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Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2006
26 Seiten, Note: 1,0
2. The roots
2.1. Development of constructivist thinking
2.1.1. Natural science
2.2. What is constructivist thinking?
3. Basic elements of constructivist thinking
3.2. Cognition and Construction
4. Developing constructivism in communication science
4.1. „Die Konstruktion der Realität in den Nachrichtenmedien“
4.2. „Making News“
5. Establishing constructivism
5.1. The constructivist community
5.2. A modell of constructing reality
6. Research areas and application
6.1. Constructivism and the role of the mass media
6.2.1. The question of Objectivity
6.2.2. Journalism as social system
6.4. Effect research
I want to start this essay with a very personal experience of constructivism. Once, when I was a teenage girl, I stand in front of a mirror (as girls do often), and suddenly asked myself: Who can tell me actually, that is me, I see in the mirror? Couldn’t it be, that it is only me who can see me in this mirror in this manner? Is it possible, that the mirror lies? Actually, I had discovered the closeness of perception. Then my sister arrived, I looked at her and concurrently at the image of her in the mirror. I had to realize, they are looking identically. My conclusion was, that it must be similar for her perception of me: I had discovered second order observation.
Actually, every human being may have asked similar questions once in his life. But for most people reality and acting in this reality, tasting, smelling, seeing, talking, working are self-evi- dent. Luckmann and Berger described impressively this way of understanding and interaction in every days life in the first chapter of their book about societal construction of reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1997).
The question of reality and reality perception is not new in history. The cave allegory of Plato is probably one of the oldest illustrations of this question. me constructivist researchers name a long and prominent series of ,constructivist’ thinkers in history. From Demokrit to ancient scepticism, from Descartes to Kant: Many philosophers dealt with the question of reality per- ception and objectivity. The answers were different, the consequences of this answers even more (von Glasersfeld, 1985).
With establishing as discipline, this question became also relevant for communication science. Already Walter Lippmann realized, that our way of thinking about reality cannot be objective: „We shall assume that what each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge but on pictures made by himself or given to him.“ (Lippmann, 1949, 16).
To shape the development and influence of constructivism in communication science, we will begin with the roots in natural science and humanities, followed by general assumptions. To en- ter into constructivist thinking in detail, it is necessary to present and explain the basic elements and terms, which are the precondition for applying constructivism for communication related issues. This part is mainly based on Niklas Luhmann’s system-theoretic concept. After this long introduction, two pioneers and initiators of constructivist thinking in communication science will open the depiction of constructivism in this discipline. Winfried hulz and Gaye Tuchman were chosen as examples for utilizing constructivist ideas in their workings on news related is- sues without a coherent theoretical background. The following chapter will concentrate on the established constructivism around the german researcher group which initiated the constructiv- ist discourse by their publishing „Medien und Funkkolleg“. We will look at a general model of constructing reality and subsequently continue with the application of constructivist thinking in communication science. After the depiction of the criticism, constructivism has provoked, I will draw my conclusions and finally answer the question what consequences constructivist ideas have for communication science in general and especially for reality perception through the mass media.
To shape constructivism in communication research it is impossible to ignore earlier development of this way of thinking in other disciplines. As already shown, the roots of constructivist thinking are almost as old as mankind. But the explicit and coherent constructivist research was developed and has been established in the last third of the 20th century in various disciplines. The different variations can be roughly divided in (natural) scientific approaches and such in the humanities (Weber, 2002, 184).
The bio-epistemologist Humberto Maturana can be considered as founder of the natural science stream of constructivism. He and Francisco Varela examined in various experiments the cogni- tion of human beings and applied a biological model of self-organization on human perception. The consequence of this model, is the foundation of modern constructivist thinking, with the following conclusion: „Als autopoietische, geschlossene, strukturdeterminierte steme haben wir keinerlei Möglichkeit irgendeine kognitive Aussage über eine absolute Realität zu machen.“ (Maturana, 1982, 29).
Gerhard Roth a neuro-biologist continued research on this questions and focused mainly on the organization of the brain. Analoge to the central nervous system the brain is closed and con- structs his reality by the basic distinction of system and environment (Weber, 2002, 183).
And last but not least von Foerster, the cybernetic, has to be listed as one of the prominent an- cestors of constructivist thinking. He was mainly occupied with cybernetic regulation of sys- tems, but worked also on perception related phenomena. He states, that the reality resp. our environment is invented by our perception, and tries to convince the ,faithless’ with a series of self-experiments and impressive results from neuronal research (von Foester, 1985).
In the more philosophical direction two names stick out: The radial constructivist philosopher Ernst von Glasersfeld, and the sociologist and system-theoretic researcher Niklas Luhmann. Von Glasersfeld could be named as ancestor of radical constructivism, who tries to argue largely without any natural scientific foundation. He developed the term viability, that describes the re- lation between reality and our experiences of that reality, and thus replaces other interpretations like correspondence and conformity. Viability is to be understood in the meaning of fitting, in a functional sense. Von Glasersfeld tries to illustrate the content of the term with a metaphor of a blind wanderer in the forest, who goes through the trees by a network of tracks, but has no idea of the barriers (trees) that might block his way (von Glasersfeld, 1985, 19). He concludes, „die Welt der objektiven Hindernisse, der ontischen hranken, zwischen denen wir handeln, erle- ben und zuweilen unsere Ziele erreichen, bleibt grundsätzlich unzugänglich und unbeschreib- bar.“(von Glasersfeld, 1985, 31).
