Social Constructivism, Ideology & the Politics of Representation

Curator's Note

An important distinction between media literacy and critical media literacy lies in the difference between a sociological and psychological perspective. For many educators, media literacy has wonderful elements to make their teaching more relevant, engaging and somewhat critical. Yet few teachers take advantage of the pedagogical potential to question and challenge representations that contribute to stereotypes and injustice.

Through a sociocultural lens, social constructivism is not a cognitive process done collaboratively and ideologies are not simply different ideas. At the heart of social constructivism is the understanding that all knowledge and information has been and continues to be created by human beings. While this may seem simple on the surface, its roots run deep when we consider the implications. If every idea and all information has been created by people with their own biases and motivations, then nothing can be neutral or objective. The politics of representation help us move beyond the myth of objectivity to understand that all information is connected to power. When people reject or don’t understand the social construction of knowledge, they often assume that information can be objective, that people can be neutral and that there is one truth. These assumptions make them more likely to follow and support hegemonic ideologies and less likely to recognize their own power to challenge unjust systems and ideologies like patriarchy, whiteness, and heteronormativity that have become “normalized” parts of their lives.

Moving beyond the notion of objectivity and a single truth does not have to lead to valueless relativism; instead it can offer an opportunity for a far more critical exploration of social injustices such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc. I chose this video clip because of its clever use of humor and irony to expose ideologies of whiteness and class. Critical media literacy should help students explore the ways media reinforce stereotypes or challenge them. Critical media literacy is not about vilifying media; it is about recognizing and challenging dominant ideologies that are often made to seem “natural” or “normal” in the media. Students should be taught how to analyze all media texts and popular culture, and should be encouraged to create media that “denaturalize” the social construction of dominant ideologies and provide alternative representations of their world.


Thanks Jeff. The distinction that you make between 'critical media literacy' from 'media literacy' is so important--especially because of the conflation (even in conversations among media educators/scholars) of the two terms. Now, the concept of CML is also socially constructed, so its definition is subject to negotiation. But uses of the term 'critical' by scholars and educators like yourself, Doug Kellner, Steve Goodman, Rhonda Hammer, all the way back to Adorno and Horkheimer, suggest that 'critical' understandings of media and society examine how media inhibits or encourages positive social change. But it seems like common uses of 'critical' are moving away from this focus. I especially like Peter McLaren's comment that because of repeated and imprecise usage of the term 'critical', we have removed "its political and cultural dimensions and launder[ed] its analytic potency to mean ‘thinking skills.’" CML is inherently political, because all communication, expression and education is always already political.

I guess my role this week will be furrowing my brow. I think this is an incredibly limiting sense of media literacy, which is a coalition of scholars, educators, and others who approach the field as a "big tent" with a broad variety of perspectives. No teacher, scholar, or parent I've met who has even a passing familiarity with media literacy in its any of its variations has ever failed to "suggest that ‘critical’ understandings of media and society examine how media inhibits or encourages positive social change" in some way." I frankly don't understand what making this semantic distinction does to help the community move forward toward shared goals within a fairly inclusive framework of social justice. Understanding, demystification, and some form of civic or social action or activism are built in to the foundations of almost every branch of new literacies. I work with lots of teachers, parents, etc. who have not fully thought about the role of media institutions and economics in their work, and who do not consider necessarily themselves as agents of political change. But none of them would tell you that they have no interest in changing society through education. More often they have different values of what that change should look like; they are not dupes, and if we are a broad coalition, we need to consider and work with these values, even and perhaps *especially* when we seek to change those values.

David, I'm pleased to hear that your experience with people interested in media literacy has been so positive. My interactions with students and teachers in schools have been similarly encouraging. Also, there is a growing number of scholars that acknowledge the critical political potential of media education--you and the other participants week are among them. But as I've participated in more scholarly conversations about media literacy, I think this critical approach is not characteristic of much of the work being done in the field. For example, the dialogue between Renee and James Potter from a couple of years ago about 'the state of media literacy' provides some evidence of some pretty strong divides within the field, among some of its most prominent figures, concerning (among other things) the critical political potential of media education. Looking over the program for NAMLE's conference this summer, discussions focused on media education and politics are noticeably absent (the one exception being a panel on media literacy & social justice led by Jeff). And I don't think that most educators are dupes. I do think that a 'common sense' notion of media education--embraced by many teachers and scholars--is that "teaching students to question textual authority and to use reasoning to reach autonomous radical enough, without adding additional baggage associated with other explicitly formulated political or social change objectives" Renee wrote that back in '98, and has since become an advocate for critical media literacy as a means of addressing social problems, but it's still a commonly accepted perspective within the field. And I think that people like us, interested in moving the field forward, will be more likely to achieve progress when we acknowledge this issue and try to overcome it.

Ah, perhaps I've misunderstood the critique here, then. Yes -- I agree that the example that you cite did seem like evidence of a divide in scholarship-- though my sense is that it had less to do with philosophy than clear alignment with community. I noticed that the premise of that Potter piece was essentially to google the term "media literacy" and see what comes up! I certainly don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, and I think that a common theme this week has been: how do we reclaim some of the social activist and community value possible through media literacy engagement, and move away from a "social vacuum" autonomous view of media literacy that is divorced from context. Perhaps I've been blessed to only operate with one foot in the scholarly field and one foot in classrooms and fairly "messy" on-the-ground youth media and media literacy environments. From my experience, that disconnected "critical thinking" vacuum sis untenable when faced with a group of students whose engagement with their world is still in a process of development. Teachers make hard choices about teaching politics, point of view, and civic action all the time -- the question, which everyone so far has been asking through provocative examples, is what educators can or should do to connect students to the big and life-changing idea that they are connected to the world, have a voice in it, and can work to change it.

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