approach to a solution.
Social constructivism, much like feminist theory and the social justice movement, acknowledges the role of culture in human problems. It fits nicely with counseling’s multicultural foundation. It is positive in its premise that problems reside and can be addressed within interpersonal disagreement, which may be more accessible to treatment than deep-seated intrapersonal conflict or social systems in which boundaries of influence may be diffuse. And the social constructivism paradigm fits the underlying philosophy of counseling as a profession — a diversity-embracing, inclusive and health-enhancing profession.
Yes, we are lucky to be alive at this stage in counseling’s development.
Knowledge Share articles are adapted from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
R. Rocco Cottone is professor and coordinator of doctoral programs in the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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