On the other hand Niklas Luhmann developed an operative constructivism based on system-the- oretic assumptions. He introduces the fundamental distinction of system and environment to constructivist research, which is in his concept the main operation to construct reality. With that analytical framework, it is possible to examine the actions of cognitive systems as well as sys- temic communication. Central termination of constructivist thinking was borrowed from the system theory, thus Niklas Luhmann’s ideas will play a prominent role in the subsequent de- scription.
The starting point of constructivist thinking is the assumption, that human beings construct re- ality through a certain performance of their consciousness (Burkart, 1999, 56). Most repre- sentatives of constructivism don’t deny a real existent reality, but that we are able to recognize that reality independently from our own perception. Perception and recognition is always bound to the individual. It is not possible to recognize and mirror a ,real’ reality, there exits no reality, independently from the subjective perception. „Wir konstruieren durch unsere vielfältigen Tätigkeiten (Wahrnehmen, Denken, Handeln, Kommunizieren) eine Erfahrungswirklichkeit, die wir bestenfalls auf ihre Gangbarkeit oder Lebbarkeit (viability) hin erproben können, nicht aber auf ihre Übereinstimmung mit einer wahrnehmungsunabhängigen Realität.“ (hmidt, 1994², 14) That’s why most of the constructivist researchers agree to shift from „What“-Ques- tions to „How“-Questions: „Denn wenn wir in einer Wirklichkeit leben, die durch unsere kog- nitiven und sozialen Aktivitäten definiert wird, ist es ratsam von Operationen und deren Bedingungen auszugehen, statt von Objekten oder von ,der Natur’.“ (hmidt, 1994, 5) This change of view should include, that perception and construction of meaning are socially and cul- turally conditioned; the individual exits in an evolutional and historical-social context (hmidt, 1994², 43).
Beyond this general assumptions about perception and reality, constructivist research cannot be considered as homogenous association of researchers. Constructivism could be better described as discourse or as arena in which different theoretic approaches, interpretations and implemen- tations around the problem of reality and reality perception and the consequences are discussed. This group is sticked together mainly by the basic topics, they deal with: observation and dis- tinction, self-organization and self-reference, autonomy and regulation, organizational close- ness and structural determination, environment and system hmidt, 1994, 4).
Constructivism is not another ordinary theory in communication research, it wants to be more. Despite the fragmented organization, constructivism demands to be a paradigm, that claims to structure the whole research process in a different way. arting point is the opposition to the mainstream understanding of reality as recognizable and could therefore be described objective- ly. There against, most Constructivist researchers don’t deny a reality but the assumption, that we are able to recognize the world outside in an objective manner. The main theorem of con- structivist thinking states: „Menschen konstruieren ihre Wirklichkeit subjektiv und eigenverant- wortlich.“ (Merten, 1993, 53).
Many constructivist argumentations are based on system-theoretic concepts and terms. There is no simple seperation between constructivist approaches and system-theoretic assumptions, they are interrelated, constructivist thinking is often built up on system-theoretic ideas, but doesn’t apply each assumption in detail. The sytem-theoretic terms were introduced in the constructivist discourse first by Maturana and his biolocial epistemology. He applied formerly biological con- cepts like autopoiesis, determined structures and closed systems on human beings and social systems. The following description of the system-theoretic impact on constructivsm refers mainly to Niklas Luhmann, who developed an operational constructivism, based on Maturanas concepts, but modified (hmidt 1994. 6).
Human-beings resp. observers are designed as autopoietic systems, which are operational closed toward their environment. Autopoietic means in this context, that the system is able to reproduce itself of elements that are elements of itself. The system is closed, because nothing else, but itself is able to operate, and the performed actions determine the following actions. With the help of a structural coupling to the environment, it is able to get resources and infor- mation (actually irritations, which are interpreted as information) from this environment. Essen- tial for constructing reality are distinctions, which are a precondition for recognition. Environment is first of all given, its is an „unmarked space“ (encer Brown, quoted from hmidt, 1994, 6). Distinctions are the operations that make the environment accessibly. Not until we recognized and defined a tree as tree, it is set apart from the surrounding. Following this argumentation, perception and recognition are constructions through distinctions, which could be different in another case. Roughly this means, that we aren’t able to observe an ,real’ reality, but we observe other observers and compare their observations to our observations. Pre- condition for observation is the „stem-Umwelt-Differenzierung“ (Luhmann, 1985, quoted from hmidt, 1994, 7). Every system constitutes itself through self-reference, which means it recognizes itself in distinction to its environment.
Constructivist thinking starts with the perception and cognition of the individual. This is mainly caused by the biological and cybernetic roots of constructivism, on which the argumentation, that an objective reality can not be recognized is founded. The first assumption claims, that distinction is the main operation for constructing reality. Observing and making distinctions in an „unmarked space“ result in the recognition and description of the world. „Unterscheidungen werden notwendig beobachterabhängig getroffen; sie sind kontingent, denn die Umwelt enthält keine Unterscheidungen.“ (hmidt 1993, 106).
Cognition is determined by biological conditions, such as neuronal structures and the perception system, but concurrently by social factors, such as socialization and above all language, „als stem von Unterscheidungen und Benennungen.“(hmidt, 1993, 107). „Realität lässt sich nur durch Unterscheidungen erkennen und beschreiben, die nicht in der Re- alität liegen, sondern von einem Beobachter kommen.“ (Berghaus, 2003, 30). Therefore the question is not, whether there is a construction or not, but how this reality was constructed. Ob- viously there is the possibility of choosing another distinction, which maybe leads to another construction of reality. This doesn’t mean that the construction process is arbitrary, on the con- trary, the reality construction must be adequate. „Gleichwohl handelt es sich immer, und auch beim Erkennen, um real konditionierte Operationen.“ (Luhmann, 2005, 47) And this doesn’t mean that there is no reality, it's quite the opposite: There must be a reality, it is precondition for the existence of the observing systems. „Die Welt ist ihnen also nur kognitiv unzugänglich.“ (Luhmann, 2005, 39).
The result of the both operations distinction and classifying is an individual cognitive reality of every person resp. cognitive system. Construction, in this context doesn’t mean a well planned creation of an image of the world, but an construction process that is determined by the cognitive, social and biological factors, whose influence is mostly unconscious. Human beings have very similar perception systems, thus the constructions are also very similar, especially the results of sensory perception. But the more we move away from this sensory perception „und in den Bereich von Kommunikation, Konflikt, Diskurs und Geschichte (sozialer Umwelt) geraten, desto komplexer wird die tuation.“ (hmidt, 1994, 12).
Every constructivist approach - how different they are in detail and how different the disciplines are, they are working for - emphasizes the importance of communication for constructing reality. The „empirical place“ (hmidt, 1993, 107) of the images and constructions of reality is namely the individual, but for leaving the own cognition system communication is necessary. The role of communication leads to a close connection of constructivist thinking to communication science independently from the actual application.
But the role of communication, theoretically and for constructing reality is defined in different way by the various approaches. In this context, we will only take a look at Niklas Luhmann’s concept of communication as well as on its criticism, and from that we reach the term of communication, which is relevant for communication research.
Following Luhmann, who posts, that communication is unlikely, (Luhmann., 2005²) communi- cation is a three level process of selection: selection of the information, selection of the message and selection of understanding. Communication is a social system which is closed and autopoi- etic. The precondition for this design is, that cognitive systems are situated outside of the social system and even more drastically, the autopoietic understanding defines that only communica- tion can produce communication: „Der Mensch kann nicht kommunizieren; nur die Kommuni- kation kann kommunizieren.“ (Luhmann, 1990, 31). Communication is designed as operative autonomous system. „Bewusstseinssysteme und Kommunikationssysteme existieren getrennt.“ (Luhmann, 1990, 32).
This concept of communication has two problems and thus provoked much criticism. First, the statement, that communication is unlikely, drives Luhmann into the difficult situation, to con- struct factors, that explain why communication occurs permanently anyway. condly, hmidt asks himself, what remains of social systems, except the mere declaration of the communication constellation, if the cognitive systems are excluded and the system is designed autopoietically (hmidt, 1994², 86). He deduces, „Kommunikation von Kognition und Medien abzukop- peln, lässt nur noch hochabstrakte Phänomene perspektieren.“ (hmidt, 1994², 86)
hmidt accepts the system-theoretic design of communication, but rejects the autopoietic as- sumption. The close connection of system-theoretic constructivism and the other variations to communication science is caused by the role of communication for reality construction on the one hand and the mass media on the other hand. For communication science we apply the un- derstanding, that communication is understand as structural coupling between cognition and so- cial systems, which include human-beings.
But before going deeper into detail of communication related constructivism, let’s start with the roots of constructivist thinking in the communication science.
The question of reality and how we are able to percept it, engaged not only philosophers, but was present in every science discipline. Also in communication research constructivist thinking can be found, before it been established as independent research area.
Especially in journalism research the question of reality depiction and objectivity emerged early. This is due to the fact, that objectivity as main category of journalistic work, challenges research on this topic.
The pioneer of applying a constructivist perspective in communication research was Winfried hulz. In his monograph „Die Konstruktion von Realität in den Nachrichtenmedien“ he dealt with news factors which determine the news value (hulz, 1976). In contrary to his predecessors in this research area, he didn't assume, that these factors are elements of reality, but journalistic hypothesis about reality (hulz, 1976, 29). He questioned first the assumption, that the main task of a journalist is to mirror reality, and secondly, that we are able to define what reality is. In contrast to find a ,real’ or true reality we should consider news as an interpretation of our environment, which gives meaning to some events. The main consequence of this assumption is, that it is not proper to compare the news reality with a however defined real reality, but to analyze the process of news production, the criteria for selection, interpretation and creation of meaning, and thus the process of constructing reality.
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